#37 of a Series on Psalm 50
“Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bullocks will be offered on your altar.”
As I mentioned above, the ending to Psalm 50 to us seems obscure, and disconnected from the intimately personal thoughts and feelings of the heart of David shared with us in the prior verses. This conclusion to the psalm speaks of sacrifices, offerings and Jewish practices unfamiliar to us, and seemingly of little consequence. It’s even attributed to a sentiment that arose after the Babylonian exile, long after the time of David. But, I’ve found this verse to be very important in my own understanding of the spiritual stewardship of life – the way of sacred offering. So let’s look at some aspects of this puzzling conclusion of the Psalm.
The Sacred Offering – Biblical Context
The language of this verse clearly reflects the Jewish understanding of how important it was for the upright believer to make a sacred offering to God. Going back to the earliest chapters of Genesis where we hear the story of the righteous, sweet-smelling offering of Abel, contrasted to the unworthy offering of grain by his brother, Cain, we see how the moral disposition of one’s soul is reflected in how one approaches God, and religious matters. The Old Covenant prescribed many different offerings at various times for all manner of spiritual and practical matters – from those that were regular in the liturgical schema of the Hebrew faith during the year (Passover lamb, the Day of Atonement) such as we find in Leviticus.[i] But there were also special personal sacrifices and offerings to be made. This included sin offerings, ‘wave’ offerings, offerings of thanksgiving, first-fruits offerings, tithes and sacrificial offerings of other sorts.
The model of sacrificial offerings prescribed for the whole of the nation also became the models for the individual’s offerings. The prescription of the ‘whole burnt offering’ is presented in the opening verses of Leviticus, where Moses and the people are to make offerings to God of the various (clean) animals which they raise – bullocks, sheep, goats, fowl, etc. The manner of their offering is a joint effort by the individual and the priests/levites – whose role is deemed essential. The whole-burnt offering is just that – wholly consumed by the fire on the altar of the temple. It must have been a messy and smelly affair!
The dedication of the animal taken from the livelihood of the person (even from the poor – the turtledoves) indicates that in seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy every one must have, as they say today colloquially, ‘skin in the game.’ Ironically, the rise of the money changers in the temple precincts was a sign that the required religious sacrifice could somehow be ‘bought’ or brought from elsewhere. But in its original form it was meant to be highly personal and participatory.
It should be noted however, that the New Testament does not interpret Old Testament directives and practices with perfect symmetry of each element, rather the New Testament authors, in the Holy Spirit, saw the broad practices of Old Testament offerings as a whole, and uitilized imagery of many of the distinct Old Testament offerings into a whole. Hence the sacrifice of Christ is seen as the Perfect offering for the sin of humankind, and the fulfillment of the biblical notion of the Paschal Offering commanded at the time of Exodus and there after. But it is also an offering of Thanksgiving (Eucharist), grain (wheat), blood (Eucharistic wine), first fruits, etc. in a spiritual synthesis of the notioin of biblical offering by us all as human offerings.
This is a fragrant biblical term which describes God’s response to the offerings made of the righteous. Here in Leviticus, as in Gen. 4 (Abel) and Gen. 8 (Noah), God is pleased with the faithfulness of his servants in their behaviors and obedience to Him. It is here, that we can catch a glimpse as to why the Psalm might be ended in this way and why it has particular implications. God is pleased with the offering of the righteous who have repented and are reconciled with Him through the offering.
But for our purposes, before we go further we must look at the sacrificial offering of Christ, first in God offering Himself to humankind through the Incarnation of the Logos, and secondly in the sacred offering of Christ on the Cross, the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the sins of the world.[ii] This was the very identity of Christ since His sacrifice, to become the sacrificial Lamb of God and Victim.[iii] St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians identifies Christ in this way, using the same terminology of Leviticus,
“Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love,just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a sweet-smelling sacrificial offering to God. (Eph. 5:2)
So in the Person of the Lamb of God, the sacrifice (in which participate) is His sacrifice on the Cross which is a communion of sacrificial Love within the Holy Trinity, on our behalf. This is the perfect sin offering – exercised not merely in juridical justice, but in divine, selfless, undeserved mercy. In further describing our place in this sacrifice, St. Paul uses similar imagery in second Corinthians:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us triumphantly as captives in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one, we are an odor of death and demise; to the other, a fragrance that brings life. (2Cor.2:16f)
Christ’s sacrifice has imparted to us the identity of acceptability to God, which is described through the fragrance of the sacrifice. It is for the Christian, newly consecrated in Baptism, filled with the Spirit in Chrismation, and offering / reconsecrating himself in participatory offering of himself in the Eucharistic sacrifice which brings continuing forgiveness of sins in Christ. As in Leviticus, we not only are receipients of the grace and forgiveness of Christ, but participants in the sacrifice, through our own death to self, and participation in the sacred offering of the Liturgy. All other forms of offering in Christian life find their meanig only in this Christian identity in Christ, in His High priesthood, but also as Lamb, as Victim. Hence St. Paul’s imagery of us as led triumphantly by God as captives, shows us that it is only in our slavery/service to Him that we are participants in salvation, but also we become the very ‘sweet aroma’. Now note here that there is no sweet aroma until there is a sacrificial fire! Hence our self-sacrifice in the fire of holy living is pleasing to the Lord.
