But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
1 Samuel 15:22 (NIV)
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:16-17 (NRSV)
In order to do this, we need to look again at God’s expectations of His people and how those expectations are related to Israel’s sacrificial system. In the process, I think that we will discover that God did not work the way that many people in Israel thought He did. I think that we will also discover that God does not work the way that many of us might wish He did.
Obedience: God’s Standard
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a theologian—to figure out that God expects His people to obey Him. The idea is all over the Old Testament, and it can also be found in the New Testament. God gives commands, and He expects His people (and especially their leaders) to obey those commands. It is part of their covenant obligation to God.
Of course, it is a whole lot easier for us to see this than it was for the people that we read about in Scripture. Sure, they had the Law and the prophets to instruct them, but they also lived in a world that ran on the idea of appeasing the gods. People had real-world issues that they needed divine help in sorting out. The only way that they knew to get that help was to do something (like offer an acceptable sacrifice) that would make the gods happy. With three thousand years of hindsight, we recognize that God does not work that way.
Sacrifice: A Mechanism for Appeasement?
Ritual sacrifice is all over the place in the Old Testament. It was woven into the very fabric of Israel’s life and worship by God himself. That is what makes the texts we are touching on today so remarkable, and in order to understand them, we are going to have to talk a little bit about how Old Testament people used sacrifice in their worship.
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Israel’s sacred texts will know that sacrifice was a means for dealing with transgressions of divine law (particularly those that are committed as a result of ignorance or weakness). But sacrifice had another really important function. It expressed Israel’s thanksgiving for God’s benefaction. It was a way for individuals and communities to acknowledge their dependence on God and to celebrate all the good that they had received from God’s hand.
This all sounds great, but humans have a remarkable knack for corrupting the systems and practices that God implements. Sacrifice cannot have its intended effect if people bring their misconceptions about God into the process. That is precisely what happens in 1 Samuel 15. It is uncertain which purpose King Saul had in mind for the sacrifices that he hastily mentioned when confronted by Samuel. My guess is that he thought of it as a sacrifice of thanksgiving rather than a sin offering, but, regardless, he seems to have had in mind something that will appease God. This response was wholly inadequate, as Samuel’s words make abundantly clear.
The problem with Saul’s analysis of the situation was two-fold. First, God did not institute the sacrificial system for His own benefit (Psalm 50:7-13). He instituted it for the benefit of His people. It was a way for them to act out their repentance and to imbue their expressions of thanksgiving with meaning.
Second, God will not permit sacrifice to become a “get out of jail free” card for those who know what to do and simply choose not to do it. Such people make their disdain for God obvious by their actions. They hope to saddle God with all of the obligations that are inherent in God’s covenant with Israel while simultaneously associating themselves with people and activities that are forbidden by that covenant (Psalm 50:16-21).
What God Really Wants
As we have already noted, God cannot be manipulated in the way that Saul apparently intended. God does not need anything that humans can provide, and even if He did, He would not tell humans about His need and thereby become beholden to them. Simply put, God cannot be bribed. The terms of the contract that God offered to His people are clearly stated, and God will not alter them in exchange for anything.
This reality should fill all of us who want to be saved with a certain amount of trepidation. After all, when we look at Saul, most of us see something of ourselves. I don’t think that the Old Testament presents God’s demands for obedience (or even God’s demands for justice, faithfulness/mercy, and relationship) as something that is impossible for us to do, but Romans 3 has certainly left many modern Christians with the impression that a life of faithful obedience is beyond their reach. This impression is reinforced by the moral frustration that seems to characterize the experience of God-fearing people everywhere.
Obviously, the New Testament has much to say about the angst that we rightly feel when we fail to obey God’s clear commands, but so does the Old Testament. Psalm 51:17 (quoted above) is one powerful example. The superscription of the psalm places it in the context of David’s sin with (and against) Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (a complex of iniquity that one would think is far worse than what Saul did in 1 Samuel 15). And, yet, David is forgiven (2 Samuel 11-12)—although he still must endure certain consequences for his actions (specifically, the death of his first child with Bathsheba and the near-destruction of his family).
Why is David able to survive this tragic incident in his life? The psalmist (David himself or a later interpreter of his experiences) is clear. David didn’t make any excuses for his sin. He didn’t try to blame anyone else (like Bathsheba, for example). He didn’t try to bribe God with frivolous sacrifices.
Instead, he admitted his transgressions. He catalogued—in painful detail—the depth of his wrongdoing, and he threw himself upon God’s mercy. In other words, David didn’t avoid the reality of what he had done. He allowed the reality of his sin to break him. He experienced genuine remorse—the kind of remorse that changes the way a person thinks and acts.
Appeasement vs. Brokenness
Are we tempted to try and bribe God? I think that we are. We may not be slaughtering bulls in our back yard or throwing the blood of goats around our churches, but we hope to be recognized all the same for the things that we do in God’s name. The truth is that, sometimes, we apply the old saying “It is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission” to our relationship with God. There is a sin we want to commit, and we know God won’t approve. So we contrive to soften the blow off our disobedience by throwing ourselves whole-hog into some activity that we think God will appreciate.
All the while, what God really wants is “a broken and contrite heart.” I have always been struck by the haunting beauty and raw emotion of Third Day’s song “I Don’t Know.” Some people may quibble with applying its words to our relationship with God. After all, they might claim, the song expresses real doubts that the wronged party can or will offer forgiveness. In my experience, however, such doubts are part of the process of experiencing genuine brokenness. Too often, we shield ourselves from the mental anguish that our sin rightly produces. This is unfortunate, for it is precisely that mental anguish that is the doorway to all we most desperately need—both from God and from one another.
So, I leave you today with the first verse and chorus of this disquieting ballad. As you reflect upon these words and especially on the Scriptures we have discussed today, I hope that you will come to see the bankruptcy of appeasement and embrace the power of brokenness. And I hope that you will think long and hard about the role that brokenness ought to play in our presentation of the gospel.
Cannot find the words to say I’m sorry
Don’t know how to show you I was wrong
Wasted all that you had given to me
Now I’m left with nothing and no one
And I find it’s my fault
I’m the only one to blame
For the tears and the pain
I don’t know what I can say
Or would it matter anyway
‘Cause I don’t know how you could still forgive me
For all that I have put you through
Is there anything that I can do
I would give my life to find your mercy