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Previous article in this series: December 1, 2015, p. 106.

“Why tarriest thou,” said Ananias to a Jew newly converted to Christianity, “arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). That was Saul of Tarsus. Having been taught “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), he was well versed in the Pharisaistic system of legal righteousness. And he had rejected Christianity. With a vengeance. Before being able fully to comprehend a righteousness that is by faith, therefore, Saul, in a very real sense, had to unlearn the whole of his dogmatics. It was to this man that Ananias was able to say, “…be baptized, and wash away thy sins”—and not have to clarify that by adding, “but please understand that we are talking here about a sign. The remission of sins cannot be effected by a washing with mere water.” Saul would simply have taken that for granted. And we, in turn, take for granted, do we not, that Saul would have done so—in spite of the fact that he had, still, much to learn about the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus.

We are ready to take that for granted, I think, because it is the language of the new dispensation. Post-Pentecost. But what about the old dispensation? Leviticus 17:11 is telling. Moses could say to the people of Israel concerning the sacrificial victim of the burnt offering that “it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul”—and he did not have to add, “but please bear in mind that we are talking symbolism here. You must understand that sheep’s blood can neither cover sin nor cleanse the conscience. What God is saying is that He accepts this offering from your hand as symbolical atonement for your souls.” The saints of God, from the very beginning, understood that to be the case—even though they had, still, much to learn about the cleansing power of the blood of the promised Messiah.

Which explains why David’s contemporaries would not be bewildered by the prayer to God that he penned for their benefit in Psalm 51:16. “Thou desirest not sacrifice, else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.” Those who read, and sang, the words of this psalm understood full well that the psalmist, their king, would not for a minute condone neglect of the ceremonies of the law. God had prescribed them. He would in fact delight in them. And His saints would, through them, be blessed with the assurance that their transgressions were forgiven and their sins were covered (Ps. 32:1). But they knew this too, that it was not the blood of beasts that cleansed their souls. Nor was it the smell of a burning carcass, as such, that was a “sweet savor unto the Lord” (Lev. 3:5). Every slaying of an innocent animal on behalf of sinner-saints impressed anew on their minds these truths, not only that the justice of God requires that satisfaction be made for sins committed against Him, but also this, that, though they deserved death for their sins, God in His mercy had provided a way of escape. And it was not the blood of an animal. In fact, their experience was that, as we have observed before, God refused to grant relief to their troubled consciences, in their bringing of sacrifices to His altar, till they looked away from the slaughtered animal and cast themselves on His mercy. The blood of a sheep? Symbolical atonement for their souls. This they knew. And this they would immediately ‘read into’ the words of the psalmist in Psalm 51:16.

Mere recognition of the symbolism involved is, however, not the last word on the insights of David expressed in this part of his prayer recorded in Psalm 51. Perhaps it would help for us to be reminded of the occasion for the psalm. The title, or inscription, reads “A psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” That sin had lived in David’s soul for nearly a year. He repressed it, surely, and no doubt also tried to rationalize it away. It was, after all, the sword of the Ammonites that had slain Uriah. Not David’s. And once Bathsheba had become a widow, she was certainly available for an honorable marriage to the king. Nothing wrong with that. No reason to interrupt any of the exercises of his religion. Frequenting the house of God? Surely. Sacrifices? Business as usual. But the blood of bulls and goats… did nothing to quiet his guilty conscience. “When I kept silence,” he confessed in Psalm 32, “my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy on me” (vv. 3-4).

Then, at last, came Nathan the prophet. And the words “Thou art the man” found their mark.

Did David resort soon thereafter to the house of God, with sacrifice in hand? Almost certainly, yes. But never before, we think, had David ever gone to God with a more profound consciousness of the utter impotence of the blood of bulls and goats. Never before had David been so emptied of self-confidence and so painfully aware of the stark reality of his having to come to God… empty-handed. Will there be reconciliation between God and this wretched sinner, it will have to be entirely gratuitous. The purchase price of redemption will have to be paid, entirely, by Another. (Which is, of course, exactly the symbolism of the burnt offering.)

You can hear it in the penitential Psalm 51. “For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in thy sight.” “Behold,” he says in recognition of the depravity of his nature, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” And then: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation.”

No wonder, then, in that context, that David would say, “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it.” No cleansing power in that blood.

Hardly, however, was David of a mind to dispense with sacrificing. “Because they were still under the yoke of the schoolmaster,” writes Calvin in another place in his commentaries, “David could not perform the worship of God completely except when it was (so to speak) clothed in this form.” “We must come to the kingdom of Christ,” Calvin adds, significantly, “for it to be completely true that God does not wish sacrifice.”

