One of the standard texts that I’ve heard most of my life in support of “spiritual worship” is Psalm 51:16-17. In my younger years I remember this primarily as a text used against the “physical worship” of the Roman Catholic Mass.
For in sacrifice you take no delight,
burnt offerings from me you would refuse,
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.
(This translation is from Daily Prayer.)
If you’re a Protestant you probably know the argument: Physical forms, such as animal sacrifice, temple worship, and today, the Mass, which re-enacts the sacrifice of Christ, are not what God desires. The only thing necessary and proper for real worship is a contrite spirit and humbled heart.
But Psalm 51 doesn’t end with v. 17. There’s one more strophe that always causes me to pause and rethink the cavalier manner in which I’ve assumed I knew precisely what these verses meant.
In your goodness, show favor to Zion:
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
holocausts offered on your altar. (vv 18-19)
According to the complete Psalm 51, it isn’t that God doesn’t take delight in sacrifices nor would God refuse burnt offerings. They just need to be done correctly. The issue isn’t the sacrifice; the issue is decency and order. Just as the person must approach God with the right attitude, so the external means of approach must be done in the proper manner. In King David’s time that would be in Jerusalem on the temple altar, which was properly sanctified, and the sacrifice done in the prescribed manner.
This morning I “prayed” Psalm 51 with a cup of coffee in my hand. I put the word “prayed” in parenthesis because of a question that popped into my mind. Assuming that my morning prayer (which I assure you 😉 was done in all humility and with a contrite heart!) is the sort of “spiritual sacrifice” I was taught to offer in Sunday School, Bible College, etc., is doing it with a cup of coffee in my hand “a lawful sacrifice” by the standards of the last verse of Psalm 51, or is it just an informal café conversation with my friend Jesus?
A paraphrase of Eph. 4:23-24 (which introduces Psalm 51 in Daily Prayer) says, “Your inmost being must be renewed, and you must put on the new man.” I think I’ll argue that my cup of coffee helps renew my inmost being, thus making it possible for me to offer a “lawful sacrifice.”