Ever been to a courtroom trial? I have on a handful of occasions. The circumstances have been different, but the beginning is always the same: “All rise.” The bailiff’s terse instruction proclaims the arrival of the judge, and the hearers immediately rise to their feet to show him or her the proper respect.
The opening lines in the heavenly courtroom of Psalm 50 are an “all rise”:
The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to where it sets.
From Zion, perfect in beauty,
God shines forth.
Our God comes
and will not be silent;
a fire devours before him,
and around him a tempest rages.
He summons the heavens above,
and the earth, that he may judge his people:
— Psalm 50:1–4
The Mighty One, the One of fire and tempest, the One who is not silent, is about to speak. A hush falls on the courtroom. We lean in…
“Gather to me this consecrated people,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
— Psalm 50:5
Enter the defendant, Israel.
The Judge begins:
“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
I will testify against you, Israel:”
— Psalm 50:7
Ouch. Not what you want to hear at the beginning of a trial, especially when you realize that the Judge is also a key witness.
“I am God, your God.
I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.”
— Psalm 50:7–8
Thankfully, God begins with an affirmation. He then moves on to his opening remarks:
“I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?”
— Psalm 50:9–13
It seems that God’s indictment is not of their practices but of their perspective. The Jews had been faithful to keep his sacrificial laws, but, as God points out that, at the end of the day he doesn’t really need those sacrifices. His people are the ones in need:
“Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
— Psalm 50:14–15
His instruction comes with a promise. The Faithful One will be faithful to deliver those who call on him. But then the soundtrack changes (cue the dark music), and a different phase of the trial begins.
But to the wicked person, God says:
“What right have you to recite my laws
or take my covenant on your lips?”
— Psalm 50:16
What follows is a list of some of their heinous crimes: Robbery. Adultery. Lying. Slander. He concludes with:
“When you did these things and I kept silent,
you thought I was exactly like you.
But I now arraign you
and set my accusations before you.”
— Psalm 50:21
Uh-oh. The jig is up. Do the crime and you do the time. The sentence is about to be handed down. And just when we think the hammer is going to fall, God surprises us with a different court order:
“Consider this, you who forget God,
or I will tear you to pieces, with no one to rescue you:
Those who sacrifice thank offerings honor me,
and to the blameless I will show my salvation.”
— Psalm 50:22–23
The threat seems harsh at first, but it is actually merciful. Based on the charges, God has every right to throw the book at the defendants. But he doesn’t. Instead, he gives them an option: continue to disregard him and suffer the fatal consequences, or repent, honor him, and receive his pardon.
The choice is simple, with no legal jargon to confuse the matter. The Judge could end the trial right then and there, but instead he decides to call a recess. It seems the case will be adjudicated at a later date, TBD.
That date came centuries later when God resumed the sentencing phase of the trial. But this time, it was not his people in the dock: it was his Son. The One who never deserved to stand trial stood in their place and took their punishment. And ours.
As we watch this trial unfold, we can’t help but realize that we are a part of it, named among the defendants. And the choice offered to them is the same offered to us as well. Will we humble ourselves, turn to him, and receive his salvation, or disregard his gracious offer and suffer a wretched end?
The gavel has not fallen yet on your life. When it does, what will your fate be?