What is that feeling at the end of a short-term trip feeding the hungry, helping the poor, building houses in places ravaged by natural disasters, or playing with orphans in a third world country? That feeling that can sometimes come after giving generously at church or to another ministry? It can even and maybe especially come to foster parents and missionaries who have served overseas five, ten, twenty years. It’s the feeling of having done a great service to God. Of having done him a favor. What do you call that feeling?
The Cattle on a Thousand Hills
I’m not sure what you would call it, but we can see what God has to say about it in Psalm 50. When we think we do God a service by doing a good deed or giving a great sum, we reveal that we have a misunderstanding about our relationship with our Creator. This is how the Israelites felt about their many sacrifices, and in Psalm 50, God calls them to account for it. Read some of the first few verses of Psalm 50 and see what God has to say about these “great” gifts the Israelites were giving:
“8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.
10 For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” – Psalm 50:8-13
The Israelites continually offered to God sacrifices thinking that they were in some way doing God a favor. But God shows them and us in this passage that we can’t give anything to the one who already has everything. God doesn’t need us or our gifts, sacrifices, and acts of service. This type of giving is flat out rejected by God. It is false worship and actually counted against the Israelites. And if it is the attitude we have when we go to feed the poor or tutor kids in the city, it is counted against us as well.
So if this is our state before God and the nature of our relationship with him, what is the one thing we can give to him? God gives his answer in verse 14.
“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High…” Psalm 50:14.
God, the one who made everything and owns everything, gives us good things out of the abundance of his grace and in return we give him thanks. God gives us opportunities to partner with him in ministry, and again we give him thanks. God answers our prayers with a no or a not now, and still, we give him thanks. When we are disciplined, we give him thanks.
The one thing that we can give to God is thanksgiving. Thanksgiving for his creation: sea breezes and waves, tree leaves rustling in the wind, and mountains to climb. Thanksgiving for his salvation: forgiveness, adoption, eternal life. Thanksgiving for sustaining grace through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The degree to which we offer thanksgiving to God as our worship, our sacrifice, is the degree to which we have a correct understanding of our relationship with God. A rightly ordered relationship with God.
But to the Wicked
If, as it was for the Israelites, this is a challenge for us, we will be grouped together with the wicked. False, rejected worship and all. God has some words for those of us who want to continue to give to him.
Psalm 50:16-21, “But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? 17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.18 If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. 20 You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. 21 These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”
This passage is a horrifying insight into the lives of the wicked, the lives of those who think they have something to give to God. It is filled with neglecting God’s word, approving sin, and broken relationships. These wicked think they can trick God by offering him sacrifices and then live in a way that is not in accordance with his covenant. They think that by making continual sacrifices God becomes indebted to them, and that they have earned the right to sin every now and then, or like their sacrifices, continually.
A Better Hope
If we reject this false worship and commit ourselves to offering thanksgiving as our sacrifice, then we have a better hope to hold on to. I have often wondered what verses 16-21 would say if the Israelites ordered their way rightly and offered thanksgiving as their sacrifice. Perhaps it would have read like this:
“But to the heart full of thanksgiving God says, “Well done for reciting my statutes, for continually having my covenant on your lips. You have been grateful for the discipline you have received, and you have cherished my word. You are grateful for what I have given you, and your praise for it is always before me. With your mouths, you offer up praise upon praise for what I have done for you. You love your brother as yourself, and you always speak to him with a spirit of thanksgiving. These things you have done and I have come to say well done. Mark this then those who honor me in all they do, I have made you whole, I have delivered you.”
We will never know if these words would have been spoken to the Israelites if they had made thanksgiving their sacrifice. But if we give to God the only thing we can, thanksgiving, we will get to see what God has to say to us when we meet him in his glory.