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 :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 , 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 50:18-19).
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 :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.