1 The mighty one, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 ‘Gather to me my faithful ones,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
for God himself is judge.
Psalms, as poetry, convey meaning by allusion as well as by direct statement. This means that in studying a psalm, it is helpful to explore the web of allusions which connects the text in question to the rest of scripture.
Psalm 50:1-6 contains a striking series of allusions which emphasize the connection between light, speech, and God’s judgment. Throughout the passage, naturalistic imagery—heaven, earth, sun—is intertwined with language describing God as one who summons and speaks authoritatively.
The first verse, with its description of the sun in its path, evokes Psalm 113:3: “From the rising of the sun to its setting / The name of the Lord is to be praised.” Psalm 113 not only describes God as one worthy of praise, but also speaks of him as sitting ‘enthroned’ as a king who raises the poor and cares for the destitute.
Here in Psalm 50, the course of the sun marks the sphere in which God’s kingship is operating. He summons the whole of the earth, everything which is between sunrise and sunset, so that he may—as verse 4 tells us—judge his people.
The allusions in verse 2 expand on the theme of God’s rule and the way it is carried out. There are two elements here which comment upon each other: the first is the description of Zion as “the perfection of beauty,” and the second is the description of God “shin[ing] forth”.
The phrase “perfection of beauty” is notably used in Lamentations 2:15 as part of the mockery of those who pass by, shaking their heads in derision at the devastated Zion: “Is this the city of which they said ‘the perfection of beauty, a joy to all the earth’?” The ominous hint we see in Psalm 50 is that God’s judgment can be devastating; it is not always pleasant to be on the receiving end of God’s evaluation.
In the same verse as the dark allusion to the fate of Zion, however, this psalm speaks of God as one who shines forth. This mirrors one of the other lectionary readings for this week, 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts…” All the light which shines in creation is imitating the work of God himself as the one who brings light. This light is a light which, according to the Corinthians passage, brings knowledge.
Verses 1 and 2 reveal God as one who rules the world with authority, and who in his rule brings light both literally and metaphorically. Verse 3 continues this theme, bringing the connection between the nature imagery and the kingly imagery even closer together. In the first half of the verse, we are told that “God comes and does not keep silence”; in the second half, we are shown the thunderous means by which God makes His presence known: fire and tempest.
The two elements recall another of this week’s texts—2 Kings 2:11, in which Elijah is carried up to heaven in a whirlwind attended by a chariot of fire and horses of fire. The fire which attends God’s presence is also reminiscent of the pillar of fire which went before the children of Israel in the Exodus (see e.g. Exodus 13:21), and the mighty tempest recalls the whirlwind of Job 37 out of which God speaks.
Even as we recognize the power of God in the fire and tempest, it is worth noting that this psalm also makes them equivalent to God’s speech. God is not silent—he is surrounded by storm and flame. In that sense, the fire is God’s judgment as he pronounces it.
In verse 4, we have an expansion of the setting from the earth and its orbit; now the whole of heaven is added to the earth, and both are called by God as witnesses. In Deuteronomy, Moses called upon heaven and earth to witness his delivery of the law to the elders of Israel (32:28); here, we have heaven and earth being, as it were, re-called to the witness stand to testify again to the covenant which God has made with His people.
This leads us into verse 5: Up to this point, we have read about what God’s speech is like, and we have heard it described indirectly, but we have not heard a direct word from the Lord. Finally, we hear the summons itself, that the faithful members of the covenant are to be gathered.
Note here that the faithful are those who made a covenant “by sacrifice”; the sacrifices of Israel always involved not just the death of an animal, but the burning of the whole animal or some part. Even in this verse, then we are reminded of the fiery character of man’s relationship to God.
In verse 6, the heavens, having been summoned to testify, are given voice and declare that God is righteous. It is striking that the heavens declare God’s righteousness: why might God’s righteousness even be a question?
It could only be the case if there were, perhaps, some doubt about whether the judgment to come were unfair in some way. As a previous witness to the giving of the law and the creation of the covenant, the testimony of the heavens vindicates God’s right to judge in the matter which will follow in the rest of the psalm.
There is, admittedly, much more that could be done in examining the allusions. A quick glance at a reference Bible shows more than thirty connections to other passages (and those are only the ones the editors decided they could fit in the space available). But this short examination can give us a handle on a couple of the main themes of the passage.
Clearly, the image of light is key in these verses. The sun and shining are mentioned in the first two verses, and other light-bearing elements—fire, or the heavens in which the sun and moon are set, or the sacrifice which is made by fire—appear in the next four verses.
Light brings clarity and truth. Light is what makes fair evaluation and just judgment possible. It is no accident, then, that the light in these verses is connected with God’s speech. Speech and light both reveal the world.
God’s speech in this psalm is not legislative speech but judicial. It is the prelude to his pronouncement of an evaluation, an evaluation made in the clarity of the light which he brings. God’s speech is also connected to fire, and fire is also part of God’s judicial action.
The connection to Psalm 113 earlier reminds us that God’s judgment is not divorced from his kind and caring rule for his people. The God who summons heaven and earth to testify is the God who elevates the destitute and feeds the hungry.
That he brings judgment in a fire (and not flood or famine or something else) is especially significant: ever since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the return to God’s presence has been through fire. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego passed through the fiery furnace unscathed. Elijah ascended in a chariot of fire. When God brings fire, then, we can be sure that he is also bringing us closer to himself.
As we seek to imitate God’s justice in our own political orders, it is helpful to be reminded of all the dimensions which surround questions of justice and judgment. When earthly magistrates judge, they should do so in the clearest light possible, because God himself is the true light; this means that the judge should not only strive to bring the fullness of the issue at hand into the light, but that judgment should take place in an open court where the judge himself is in the light.
If even God himself deigns to bring the heavens and the earth as witnesses to verify his justice, no earthly ruler should feel that he is in possession of unquestionable jurisdiction. Finally, we should be ready to accept or press forward the just consequences when judgment has been rendered.
While we diligently imitate God’s justice in caring for the helpless and oppressed, we can also see that his justice extends to the devastation even of a city on a scale which makes the passers-by shake their heads in wonder that it was ever called the perfection of beauty. Justice does not only mean elevation of the innocent; it also means the punishment of transgressors. Yet we should remember the true purpose of the fire of judgment: not to gratify a desire for revenge, or to satisfy a lust for destruction, but to bring men and women closer to the transfiguring presence of the living God.
Melissa Dow is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Dallas, and adjunct faculty in the Philosophy program at Richland College.