From Maurice Harton
David knew two things.

David had done something horrible for which there was no forgiveness under the Law of Moses. He had committed adultery and then murder to cover it up. For the Israelites, your unintentional sins could be covered over (but not erased or removed) once a year. But if you committed sin “with a high hand” (i.e. intentionally)? There was no solution. That sin couldn’t ever be covered up even on that one day a year event, let alone be obliterated and erased forever.

Finally confronted by the prophet Nathan (see 2 Samuel 12 for the story), David finally realized the horror of his sin and entered into godly sorrow. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love [hesed – loyal love]; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:1) In other words, David, as a man after God’s own heart, knew God so well that even though there was no promise of forgiveness or even mere covering for his sin under the law, that God’s character was so loving and merciful that He would not merely cover David’s sin but remove it, blotting it out forever. David’s sin would be thrown away to the far end of the world, buried under the sea, erased from existence, and forgotten.

So when David penned verse 17 later in that same psalm, he knew that he was forgiven; even in his dim understanding, he looked ahead to the cross.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit
a broke and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51:17)

And he knew a second thing. He knew that sacrifices were a big deal. They were such a big deal that entire vast sections of the Torah were dedicated to explaining every particular of every sacrifice. When we think of the books of Moses, we often think about events like the Creation, the Fall, and the Exodus, but far more of it is about how to cut up a dove or how to pick the right sheep for the right situation in order to please God. What is more, there was an entire fancy structure just for housing these sacrifices — the tabernacle and then the temple David so desperately wanted to build.

But as David lay awash in the mercies of God beyond the entire sacrificial system, he realized something that most people never realized: the first thing is more valuable than the second thing. The second thing was the lifeblood of his culture and his people’s contract with their God; for the priests, it was their everyday life. But it was the first thing that really mattered to God.

What is our equivalent of “sacrifices?” In other words, what are the obligations you think you have as a Christian in order to “please” God? Going to church, doing personal devotions, engaging in ministry? Rejecting peer pressure, witnessing, being different? All of these are good things, but if you do them for religion’s sake and not as the natural overflow of a broken, humble heart seeking His love and grace, then God may actually despise them. He hates it, just like He hated the pretentious religion of the Pharisees.

Now, if you don’t feel “broken and humble,” am I telling you not to go to church or to pray or read your Bible? Not at all. “Religious” activities are meant to bring us into the presence of God (as the prophet Nathan did for David), thus bringing us to our knees and leading us into a broken spirit and a broke and contrite heart. But these religious activities themselves aren’t what pleases God, so that can’t be our goal.

1. Why might God despise a religious sacrifice, but not a broken spirit

2. Think of a time in your life when you had a “broken spirit” and a “broke and contrite heart” over sin. What was that like? How did God respond to you?