Now We Can Make the Sacrifice?
This final verse has a curious time element to it. In making the ‘whole-burnt offering’ it is a ‘then’ moment, or now moment. This moment is dependent upon the previous verse, the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem, or in our Christian understanding, the restored human person who has been purified through confession and penance. As mentioned above, the confession, in the spirit of David, must be made prior to the ability of the people to make a worthy, sweet-smelling offering. It’s helpful here to remember the defeated spirit of the once arrogant Israelites, who were dashed and humbled by God to do decades of penance under Babylon. Repentance in humility is always the underlying spirit of the true prophets of this period – Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah (Lamentations) and later Ezra[iv] and Nehemiah leading the restoration of offerings in the Temple and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Daniel’s prayer in Chapter 9 begins this way, as he recounts the sinfulness of his people going all the way back through the history of his people, including not only his own generation, but also that of the times of Moses in the wilderness.
Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. 19 Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act (Dan. 9:16-19)
Having completed the full course of penance was not enough – it was necessary to return to the Temple, in the midst of the people, to take action by making a sacred offering for one’s sins and enter into the sweet fragrant aroma of communion with God once again.[v] There was a kind of impatience in the Hebrew prophets – knowing that fulfillment of their restoration would not be complete until the sacrifice could be offered in thanksgiving, leading to the experience again of communion and righteous living as the people of the Covenant. This made the ministry of the levitical priesthood essential, but not sufficient in itself. When the offerings were not made, or made in the wrong spirit, the tainted offering was not ‘sweet-smelling’ but self-serving. The verses from St. Paul, above, point to the reality as having been held captive by sin, Christ has saved us, and now we are His servants and in our being offer the sacrifice pleasing to the Father because it was wrought by the Son.
The ‘moment’ of penance for us happens in two distinct liturgical actions. The first is in the absolution by the priest who applies the healing remedy for sin wrought by Christ to our souls, restoring us to unity with Him. This is perhaps one reason why the penitential disciplines were often tied to the reception of the Eucharist. The second moment is the ‘hour’ of Christ of which He spoke in St. John’s Gospel (Jn.17:1), the hour of His glorification on the Cross. This the Church remembers in the Divine Liturgy, in fact, when the Divine Liturgy begins the deacon speaks to the priest the words of the Psalm 119:126, “It is time for the Lord to act.” The moment has come when all the cosmos joins a local congregation and a local priest, somewhere, to remember “all that Christ has done on our behalf” and make the wholly sanctified, acceptable offering to the Father – the Holy Eucharist. It could be said that, every time the Liturgy is celebrated, Daniel’s prayer, “Lord, hear and act” is answered.
Liturgically, this action, is always preceded by an act of repentance – a recitation of Psalm 50. May it also be preceded by the action and spirit of penance in the heart of all participating in the saving sacrifice of the Liturgy as well. Ω
[i] For a helpful analysis of the first several chapters in Leviticus, please see Dr. Bob Diffenbaugh’s treatment at: https://bible.org/seriespage/2-law-burnt-offerings-leviticus-11-17. The details of all the sacrifices is well beyond the scope of our study here.
[ii] See John 1:18ff.
[iii] Although the use of the term ‘Victim’ as referring to Christ as the sacrificial Lamb is used in ancient patristic literature, It’s interesting to me how the Latin West seemed to use this terminology and imagery more commonly than in the East. A number of the ancient prayers of consecration of the Eucharistic Gifts in the Latin tradition (called anaphoras) in the Liturgy use the term, but it is more rare in the Christian East. The Triumph of Christ is more emphasized in the East, perhaps, in seeing the Cross and Death and Resurrection as a victory, not Him as a victim. Another factor may be the canons that later forbade the use of the Lamb imagery (as above) in portraying Christ, particularly after the Christological controversies beginning in the fourth century.
[iv] Ezra is notable in that he is given an extensive genealogical study in scripture *(Ezra 7) asserting his priestly credentials, as one called by God to lead the restoration efforts. Note that he was not the high priest himself, but exercised administrative and other spiritual gifts to the glory of God as his priestly ministry. This hearkens to the priestly people of God in the New Testament how the priesthood extend beyond just the actual ‘handling’ of the sacred gifts to many other, essential elements. The New Testament would give two distinct genealogies of Jesus to assert his own spiritual patrimony as ‘Son of Abraham and Son of David’ See Mt. 1, Lk .3.
[v] When doing a recent podcast with OCLI, I was struck by the convergence of this theme, with the exhortation of Christ regarding reconciliation with those we have offended. The discussion centered around Judas returning to the Chief priests and scribes asserting he had done wrong, and feeling great sorrow. He wanted to give the money back but it was not accepted. It was a type of ‘sin offering’ of sorts. Yet, Jesus taught that before you make your offering on the altar you must first be reconciled with your brother. In the case of Judas, he would have had to make his peace with Jesus first! But he could or would not do so, and fell into despair. https://www.orthodoxservantleaders.com/doulos-podcast/your-champion-for-30-pieces-of-silver