Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth · April 9, 2011
Fr. Wilbur concludes his look at Psalm 50 (51) with the last 2 verses, in particular focusing on the meaning of "then they shall offer bullocks upon your altar."
Do good, O Lord, in thy good pleasure unto Zion, and let the walls of Jerusalem be builded. Then shalt thou be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, with oblation and whole-burnt offerings. Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
These concluding words of David’s penitential prayer are often unheard in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, but they are said every time by the priest at the high point of the Liturgy. The earlier part of the psalm is prayed by the priest as he incenses the church while the choir and the people are singing the Cherubic Hymn. It is a moment of indescribable spiritual beauty and power, uniting the height of heavenly worship in the highest heaven and the lowly spirit of the repentant sinner offering the sacrifice of the broken and contrite heart.
Immediately following comes the Great Entrance of the holy mysteries. As the gifts of the bread and the wine are placed upon the altar, the priest proclaims the nature of these gifts. What is this bread and wine? Well, they are nothing less than the fulfillment of the prayer of the prophet and king, David. In the sanctuary, in the church, in the parish, in this place and in this time, God is doing good, great good to Zion. The place, the very point where the all-holy and glorious God comes to be at peace and to have communion with his redeemed people.
How can this union of peace be possible? Because the great offering has been offered: once for all, for all time, and in mystical memory is now placed on the altar as a bloodless sacrifice. David’s prayer is offered once again by the priest. When God is pleased to build up Zion, his meeting-place with his people, when he purposes to build up the walls for Jerusalem’s eternal protection, it will be because of his good pleasure in the sacrifice of righteousness with oblation and whole-burnt offerings. Then comes the climax with the priest’s censing and the words spoken three times: “Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”
The greatness of David’s true humility, the depth of his understanding of the human need that sin creates in all of us, the careful setting-forth, both of the complex chaos our sins create and the majestic kindness of God’s healing redemption, almost falls into the shadows as David’s faith rises to the heights and prays with the confidence of great faith in the sacrifice only God can provide to make the provision for all that the sinful needs of humanity represent.
It is not surprising that this vision is remembered in the priest’s tenth prayer of intercession at the beginning of the Matins or the Orthros service, when he prays, “O Lord our God, who hast set us as an example of the acknowledgment of sin and of the confession which is unto forgiveness, the repentance of the Prophet David.” David’s great vision of his sin and need finds its hope in this great vision of the magnificence of the sacrifice that God will provide. For all that David has discovered and confesses about himself, he is clear that his only hope is in the mercy and in the grace of God and what God will do to restore the shambles David has made of his life and of his kingdom.
“Do good, O Lord, in thy good pleasure unto Zion.” This is both a daring and a beautiful plea. It is at the very heart of the Gospel. When God looks upon his creation and upon his children whom he created in his image with the goal of being transfigured into his likeness, he feels good pleasure as he thinks and wills to do good.
Holy Scripture and the Church know nothing of a reluctant, resentful God who, in looking at his fallen children, wants to turn away from us in our need. Truly, we need his goodness. The Gospel is that he is filled with good pleasure at the very thought of acting for our good. This is the glorious generosity of God. A generosity so strong, so compassionate that we must grow into even beginning to imagine the depth of his love.
It is most significant that the very word that the Greek Old Testament uses for “good pleasure” is “eudokia,” and it should be no surprise that it is this same word, “eudokia,” that appears again at the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ when, this time, it is the word of angels: “Glory to God on the highest, and on earth, peace in the men, in the people who have been given the possession of this good will, of this eudokia.” This is the hope and the joy to the brokenness, shame, despair, and ruin of our sinful lives.
The God who is, who has revealed himself unto us, is the good God who loves mankind. It is a sad thing to doubt or to be unmoved by the reality that God is love. He is love eternally, in the joyful communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Out of the fullness of this love, God has poured out in his creative act a great work, a creation that is an icon of love. And he has placed in that icon of creation sons and daughters toward whom his love is unbounded and without restraint. This is the Father to whom his prodigal sons and daughters may come, for he is the Father of good pleasure. To do good for his children, welcoming children home with great joy and great celebration is what this Father delights in and is pleased to do.
God’s good pleasure, to do for his children, is poured out here with a specific purpose. There is a great focus to God’s goodness, and the focus here is Zion, which in the material creation is not a very impressive rocky promontory on the temple mount in Jerusalem, where on the altar of God, God has chosen graciously to meet and to have communion with his people. In other words, the goodness of God is centered in his act of providing a meeting-place where sinful and fallen sons and daughters of the creator-God may gather with their God in peace and love, and where they may have life-giving and transforming communion with him.
That is to say, at the end of David’s confession, he is praying that God will give his only-begotten son to be the meeting-place between God and humanity, to be the bridge between heaven and earth, to make peace between the holy and the sinful, to be the one mediator between God and man. This great sinner is praying for the great Savior who will make peace by his good will. Out from the peace in Zion comes a community centered around the place of meeting and communion, the city of Jerusalem. This community, in intimate communion with the good God who loves mankind, has many dangers and many enemies in this world. This is a community that needs protection to survive and to prosper and to be fruitful, for this is to be a community of peace.
