“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 51:16-17
We see in the Bible, that David committed very serious and horrific sins. He slept with another man’s wife, and when she became pregnant, he tried to cover it up by having her husband come back from war to sleep with her. Yet the man would not do that because of his allegiance to his king and to fighting his enemies; so David devises a plan for the husband to be killed by his enemies. After the man dies, David takes this woman as his wife, as if nothing really happened. But God, through his prophet, confronts David for his sin. David ultimately pays the consequence for his sin, and repents in total brokenness before God. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of repentance before God.
What makes this psalm so interesting is that David says “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering”. What are you talking about David? Aren’t there various sacrifices that you need to perform for God to forgive you? Is that not what the book of Leviticus, with all its burnt offerings is for? Why are you saying that God will not take any burnt offering for this sin?
Burnt offerings and sin offerings in Leviticus were never intended to clean a Jew for intentional sin; they were mainly performed for unintentional sins and for uncleanliness. The offerings were mainly for ritual purity, so that the people of God would come to the temple to worship God, but it does not refer to forgiveness of all your sins toward God. You could be ritually clean but yet guilty before God in your inner heart. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). So if the offerings for sins did not take away sin, how did people in the Old Testament become clean and forgiven before God?
Well, David answers this question by saying “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God you will not despise”. This means that even in the Old Testament, people were clean and forgiven only by coming to God with a broken and repentant spirit before God, looking to God’s mercy to forgive their sins. The sin was first and foremost before God, and God is the one you need to fall before to have forgiveness. The Psalms are filled with references to God’s mercy and us coming to God in complete brokenness before Him. Forgiveness is not possible through us doing something to please God, forgiveness of our sins is only possible because of God’s great mercy to forgive. Because of God’s unfathomable mercy he sent his Son who was the “ultimate sacrifice”; he took our sins upon himself and paid the penalty for our sins so that we might be forgiven.
David was looking to God in his brokenness and with a contrite heart- to the God who would save his people by sending his Son. For God promised from Adam to the last Old Testament prophet that a Messiah will come. When we commit sin, we need to come to God with a broken spirit, in full reliance on God’s great mercy and grace. For in Christ “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). We can never rely on our performances and our “holy living” to be our forgiveness for our sins. We are sinners and commit sins daily, yet we have hope and forgiveness because of Christ, because of His mercy before God. We have assurance not in our own abilities but on the God who forgives through His Son.