In my recent re-reading of Numbers, I noticed something that I had overlooked my entire Christian life: the sacrificial system of ancient Israel never presumed to forgive all sin, only sins of ignorance and uncleanness. As Numbers 15:30 puts it, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel.” Defiant, “high-handed,” intentional, or deliberate sin (depending on your translation) isn’t covered by sacrifices, including the sacrifice of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. As the author of Hebrews writes in Hebrews 9:7: “but into the second [room, the Most Holy Place] only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.”
John Goldingay makes this clear in his commentary on Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Sacrifices can deal with small problems of uncleanness but not serious sin; and sacrifices that express praise and commitment are nonsense when your relationship with God has broken down. When your wife has caught you being unfaithful, a gift of flowers or even a new car is not going to get you anywhere. It’s the same with God. All you can do when you have committed serious sin is cast yourself on God’s grace as someone who is crushed and broken by the price you have paid for your wrongdoing—as the Jerusalem community was in the exile. Then, if God forgives you and answers the prayers that come in the psalm, and does see to the city’s rebuilding, you can recommence your regular life of worship, in which sacrifice has its proper place as an expression of praise and commitment.
Why does this matter? Two reasons: First, it makes better sense of our need for Christ. It’s not as if the old covenant was already sufficient to atone for people’s sins; it was never intended to be. Second, whereas David could only “cast himself on God’s grace,” hoping that the truth about God to which the Old Testament bears witness—that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”—would enable him to have a restored relationship, we have the objective certainty that on the cross of God’s Son Jesus, forgiveness for all sin has been made available to all. There’s no hoping, no guesswork.
Again, as Hebrews says, “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
What else can we do but praise God when we consider this?