On Psalm 50

Is Psalm 50 a Messianic psalm?
Why does the psalm culminate in animal sacrifice? How
should we incorporate this psalm in our daily prayers? Fr.
John Whiteford talks about one of the most often-read
psalms.

Psalm 50 [51 in Protestant Bibles] is not really a
Messianic psalm in the usual sense. It is a penitential
psalm. In fact, you could say that it is THE penitential
psalm We not only pray this psalm daily, but usually we
pray it several times a day in the services, as well as in
our private prayers.

To understand the ending, you need to keep in mind the
context of the entire Psalm. We are told in the
superscription that it is “a psalm of David, when
Nathan the Prophet came unto him, when he went in unto
Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.” We read about this in
2 Samuel 11:1-12:23. There were are told that it was
“the time when kings go forth to battle,” and
yet, for the first time in his adult life, David the King
did not go into battle with everyone else, but rather,
“David tarried still at Jerusalem.” Then, in
his idleness, one evening, being unable to sleep, David
walked upon the roof of his house, “and from the
roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was
very beautiful to look upon.” And rather than put up
any resistance to this temptation, he had someone find out
that she was Bathsheba,
the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Not allowing the fact that
she was married to another man to dissuade him, he seduced
her, and got her pregnant. Then hoping to cover up his
sin, he called for Uriah (who was one of his own soldiers,
putting his own life on the line for his king and the
nation of Israel) to return to Jerusalem, hoping that he
would sleep with his wife, and then believe that her child
was his own. But Uriah proved to be a better man than
David, because he would not allow himself the comforts of
home while his fellow soldiers were fighting in the field.
He told David:

The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my
lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in
the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat
and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and
as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.

David even called for Uriah to eat with him, and he got
him drunk, but even then he went out to lie on his bed
with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his
house.

Nevertheless, rather than admit his own guilt, David sent
Uriah back to the battle, and wrote to Joab, his general:

Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle,
and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and
die.

Joab did as he was told, Uriah was killed in battle, and
word was sent back to David. Then David took Bathsheba as
a wife, and perhaps thought that he had gotten away with
it… but he had not.

King David was, we are told a man after God’s
own heart
(1 Samuel 13:14), and the anointed of
the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel
(2
Samuel 23:1), and yet he fell into not only adultery but
murder. How was this possible?

St.
John Chrysostom
says of this:

And the prophet was found in adultery, the pearl in the
mud. However, he did not yet understand that he had
sinned; the passion ravaged him to such a great extent.
Because, when the charioteer gets drunk, the chariot moves
in an irregular, disorderly manner. What the charioteer is
to the chariot, the soul is to the body. If the soul
becomes darkened, the body rolls in the mud. As long as
the charioteer stands firm, the chariot drives smoothly.
However, when he becomes exhausted and is unable to hold
the reins firmly, you see this very chariot in terrible
danger. The exact same thing happens to man. As long as
the soul is sober and vigilant, this very body remains in
purity. However, when the souls is darkened, this very
body rolls in mud and in lusts. Therefore, what did David
do? He committed adultery; yet neither was he aware nor
was he censured by anyone. This occurred in his most
venerable years, so you may learn that, if you are
indolent, not even old age benefits you, nor, if you are
earnest, can youthful years seriously harm you. Behavior
does not depend on age but on the direction of the will.
Although David was twelve years old, he was a judge; his
predecessors, however, who were old in years, committed
adultery; and neither did old age benefit them nor youth
injure this one. So you may learn that the affairs of
prudence rely upon the will and do not depend on age, just
remember that David was found in his venerable years
falling into adultery and committing murder; and he
reached such a pathetic state that he was unaware that he
had sinned, because his mind, which was the charioteer,
was drunk from debauchery1

St. John tells us, that since when a physician falls ill
another physician must cure him, likewise, when one
prophet fell into sin, another Prophet was sent to cure
him. He did not immediately confront him, lest having his
sin publicly exposed at once, he become defiant. Instead,
he used a story to cause the King to pronounce judgment
over himself:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him,
and said unto him, “There were two men in one city;
the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had
exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had
nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and
nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with
his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his
own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a
daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man,
and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own
herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto
him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it
for the man that was come to him.” And David’s
anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to
Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done
this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb
fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no
pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the
man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7).

