Theme: The Cure for Mere Ritual
Because God is the judge of all the earth, our proper response to him is to humble ourselves, repent of our sins, and offer ourselves to him in grateful service.
Scripture: Psalm 50:1-23
As soon as we begin to think that we are doing God a favor by our worship we dishonor God and slide into a false religion of works righteousness. This is why what is emphasized in the psalm as the right approach to God is thankfulness and honor (vv. 14, 15, 22), and not faith. Thankfulness embraces other items, but it is stressed here because it emphasizes what God has done and not what we imagine ourselves as being able to do.
The real problem with ritual is that, if forms are all there is to our religion, they give us feelings of being right with God when actually we may be guilty of the most terrible sins. This had happened to the Pharisees in the days of Jesus. They hated him and were trying to get rid of him. Eventually they murdered him. But they did so religiously, breaking the law when they had to but at the same time keeping up every possible outward appearance of piety. Since it was the time of the Passover feast, they would not defile themselves by going into Pilate’s courts. They insisted that Pilate come out to them. But they had already arrested Jesus by night, which was illegal. They had forged various and unrelated charges against him, which was illegal. They condemned him unanimously without allowing anyone to speak on his behalf, which was illegal.
Students of Jewish law say that scores of safeguards, all of which were meant to protect an innocent person, were recklessly abandoned in Jesus’ trial. But in spite of this most horrible of sins, the Pharisees nevertheless kept themselves ritually clean and certainly observed the Passover with clear (though hardened) consciences the next day. Formalism leads easily to such hardening, which is why the psalm speaks so strongly about it.
What is the cure? The psalmist seems to say that the cure is to realize afresh that God does not need anything from us. That is, the cure is a good dose of spiritual reality. It is what verses 9-13, the longest treatment of any single theme in this psalm, say: “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”
To suppose that our worship contributes anything to God or meets a need in God is the height of absurdity. We need to see that. But we also need to see the positive side, namely, that what God requires of us is a thankful heart.
Toward the end of the Old Testament, the prophets will speak out against the system of sacrifices on the ground that the only thing that actually matters in worship is a right attitude. Formalism without a right heart makes the sacrifices, which are otherwise good in themselves, detestable (cf. Is. 1:11-14; Jer. 7:21-23; Micah 6:6-8).
What is the real problem with mere ritual? What is the cure for it?
Read Jeremiah 7:21-23 and Micah 6:6-8. What do they teach us about how to rightly approach God?
Application: As you prepare for worship this coming Lord’s Day, pray for an attentive mind as well as for a sincere and undistracted heart as you come into God’s house.