For my weekly quiet time this week, I’ll blog about Psalm 50 and its interpreters.
A widespread view (which I share) is that Psalm 50’s setting was a covenant renewal ceremony, for v 5 affirms that God’s chasidim (“pious ones”, perhaps) have made a covenant with God by sacrifice, and vv 16-20 criticize those who take God’s covenant on their mouth, even as they hate instruction, cast God’s words behind them, favor thieves and adulterers, deliberately deceive others, and slander their brothers. Covenant is a significant theme in Psalm 50.
But, corresponding to this, Psalm 50 is also about God coming in judgment, and it exhorts and warns the people of Israel in the presence of the heavens and the earth, who act as witnesses. First of all, God denies that he eats animal sacrifices, for all of the earth belongs to him and he does not depend on human beings for sustenance. God exhorts his people to offer to God thanksgiving and to pay their vows to him. Second, God lambastes the hypocrisy of the wicked, warning that God will tear wicked people to pieces. Psalm 50 appears to reaffirm the principle of the covenant, obedience to God’s law, even as it warns evildoers that the covenant entails God’s punishment of the wicked. At the same time, Psalm 50 seeks to correct a certain misconception about God—-that he eats animal sacrifices—-while affirming that a significant aspect of the covenant is thanksgiving towards God. The author of Psalm 50 disapproves of people bringing God down to their level, either by asserting that God eats and drinks like human beings, or by assuming that God does not strongly disapprove of evil deeds (see v 21). The author desires that the Israelites renew the covenant with a proper conception of God in their minds.
I have two items:
1. The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary somewhat surprised me, for it appeared to go on an apologetic route in its treatment of Psalm 50. Why would that be surprising, for an evangelical Christian publication? Ordinarily, this commentary acknowledges a significant amount of overlap between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Near Eastern culture, such that the religion of the Hebrew Bible appears to be a product of its times. And the commentary’s interaction with Psalm 50 contains some of this approach, for it interprets vv 1-4 in reference to the ancient Near Eastern usage of “sun god as judge imagery”: for example, Hammurabi serves as the sun god Shamash’s administrator of justice for the Babylonian empire; Shamash is acknowledged as a divine judge in “Akkadian prayers for forgiveness” (the commentary’s words); and the fourteenth century B.C.E. Egyptian Hymn to the Aten extols the sun god, saying: “Your glory shines high above the land; your rays enrich the land you have created.” Similarly, God in Psalm 50:1-4 shines, judges, and has a universal influence.
But, in its comments on Psalm 50:8-15, 21, the commentary appears to take a different approach, presenting the religion of Psalm 50 as better than other religions in the ancient Near East. First of all, as the commentary notes, the gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt needed food for sustenance, “as in the Gilgamesh flood epic, where the gods flock like starving flies to Utnapishtim’s sacrifice”. God in Psalm 50, by contrast, emphatically denies that he eats animals. Second, the commentary argues that God in Psalm 50 is morally superior to the gods of the ancient Near East. It states: “The gods of Mesopotamia and Egypt are described as acting much like humans—-engaging in unthinking acts of violence (the Gilgamesh and Atrahasis flood stories) or tricking humans out of a potential reward (Adapa)—-but they still have superhuman powers and must be treated with official respect. The psalmist and wisdom writers raise Yahweh above the level of any other god to an ideal of moral and just behavior far beyond anything attainable by god or human…”
I agree that Psalm 50 may be polemicizing against certain conceptions of the divine, conceptions that the author of Psalm 50 considered demeaning. He may be consciously responding to ideas in ancient Israel or elsewhere in the ancient Near East, or maybe even both. At the same time, as the data within the commentary indicates, it would be a mistake to regard ancient Near Eastern religion as amoral, for it did have a god of justice.
2. Jewish interpretations of Psalm 50 (I have in mind here Rashi and the Targum on the Psalms) intrigued me because they related this Psalm to God’s judgment of the nations, Israel’s enemies, whereas the Psalm itself appeared to be concerned with God’s judgment of Israel. At the same time, the Targum on the Psalms acknowledged that Psalm 50 made ethical exhortations to Israel: that subduing the evil impulse was the proper way to sacrifice, that the wicked pray in a state of impiety, etc. Moreover, I liked the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll’s comments on Psalm 50:16:
“To what purpose do you recount My decrees. God rebukes those who outwardly observe the Torah and profess adherence to its precepts, yet remain lustful and greedy, dealing wickedly with their fellowmen. If the Torah has failed to penetrate their inner core, what have they accomplished with their outward observance.”
That’s a good point. If my religion is not making me a better person in some capacity, then what is its purpose?