Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · April 2, 2011
Continuing his study of this wonderful penitent psalm, Fr. Wilbur looks at verses 13-17.
I shall teach transgressors thy ways, and the ungodly shall turn back unto thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation. My tongue shall rejoice in thy righteousness. O Lord, thou shall open my lips and my mouth shall declare thy praise. For if thou hadst desired sacrifice, I had given it. With whole-burnt offerings thou shalt not be pleased. A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit. A heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.
In this third section of David’s great penitential prayer, we come to a hidden answer to a question that is now only directly dealt with. Although David has prayed more than half of the prayer, his entire attention has concerned just God and himself. And, of course, there is much more to sin than that. Acts of sin injure two kinds of people: those who commit the sin and those who are sinned against. It is significant that today for the most part, the attention that most sin gets is the person who is the unhappy recipient of the wrong. Unless the person is a famous celebrity, the only interest in the sinner is what should be done to him.
The reality of sin is that it deeply injures relationships. Sin inflicts various kinds of loss: the loss of peace, of property or wealth, the loss of health and, in David’s case, of course, even life itself. Our society struggles with doing justice on behalf of the person who suffers the loss. Even the biblical and common-sense view that the punishment should fit the crime leaves unanswered questions.
There are many psalms which express the frustration, hurt, and outrage of people who have been sinned against, whose lives, trust, and loyalty has been violated. For all who have suffered being wronged, the Gospel of Christ gives the genuine grace to extend forgiveness with deep and satisfying realities, to fulfill this healing act of releasing others from their wrong, by finding strength and purpose and growth in God’s faithful judgment in doing right ultimately in his creation.
David, in these next words, deals with the relational or social aftermath of sin. First, he deals with the loss of his own ability to influence others for good, because of what he has done. After all, who wants to be lectured to or shown their own wrongdoing by such an openly and scandalous sinner as David the adulterer and the murderer? We can see in the history of David’s family after his sin and repentance that he still seemed to have a moral paralysis of dealing adequately with the sins of his sons. What father wants to have his son throw up the father’s sins in his face when his father is trying to correct him? David seemed tragically paralyzed with his dealings both with his sons Amnon and Absalom. We can almost feel David’s wounded conscience holding him back from taking strong and necessary measures in the correction and the restraint of his two sons.
Yet he prayed in verse 13, “I shall teach transgressors thy ways, and the ungodly shall turn back unto thee.” What can such a scandalous sinner possibly teach transgressors that wouldn’t result in their laughing in his face? Simply, and perhaps only, the very things he has been praying to God about in this prayer. David can’t possibly take the high ground of a demonstrated and acknowledged integrity in the way he has dealt with his own sin. By his unrestrained repentance, his careful rejection of any kind of self-justification, in his humble recognition that his only message is to demonstrate his thorough knowledge of his sin and his determination to find grace, to turn back to the ways of his God. Even the most cynical, over time, will usually come to recognize, respect, and learn from the truly and convincing penitent.
Cassiodorus, the 6th century Roman statesman, author, and monastic leader, wrote that the three great theologians of the people of God were David, the adulterer and murderer; Peter, the denier of his Lord; and Paul, the persecutor of God’s holy Church. All three of these great men rose to the height of spiritual power and influence by the transparency, integrity, humility, and wisdom gained from their repentance. The entire human race is struggling at some level to experience peace of some sort: peace with God, peace with themselves, and peace in their relationships.
And the Christian who has truly experienced peace through the forgiveness and cleansing of sin through the salvation of Christ has a message that will touch the lives of those who know themselves sufficiently to listen with honesty to transparent human experience in discovering wholeness and peace. Some in the mystery of human freedom will even turn from their ungodly alternatives that give no peace and turn back to the God of peace.
But there is another, more difficult, and troubling problem. Our sins hurt and damage other people. Even the best and nicest of us have left our trail of injury in the lives of others. David’s next petition touches on this in a deeply insightful, though rather hidden expression. Literally, he prays, “Deliver me from blood.” There are several possible ways to understand this. One way is to see that David is asking that he not be required to atone for his sin by the shedding of his own blood. The more likely understanding, that Orthodox translations follow, uses the old term “bloodguilt,” which itself needs explanation. The Oxford Dictionary defines it simply as “guilt resulting from murder or bloodshed.”
While such sin, thank God, does not directly apply to most of us, there is a deeper reality that our Lord spoke about in Matthew 18. And it does touch on this issue of bloodguilt. There, the Lord said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world, for temptations to sin. For it is necessary that temptations come. But woe to the one by whom the temptation comes.”
The Old Testament makes it clear that earthly human’s life is precious and that the shedding of human blood has grave consequences; even more than the life: the spiritual, the physical aspect of every person is precious to God, because each person bears the image and likeness of God. When our sin causes another to stumble, to be offended and to carry a wound in his spirit, we have done a most terrible thing. David’s extreme acts of sexual violation and murder, in a sense, serve to make us aware of every sin that is to some degree a spiritual obstacle in the life of another.
While Psalm 50 doesn’t develop this concern, it may be helpful to consider how, in a dependence on the mystery of God’s mercy, we may alleviate the blood that we have shed in the life of another. It is first important to recognize that we may have little or no credibility of the one we’ve sinned against. Any approach we make must be in complete humility and devoid of defensiveness or shifting of blame. Our only concern before this person must be our sin and the wrong we inflicted on the other person. Simply stated, our sorrow for what we have done and our hope that the person will find grace to be relieved of the aftermath of our sin is our message.
