Burning Bulls and Broken Hearts


Burning Bulls and Broken Hearts

Psalm 51:16-19
by Bob Burridge ©2012

We often hear people say they have a heart condition. Though every heart is always in some condition, they usually mean they have some kind of unhealthy condition. Their heart may have its blood supply reduced. It may have suffered damage to its tissue, nerves or valves. There may be interruptions in the way neural impulses control the contractions of the heart muscles which pump blood through the lungs then throughout the body.

Physical heart conditions can make a person get out of breath or tire easily. Repairs might be needed so the person could resume normal activities. He may need by-pass surgery, angioplasty, or a stent to improve the blood supply. Sometimes damaged valves need to be repaired or replaced. He may need a pacemaker to ensure synchronization and full operation of the chambers.

There are also problems with the heart spiritually. Just as a physical heart must at the very least be alive before it can be repaired, so also a spiritual heart must be alive spiritually. It must be redeemed. As we know all too well, even the redeemed heart can still have problems. When we suffer with the spiritual kind of heart condition, our worship and prayer can seem laborsome. Our service to others and management of our time, possessions, and abilities can become limited.

When King David was confronted with his sin and guilt, he became concerned because his heart was not right as he approached God.


To understand this last part of Psalm 51
we need to go back in time to the sacrificial system.

David had captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and made it the capitol of Israel. When the ark was recovered he brought it there to establish Jerusalem as the center of worship.

At that time Israel lived under the form of God’s covenant given through Moses. Every day, crowds gathered at the tent of the Tabernacle to bring their sacrifices. There was the sound of bellowing animals, the sight of blood flowing over the altar, and the smell in the air of flesh being burned before the Lord.

It was a dramatic display of what our sins deserve. There must be a shedding of blood representing the penalty of death. The sacrifice held out God’s amazing promise that He will provide a substitute to die in the place of the sinner.

Those looking at this graphic scene of the sacrificial worship of the Tabernacle could only see the outward actions of the priests and the people. When God viewed it, he also looked upon the heart of those involved in the proceedings.

What we see in worship today is also just the outward part. We might see people calling upon the Lord in prayer, families gathered to read Scripture and pray together, churches assembled on the Sabbath with the singing of hymns, giving attention to sermons, and the distributing of the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

But in all these outward forms, we must remember that God looks upon the heart. When we worship, or come thankfully for cleansing from sin, we must remember that it is the heart, not just the knees, which must be humbly bowed before God. This was King David’s awareness in this next verse of Psalm 51.

Psalm 51:16, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.”

How could David say that God did not desire or take pleasure in the sacrifices? They were his sacrifices! He had commanded them! But David also knew that there was more to them than just the outward rituals. What God commanded was not just the death of animals by priests. He established that process so that repentant people could come admitting what their sins deserved, and showing their trust in the promise of God to redeem them.

The enemy of our faith is very cunning and subtle. He has gotten very few to openly worship the kingdom of Satan. In attacking the family of God he knows that not many will be fooled into blatant paganism. Instead, he twists things around. He gets us to blend the form of truth with the substance of a lie.

The synthetic religion that comes out of that process is a thing that may look good outwardly, but inwardly it makes everything point to the glory of the creature instead of honoring the Creator. What is left of the Creator is a watered down deity begging us not to spoil his plans.


The sacrifices of Israel had deteriorated into a works religion.

It was imagined that by killing animals God would be impressed, and would remit our sins. Many make the common error that before the time of Jesus Christ sins were atoned for by sacrifices. This was the error of the ancient Jews. The principle underlying that error continues to cloud the minds of many religious people today.

God never said that the killing of animals as sacrifices, the burnt offerings of the young bulls, were the actual grounds for salvation. The priestly sacrifices did not remove sin’s guilt by themselves. They represented God’s covenant promise to provide a salvation we are not qualified to earn.

Today we understand more about how our Savior restores his people to fellowship with God. We know how God took on the nature of a human, and in that nature died in place of his people. This promised Messiah became the Lamb of God to shed his blood for his people.

The Old Testament taught what every believer should have known about the sacrifices. Their real nature was revealed in the law and explained by the prophets. Even before Christ, the true worshipers knew that justice demands eternal death for sin, and that somehow God would pay that price for his people.

