In this note, we consider what the writer of Hebrews meant when quoting Psalm 40, and whether recent Christian commentators have been adequately nuanced in their interpretations of the writer’s meaning. The language of Psalm 40 regarding sacrifice is notable, but not unique. The biblical writers expressed this thought in several variations. Below are a few texts that use similar language to express the idea.
6 You have not desired sacrifice and meal offering;
You have opened my ears;
You have not required burnt offering and sin offering.
7 Then I said, “Behold, I have come;
It is written of me in the scroll of the book.
8 I delight to do Your will, my God;
Your Law is within my heart.”
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, isa broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
7 “Hear, My people, and I will speak;
Israel, I will testify against you;
I am God, your God.
8 I do not rebuke you for your sacrifices,
And your burnt offerings are continually before Me.
9 I will not take a bull from your house,
Nor male goats from your folds.
10 For every animal of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know every bird of the mountains,
And everything that moves in the field is [d]Mine.
12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
For the world is Mine, and everything it contains.
13 Shall I eat the flesh of bulls
Or drink the blood of male goats?
14 Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving
And pay your vows to the Most High;
15 Call upon Me on the day of trouble;
I will rescue you, and you will honor Me.”
Based on the texts cited above, we might suggest that the LORD’s priority runs in this direction:
Obedience, Compassion, Repentance and Contriteness, Burn Offerings, Sacrifices
We might also say that this scale spans from most desirable to compensatory. Sacrifices were never what God was after but they were necessary because of our failure regarding what God is after. When we fail at obedience, sacrifices are necessary. Had we obeyed, sacrifice would not have been necessary. God preferred obedience. In the absence of our obedience God required sacrifice.
When we failed at compassion, sacrifices are necessary. Had we had compassion, sacrifice would not have been necessary. God preferred compassion. In the absence of compassion, the LORD required sacrifice. Had we been contrite, we might have obeyed (see Isaiah 66:2). Had we been contrite regarding our disobedience we would have offered pleasing sacrifices. In our failure to be contrite, sacrifices serve to pay our debts. Pleasing sacrifices also produced in us the feelings of guilt provoked by seeing an innocent one die in our place. The LORD would prefer a contrite and repentant child who has nothing to offer over an unconcerned child who offers many sacrifices. Repentance of heart is preferable. In the absence of repentance, the LORD requires sacrifice.
Burnt offerings are our way of offering thanks and expressing devotion to God. Failure to thank God is fraud that requires recompense by the guilt offering. The guilt offering includes the guilt offering itself , the neglected votive offering, and a surcharge paid to the priest. The LORD would have preferred our thanks and devotion. In the absence of thanks and devotion, sacrifice is necessary.
In light of this exploration of these texts, the LORD’s message to Saul becomes clearer.
20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, for I went on the [o]mission on which the Lord sent me; and I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have completely destroyed the Amalekites. 21 But the people took some of the spoils, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things designated for destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.” 22 Samuel said,
“Does the Lord have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than a sacrifice,
And to pay attention is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is as reprehensible as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as reprehensible as false religion and idolatry.
Since you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He has also rejected you from being king.”
The LORD is not saying that He did not want sacrifices when it was appropriate to offer them and when they were done in the right way. When Saul offered animals that the LORD demanded be destroyed. When Saul overruled the LORD’s command, took to himself the role of the priest, and offered these sacrifices, it was a misapplied sacrifice. Samuel’s message to Saul was not a dismissal of the sacrificial system. The LORD was saying it would have been preferable had Saul obeyed.
In another matter, when the writer of Psalm 51 has finished saying that the LORD did not desire sin offerings, he declares that when the LORD has forgiven him, he would offer the LORD thanksgiving and votive offerings. If the LORD was not interested in offerings previously, why should the worshipper offer them now? The writer’s point was simply that God was more interested in sincere and proportional repentance for the sin the writer had committed. Sin offerings were an appropriate follow-up to real sorrow. Thanksgiving and votive offerings were an appropriate follow-up to real forgiveness. The sacrificial system was a costly vocabulary for expressing heartful reality. Without the reality, the expressions were not simply meaningless. They were cause for further condemnation.
If all this seems like an unneeded argument, let’s consider how interpreters of Hebrews understand the use of the Psalm 40 in Hebrews 10. Kistemaker takes the opportunity to give a survey of sacrifices from Abel and Cain forward. In closing, he says, “The author summarizes the two statements of Christ in one pithy sentence, ‘He sets aside the first to establish the second.’ Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for sin on Calvary’s cross. By this act he terminated the Levitical sacrificial system. He set it aside.” (Kistemaker page 277). Kistemaker interprets the writer’s meaning to be, “Jesus, by perfect obedience has terminated the Levitical sacrificial system.”
F. F. Bruce in a footnote (235) concedes the difficulty of v. 9 while coming down on the same side of it. He says that “the ordinal numerals here are neuter; no particular substantive is understood with them. ‘The first’ is the old sacrificial system; ‘the second’ is our Lord’s perfect self-dedication to do the will of God.”
While noting the lack of specificity in the numbers, Bruce is none the less confident to make a sweeping declaration which, if wrong, represents a major human abrogation of the word of God. What is pitted against the other is not obedience vs. the system. It is more complex. We might sum it up as being our obedience or our sacrifice vs. Christ’s obedience and Christ’s sacrifice. The first pair were broken and insufficient. The second pair are complete and fully sufficient. The writer of the Letter gives us several reasons why. Most directly, the writer ties it to the next quotation with he puts in the mouth of Jesus:
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come
(It is written of Me in the scroll of the book)
To do Your will, O God.’”
And secondly, by providing Jesus with a body in which He could He could do the will of Father in our place, as a representitive of Humanity.
In His blamelessness, He could offer Himself as a sacrifice for us, which made it “once and for all.” Since both His sacrifice and His obedience count for us we can say He rightly removed our need to offer sacrifice for our sins. He removed that need, but He did not terminate the system.” Hebrews 10:10 tells us that He has sanctified us through His blood. If the system were dismantled what need would there be for sanctification? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews shows us repeatedly that Jesus has taken over the doing of the system for us, in our place.
In spite of all this, William Plummer writes, (Plummer, Epistle to the Hebrews p 400)
“Two schemes so wholly opposite as those of the Levitical law and the gospel can never cooperate in human salvation, except as the first is made typical of the second- except as the latter is regarded as the fulfillment of the types and shadows of the former.”
Plummer says this in his comments on Hebrews 10:5 fully missing the import of the writer’s point. The only means of salvation outside of the Law is perfect obedience to God as stipulated in the Law. The only means of salvation within the Law is not its destruction but that the works of the Law be taken for us by a more capable party, the first-born Son of God. God’s displeasure was not with the sacrificial system, but with our disobedience to Him that warranted sacrifice. The God appointed system was not simply “typical.” It was also provisional- that is, it made possible the presence of God in the midst of His people and allowed them to draw near. It was revelatory, it trained us, should we be attentive, to what was needed. God removed our need for making sacrifices not by ending the system, but by doing the requirements better than we could. The Law is not done away with. It is done for us by Jesus. The better covenant, with better promises, better sacrifices, to cleanse a better Tabernacle, by a better priesthood would all be unnecessary to discuss if the writer of the letter to the Hebrews considered the Law to have been “opposite” (Plummer) or “terminated” (Kistemacher). If this were the otherwise, all the writer would have to say would be summed up like this: “Are you still keeping the Law? Well, it’s time to stop.”