St. John Chrysostom observes:

What did the king say? “I have sinned against the
Lord.” He did not say, “Who are you who
censures me? Who sent you to speak with such boldness?
With what daring did you prevail?” He did not say
anything of the sort; rather, he perceived the sin. And
what did he say? “I have sinned against the
Lord.” Therefore, what did Nathan say to him?
“And the Lord remitted your sin.” You
condemned yourself; I [God] remit your sentence. You
confessed prudently; you annulled the sin. You
appropriated a condemnatory decision against yourself; I
repeal the sentence. Can you see that what is written in
Scripture was fulfilled: “Be the first one to tell
of your transgressions so you may be justified”
[Isaiah 43:26 LXX]? How toilsome is it to be the first one
to declare the sin?”2

So you find in Psalm 50 the full expression of the Prophet
David’s repentance. Towards the end of the psalm, we
find the references to animal sacrifices. The Prophet,
having come to see the depth of his sin, recognized the
inadequacy of simply offering animal sacrifice to be
reconciled with God:

For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, I had given it;
with whole-burnt offerings Thou shalt not be pleased. A
sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is
broken and humbled God will not despise
(Psalm 50
[51]:16-17).

St. Augustine comments that this foresees the time when
these sacrifices would be replaced by the reality that
they pointed towards:

David was living at that time when sacrifices of victim
animals were offered to God, and he saw these times that
were to be. Do we not perceive ourselves in these words?
Those sacrifices were figurative, foretelling the One
Saving Sacrifice. Not even we have been left without a
Sacrifice to offer to God. For hear what he saith, having
a concern for his sin, and wishing the evil thing which he
hath done to be forgiven him: “If Thou hadst
willed,” he saith, “sacrifice, I would have
given it surely. With holocausts Thou wilt not be
delighted.” Nothing shall we therefore offer? So
shall we come to God? And whence shall we propitiate Him?
Offer; certainly in thyself thou hast what thou mayest
offer. Do not from without fetch frankincense, but say,
“In me are, O God, Thy vows, which I will render of
praise to Thee.” Do not from without seek cattle to
slay, thou hast in thyself what thou mayest kill.
Sacrifice to God is a spirit troubled, a heart
contrite and humbled God despiseth not
(ver. 17).
Utterly he despiseth bull, he-goat, ram: now is not the
time that these should be offered. They were offered when
they indicated something, when they promised something;
when the things promised come, the promises are taken
away. A heart contrite and humbled God despiseth
not
. Ye know that God is high: if thou shalt have
made thyself high, He will be from thee; if thou shalt
have humbled thyself, He will draw near to thee”
(Exposition on the Psalms, Psalm 50 [51], 21).

The psalm ends with these words:

Do good, O Lord, in Thy good pleasure unto Zion, and
let the walls of Jerusalem be builded. Then shalt Thou be
pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, with oblation
and whole-burnt offerings. Then shall they offer bullocks
upon Thine altar
(Psalm 50[51]:18-19).

Blessed Theodoret sees in these verses not only a prophecy
of the Babylonian captivity (which happened several
centuries after the time of King David, and the subsequent
return and restoration of Jerusalem and Temple; but also a
prophecy of the coming of the Church:

From these words we are taught more clearly that the psalm
is full of prophecy: the verses bear on those compelled to
dwell in Babylon, longing for liberation from slavery and
bewailing the desolation of the city. They beg that the
city be granted some pity and recover its former good
fortune, with the ramparts repaired, and the Liturgy
performed according to the Law. As it is, he is saying, it
is not possible for those living in foreign parts to offer
to you the prescribed sacrifices, as the Law is clear
about sacrificing in that city alone. But if we were to be
granted the return and were to rebuild the Temple, then we
would offer to you the prescribed sacrifices. Now, very
applicable to them is the verse, You will open my lips, O
Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise: theirs is the
cry, How shall we sin the Lord’s song in a
foreign land?
[Psalm 136 [137]:4]. The conclusion of
this psalm contains, however, a further prophecy as well.
You see, after setting forth above the gifts of the
all-holy Spirit, he went on to show the God of all to be
not pleased with the sacrifices according to the Law, and
his prayer is for the new Zion to emerge, the heavenly
Jerusalem to be built on earth, and the new way of life to
be inaugurated as soon as possible, offering not
irrational victims but the offering and sacrifices of
righteousness, and rational and living holocausts, of
which blessed Paul says, I urge you brethren, through
the mercies of God to present your bodies as living
sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, your rational
worship
[Romans 12:1]. The most divine David, you
see, in so far as he had learned the obscure and hidden
things of the wisdom of God, was aware that the New
Testament contains the complete forgiveness of sins, and
yearned for rapid and complete liberation from sins. And
in his longing to attain in his own case the rapid and
generous purification, he spoke these verses.3

So while this psalm is not a Messianic psalm per se, it
certainly does have prophetic elements that relate to the
work of the coming Messiah.

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