By grace alone God applied that future work of the Messiah to his people before Jesus was born. That work of grace regenerated their spiritually dead hearts, and implanted in them the faculty of true faith. That faith drove the believers to repentance and to trust in the covenant promises about forgiveness of sin. To show their gratitude, their regenerated hearts desired to obey God and to worship him as he said they should. That meant bringing sacrifices to him according to the law, which included an understanding of the promise that God would redeem his people by grace alone.

If a person brought a sacrifice without a redeemed heart, it did not remove his sin. That kind of sacrifice was a denial of the provision of God. It imagined that man could save himself by rituals. That kind of worship is condemned in the Bible, in the ancient law itself. God took no delight in such an abomination.

In the Book of Hebrews chapter 10, this is explained clearly.

Hebrews 10:4, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. ”

Hebrews 10:11, “And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.”

Without a right heart a sacrifice cannot be acceptable to God. What makes the heart right is the work of God’s grace. It was God’s provision in the Promised Savior, not what the worshiper did, that made the ancient sacrifices beneficial. David was not demeaning the God-ordered sacrifice, only the superficial degradation of it.


In contrast to the mere outward forms we see,
God looks upon the heart.

Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart — These, O God, You will not despise.”

A broken and contrite heart shows the inner work of God’s grace. It shows evidence of the atonement which was demonstrated outwardly in the physical sacrifices. Very few things are best when broken — but one of those things is the human heart.

One of the fun candies we used to enjoy when I was a kid was called Turkish Taffy. I’ve seen it around still, but more as a nostalgic novelty candy. It was a solid hard bar you could hardly bite into without damaging your teeth. Before you opened the package, you slammed it down hard on the table broking it apart into bite-sized pieces. When you put them in your mouth they would slowly melt and become chewy and tasty.

Most things cannot be used when they get broken. But the heart is not broken in that way. A spiritually dysfunctional heart is broken so that it can be renewed to work as God created it to work.

The Hebrew word translated “contrite” is “dikah” (דכה). In the form used here it means to be crushed. It is used in Numbers 11:8 of seed that is ground up in a mortar into a fine flower for baking. We must be brought low before God. We need to be crushed down by the recognition of our sin and personal unworthiness if our worship is to lift us up to see the glory of our most Holy Creator.

The world would think it strange that we find humble contrition over sin and joy in the same place together. The two are only incompatible when there is no atonement. The world’s false joy is the illusion of a heart deceiving itself about its guilt.

This is the worship which God will not despise. It is his own work done in our needy hearts. David would give all he could, if his own effort would help, but he knew it would not. So he came crushed, humbled, clinging to the promises of God which cannot fail.


David was not only concerned for himself.

Psalm 51:18, “Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem.”

Zion was the hill in Jerusalem where David planned to one day build a permanent temple to God. Of course God chose Solomon after him to actually build the temple there.

The King wanted the place where God’s people gathered for worship to be specially blessed. Instead of being where abominable sacrifices were made by those who came in ignorance and self-trust, he wanted it to be divinely favored so that its worship would truly honor the Lord.

As we pray, we should remember to ask God’s blessing upon the church as it gathers in the place of worship on the Sabbath. We should pray that all who come together on that day would have a right attitude, trusting in the true sacrifice of Christ with broken hearts.

Pray during the week and specially on Saturday for families and individuals as they prepare for the Sabbath morning. As you get up on Sunday pray that each one who attends will be ready and looking forward to the worship time. We may have many motives that make us anticipate our gatherings for worship, but the prime motive should not be to see friends, to hear a stimulating lesson, or to sing uplifting music. It should be above all else our driving desire to come humble but thankfully to honor our Creator-Redeemer for his work of grace and unfailing promises.

Preparation for Sunday worship is more than laying out your clothes the night before. It also means getting your heart right so that your worship will not be superficial and only outward. Come remembering the grace that made you want to be there.

David also wanted to wall in the city of Jerusalem to make it safe from her enemies. The job had begun, but there was still much to do. Though it would not be completed until the time of Solomon, David prayed that the work of national defense would be blessed by God.