In this, David is praying not just for himself, but for all the people of God who have been greatly damaged by sin, and to be sure, they have been greatly damaged by David’s sin. At this point, David’s prayer recognizes the need for the presence of the Holy Spirit that surrounds the Church with grace and power and virtue and wisdom, to withstand the Adversary and his hosts.
This prayer for Jersualem, for the Church of the people of God, is always an essential part of the penitential prayer. For no matter how private we may see our sin to be, how unknown to any other human being, when one member of the body falls, the entire body is wounded and put in danger. All sin is indeed personal, but it is also an attack and an injury even in the most secret of our sins to the entire body of Christ. When you and I sin we allow a breach in the wall of protection around the Church and we need to pray for that breach to be healed.
Finally, David comes to the great vision of the sacrifice that God will provide through David’s own greater son. We begin by pausing at David’s frequent use of the word “pleasure” concerning God’s providing and accepting the great sacrifice. This mystery is suggested also in Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, where the Lord is seen as willing this sacrifice. The Orthodox Study Bible translates Isaiah 53:10 this way: “The Lord wishes to cleanse him of his wound, and if you give an offering for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived seed.” This is the good pleasure of God in giving his son.
There are four declarations about the greatness of the sacrifice that David trusts God to provide, that will take away his sin. Number one: “Then thou shalt be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness.” Instead of a reluctant and angry God, David knows that this God of good pleasure, in doing good for his people, will not only provide what the sin requires for its death-dealing power to be broken, he will transform the ugliness of human sin; in the sacrifice he will provide pure righteousness. He will bring forth an offering of eternal beauty that will not only bring him deep pleasure, but will be the focal point of the admiration of all the people of God throughout all the ages, who will fall in admiration and wonder before the beauty of the Lamb bearing the marks of wounds in his having been slain.
The second description of this sacrifice is this: “Thou shalt be pleased with oblation.” For the Orthodox, the Greek word here is one that we all know from the Liturgy. It is literally: “Thou shalt be pleased with anaphora.” This word has been retained to this day for the moment when now the rational and bloodless sacrifice is offered up to God in eternal remembrance of the once-for-all offering of Christ himself, by Christ himself to the Father in perfect trust, love, and obedience to the good will of the Father’s pleasure. Christ is, and always will be, all that we can ever offer up to the Father, but in Christ, we offer also ourselves, as those who, by his uplifted sacrifice and his out-poured life on the Cross and out-poured Spirit at Pentecost, gives us the life we live in him in the grace and power of redeeming love.
The third description: “Thou shalt be pleased with whole-burnt offerings.” The vision is an offering wholly and freely lifted up with no remainders, with nothing left. All has been given. This is the totality of the person of Jesus Christ: freely, fully, perfectly given to the Father, to do the good will of the Father to save his fallen and his lost children. Truly, this is the universal height of self-giving love.
There is one last phrase, and this phrase has a special place at the height of the liturgical mystery of the Eucharist. As the priest completes this magnificent ending of David’s penitential prayer, he is standing before the altar of God, censing the Holy Gifts of the bread and wine, the immaculate Body and precious Blood of Christ, three times the priest declares these words: “Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.”
This sacrifice is the fattened calf that the father slew to welcome home the prodigal son. This sacrifice is the sin-offering on the Day of Atonement. This is the highest and the best, the most powerful and worthy of all possible offerings. This is Christ, our Lord, God, and Savior, offered up for us all. But the magnitude of this self-offering is not only the offering of his eternal deity in love as he fulfills the will of the Father. It is also the offering up of perfected humanity.
For Jesus came into the world in hidden glory, in humility, and in poverty. When, as an infant, he was offered to the Lord by Joseph and the Theotokos, his offering at the beginning of his earthly life was the most humble in the scale of Jewish offerings: two turtle-doves or young pigeons. He came into the world in weakness. He lived in obscurity and without the trappings of beauty or honor in the eyes of the world. He died the most shameful and hideous death imaginable, but his Cross was no mere instrument of Roman execution. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is nothing less than the high and holy altar of God, and from before the foundation of the world and from the ages of ages, his offering is like no other.
Throughout eternity, with the joy of the highest offering, the best, the most powerful, the most beautiful, the most pleasing to the Father, all the universe will repeat not merely three times but forever: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” This is the glory, the beauty, the love, and the joy that rises out of the shame and ugliness, hostility and sorrow of man’s sin.
The great Lamb, far greater than bulls without number, has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestows life, his life, life that is unto the ages of ages. Blessed is the salvation of the son of David, the salvation of Jesus Christ who reached across time and generations to redeem his own repentant father David who in his poverty looked by faith toward the riches of God’s great mercy and found salvation, the healing of soul and body, through the blood of his son Jesus Christ, the son of God.
In the greatness of David’s great prayer of repentance, let us find desire and strength to pray: “Let my prayer arise as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice”: the sacrifice that is fulfilled in our Lord’s own uplifted hands on the Cross at the hour of his eternal prayer.