15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psa. 51:15-17 [17-19])
Those of us who regularly research and teach on the Bible know of the apparent tensions between the prophets and the law regarding sacrifices. The prophets, joined here by the psalmist, seem to be saying that sacrifices are not what God wants from us. Yet the Law requires sacrifices as Israel’s means of maintaining their relationship with God. Is there contradiction here? Or is it tension?
Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, make it clear that the sacrifices as offered are not what God really wants. The actual animals sacrificed, the manner and method of service is not what matters most. It is the inclination of the heart. The sacrificial system was to be, to borrow a phrase from Augustine, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Where, the prophets asked, was the inward grace?
Having grown up in a rather “low church” environment and being taught that the problem with Catholic and catholic-like liturgical traditions was that they were all rote and meaningless, such passages as Ps. 51:16 were often brought forward as evidence that God did not want us to engage in such idolatrous practices. The truth is, of course, that God asks us for both right worship and a right spirit.
We should not abandon appropriate methods and means of worship simply because in a given service we or the leaders have not taken it seriously. When any of the number of notorious church leaders are exposed as charlatans or lechers it does not negate the proper worship and devotion of those who were unfortunate enough to have them as pastors.
At the same time, we should not tolerate the stagnation of our faith or our worship. We must be in regular reflection and repentance knowing that God will restore the freshness of our faith and the joy of our salvation. When we are “broken and contrite” in our hearts and spirits we are not wounded, but being redeemed. And then, when he has rebuilt the holy city within us and within his church, he will take great pleasure in our sacrifices and so shall we.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.