David’s concern for God’s blessings on Zion and protection of Jerusalem was not just outward. The whole theme of this Psalm is about David’s concern over his sin and its effects. Back in verse 11 David expressed his fear that God would withdraw the Holy Spirit’s enablement from him. He did not want to become an ineffective King as happened with Saul before him.

The Psalm now shows David’s concern that his sins might also bring trouble to his nation. He did not want the worship or safety of Jerusalem endangered because of what he did. David again shows the tender and devoted heart of a gifted King.

When believers make excuses for their sins, and show no interest in reforming, God lovingly chastises them as wayward children. This is evident back in verses 11 and 12. The Lord may withdraw their inner peace and sense of assurance and hope. Sometimes he may bring outward suffering. When one member of the body goes through hard times, the whole body can be effected. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”

When we sin or drift away from the Lord, we need to be concerned for its effect on others. As David prayed, we should ask the Lord to bless his church and to keep her safe when we sin.


Our primary focus must always be
to please God in our worship and living.

Psalm 51:19, “Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.”

In this last verse of the Psalm, David envisions a restored church. With a restored King, and the blessing of God upon the people, their worship, and the city, the sacrifice would again become pleasing to the Lord.

The actual event that would take place in history making the true sacrifice, and making the restoration of sinners possible was yet to come in the course of time. However, even in those times before the birth of Jesus Christ, David knew God’s promises. He understood that his heart had to be to be right before God could be pleased with his worship. The blood and burning flesh of bulls could not change his heart. Only the work of grace based upon the one great promised substitute toward which the blood sacrifices pointed could do that.

In John 1:29, John the baptist saw Jesus coming and he said to his disciples, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

It was our Savior’s death on the cross that actually paid the price of the sins of God’s people. It applies to the past, present and future. No sin was ever, nor could ever be, removed upon any other grounds.

What the burning of bulls could not accomplish, the cross of Calvary did. Describing the finished work of Jesus, Hebrews 10:12 says, “But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God,”


How is your spiritual heart as you come to worship God?

Is it broken over sin so that it is ready to be repaired by God’s wonders and promises? Is it relying upon the work of grace through Christ as its only and infallible hope? Is it concerned for the well being of the whole church, and all its members? Is it focused upon the pleasure of God in all you do?

To develop a spiritually healthy heart, the needs of our physical heart can be good reminders. Your physical heart needs a good supply of blood to feed it and keep it strong. The redeemed heart needs to be fed too. The nutrients God provides and moves us to embrace will be used to strengthen us spiritually.

The Bible points to the nutrition we need. If we fail to feed upon God’s truth, we will trust in lies that starve our souls. If we neglect to commune with God in prayer, we show no confidence in his care and promises. We will then suffer for lack of this important nutrient our soul desperately needs.

The healthy heart also needs to engage in humble worship through Christ. It is there that we thankfully receive the word and sacraments as we lift up our hearts in praise expressing our gratitude for his mercies.

God has also established his church to be an encouraging family to provide fellowship, care, and admonition of one another. When we reach out in mutual care and admonition we show the love of God at work in our otherwise self-centered hearts. 1 John 3:17 warns, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

A sound physical heart is fundamental to a person being healthy. A spiritually healthy heart is also necessary if our lives and times of worship are to please God. When we engage in the remedies God prescribes in his word, we will discover the evidence of the Holy Spirit at work to repair our heart condition.

How different David must have felt after he made things right with God again after his sin. Before then, every time he entered the Temple his conscience would have torn at his heart. Oh, the relief and peace of God’s merciful forgiveness bringing joy into the place where there was tension!

How different the Apostle Paul must have felt after he came to Christ. The Temple, all its furnishings and sacrifices which he had known all his life, which he had studied under Gamaliel, all took on a totally new dimension when he came to know the Savior toward which the rituals pointed. Oh, the forgiveness he personally felt, as one who felt he was the chief of sinners!

It was never burning bulls or bleeding lambs that made people right with God. It was the suffering Messiah which the sacrifices represented. We discover him to be our Savior and Lord by grace through faith in his word of promise, a gospel that heals broken hearts.

Psalm 51 is a treasure chest of blessings. It is a model of humble confession, and confidence in amazing grace.

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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