I have a question for you. What is the connection between a sermon and a fish-hook? I'm not thinking of fishing in general or of the old chorus 'I will make you fishers of men' but of an illustration used by Charles Spurgeon. He said that every sermon should be like a fish-hook. In hearing a sermon everyone should "get some forget-me-not, some remembrancer, fastened to his ear, and … to his heart and conscience too". Isn't that a good illustration? During the course of the sermon I will make several references to fish-hooks. Spurgeon said that every sermon you hear should include 'some remembrancer' that would touch your ear, heart and conscience. Not occasionally. Not once in a blue moon. But in every sermon! But is that always true of the sermons you hear? And what of tonight's sermon? You must tell me afterwards!
Tonight, we are looking together at Psalm 50. As we look at the text I want us first, to think about Asaph (the author of the Psalm); then to reflect upon the holy God and the people of God; and finally the challenge to each one of us.
1. The Spokesman - 'Asaph the Seer' (2 Chronicles 29.30)
Of the 150 Psalms, about half are attributed to King David; many others are anonymous, and some have dedications – such as the 12 Psalms of Asaph (Psalms 50, 73-83). Remember that the Psalms are poems – not narrative, not sermons, not works of theology – but the poems and prayers and hymns of the people of God. And as we say or sing the Psalms we echo the worship of the people of God over some 3,000 years. And remember as we use these words we are not at a concert (listening to other people) but we are each playing an instrument. We are all participants. Not just observers. But are we willing to let these ancient words touch our hearts, and respond to what the Lord is saying to us?
So then we have Asaph and his 12 Psalms. We don't know much about him, but we do know that he was a worship leader and composer. Not in the Temple (for it had not yet been built) but in the Tent of Meeting. King David appointed gifted singers, composers and musicians to lead the worship. During the reign of Hezekiah (when the Temple worship was revived), we read that "Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshipped" (2 Chronicles 29.30). Clearly their worship was enriched by the compositions of David and Asaph whose words we still use today. Both corporately and individually. Are you struggling to find the right words to pray? Or to find the words to confess your sin? Or words to worship and honour and praise the Lord? Then use the Psalms to help you.
Asaph, the musician and composer, was called 'Asaph the seer' – but what on earth was a 'seer'? In the Bible seers were those people who through visions and dreams had an encounter with the living God. Like the later prophets they experienced something of the reality of the presence of God. Their insights enabled them to see something that was imperceptible to others. Other people saw with their eyes. The seers saw with their hearts. They were close to God. Intimate with God. Responsive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. No wonder, then, that the words of Asaph evoked a clear response from the worshippers. They "sang [God's] praises with gladness and they bowed down and worshipped [him]". Through their music and song they touched the hearts of men and women.
And that sort of response should be our response too! To draw us nearer to the Lord and to bow down before him. Is that one of the fish-hooks we need tonight? To come before the Lord and to worship him in spirit and in truth?
I would like us to look at the text of Psalm 50 under two simple headings: 'The Holy God' and The 'People of God'. And as we do so ask yourself two questions: 'What can I learn about God?' and 'What can I discover about myself?'
2. The Holy God
In verses 1 to 6 the seer speaks, and verses 7 to 21 the Lord himself speaks. "Listen, my people" he says, "and I will speak … I am your God" (v.7). But what sort of God is he? How does he make himself known? In verse 1 his identity is revealed in three Hebrew names of God. He is "The Mighty One, God, the LORD". We come before him. We bow down before him. We worship him. We acknowledge God as God, and Lord of Lords. Notice in verse 7 that he is a personal God. "Listen my people … I am your God". He makes himself known as a God of justice (v.6) and a God of salvation (v.23). Often – too often – our view of God is too small. We cut him down to size. He is moulded and shaped by our limited perception and experience.
Too often by our actions, we fail him. We ignore him. We deny him. We dishonour him. We close our ears. We fail to listen. We choose to forget him (v.22). That is why he says here: "Listen, my people, and I will speak" (v.7). And as he speaks do we ever stop and listen to what he says? Is that for you one of tonight's fish-hooks?
The context for worship and sacrifice was Zion – Jerusalem – what someone called "the theological centre of the world". The city chosen by God was to be the place where heaven and earth came together. Where the people of God worshipped the all holy God. Where they acknowledged the presence of the living God among them.
The original hill fort was captured by King David and in the Tent of Meeting worship and sacrifice took place. David built his palace and though he intended to build a Temple that task fell to his son, Solomon. On that sacred hill, solemn and joyful worship took place. Sacrifices were made on the altar. People dedicated themselves to God. They sang his praises in the words of Psalms. Day by day – from morning to evening – "from Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth" (v.2). Here was a constant reminder to the people that God was in their midst. If they were willing, he would become central to their lives and the object of their worship. He was a God who spoke. He was a speaking God who could not remain silent – though the silence could be interpreted by Asaph the seer.
The God who spoke of grace and love and mercy was the God whom the people were to worship. He was not a dead idol but the living, creator, redeemer God. The heavens declared the glory of God and they also proclaimed his righteousness and his justice (v.6). This God delighted in praise and worship and sacrifice (v.14). These sacrificial thank offerings were honouring to him. They expressed the commitment and consecration of the people of God to the all One true, holy God.
