Who is this God? He is the mighty One, in Hebrew literally, the God of gods. He is the perfection of beauty, and He shines out from Zion. He radiates power. The devouring fire that goes before Him and mighty tempest that whirls around Him are physical symbols of His omnipotence and grandeur.
God speaks again in verse 5: “Gather to Me My faithful ones, who made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” This is a command. Perhaps He is ordering the angels, perhaps the religious leaders, perhaps even the people themselves. He is calling His own to Him, those who have made a covenant, a bond of self-giving love, with Him. He is summoning the Israelites, His family, His children, those He loves and has taken to Himself.
Why is this mighty God coming down and calling His people to Him? He is about to judge them, to identify their faults, to chastise their sins, and to inform them of what they must do to please Him. He will speak specifically to His chosen people, those who live in a covenant relationship with Him, but He wishes to have the rest of the world on hand to watch and listen, for He knows that some day soon, His words will apply to them, too, for they will also enter into a covenant with Him through Jesus Christ.
In verse 6, the psalmist interjects, “The heavens declare His righteousness, for God Himself is judge.” In doing so, he reminds us that God is a just judge. What He speaks is true and worthy of the greatest attention. God knows what is best for His people. He sees their situation clearly. He understands perfectly. The very heavens know this and loudly proclaim before the whole earth. When God judges, all people must listen and obey.
What does God say to His people? What is His judgment? He begins by ordering them to hear Him. The Hebrew verb here, shâma‛, implies listening closely, understanding, and obeying. God wants His people’s attention, for He is about to testify against them. The Hebrew verb for testify, ‛ûd, suggests warning, exhortation, and admonition, but it can also connote a desire for restoration. God is testifying against His people in order to restore them, to change their hearts and minds, to make them acceptable to Him, to help them obey Him and thereby accept the great love He holds out to them.
God continues by telling His people that He does not rebuke them for their sacrifices. They are constantly offering up burnt offerings before Him. In number and ritual correctness, their sacrifices are fine. Yet God will not accept their bulls and goats. Why not? God begins by reminding the people that He simply doesn’t need their sacrifices. All the animals and all the birds belong to Him. If He were ever hungry, which as God He is not, He would certainly have no reason to complain to human beings about it. He is not a God Who can be appeased by a good meal. He isn’t like a human ruler who can be won over by favors and flavors. The sacrifices themselves are useless to Him. He has no need for them. What He really wants is His people’s love.
God wants His children to offer their sacrifices to Him voluntarily and with love. He does not want routine. He does not want mere obligation. He does not want attempted bribes. He does not want bargains. He does not want hypocrisy. He wants a sacrifice from the heart, an external sign of internal faith, devotion, and trust. He wants meaning behind the offering, depth to the ritual, piety in the rite. He wants His people to see their sacrifices as gifts that carry their love to God.
Further, God wants His people to pray to Him. “Call on Me in the day of trouble,” He urges. Reach out to Me. Cry to Me. Invite Me into your life. Enter into a relationship with Me. God promises a response, “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” God hears and answers prayers. He does what is best for His people. He saves them, draws them out of their troubles and makes them strong that they may cope with whatever comes along. He may not always give His children whatever they want, but He gives them what they need. In turn, He wants His people to glorify Him, honoring Him with thanksgiving and praise.
God has yet another message in this psalm. Beginning in verse 16, He addresses the wicked: “What right have you to recite My statutes, or take My covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast My words behind you.” These people talk much and do little. They discuss God’s law and claim His covenant, but they don’t live it out. They want His friendship and His gifts, but they don’t obey His commands.
God continues, “You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.” These people are not careful of the company they keep. They do not avoid negative influences in their lives. They expose themselves to temptation, to people who are not focused on God. They drop their moral standards, risking sin as they pursue their own interests.
God is not finished yet: “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.” These people sin with their speech. They speak evil words. They tell lies. They gossip and slander. They are just plain nasty. They have no control over their words because they choose not to. They like the attention they get through their scandalous talk. They don’t even limit their offensive speech to people they don’t know or even to mere acquaintances (not that such limits would excuse their behavior); they speak lies even about their own kin, those closest to them.
The wicked have done all of these things, and God has remained silent. They became complacent, thinking that God was just like them, that He wouldn’t or couldn’t respond to their bad behavior. But now things have changed. God says, “I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.” The time for judgment has come. God is showing His people exactly what they have done wrong, and He will correct them. Like a good Father, God disciplines His children that they might learn right from wrong and becoming obedient to His will, which is always directed toward their good.
God ends with a warning and a promise. First, He issues the warning: “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart...” Listen. Consider. Understand. God wants His forgetful, sinful people to hear Him and heed His words. It is very important that they do so, or there will be consequences. God seems rather violent when He threatens to tear them apart, but He is emphasizing the serious nature of the punishment they will receive if they don’t change. God’s wrath is not something to ignore or downplay.
After warning His wayward children, God issues a promise. He will show His salvation to those who make their thanksgiving their sacrifices and who “go the right way”. Those whose hearts are behind their sacrifices, those who are grateful, those who obey God, those who walk in His ways, these are the ones who will receive God’s salvation. God will rescue them. He will make them safe. He will deliver them from their enemies. Most importantly, He will draw them to His side for all eternity. Now that is some promise! It’s worth every sacrifice in the world.