And David, I think it is fair to say, understood that. Although the devout in Israel did not, in the sacrifice, perceive the suffering and death of the promised Messiah (the Antitype), there was not a disconnect, in their minds, between the rite of sacrifice and the Christ. How the very Son of God could actually be the “Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), by way of incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, belonged, as we have seen, to the mystery that “was kept secret since the world began” (Rom. 16:25). But the saints of old believed, with the confidence of faith, that the ceremonies of the old covenant foreshadowed, somehow, His saving work.

It is in light of that, that we can see in Psalm 51 an unmistakable reaching of David for Christ. Almost, we might say, desperately so. What he had learned from the devastatingly bitter evidence of his own depravity was surely this, that if there were no Savior, there was no hope for David.

David, as we have suggested, was not the first so to have grasped the symbolism in the sacrifices of the old dispensation. The saints of God did so from the beginning. That is, from Abel on. Of Abel and his offering we read only that he “brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof ” (Gen. 4:4). Nothing said, there, about the spiritual disposition that prompted him to do that, but the rest of that short verse speaks volumes about what it must have been. We read that God “had respect unto Abel and to his offering.” God’s respect for Abel’s offering had everything to do, of course, with Abel’s having followed the prescribed manner of approach to God. A bloody sacrifice. God’s respect unto Abel, on the other hand, must have concerned not the deed but the heart. Had Abel come with anything other than a deep sense of his own sin, a spirit of genuine contrition, a longing for pardon, and a firm reliance on the prescribed method of reconciliation; if he had come with something in his hand, something by which to render compensation to God, God would have found no more delight in Abel and his offering than He did in Cain and his. Hebrews 11:4 is the Spirit’s testimony to the truth of that. “By faith,” we read, “Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain.” Faith in what? It could not have been in the blood of a firstling of his flock. It was faith in God, for the provision that He would make for the salvation of this unworthy sinner. Abel understood the symbolism. Which can only mean that, like David some 3,000 years later, Abel was very really reaching for Christ.

What, then, of Psalm 51:16? In introducing our consideration of this verse in our previous article, we made of David’s prayer here something quite remarkable, even “stunning.” But if the saints of God, from Abel on, had similar sentiments, why would we be inclined to marvel at David’s insights in Psalm 51? There are, I think, a couple of reasons for doing so.

Of some importance is this, that what is implicit in Abel becomes explicit in David. From the Genesis account, confirmed by the testimony of Hebrews 11, we can infer what Abel’s spiritual disposition must have been with regard to sacrificing the firstlings of his flock. David, on the other hand, puts his thoughts in writing, and in language almost that of the New Testament. “Thou delightest not,” David says, “in burnt offering.” Says the writer to the Hebrews: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). And then, perhaps more especially, the very next verse in Psalm 51: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” In his commentary on the Psalms, Calvin tells what he sees in this verse:

He [David] had shown that sacrifices have no such efficacy in procuring the Divine favor as the Jews imagined; and now he declares that he needed to bring nothing whatever to God but a contrite and humbled heart. Nothing more is necessary, on the part of the sinner, than to prostrate himself in supplication for Divine mercy…. In order to exclude every idea of a pretended satisfaction, David represents contrition of heart as comprehending in itself the whole sum of acceptable sacrifices. And in using the term sacrifices of God, he conveys a tacit reproof to the proud hypocrite, who sets a high value upon such sacrifices as are of his own unauthorized fancy, when he imagines that by means of them he can propitiate God…. David is not speaking at this time of the meritorious condition by which pardon is procured, but, on the contrary, asserting our absolute destitution of merit by enjoining humiliation and contrition of spirit, in opposition to everything like an attempt to render a compensation to God…. The contrite heart abjures the idea of merit, and has no dealings with God upon the principle of exchange…. He [David] does not exclude faith, he does not condescend upon any nice divisions of true penitence into its several parts, but asserts in general, that the only way of obtaining the favor of God is by prostrating ourselves with a wounded heart at the feet of Divine mercy, and supplicating his grace with ingenious confessions of our own helplessness.

Did you hear, in there, the apostle Paul? “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:16). “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace” (Rom. 11:6). “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). And then Paul’s confession: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (I Tim. 1:15).

Seeing himself to be “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked,” David was reaching beyond the blood of an animal… to Christ.

In fact, can you not hear already in Psalm 51 a harbinger of the sixteenth-century Reformation principle of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone?

But…there’s more. Next time.