Silence is hard to interpret. In fact, an argument from silence is considered a logical fallacy. And yet, we try to interpret the silences of others on a regular basis.
We question what people think about our words or actions. We question politicians who remain silent about certain headline topics. And we question God for his sometimes overwhelming silences during the emotional rollercoaster rides in our lives.
Psalm 50 tells us what happens when the silent God speaks. But as with much of what we read in the Psalms, it’s not quite what we expected.
Our biggest clue to what the psalm is about is hidden in a few words attributed to God toward the end of it in verse 21:
When you did these things and I kept silent,
you thought I was exactly like you.
The silence of God is often interpreted as agreement. “If God doesn’t say anything about what I’m doing, he must approve of it.” But Asaph, the poet behind the psalm, shakes his head in strong disagreement.
God’s silence isn’t approval. In many cases, it’s deferred judgment. It’s patient mercy, allowing time and space for change. But this merciful deferment will only last so long. The silence will end. Judgment is coming.
Psalm 50 begins with a summons. God has spoken. We’ve been served. And so, to court we go. But it’s not just us; it’s all humanity who have been summoned to court. If you’ve ever felt the warming sun’s heat on your shoulder, you’re included.
The shining of God from his Zion-based temple (v. 2) reminds us the temple isn’t just the location of worship, it’s the seat of judgment. Whenever we come across light in relationship with God, it’s referencing his ability to see all things. Our culture tends to think of enlightenment in the context of education, simply learning new things. But the biblical view of light is as the revealer of things hidden in the dark.
In verse 3, we see God coming to us. His silence is broken. And the fires of sacrifice have become the fires of judgment.
But don’t be thinking of anything hellish here. Think of a purging, revealing fire, not of a painful, destructive fire. We really need to stop thinking of God as a small-minded kid who wants to deal out hurt in a vengeful tantrum. As verse 6 declares, he is a God of justice:
And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
for he is a God of justice.
The heavens have witnessed the righteousness/justice of God for as long as they’ve been in existence. A really long time. Their courtroom character witness is established: God is just. We can trust his judgments to be right.
But verses 4, 5, and 7 point to a surprise. It’s not humanity in general who are being judged. All of humanity had been summoned to witness God’s judgment, but here it’s God’s people alone who undergo that judgment. The people with whom God has made a covenant are the ones who will be judged according to that covenant.
And so, the judgment begins. But right off, some potential charges come off the table. In another surprise, God isn’t accusing his people of blowing it with their worship.
Despite our worship wars, worship isn’t a problem in any church I’ve been in. Tired hymns and theologically thin choruses abound, but they aren’t a problem for God. And neither is the passion behind them. Even our most meager efforts seem to be just fine with God, because we’re at least offering ourselves to him in the process. Like the widow’s two mites, our feeble attempts are lovely to God and he is honored by them.
We finally get to what dismays God and draws him from his silence when we get to verse 16.
God hates our hypocrisy. He despises it when our mouths sing his praises in church and then we turn around and trample our relationships.
Asaph tells us that we forfeit out access to God’s law and covenant by our behavior. To the “wicked” person who sits in the pew and offers her tithes, God says,
What right have you to recite my laws
or take my covenant on your lips?
You hate my instruction
and cast my words behind you.
This isn’t emotional hatred of God’s words and instructions. This is behavioral hatred. This may include a love of God’s words that has no impact on behavior that completely contradicts them.
Years ago, I knew a young woman who was abused by her father. She said he sang passionately in church and wept out of deep devotion to God during his daily Bible reading and prayer time. She said she was in awe of the beautiful things he wrote in his prayer journals, which she sneaked peeks at. But he was horrific in his abuse of her.
God is enraged by this kind of disconnect. His law calls for one thing. And his people nod their heads while in the act of disobedience. Not only does this turn the stomachs of the unchurched and the dechurched, it turns God’s stomach as well.
Verse 18 points to the breaking of the 8th and 7th commandments. And verses 19-20 point to the breaking of the 9th commandment. As good worshipers, the “wicked” have kept the first four of the Ten Commandments, dealing with their relationship with God. But they’ve neglected their human relationships and anything God has commanded about them. And as James 2:10 tells us, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Verse 22 calls those who engage in such hypocrisy “you who forget God.” The biblical term “fear of the Lord” doesn’t so much have to do with being afraid of God as it has to do with remembering God in all circumstances. It could just as easily be translated as God-awareness-in-all-things. The opposite of those who fear the Lord are “you who forget God,” those who worship God and then get on with life as if he doesn’t exist.
Hypocrites are practical atheists.
As the psalm ends, we hear the formerly silent God speak. What he says is that he wants two things: honor in our worship and blamelessness in our human dealings.
Honor in our worship doesn’t mean having the utmost passion without an ounce of doubt or distraction. It means simple self-offering.
Blamelessness in our human dealings doesn’t mean relational perfection. It means loving our neighbors as ourselves so that God won’t have to bring charges of injustice against us.
Or as Micah 6:8 puts it:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
When God speaks, this is what he asks for: honor and justice. Love all the way around.