The Penitential Psalm, 7

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The Controversy 

It’s hard to believe, but theologians and Bible scholars, people who will argue and squabble over just about anything they read between its covers, have found something controversial in Psalm 51.  While it’s controversial to them; it may not be to you.

The controversial “something” in this penitential psalm involves verses 16—19.

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; you do not delight in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.  Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem.  Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.  (Psalm 51:16—19  NKJV)

Some scholars, and some Bible readers, wonder what these verses have to do with the rest of the psalm.  Without taking sides, they may have a point.  These verses seem a little jarring; almost out of place in the flow of David’s psalm.  He had been confessing his sin and unworthiness and had pleaded with God to forgive him and recreate him from the inside out so that from this moment onward, he might have the strength to live a life of obedience.  All of a sudden, the reader runs smack dab into the brick and mortar of the walls of Jerusalem.  We have to ask ourselves what does the forgiving and forgetting of sin and the sanctification of the soul have to do with the walls of Jerusalem?  Verse 18, especially, just doesn’t seem to belong.

This is what drives the Biblical eggheads crazy!  And they’ve tried to come up ways to explain these troublesome verses.   Here are four of the more popular views of Psalm 51:16—19:

  • They are actually an entire psalm on their own; they are not part of Psalm 51.
  • They were not written by David but were written by a scribe much later and merely tacked on to the end of Psalm 51.
  • They were written by Hezekiah, who added them to tail end of David’s psalm.
  • A stand-alone psalm, written after the Babylonian captivity when the Jews returned home and faced the daunting task of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem.

Does any of that make sense to you?  Or do you think it’s likely these verses are exactly what they purport to be:  David’s words, written as part of his penitential psalm?  This is the position we take, and what follows is why.

David’s sin 

Part of understanding why David wrote what he wrote in verses 16 and 17 lies in understanding the Mosaic Law which made absolutely no provision for a sin so heinous as David’s.  The fact is, David was in real big trouble.  Murder and adultery, the sins he was guilty of, were both punishable by death.  There were no sacrifices appointed for such sins; the guilty party could do nothing to atone for those sins.  Read again those verses with that in mind:

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.  (Psalm 51:16, 17  NKJV) 

David did not offer a sacrifice because he could not.  His only possibility for forgiveness was to appeal to God’s mercy—that’s the “broken and contrite heart.”  David, to his credit, understood that.  He knew that was his only hope and he knew his God well enough to know that’s what God wanted of him:  “You will not despise.”  Yes, David knew God well and he knew what he had to do.  The mighty King David, the man who had accomplished so much in the name of God, had no other choice to offer his “broken and contrite heart.”  Notice he did not beg to be let off the hook.  He just wanted to be forgiven.

But this is much more than just being sorry for what you did, although that’s certainly part of it.  David, as a sinner with his hand caught in the cookie jar so to speak, had no place to hide and no lie to tell.  His guilt was apparent to God.  What could he do?  Legally he was a dead man.  This was by design of God, by the way.  Originally, before the Flood, the taking of life was God’s prerogative alone—

The Lord replied, “They won’t kill you, for I will give seven times your punishment to anyone who does.” Then the Lord put an identifying mark on Cain as a warning not to kill him.  (Genesis 4:15  TLB) 

But after the Flood, God gave that responsibility over to man—

And murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals must die, and any man who murders shall be killed; for to kill a man is to kill one made like God.  (Genesis 9:5, 6  TLB)

There were no exceptions in the case of murder. Not even for David.

The interesting aspect of verse 17 is that David knows—he knows—God will forgive him because he knows God will accept his broken and contrite heart as the appropriate offering.  This should be cause for joy.  Yet “joy” is not seen this verse.  A “contrite heart” is not a “joyful” heart.  Forgiveness does not wipe away sorrow and contrition of sin.  David knew this; he knew he would always live with the awful memory of what he had done.  As Stewart noted:

the deeper the sense of sin, the truer the sorrow for it, the more heartfelt also will be the thankfulness for pardon and reconciliation. 

Just so.  Stewart’s sentence explains brilliantly what’s wrong with the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  We don’t have a deep sense of sin, which is why we easily legalize it, justify it, and explain it away.  Even when we acknowledge our sins we don’t feel the depth of sorrow we ought because we don’t treat our sins nearly seriously enough.  And because of that, our thankfulness to God is thin and anemic. 

The importance of repentance

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise.  

Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.  (Psalm 51:17, 19  NKJV)

Repentance is more than doing penance.  The words of Anglican minister Augustus Toplady ring in our ears on this subject—

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling. 

David well knew what real repentance consisted of; he was nothing if not perceptive.  All the repentance and penitence in the world cannot save a single soul until that repentant and penitent soul appropriates the benefits of Christ’s Cross.   Not a single sinner, not even the king, brings anything of value to the Cross, except for his broken and contrite heart.

The king was spot on when he wrote that God isn’t interested in sacrifices and burnt offerings for their own sake.  Those symbolic expressions had meaning only if there was substance behind them.  It’s no different today.  You can feel sorry for sin and shed gallons of tears, but there has to be more than that.  This is the great danger in “emotional” pleas from the pulpit, by the way.  And it’s the great danger in many of our “sacerdotal” churches.  Symbols are fine as long participants know what they are all about, but often the substance behind the symbol gets lost over time.  Lip service can never replace a broken and contrite heart.  Singing songs about repenting of sin and clinging to the old rugged cross are really lies if you haven’t experienced those things personally.

In those two verses, the most important word is the little adverb, “then.”  God accepts your acts of worship, indeed He accepts YOU only after you have given evidence of a broken and contrite heart.

The state of the nation

What do you think the bulwark of any nation is?  It’s military might or superiority?  It’s economic engine?  It’s political structure?  The creativity of its people?  According to the Bible, it’s GODLY men and women.

Godliness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.  (Proverbs 14:34 TLB)

David’s sin had exposed his nation to real, substantive danger.  This was one reason why he was so desperate to be forgiven.  He no doubt remembered the story of Achan and of “sin in the camp.”  This is why in this great psalm of penitence, David also prayed for the protection of Jerusalem.  He understood that his actions placed the whole nation in jeopardy.  As one scholar put it:

His sin had, as it were, broken down the walls of Jerusalem.  Grace alone could rebuild.

John Donne knew this to be true:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main. 

When we sin, we affect the lives of many others whether we know it or they know it.  Our sin is like a plague that reaches out and touches other people.  The strength of any nation rests, for weal or for woe, in the strength of the Church of Jesus Christ.  If the Church is strong, the nation will be.  David knew this to be true, and he prayed as though the future of Israel depended on the answer to his prayer.  It did.

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