Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will proclaim your praise.
You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.

. . .

So writes the dejected psalmist (Ps 51:15-17, CEB). As we’ve seen in previous posts, the psalm is cast as King David’s prayer of repentance after being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba. David was guilty of an unthinkable abuse of his royal power: first, in taking someone else’s wife, then in having her husband killed. He had hoped, irrationally, to keep his secret safe. But God sent Nathan to call him out, and David could hide his sin no longer.

Though David’s crimes were horrendous, his repentance was genuine and heartfelt. He was a broken man, wanting God to make him whole again. And while biblical scholars typically assume that David did not actually write the psalm himself, I believe we’d be remiss not to enter the heart of the psalm through the heart of David.

Have we ever experienced this kind of brokenness? We may feel broken for any number of reasons, and in this past year, many of those reasons were related to the global pandemic. But that is not the same as bearing a crushing burden of guilt for things we know we’ve done wrong.

Again, consider David. Nathan did not come to confront David until after Bathsheba had delivered their firstborn son. One presumes that when they were wed soon after Uriah’s death, Bathsheba was not visibly pregnant. That means that David and Bathsheba may have carried their secret for some months before the confrontation. But how secret was it? Surely some of the servants would have known. Gossip and rumor were everpresent possibilities. If you’ve ever known the burden of keeping a dirty secret hidden, you can imagine the emotional toll on David, the mounting cost of keeping up appearances.

And then David found himself unexpectedly, undeniably faced with the enormity of his sin. Nathan’s story of the rich man’s injustice to the poor man had evoked David’s spontaneous and righteous rage. With the prophet’s finger in his face, and the sudden declaration, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7), David’s rage had nowhere to go but inward, transmuted into guilt and repentance. “I have sinned against the LORD,” was all he could say in response to Nathan’s prophecy of the terrible turmoil that would befall David’s house.

I imagine he spoke those words in nothing more than a hoarse whisper.

. . .

The psalmist’s words, quoted at the beginning of this post, echo a theme found elsewhere in the Old Testament, and particularly in the prophets. It is not the sacrificial system itself that is condemned, but empty sacrifice, the rote ritual behavior of appeasement without true contrition. To paraphrase the prophet Micah, God doesn’t want even the most extravagant of sacrifices — Thousands of rams! Rivers of oil! My firstborn child! — to atone for sin. What he wants is a people of justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6:6-8). What he wants from us is a transformed heart and a righteous life.

We give a lot of energy to keeping up appearances. Our churches are stages on which we perform, playing the role of the good Christian. Oh, yes, we’re allowed to make mistakes, just not egregious ones. What would people say? And surely, we haven’t done anything close to the scale of David’s crimes. Murder? Adultery? Hardly.

But then we hear the words of Jesus. Have you been angry enough to insult someone else and call them names? Then in God’s eyes, you’re guilty of murder. Have you looked at someone else with lust? Then you’re guilty of adultery (Matt 5:21-30). That is what it means to take God’s law as seriously as Jesus himself did (Matt 5:17-20).

Yet God is a God of grace. That was revealed to us unmistakably in the person and ministry of Jesus. But it’s also there in the words of the psalm. What can a murderer or adulterer like David do to atone for his crimes? What kind of offering could he possibly bring?

Just this: a broken spirit. A crushed heart.

And where the God of grace and mercy is concerned, it is enough.