Psalm 50: The Heart Of A Worshipper—Proper Sacrifices (Part 1)

Imagine preparing for worship on the Lord’s Day, the most important day of the week—you get to church, find your seat, and you prepare yourself for divine worship. As the worship service begins, you listen to the call to worship and the law of God, you respond by singing all the right psalms and hymns perfectly in tune, you listen intently to the readings and the sermon, you confess your sins, pray all the right prayers, you receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, sing the doxology, and hear the closing benediction. You have done everything you were called to do, you worshiped God properly, just as he has commanded; and not only that, but you also came back and did it again in the evening service.

But what if after all of that, you left the Lord’s Day service and forgot everything that you had heard, prayed, and sung? What if after worshiping God properly, you forsook the Lord’s commands and teachings and spent the rest of the week fellowshipping with thieves and giving the nod to adulterers? What if you spent the rest of the week speaking lies, evil, and slander? And what if you thought that you could get away with it simply because you worshiped God in an outwardly proper manner on the Lord’s Day? This is the situation of Psalm 50.

All of life is not worship—worship is worship—but all of life is influenced by proper worship. That is to say, offering proper sacrifices in the worship service leads to offering proper sacrifices in the Christian life. Consider the Ten Commandments: the first four, relating to proper worship, lead into the next six, relating to proper living. We see this same pattern in Psalm 50.

Regarding worship that is proper or acceptable to God, the Westminster Confession has put it this way:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. . . . The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture. (WCF 21.2)

Thus, offering proper sacrifices in public worship must include two basic things: (1) worship with all of the heart, soul, and might; (2) worship as God has instituted it. In Reformed theology, this second aspect of worship is called “the Rule of Worship,” or “the Regulative Principle of Worship” (RPW). For our worship to be acceptable, it is not offered according to the will or imagination of man, but according to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. This is what makes it proper.

Is it possible, however, to worship God exactly as he has commanded according to the RPW and still not be worshiping him properly? Yes—if our heart, soul, and might are not in it, then that worship falls short. As our Lord Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those that worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Not only that, but improper worship will manifest in improper Christian living. This is what Psalm 50 is about.

In Psalm 50, God calls his covenant people to proper worship—not worship that merely goes through the motions, but worship that is with all of the heart, soul, and might. Furthermore, God brings judgment on those who do not worship in this manner. He points not only to their improper worship, but also to what it is connected to—failing to glorify God through proper sacrifices in all of life.

Indeed, if one cannot worship God properly, one cannot rightly offer their life as a sacrifice to him, because worship, like life, is not merely an outward matter, but a spiritual matter. All of life is not worship, but all of life is influenced by proper worship: offering proper sacrifices in worship leads to proper sacrifices in all of life.

The breakdown of Psalm 50 is as follows:

  1. Verses 1–6: A Call to Judgement
  2. Verses 7–15: Proper Sacrifices in Worship
  3. Verse 16–23: Proper Sacrifices in All of Life 

A Psalm of Asaph

The superscript notes this is a “Psalm of Asaph,” which indicates that it was used in the public worship of ancient Israel. Its author, Asaph, was one of the Levites, who in addition to authoring several canonical psalms, was responsible for song, music, and prophesying in the worship of Israel (see 1 Chr 6:39; 15:17; 25:1). This sets the context for the psalm—it is liturgical, either used in worship or possibly as a liturgy itself.

A Call To Judgement (vv. 1–6)

Liturgical psalms often open with a call to worship, highlighting divine attributes or various mighty acts of God in redemptive history. This is how Psalm 50 begins; but rather than a standard call to worship, the “Mighty One, God the LORD” is summoning those who dwell on earth to judgment. The tone of this call is serious, even legal in nature, not unlike the covenantal ratification or renewal ceremonies of ancient Israel. 1

The Mighty One, God the LORD,

speaks and summons the earth

from the rising of the sun to its setting.

Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,

God shines forth.

