Our Bible reading today includes a verse that I often quote during the offering prayer on Sunday evenings, Psalm 50:10, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” Now, often this verse is quoted to show that God is able to provide for his people. I mean, after all, he owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He’ll take care of us. And while that’s absolutely true, it’s not the reason why I include the verse my prayers, nor is that the argument that the psalmist is making when he write those words.
To get the proper context, we need to back up to the beginning of the Psalm. Beginning in verse 1 we read, “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.” From the very beginning, we see God Almighty. This is a terrifying scene. God “speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting,” and “before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.” This is meant to give us an idea of the sheer power of God. And yet, at the same time, the psalmist is careful to make sure we know that this all-powerful God is not a despot or a tyrant. On the contrary, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” What we have here is a God who is both sovereign and good.
Then beginning in verse 4 we read, “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.” God is coming in judgment, yet at the same time he’s clear that he’s judging his people, his faithful ones, the ones who made a covenant with him by sacrifice. These are the people in whom he delights, those to whom he has been pleased to show mercy and give grace. So, once again, we see this dichotomy between God’s goodness and favor towards us, in which we have confidence, and his sovereign authority to judge, which should bring us to fear.
Then, in verse 7, God’s indictment against his people begins, “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me. I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”
God’s accusation against his people is that they have misunderstood the point of worship. They have allowed themselves to think that they’re doing God a favor when they come to worship him. They’ve allowed themselves to think that God stand in need of what they have to offer to him. But, of course, we know that God needs nothing. He depends on nothing for his existence. He is perfect and complete in himself. Even his decision to create the world was because of his good pleasure, not from some deficiency. Yet these people have convinced themselves that the bulls and goats that they offer to God are somehow sustaining him in his time of need.
And so God corrects them in two ways. First, he informs them that, if he really needed the bulls and goats he could get them himself. He owns them anyway since he created them. The world and its fullness belong to him. Then he asks the incredibly sarcastic question, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” The answer is meant to be obvious: of course not! As the children’s catechism says, “God is a spirit and does not have a body like man.” It’s not as though God will starve if he doesn’t get his sacrifices. God will be just fine with or without what the people bring to him.
How, then, ought God’s people think about worship? If worship isn’t about bringing some service to God, then what is the point? God tells us beginning in verse 14. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” The point of worship is that the worshipper enjoys a relationship with God Almighty. We sing his praise. We offer our lives as living sacrifices to him, since, after all, that’s only our reasonable service. We call on him for deliverance from sin and death, and he delivers us. We glorify him because of who he is and the great grace he has shown to us.
So, you see, worship is not about doing something for God, and it is certainly not about doing something for God so that God will be obligated to do something for you. That misses the entire point. If God needed something, then he wouldn’t ask you for it. And if you tried to do something for God so that he’d owe you…well…you don’t have that much power to do something that big. Rather, the point of worship is the object of worship: God himself. When we come to know God, we come to know the fount of all goodness, the one who defines what “good” even means. Far from using God to get something, he is the reward we should seek. For, as God says to close this Psalm, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”