“For you will not delight in sacrifice”

goldingay_psalmsIn 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.[1]

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?

1. John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1 (Louisville: WJK, 2013), 163-4.

10 thoughts on ““For you will not delight in sacrifice””

  1. I’m not totally sure about this. I do recognize a difference between “high-handed” sin and other sins, but I’m not sure the sacrificial system was only intended for sins done “in innocence.” To illustrate, a person can be overcome with lust and “intentionally” commit adultery, without at all intending to “shake his fist” at God. (See David.) And I am not positive that all sin can be forgiven even now. “There is a sin unto death–I do not say you should pray for that.” “Speaking a word against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but speaking a word against the Holy Spirit [whatever that is] can never be forgiven, whether in this life or in the life to come.” I think the blood of sheep and goats was insufficient to cover for ANY sins, intentional or otherwise. They could only “picture” that PERFECT lamb of God, Christ Jesus, who can cover all sin (except those mentioned). So I don’t think this is simply a matter of “falling on Christ’s mercy.” We’ve always had to do that, Old or New Testament. But there always had to be a sacrifice to make that forgiveness for sin possible, whether “looking forward” through animal sacrifices or “looking back” to Christ’s sacrifice.

    1. I hear you, but go back and look at Numbers: there are sacrifices for unintentional sins and uncleanness. Where are the sacrifices for non-“innocent” sins?

      I agree that sacrifices look forward to Christ and were always insufficient, but the Old Testament, I believe, says as much. The need for a genuine Savior was always there. I think that message has gotten lost.

    2. As for the unpardonable sin, I come down on the side of most evangelicals and believe that it’s the ultimate sin of rejecting God’s provision of a Savior in Jesus.

      1. I agree that is the prevailing view and may well be correct; however, if so, it hardly seems worth speaking of–the New Testament shows naming the name of Christ is necessary for salvation in a number of places. Nonetheless, I don’t have any “substitute” take on that reference.

      2. Good point, although it could be Jesus’ way of saying that the cross is so incredibly powerful that it can atone for every sin except the sin of rejecting Christ.

  2. I thought that the underlying point, per the Apostle Paul, is that neither the LAW nor the sacrifice of bulls and goats is sufficient to save us from our sins. However, both point to the atonement that is sufficient, Jesus himself. And that atonement was given freely as a ransom for all whom the Father has given to the Son. My role is to receive this free gift in an attitude of submission, humility and thanksgiving. I did nothing to deserve it or merit it.

    1. I agree, Grant. That’s right. I guess what I was surprised by, when I was re-reading Numbers, is that the insufficiency of the sacrificial system isn’t a later development—when David wrote Psalm 51, for example, or the prophets prophesied. No, it was right there in the Law all along. There was no sacrificial provision for serious sin—even on the Day of Atonement.

  3. I see that. I guess the emphasis is on “defiant” sin. “In your face blasphemy”. That meant being driven out from the camp, or even death. But, then the next verses have someone being stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath! I never could get much useful for application today from Numbers. So burdensome…

    1. The gathering sticks incident reminds us what an amazing privilege we have to approach a holy God, in spite of our sin!

  4. This post and the worship post go hand in hand. Our confusion concerning the seriousness of sin flows from the poverty of our worship.

    When I realized that the sacrificial system made no provision for the atonement of deliberate (willful, not defiant) sin, it was like I had been run over by a train.

    Rome’s categorizing of sins (mortal and venial) contains important truths.

    Jim Lung

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