Our God comes; he does not keep silence;

before him is a devouring fire,

around him a mighty tempest. (vv. 1–3)

In picturing God’s appearance from Mount Zion, the psalmist alludes to another mountain theophany—Mount Sinai, where the law was given to Israel. It was there that the awesome Lawgiver thundered and flashed lightning from the smoke-covered mountain as the people stood off in fear (Exod 19:16; 20:18–20).

Thus, not only does Psalm 50 call the people to worship, but it also paints a clear reminder of the covenant made at the foot of the mountain wherein they promised to obey the LORD (Exod 19:7–9; 24:3–8). The people of Israel however, did not obey, and their disobedience led to righteous divine judgment. It is no surprise, then, that the psalm directs its audience to the covenantal judgment of God:

He calls to the heavens above

and to the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me my faithful ones,

who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”

The heavens declare his righteousness,

for God himself is judge! Selah (vv. 4–6)

Calling to the heavens and earth is a directive for Israel to bear witness to the covenant judgment to come. The same language is present several times in the second law-giving of the book of Deuteronomy. For example:

If you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. (Deut 4:25–26)

Psalm 50:4–6  also recalls the covenant made at Sinai and the judgment curses that come from the breaking of that covenant. The covenant made by sacrifice mentioned in verse 5 is an allusion to the covenant confirmation ceremony of Exodus 24:

Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exod 24:3–8)

In other words, the references to Sinai in Psalm 50 reveal that Israel is in trouble. God is appearing in judgment because they have not done what they said they would do. They have not worshiped God as he has commanded—with all of their heart, soul, and strength. The heavens, who witnessed the law-giving from the beginning, declare God’s righteousness, and thus, his coming judgment is just.

Situated in the new covenant as we are, Christians may be tempted to think this opening portion of the psalm does not apply to us today, nor to our public worship service. After all, God is a God of mercy and love. Let us be reminded, then, that the reason God is merciful is because his just judgment for sin was carried out on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the blood of the new covenant is more precious than that of the old covenant blood of bulls and goats, for it has secured our redemption and has made us a holy people (Heb 9:14; 1 Pet 1:16, 19; 1 John 1:7).

As God’s holy people, we too are expected to live holy lives in accordance with his law, particularly the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments. In addition, we have also made vows as particular members of new covenant churches according to our respective church orders. These vows are various and relate to our baptisms, professions of faith, the baptisms of our children, and the way in which we live as new covenant believers. Despite the obvious differences, there are parallels between us and the old covenant people of God.

Furthermore, when we assemble ourselves together to worship God on the Lord’s Day, and especially when we receive the Lord’s Supper, we too are called to renew our covenant with God and be reminded of not only the benefits and privileges, but also our duties as new covenant believers. The Westminster Larger Catechism describes what is required of Christians as we receive the sacrament:

It is required of them that receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, that, during the times of the administration of it, with all holy reverence and attention they wait upon God in that ordinance, diligently observe the sacramental elements and actions, heedfully discern the Lord’s body, and affectionately meditate on his death and sufferings, and thereby stir up themselves to a vigorous exercise of their graces; in judging themselves and sorrowing for sin; in earnest hungering and thirsting after Christ, feeding on him by faith, receiving of his fulness, trusting in his merits, rejoicing in his love, giving thanks for his grace; in renewing of their covenant with God, and love to all the saints. (WLC 174)

We are even told by the apostle Paul that an improper eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper would be an eating and drinking of judgment upon ourselves (1 Cor 11:27–32). Far from being shielded from judgment in the new covenant, Christians reading, singing, or praying Psalm 50 ought to remember our own covenantal responsibilities and church vows, and our accountability to our Lord for them. Reminiscent of our psalm, the apostle John exhorts Christians,

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:6–7)

Indeed, we have a responsibility to live in light of the fact that we have already been cleansed of our sin through the blood of Jesus and by his walking in obedience. Moving on from the call to judgment, next time we will consider verses 7–15 and what it means to offer proper sacrifices in the worship of God.


  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1 – 72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 186.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here. 


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One comment

  1. A wonderful exposition of Psalm 50. For many years I did not appreciate the Psalms but the Heidelblog and other similar Reformed sites have set me on a journey. Keep up the good work!


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