O Lord, open my lips,Some background: This psalm was written by King David after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders her husband. It is an expression of his repentance before God. By the law of Moses, when someone sins, he is to slaughter an animal that is without defect, which atones for the sin and admonishes the man. The idea is that the animal, which is clean, takes on the sin of the man, who is dirty. The lamb or goat or bull is made dirty so that the man can be clean. The animal is then slaughtered to pay the penalty for the sin. This idea carries through to Jesus, who is offered as a clean sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. So if a goat takes on one sin for one person, Jesus takes on all sins for all men. Same idea.
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice,
or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God,
you will not despise.
In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
But what King David says here turns that idea on its head. Even though God specifically says that one sin can be paid for by one goat, David says that’s not what pleases God. He’s not saying that dead animals are bad, because verse 19 says that there will definitely be dead animals. He says that God does not take pleasure in that kind of sacrifice unless it comes with a heart of repentance. So what David does is he falls to his knees before God and begs for forgiveness. As king, he did not have to do this. He could have justified himself and silenced anyone who objected. He could have had a priest quietly kill a goat and wiped his conscience clean. But not only does he publicly admit that he sinned, he publicly humbles himself before his kingdom. This is tremendous humility! If it doesn’t sound tremendous, when was the last time a President responded to a mistake in the same way?
So two kinds of sacrifices are presented here; one that is pleasing to God and one that isn’t. The sacrifices of men are burnt offerings and slaughtered bulls. But the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a humble heart. So even though God instructs them to offer external sacrifices, Israel knew what He was really looking for.
An even more theatrical demonstration of this happens earlier with Abraham and Isaac. Before Israel existed as a nation, the Lord promises Abraham a son through whom all of Israel will be born. God delivers Isaac but tells him to kill him as a sacrifice. Somehow, Abraham obeys, but I’m sure that as he gathered the wood and traveled to the sacrifice place, his heart was shattered. Why would God deliver a miracle and then take it from him? How would Israel be born through Isaac if Isaac was dead? God is cruel! But of all the confusion and anger and chaos swirling around in Abraham’s head, one thing was clear and allowed him to obey: It is God who gives and God who takes away. His heart was humble and contrite before the Lord despite his circumstance, or maybe because of it. And as he reached out his hand to slay his son, God stops him. It was never about the act of sacrifice, it was about the heart behind it. God wanted to bring Abraham to a place where his heart was broken and his will was submitted. That’s the heart that pleased God and from that heart, Israel was born.
Yet by the time the New Testament is written, Israel seems to have lost sight of this. Jesus continually rebukes the leaders of Jewish society for their hypocrisy.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.The Pharisees had taken the law and run with it. They prided themselves on doing the right things and having the right words to say. They made sure that they followed the rules to the letter. They probably had a whole stable of goats to sacrifice just in case they messed up. They were by all human accounts perfect Jewish citizens. But their bones were dead men’s bones. For all they knew of the Torah, for all their prayers and offerings, for all their sacrifices, they did not know God at all. They had the stories of David and Abraham memorized, but they did not know humility and brokenness. It didn’t matter how well they obeyed the law, their hearts were stone, and by their hearts they were condemned.
So why would God even give us those laws? I think the answer lies in our weakness. Why does every country on earth have laws? Everyone knows that murder is bad, that stealing is bad, that driving too fast on the freeway is bad. So why have speed limits if everyone is going to speed anyway? Because without written rules and punishments, we can justify anything and everything. Without speed limits and speeding tickets, I’m sure I can find a reason to drive 120 on the 405. But even with laws, people speed anyway, right? Yes they do, but nothing brings about a broken spirit and a contrite heart faster than flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror. The law exists to remind us that we are sinners, and that we need forgiveness.
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.The laws that God has given us exist for our benefit, but we cannot live for them alone. God’s law exists to lead us to repentance and humility. But it is much easier to live according to a set of rules than it is to live in brokenness and humility. It is much easier to be a Pharisee than it is to be a David. I recently realized how tricky legalism can be. It snuck up on me while I was trying to do the right thing and all of a sudden I realized I had put myself on a pedestal. But like He is so good at doing, God brought me crashing down from that high place.
So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.
And that’s where God wants us. He wants us to be aware of our sin and He humbles us every time we lose sight of Him. He does this not because He is cruel, but because He loves us. He knows that in order for us to fully experience His grace, we need to be broken. And He is willing to cause us pain if it leads to a humble and contrite heart, because that heart leads us to Him. Nobody likes to be broken, but when we understand why he breaks us, we stop being afraid of it. We might even start praying for it. And from experience, that prayer rarely goes unanswered.