Psalm 49 mentions Sheol once again. This raises the question: why did the ancient Jews not have any significant belief in an afterlife? C. S. Lewis gives this answer:
It is surely, therefore, very possible that when God began to reveal Himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim upon them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything He can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with any hint of future Beatitude or Perdition. These are not the right point to begin at. An effective belief in them, coming too soon, may even render almost impossible the development of (so to call it) the appetite for God; personal hopes and fears, too obviously exciting, have got in first. Later when, after centuries of spiritual training, men have learned to desire and adore God, to pant after Him “as pants the hart,” it is another matter. For then those who love God will desire not only to enjoy Him but “to enjoy Him forever,” and will fear to lose Him. And it is by that door that a truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of Hell can enter; as corollaries to a faith already centred upon God, not as things of any independent or intrinsic weight. It is even arguable that the moment “Heaven” ceases to mean union with God and “Hell” to mean separation from him, the belief in either is a mischievous superstition; for then we have, on the one hand, a merely “compensatory” belief (a “sequel” to life’s sad story, in which everything will “come all right”) and, on the other, a nightmare which drives men into asylums or makes them persecutors. (Reflections on the Psalms)
At the same time, there is an issue raised in Psalm 49 that is only answered by the New Testament. The psalmist says…
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on forever
and never see the grave.
This is a true and important realization on the part of the psalmist. In fact, it is one of the most important realizations one can have in life. However, if we stop here, the path leads only to despair. We need to move on from this realization to the reality that a ransom has been paid for our lives so that we can live forever. That ransom has been paid by Jesus Christ.
The heading of Psalm 50 says it was written by Asaph. He was one of three Levites commissioned by King David to be in charge of singing in the tabernacle. What I find most interesting about this psalm is that Asaph speaks against the main work of the tabernacle: sacrifice.
I will not accept a bull from your house,
or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
The answer to the final rhetorical questions is, of course, no. God does not eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats. Therefore, what does God want according to Asaph? He says in the next verse….
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
Of course, according to the logic of the psalm, these are the words of God. However, they seem to me to reflect Asaph’s sentiments. Is it not fascinating that in a psalm written by the one in charge of singing in the tabernacle, he has God say: “I do not want your animal sacrifices”? Rather, according to this psalm, God wants a sacrifice of thanksgiving—precisely the thing that Asaph is offering. This psalm makes me wonder what kind of competition was going on in the tabernacle in David’s time between the Levites who offered sacrifices of animals and those who offered sacrifices of praise. Perhaps not much has changed in religious institutions over the millennia. Once again, we see that we have one Bible with many voices.
Psalm 51 is probably one of the most well known psalms after Psalm 23. According to the heading, this is the psalm David wrote after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba. Out of all the psalms attributed to David, this one seems to me to be the one that was most likely to have been written by him, and perhaps even written on the occasion noted in the heading. It fits. How interesting that here too there is a denial of the value of animal sacrifice. “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (51:16) Therefore, what does God want, according to David? “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” What is important is not our outward religious acts, but change in the heart.
Psalm 51 contains a number of other important features. It is a psalm often cited as teaching the doctrine of original sin. “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”
“Purge me with hyssop,” is an interesting line. The hyssop branch was used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel during Passover. Later, it was used in the ritual of cleansing for leprosy and other ritual purification rites. Significantly, a hyssop branch was used to lift a sponge to Jesus for his last drink upon the cross.
David obviously wanted to feel, in his physical body, that he had been cleansed of his sin. I believe that is why he mentions his desire to be cleansed with hyssop. As human beings who are both spiritual and physical, we all need to feel what David wanted to feel. Perhaps that is why God has given us the sacraments.
Psalm 51 also notes the importance of contrition to forgiveness. The Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of contrition to the rite of reconciliation as well. We need to be sorry for our sin.
The story is told of a Catholic priest attending a person who was dying at the scene of an accident. The priest asks the dying man, “Son, are you sorry for your sin?” The man answers, “No Father, I am not sorry for my sin.” The priest thinks about it for a moment and then asks, “My son, are you sorry that you are not sorry for your sin?”
If we are honest with ourselves then we must admit that sometimes we are not sorry for our sin. However, if we are sorry that we are not sorry, perhaps God can begin from there to work with us. After all, real contrition is God’s gift, not ours.
Psalm 52 contains two technical terms we have already seen in the psalms that require comment. The heading to this psalm says it is a Maskil of David. I have already mentioned how some of the psalms are more like proverbs; they impart wisdom. That is precisely what a maskil is; it is a psalm specifically written to provide wisdom.
The other term that is important to define is Selah. This word occurs at many points in the psalms and is written in the margin of many versions of the Bible today. Selah indicates a point in the psalm where there was to be an interlude, either for music or silent meditation. We would probably do well to use these indicators as an invitation to silent meditation when we read the psalms today. It is good to pause in our reading and to really think deeply about the meaning of the words and the application for our lives today.