Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me. Psalm 50:23
The first time I read this verse, printed all by itself in my Daily Texts, I was taken aback. I have read the Bible through several times, but it is truly startling sometimes to be reminded that simply reading through the Bible does not imprint every word in my heart. I read these words as if I had never seen them before. Thanksgiving as a sacrifice. I wondered what it could mean.
When I try to teach others how to understand the Bible, I always emphasize that every verse has context, and that the context is the best place to look for guidance in understanding the verse. I read the context. Psalm 50 is not long, and this verse is the concluding verse, so it didn’t take much time to read the whole thing. Imagine my surprise when I read verse 14: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” There in the center of the psalm is this idea again, the idea of thanksgiving as a sacrifice.
I read the Psalm again. Over years of Bible study following any number of guides and methods, I have learned that the most important principle is to keep reading until the Holy Spirit teaches me something. In fact, the Holy Spirit has taught me that the way to the truth is often simply to hammer persistently at the words. Read them more than once.
I began to see a pattern to the psalm. I noticed that verse 5 included the word sacrifice, too. In this verse, God says that his faithful followers had made a covenant with him by sacrifice. In verse 8 God is complaining about Israel, however, and even though he says “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you” he then proceeds to say that he doesn’t like their sacrifices. God is angry. He says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” Of course, this statement refers to the image of a god eating the burnt offerings of worshipers, and there are many references in the Old Testament to the notion that a burnt offering created a fragrant or pleasing aroma for God to enjoy. However, in this psalm, God says he does not enjoy those offerings.
Then he explains. God is displeased, even angry to the point of retribution. By verse 22, any doubt about the level of God’s outrages is cleared up as he says, “I will tear you apart.” That statement is graphic.
After reading the psalm yet again, I realized that the problem lay in people’s notion that when they sacrificed a bull they were giving up something. They were not giving up something. All those bulls and everything else in the world already belonged to God. They were not giving up something; they didn’t own anything to give up. It was supreme ego for them to feel deprived when they sacrificed a bull or a lamb or any other offering.
The people were bringing their offerings to God because they thought it was something they were required to do. They thought God would be mad if they didn’t do what he said, and they resented every bit of it. In fact, everything in their lives testified to their complete disdain for God and for each other.
You hate discipline
You make friends with a thief
You slander your own mother’s child
You thought that I was one just like yourself
Every person who brought an offering to God was griping internally at the obligation. Every one of them fretted that he had lost something by giving up this animal, and for what? Every person who put something on the altar was inwardly consumed with anger that he had to give up something he wanted for himself. They all felt needy. They all felt like victims of religious tyranny. In this psalm, God expresses his outrage that they are all so busy worshiping themselves that they cannot worship him, and he says they can just quit bothering with it. God wants one thing from them: he wants them to stop worshiping themselves.
This is why he says he wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This is why he says that “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.” They are the people who recognize that “every wild animal of the forest is [God’s].” They are the people who know that they can’t give God anything; it all belongs to him already. They are the people who thank God for all his gifts and for his provision for their every need and for the animal that they put on the altar. The people who give thanks for the sacrificial animal also give thanks for God’s sovereignty. They don’t feel they have lost something when they give God what is his already.
Jesus talked about the same thing. Jesus, God in flesh, said that people who wanted to follow him had to deny self first. In other words, they had to stop worshiping themselves and feeling like victims every time there was some inconvenience or persecution or loss.
We all do it. It comes time to put money in the offering envelope, and it is hard to let go of that money, because the credit card bill is shockingly larger than expected this month. The church asks for volunteers to help serve food to homeless people on Saturday morning, and it seems like a great imposition on the only day you can sleep in. The youth director asks if you are willing to be a chaperone for the summer youth mission project, and you think, “But I only have two weeks of vacation a year. There goes one of them.” We all think we have rights, and we think we have ownership, and we think God asks too much.
God doesn’t ask much at all. All he really asks is integrity. Honesty. He wearies of never hearing a “Thank you” when every good gift we have in life is a gift from him.
The sacrifice of thanksgiving is not a barely audible “Thank you” choked out through clenched lips by a pouting child. We give the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pray as we are taught by Christ, the one who sacrificed himself for us on the cross, “Thy will be done.”