In some cases, even asking for forgiveness may be a negative and even offensive word, for it has the hidden tones of expectation and even of demand. Sadly, at times our offense may be so grave that all that we can do after confessing our sin to the person, is to quietly withdraw and pray for mercy, both for ourselves who have sinned and the other against whom we have sinned. It may be possible that restitution of some sort can be made, and if so, it is necessary. If our sin resulted in material loss or caused a burden of work that we could relieve, we should ask and seek to do so.
In this one word, “bloodguiltiness,” David recognizes the relational concern that we need to have for our sins. The result of David’s desire for ministry to transgressors and the ungodly, and his embracing the reality of wrongs needing to be made right toward those to whom he has sinned against creates a new and surprising sense of release for him. And honestly placing himself before God in these humanly impossible needs, David anticipates that his tongue will be liberated to rejoice, not in his, but in God’s righteousness. There is no glossing over the wrongs and the hurts sin causes, but it does inspire the hope that God in his great goodness, wisdom, and power will work to repair and to restore what we sinfully break.
Again, this joy is tempered with a spirit careful not to offend either God nor those sinned against and with a spirit that does not easily dismiss the pain that his sin created. At this point, David speaks to the depths of the Christian Gospel. While every human being has personal and moral responsibility, there is a line of restoration that we cannot pass. We cannot earn, we cannot merit forgiveness. We must simply come with open and empty hands, offering nothing but humility, devotion, and the recognized need for an offering greater than we can give.
We will return to this greater offering in our next time together on this prayer, but for now, let us consider one last piece of wisdom from our father David. As he speaks about just what kind of an offering God considers acceptable, notice the language David uses of the repentant heart, the heart that is his essential sacrifice. It is a heart broken and humbled.
The concern throughout the Old Testament is that outward offerings not in keeping with the outward significance of the offering is not only unacceptable to God, it is an offense to him. But David goes further. What God does seek from sinners is a broken spirit, a heart that is broken and humbled. Beyond the beauty of the words, there is this question: Why does God require brokenness? In a world where so many personal relationships end up in violence, wouldn’t it be more pleasing or appropriate to think of God as desiring a melted or a peaceful heart? Or a spirit that has settled down and changed its mind? Why brokenness? The answer may be found at the beginning of the psalm in verse four, where David confesses that ultimately his sin is a direct confrontation with God himself. The people David wronged were indeed important, but the heart of the matter was David’s action before God.
He said that he confessed his sin as being God only so that two assertions hidden in every sin might be made right. The first that David mentioned in verse four is that God justified in his words. This clearly implies that when we sin, we are essentially saying that God has not spoken the truth. We are returning to Eden and listening to the serpent’s hissing into our hearts: “You will not surely die.” Satan, the great deceiver, was calling God a liar, and Eve fell to his deception.
Our sin is an act of accusing God, that his word and his way is not good, is not the way of life, and that we know better than he what is truth. David’s second reason for his God-directed repentance is that God might prevail when he is judged. If our sin’s first digression is an act of our hearts and minds that denies God’s truthfulness, the second reason is that our sin is an aggressive act of our will that rebels against God’s authority. Simply stated, our sins are an assault against God’s truthfulness and his authority.
Such aggression against the holy one requires more than just an acknowledgment of a mistake. God has spoken with truth and with authority, and we in our sin deny that he has either. The ultimate cause of such a response to God’s word is clearly identified in Psalm 94:8. “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” In other words, if God has spoken—and he has—and if he has given us clear direction concerning his truth and his will in the matter that we are considering and are being tempted to disagree and disobey, our problem is that our hearts are hard. They have been progressively hardened with our vain thoughts that act as though we are free to disagree or disregard God’s truth for our lives, and beyond that we see ourselves as having the right to openly rebel and defy his authority.
All the while, it may be that we are acting in a proper religious manner, but our hearts, the inner organ of our spiritual perception, has become hardened through the sinful inclinations and habits that we have allowed to take root there. God is not vindictive and requiring us to break our hard hearts. He is seeking our healing and our restoration to be in union with him.
The Lord’s parable of the four soils upon which the sower casts the seed of God’s word makes it clear that hardened soil—either by allowing inappropriate traffic through our hearts or hearts that have an outer veneer of receptivity but an undercover spirit of rebellious hardness or a heart that simply remains passive to the intrusion of the world’s priorities and the world’s seductions—such a heart must be reclaimed as an open vessel, to gratefully once again receive, embrace, and keep God’s word.
Both Hosea and Jeremiah the prophets spoke to God’s people: “Break up your fallow ground.” This ground that has been left dormant and has not been receiving the seed of the word must now be changed. The hard crust of neglect, of not hearing and taking in the life-giving word must be broken. Hosea continues to explain, “For it is time to seek the Lord, that he may reign righteousness upon you.”
This is the restoration of the heart, so that God may once again plant his good and life-giving word in our hearts and that from such receptive and humble hearts there may be peace from above and the union of all men under God’s good truth and his gracious authority. As we humble ourselves before him, let us continue to pray, “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”
In our next time together, we will contemplate the sacrifice of the uplifted hands of our crucified Christ as the only hope we have for this prayer to be answered.