“You don’t want penance; if you did, how gladly I would do it! You aren’t interested in offerings burned before you on the altar. It is a broken spirit you want—remorse and penitence. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not ignore.” (Psalm 51:16-17 LB)
To the biblical student, this portion of David’s penitential prayer might seem out of order. The Mosaic Law prescribed in great detail what was required of a sinner desiring forgiveness. He was to bring the designated animal to the Temple altar where it was to be sacrificed as an atonement for his sins. It is not for man to decide how he will approach the Almighty in his search for pardon. Yet how many in our current church culture contrive their own path to forgiveness. Such people have an entitlement attitude toward God; that He somehow owes them forgiveness.
The purpose of the great sacrificial system inaugurated by Moses was to impress upon the sinner the gravity of his transgressions. He was required to slit the throat of that spotless lamb so that he could sense the weight of his iniquity. It was meant to leave the man with an impression that he would not soon forget.
Yet, there is nothing in David’s prayer that gives the slightest sense that he was attempting to avoid the consequences of his crimes or attempting to approach God on his own terms. In fact, one gets the sense that he would have gladly offered 1,000 sheep or bullocks on that altar if he felt it would appease the God he had offended.
But David was not satisfied with performing an outward ritual. He probably had seen insincere sacrifices made at that altar many times. As one minister wrote, “A man may offer bodily sacrifice, and perform outward duties to God, and yet stand aloof from Him, and have his heart still reserved to himself.” Another wrote, “The bullocks that are to be sacrificed now are our hearts; it were easier for me to give him bullocks for sacrifice, than to give him my heart.”
In our day and age, we don’t make sacrifices; we have developed a prescribed prayer formula that has taken the place of the old sacrificial system. One can only imagine the countless times the Lord has been forced to endure prayers of repentance from insincere people.
David was getting at the heart of the issue of atonement. He knew that the sacrificial system was meant to bring a person into a deeper sense of guilt and shame over his sin. The Lord was not looking for the outward forms of penitence but the true contrition of heart that is always evident in sincere repentance.
Such signs of brokenness God would never “ignore,” or, as other translations say, “despise.” But what is thoroughly appreciated by God is disdained by man. Humble people have always been held in contempt by the proud—whether they are brazen sinners or professing believers.
A hard heart is a heart of stone. It lacks the suppleness of the one who is in a place of brokenness. Such people might keep the outward semblances of religion, but God sees their callousness, stubbornness and pride.
And how about you? Have you ever entertained an entitlement attitude in your heart regarding past or present sins? Or have you truly experienced the kind of godly sorrow over sins that have broken your heart?