Previous article in this series: October 15, 2015, p. 37.
“For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.”
Stunning words, really, when we consider them in light of who wrote them. And when.
They were written by David, the man “after God’s heart,” who knew God’s law and loved it. He was therefore well acquainted with the book of Leviticus, which, if nothing else, made it crystal clear that sacrifices and offerings were not optional. Repeatedly we read concerning the ceremonial rites, “as the Lord commanded Moses.” And not only that. God declared concerning the “offering made by fire” that it would be “a sweet savour unto the Lord” (pleasing ). In other words, the bringing of sacrifices would be to God. God would delight in them. David, we say, knew all of this.
And when was this psalm written? A millennium before Christ.
Some 3,000 years later we sing Psalm 51 in our worship services: “Not sacrifice dost Thou desire, else would I give it Thee; nor with appointed offerings wilt Thou delighted be.” That’s a versification of verse 16 of this psalm of David. And then the next stanza, of verse 17: “A broken spirit is to God a pleasing sacrifice; a broken and a contrite heart, Thou, Lord, wilt not despise.”
For us, the shadows have been dispersed. The treasures of heavenly wisdom, in the coming of Christ, have been laid open before our eyes. No longer does a thought of bringing to God a lamb, with its throat slit, even cross our minds. Nor should it. But the words of David that we sing from our Psalter #143, still ring true. No burnt offering? To be sure. In fact, nothing. That, says Calvin, is what we see in: “absolute destitution of merit.” And, in verse 17, “humiliation and contrition of spirit, in opposition to everything like an attempt to render compensation to God.” The hymn writer had it right: “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” There is only one way to come to God, and that is with an outstretched…empty hand.
We do well, of course, to read the psalms that way—applied to us—for, though many of them were penned 3,000 years ago, they were intended by the Author to be also…for you…and for me.
But, at the same time, we ought not overlook the fact that the psalmist, David in this case, was writing first of all for a contemporary audience. With intention, even, that the psalm be sung by a contemporary gathering of God’s people in public worship. Can you imagine the Israelites singing “Not sacrifice dost Thou desire, else would I give it Thee”? Or: “Nor with appointed offerings wilt Thou delighted be”? Knowing well that they were under the law? That God meant what He said when He commanded sacrifice? And that He promised to find delight in their burnt offerings?
David wrote also Psalm 40. “Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required” (v. 6). Again, how could David even think such things—in light of Leviticus? In light of Moses? In light of the fact that sacrifices were instituted by God?
Or might it perhaps be the case that David’s words are not at all to be understood to refer to the sacrifices themselves but only to the defiling of them by sinful men? Think: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats…. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them” (vv. 11-14—emphasis added). Or the word of the Lord to the Israelites of the northern kingdom through the prophet Amos: “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I will not smell in your solemn assemblies. Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts” ( ).
“I am full of….” “I delight not….” “…it is iniquity.” “…my soul hateth.” “…a trouble unto me.” “I am weary to bear them.” Hardly could the Lord’s detestation of the Jews’ bringing of sacrifices, of offerings, of oblations in the day of Isaiah the prophet have been expressed more vividly. “Sweet-smelling savour”? No. They are “an abomination unto me” (v. 13). Odious!
Not, however, the sacrifices, the offerings, the oblations as such—that is, as they were instituted by God. Isaiah does not say, “Bring no more oblations.” He says, “Bring no more vain oblations” (v. 13). That is, empty. Form, but no substance. Robbing Christ of His honor.
Which is what David could not have had in mind in Psalm 51:16. Never would he have said, “Thou desirest not hypocritical sacrifice, else would I give it.” David, clearly, was not speaking of sacrifices as corrupted by men, but of sacrifices as instituted by God. In the sacrifices of God’s own institution, David dares to say, He has no delight. That’s what makes this verse so stunning.
And interesting, for our purposes in this series. Especially as it is considered in contrast to Isaiah’s denunciation of vain oblations. In the one instance, a reaching for Christ. And in the other, a robbing Him of His honor.
So…let’s examine them a little more closely.
Think again of our singing of Psalter #143: “Not sacrifice dost Thou desire…. A broken spirit is to God a pleasing sacrifice.” Sung with understanding by us in the twenty-first century AD, this is, as I said, an acknowledgment that we come in worship before the face of God…empty-handed. When the saints of God in the old dispensation sang with understanding this same psalm from the pen of King David, what, do you suppose, did it mean to them?
It meant… exactly the same thing.
They knew it.
And, not only that, they were expected to know it.
True, David, by the inspiration of the Spirit, was giving expression to the truth of the matter in a way that would make the contemporary readers and singers sit up and take notice. But he did not have to exegete the text for them. They understood what he meant—without explanation. Why? Because the “sacrifices” and “burnt offerings” of which David spoke in Psalm 51:16 had vicarious, substitutionary atonement writ large all over them.
Did the saints of old see in the sacrificial animal a prefiguration of Christ as the suffering Servant of Jehovah? As we explained in previous articles in this series, the answer to that question is very likely no. Just how far the prophets were able to penetrate into the mysteries of God, Rev. G. Ophoff acknowledged, is a “matter of conjecture.” But, he went on to say, “the blunders of the disciples” do not favor the view that they made a clear connection between the sacrificial victim and the Christ. A fair question, then, as it seems to me, would be, what are the implications of this ignorance, if any, for David’s conviction, as expressed implicitly in Psalm 51:16, that he can come to God only with an outstretched, empty hand? And what about the “vicarious, substitutionary atonement writ large” over the burnt offerings? That ‘writing’ looks large to us. But could it be ‘read’ by believers in David’s day? Or was that simply part of the “mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints”? ().
The answer, I think, must be that, yes, the saints of old could, and did, ‘read’ it. And that their inability to ‘connect the dots,’ as far as the typology is concerned, does not for a minute mean that they could not grasp the symbolism. They did.
Key word here, of course, is “symbolism.” Heretofore in this series we have said very little about that, focusing rather on the typology of the old dispensation. For a better understanding of the words of David in Psalm 51:16, we would do well to consider also that other purpose of the shadows in their day.
Ophoff identifies two: “The typical institutions and transactions,” he writes, “served a twofold purpose. They prefigured future realities and objects of a higher province [the typology]; and they exhibited to the believer of the old dispensation the spiritual realities of the covenant of grace and demonstrated to him the great principles of sin and redemption [the symbolism].” Actually, Ophoff later on in his writing identifies still another purpose of the shadows, this one reaching beyond the ‘day’ of shadows. “Finally,” he says, “the shadows of the Old Testament were made to appear for the benefit of the believers of the new covenant as well. To them also they are vehicles of much valuable instruction.” Anyone who takes it upon himself to study typology will testify to the truth of that. I’d like to return to that later, but, first, symbolism—next time.