But yet this holy God saw through the failure and hypocrisy of the people. Their worship was impure. Their lives were not as they should be. Though the sacrifices were the divine means by which sin could be forgiven, simply going through the motions was unacceptable to him. They followed the letter but not the spirit of what God required. For this hypocrisy the worship offered was a mere pretence. It was unacceptable to him. Running through the 12 Psalms of Asaph is the theme of judgement. Certain judgement. Divine judgement. In verse 6 we are told that "he is a God of justice" and in Psalm 75.7, "It is God who judges". Is that something we need to be reminded of tonight? A fish-hook that we need? That we are to be the subjects of divine judgement? Too easily we refer to the love of God – but what of the certainty of divine judgement upon us? Is that something we shy away from? Something we choose to ignore?
3. The People of God
Psalm 50 reveals something to us about the character and nature of God, and it tells us something about the people of God.
They were a covenant people (vv.5, 16). What was the covenant? It was a binding agreement between two parties. It was a term used in a secular context and also in a religious context. One party obligated themselves to the other. The one was bound to the other. Vows were taken (v.14). Promises were made, and sacrifices sealed the covenant relationship (v.5). Some people offered the sacrifices in a way that honoured the Lord (v.23) but there were many others who failed to do so.
They went through the motions. They turned up to the services. But their hearts were far from the Lord. Is this going to be your fish-hook tonight?
The covenant people were also a consecrated people (v.5). Set apart and dedicated to him. And to extend the alliteration - the third 'c' was the Commandments. On Mount Sinai there was storm and tempest (v.3) when God delivered to Moses the 'Ten Words' of instruction. Look at verses 16 to 21 where some of the Ten Commandments are highlighted. Do not steal (v.18). Do not commit adultery (v.18). Do not give false testimony (v.20). In theory they knew the Ten Commandments. But they chose to ignore them and to disobey the Lord. Is this going to be your fish-hook tonight?
They were a worshipping people. The people were summoned by God. They were invited to come into his presence, to offer him praise and worship. Reference is made here to sacrificial thank-offerings (vv.14, 23). They were made as the people gathered for worship – first in the Tent of Meeting and later in the Temple. And it was to be on Mount Zion – Jerusalem – that the beauty of the Lord was to be made known to the world. The non-Jewish nations would see it and they too would come and acknowledge the Lord as their creator and redeemer. But the worship of the people of God had become hollow and insincere. There was an outward show but no inner reality. An impression of godliness, but their worship had become a dull routine. It was formal. It was hypocritical. It was lifeless and dead. All may have looked well on the outside – but inside it was a hollow pretence. Is this going to be your fish-hook tonight?
They were a disobedient people. This is where the theory wasn't the same as the reality. The people had become complacent. They took God for granted. They were obligated to keep the covenant and to obey the Commandments. But they failed to do so. And so the Lord 'testified against them' (v.7). No longer silent (v.21). Now he spoke (vv.1, 3, 4, 7) and he felt compelled to do so. But would they hear his words and take them to heart? Yes, we say we like to hear the Lord – after all the spoken word came and lived among us - and we have beheld his glory; but there is also the unspoken word that challenges us and confronts us. And sometimes that silence addresses us and shouts out to us. For C. S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world". Is this going to be your fish-hook tonight?
4. The Challenge to Each One of Us
I wonder, are we allowing God to speak to us tonight in the words of Psalm 50? Not simply going through the motions of listening but actually taking his word to our hearts? Outwardly we have heard his word. But inwardly have we listened to his voice? Before receiving Holy Communion, we are encouraged to examine ourselves – but do we? Do we make light of our sin? Content to make excuses. But never ever facing up to the reality of our disobedience and of our failure to love him? Outward conformity and external religion cost us little. We easily become hypocritical play-actors wearing a mask of religious respectability. We become complacent. Content with things just as they are. But the Ten Commandments tell a different story to those who steal, commit adultery and who slander other people. God speaks to us but do we ever bother to listen to him?
There is much in these verses about the Old Testament sacrifices, of goats and bulls and cows. The sacrificial system was meant to underwrite the verbal response of the people of God. But it had become corrupted. Impure. A mere pretence. An empty ritual. In the Lord's Supper we are reminded of the one, "full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice" of Christ on the cross. By his shed blood, sin and guilt and shame are covered. But do we engage in word-games about these things and fail to take these words to heart? We say he died for my sins and took my place. But do we really believe it to be true? There must be no hint of hypocrisy. No lies. No play-acting. But a sincere, genuine, loving response to the saviour's grace, and love and mercy.
The last two verses of Psalm 50 ends with a challenge and a promise. The challenge was "Consider this, you who forget God" (v.22); and the promise was "I will show my salvation" (v.23). I spoke earlier about a sermon being like a fish-hook and hopefully that has been the case tonight – as we are challenged to examine our hearts, our motives, and our willingness to trust and obey the Lord.