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The Sacrifices of God

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51.14-17.

This morning I am going to conclude my five-day look at Psalm 51. (I know there are two more verses at the end but there are a kind of liturgical, congregational response to David’s very personal prayer, and it is the prayer itself that I am concerned with.)

Out of lust, David had turned his back on God and the covenant, committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, murdered. In this psalm, David, faced with the enormity of what he has done, first throws himself on God’s mercy, appealing to his steadfast love and compassion. He then confesses not only the sins he has committed but the sinful nature that, from birth, has inclined him towards sin and away from God. He prays for restoration; and then for more than just restoration — he pleads for inner renewal, to become a new creation. But now, in this morning’s section, the spectre of poor, dead Uriah … lying crushed and broken on the battlefield … rises up before him again.

“Deliver me from bloods,” is what David actually says in Hebrew, which is probably a way of describing the guilt of shedding blood or taking life. For all his confession, the death of Uriah is still weighing heavily on his conscience. Contrition cannot bring Uriah back; and David fears that, like the blood of Abel who was murdered by Cain, the voice of Uriah‘s blood is “crying to God from the ground” (Genesis 4.10). But David knows that God is the “God of my salvation” — a God who “desireth not the death of a sinner but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live” (Absolution from the Book of Common Prayer, quoting Ezekiel 33.11). In verse 4, David has acknowledged that God has every right to move against him in judgement for what he has done in sin, but now he recognises a higher “righteousness” that belongs to God. It is the righteousness that consists in his being true to his own nature as a God of gracious, merciful, undeserved, forgiving love. That is what David will “sing aloud of” as that love delivers him from his burden of guilt. David’s guilty conscience has shamed him into silence, but if God will only now open his lips, his mouth will declare his praise. He will once again worship freely and joyously.

So far, so good; but David’s next words present something of a problem. With that introductory “For”, he appears now to be explaining to God why he is approaching him directly, seeking forgiveness and deliverance simply on the basis of his grace and mercy rather than through the sacrificial system; but that does not really make sense. The sacrificial system could not have helped David anyway for the sins he had committed were sins committed “with a high hand”, that is to say, intentionally; and for intentional sin there was no sacrificial provision (Numbers 15.22-31). Under the law, murder and adultery could not be forgiven and the perpetrators had to be executed. So what David must really be saying here is that even if there were appropriate sacrifices of atonement prescribed for his sins, God wouldn’t necessarily be pleased with them, for sacrifices on their own count for nothing anyway. “The LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16.7) and if the heart is not weeping for what has been done, a dead lamb or ox is not going to help. With or without sacrifice, the thing that God will “not despise” is “a broken spirit, a broken and contrite (the Hebrew is actually “crushed”) heart.

As I reflect on what I have just written, I suddenly see in my mind’s eye the two men in Jesus’ parable: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.10-14).

O for a heart to praise my God, a heart from sin set free,
a heart that always feels Thy blood so freely shed for me.
A heart resigned, submissive, meek, my great Redeemer’ s throne;
where only Christ is heard to speak, where Jesus reigns alone:
A humble, lowly, contrite heart, believing, true, and clean;
which neither life nor death can part from Him that dwells within:
A heart in every thought renewed, and full of love divine;
perfect, and right, and pure, and good, a copy, Lord, of Thine.
Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart; come quickly from above,
write Thy new name upon my heart, Thy new, best name of love.

Charles Wesley

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