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.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalm 51:16-19)
We come to the end of the Psalm, and a rather surprising statement from David. For five hundred years or so the Israelites had worshipped God in the Tabernacle (the tented fore-runner of the Temple). They had followed the system of sacrifices handed down to Moses, and had formed the heart of their relationship to God. Throughout the day you would have seen a column of smoke arising from the great altar, and I am sure the smell was something hugely evocative.
Yet here, David writes: “you will not delight in sacrifice”. That’s quite bold seeing as sacrifice is precisely what God has commanded the Israelites to do! So what is going on?
As we read through the final verses of this Psalm, we see that the issue is one of the heart. Sacrifices in themselves are not what God requires. The sacrifices should be the product of a “broken and contrite heart”. They are not offerings to buy God off (as if he could be bought by a heifer or a sheep), but they are expressions of a heart which has come to acknowledge its sin and is seeking a way to be restored to God.
There remains a danger that worship can become mechanical. We say the right words, turn up at the right time and go home again. We run on auto-pilot, and the all too familiar words simply wash over us. What David recognises is that worship is essentially a matter of the heart, and it is at that level that we engage with God. If we do just that, then we offer God worship in which he delights.