Rite and Ritual

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This is the first of twelve psalms ascribed to Asaph.  Mostly likely this is the Asaph who lived at the same time as David (2 Chron. 29:30), although that name does appear later (2 Kings 18:18). This psalm is a wonderful illustration of how thoroughly the godly saints of the old covenant understood true worship.

“The mighty God, even the LORD, hath spoken, and called the earth from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.  Our God shall come. . .” (Ps. 50:1-23).

According to theme, the psalm should be divided in this way. The first section represents the Lord summoning the entire earth to hear what He has to declare (vv. 1-6). This is a message for all men in all times—the times of the new covenant included. In the second section, He defines the sort of worship that is acceptable to Him (vv. 7-15), and closer to the point, the kind that is unacceptable to Him. The third section outlines the moral misbehavior of religious hypocrites (vv. 16-21). The conclusion then comes with a savage warning (v. 22) and is then followed up with a very gracious offer (v. 23).

The Lord speaks—the Hebrew has “El, Elohim, YHWH says . . .” The entire earth is summoned to come (v. 1). God shines out of Zion, His select city (v. 2). As God comes, a fire and tempest come with Him (v. 3). He will call heaven and earth as His witnesses in the judgment of His people (v. 4). He gathers His holy ones, those who have made covenant by means of true sacrifice (v. 5). The heavens will say amen to His righteous judgment (v. 6). Think on this.

When He comes in the fire and tempest, what does He say? Come, and listen up. I will testify against you (v. 7). They had not failed in the outward requirements (v. 8), and so that is not why they were reproved. God does not want our sacrificial animals (v. 9). He already has plenty of wild and domestic beasts (v. 10). He owns all the wild fowl and the beasts of the field already (v. 11). If God were hungry, He wouldn’t tell us about it (vv. 12-13). Offer thanksgiving to God (v. 14). Pay your vows, sincerely and from the heart (v. 14). Then God will deliver you in the day of trouble (v. 15).

But what does the showboating hypocrite do in worship? First, he declares God’s statutes, and takes God’s covenant into his mouth—and God doesn’t like it (v. 16). He knows the liturgy, and so therefore he hates true instruction (v. 17). He connives at theft (v. 18), consents to adultery (v. 18). He gives his mouth to evil and deceit (v. 19). He slander’s his own brother, a thing not to be borne (v. 20). On top of everything else, he misinterprets delayed judgment to mean no judgment, thinking God to be as fickle as he himself is (v. 21).
Those who forget God need to think about it because God will tear them into little bits (v. 22). But the one who praises God, and orders his life rightly, this person will see the salvation of God (v. 23).

True worship begins with a right vision of who God is. Isaiah sees the Lord, high and lifted up. Moses saw the glory of the Lord on the mountain. The apostles called upon the one who had made the sea and sky and dry land. If you don’t start there, you have never started. When we look at the disparity between the “fire and tempest” and the complacency of many worshippers, the surprising thing is that more worshippers are not struck dead by lightning every Sunday. The mercies of God are remarkable. Note this: God summons (v. 1); God shines (v. 2); God comes in tumult (v. 3); He calls heaven and earth to witness (v. 4); He gathers His true saints (v. 5); and the heavens declare His righteousness (v. 6). Now is it possible to talk about rites and liturgy. Anyone who moves straight to liturgics is a fool and a spiritual imbecile.

In a remarkable turn of events, I believe this is the first time I have ever quoted Ambrose Bierce in two sermons running. That able lexicographer defined rite as “a religious or semi-religious ceremony fixed by law, precept or custom, with the essential oil of sincerity carefully squeezed out of it.” And as for ritualism, he said this: “A Dutch garden of God where He may walk in rectilinear freedom, keeping off the grass.” However much we might want to chafe under such definitions, Asaph would have grasped this point immediately.

God does not rebuke them for messing up on the externals (v. 8). Notice that God is bringing a case against them, an accusation (v. 7). The spiritually stupid think that God requires certain things of us because He somehow needs them, which is crazy (vv. 9-13). What does He really want? He wants gratitude and integrity (v. 14). If you have those, you may use a formal service to call upon God—and He will hear (v. 15). If you don’t have those, then save your breath for something else.

God asks the wicked why they came to think that He wanted them to talk about His word (v. 16). God never asked thieves, homos, or adulterers to become chancel prancers. Neither did He ask them to become covenant theologicans. What is their problem? First, they are unteachable (v. 17). Second, they consent to thievery and adultery (v. 18). Third, they love to lie (v. 19). Fourth, they slander their own relatives (v. 20). And last, they reveal that they worship a god created in their own image (v. 21). Over all of it is a beautiful white robe and stole, like two inches of snow on a dung heap.

The hypocritical liturgist believes that he has God under glass, God in a box, God under control. He knows the magic words, many of them in Latin. He knows the magic dance steps. He has flowing robes, and greetings in the market place. He loves religion, and all the trappings of religion, but he forgets God Himself. A man in such a position is in for a rude awakening. Like Belshazzar, he does not know what his cup contains until it is full and about to overflow. The only alternative is gratitude and thanksgiving, coupled with honest Christian living.

We are involved in the work of liturgical reformation, and we thank God for it. But never forget God in the service of God, and never forget that the characteristic sin associated with this form of worship (over millennia) is going to magically disappear in our day.

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