What is a Broken Heart?

In Psalm 51, a Psalm of repentance David wrote after he was confronted by Nathan the prophet about his sin with Bathsheba, David makes the following statement (vss 16-17):

For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.

David says this in the context of repentance and restoration.  This is how a truly repentant sinner approaches God.  God doesn’t want sacrifices without heart change.  He doesn’t just want outward signs.  He responds to genuine humility.  He honors a broken and contrite heart – a heart humbled before God that comes to Him with the right attitude to be restored.

It’s an easy concept to understand, in one sense, and it goes along with other teaching throughout the Bible.  However, when we try to put it into practice in our lives – when we’ve blown it and desire to restore fellowship – how do we know if we’re going about it in the right way?  How do we know if we’re truly humble?  How do we know if our heart is contrite and broken?  What does it look like when a believer approaches God with the right attitude after he sins?

To answer these questions we’ll look at a few examples in Scripture.  We’ll consider the stories of three men – all kings – who sinned and then humbled themselves before God.  In each case their humility was effective in restoring (or establishing) some kind of fellowship.  Each has something to teach us in our quest to understand what it means to offer a sacrifice of a broken spirit to God.

Ahab (I Kings 21)
Ahab was a king of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Even in a line of kings that were all evil (there were no good kings in the history of the northern kingdom), Ahab stood out.  Through his wife – Jezebel – he introduced Baal worship to the country and effectively stamped out all worship of Yahweh.  He was so evil that God sent perhaps the most powerful prophet in the Old Testament – Elijah – to counteract him.

One of the events in Ahab’s life was his coveting and theft of a vineyard from a man named Naboth.  Ahab noticed that Naboth had a vineyard that was conveniently located by his house.  He asked Naboth to sell it to him so he could convert it to a vegetable garden.  Naboth refused because it was part of his family’s inheritance granted to them by God when the land was divided by Joshua.  Ahab – with the help of his scheming and wicked wife – then manipulated events such that Naboth was executed for a trumped up crime.  Once Naboth was dead, Ahab took the vineyard for himself (to summarize – he killed a man for a vegetable garden).

The result of this incredibly wicked chain of events was that Elijah came to Ahab and told him that God would wipe his family off the face of the earth.  Elijah told him, “The one belonging to Ahab, who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat, and the one who dies in the field the birds of heaven shall eat” (vs 24).  The author of I Kings then comments on Ahab – Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife incited him (vs 25).

At that point, Ahab did something totally unexpected.  He humbled himself before God.  He tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently (vs 27).  As a result, God said to Elijah, “Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me?  Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son’s days” (vs 29).

It’s an amazing story.  It’s amazing on two counts – Ahab’s decision to humble himself and God’s decision to actually respond favorably to Ahab’s humility.  Why are Ahab’s actions surprising?  Because it’s literally the only good thing we see him doing in the whole account of his life.  He never did anything like this before and never does anything like it again.  With that in mind, it makes God’s response just as surprising.  He knows Ahab’s humility is a short-term thing.  He knows Ahab will go right back to his evil ways.  He knows Ahab will never serve Him and will go back to his Baal worship and back to allowing his wife to run roughshod over anyone trying to follow God.  Not only that, there’s nothing in the text about Ahab restoring the vineyard to Naboth’s family or trying to do anything to make amends for his despicable actions.

And YET – God responds favorably to Ahab’s humility.  So what does that teach us?  God WANTS to be merciful.  God WANTS to respond to His creatures.  If God responds this way to a man who lived his whole life in opposition to God, imagine how much God wants to respond lovingly and mercifully to His own children.  A verse in Deuteronomy backs this up and gives us another angle on our Father.  After giving Moses the Ten Commandments, God says to him, “Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever!” (Deut 5:29).  It shows that God truly longs for obedience.  He is not a God seeking to punish His children unless He has to.  He wants us in fellowship with Him.  So that means in our search to understand what it means to humble ourselves before God we have a wonderful starting point – God wants us to come and wants us in fellowship with Him.

Lesson 1: God wants to respond favorably and mercifully to us.

Manasseh (II Chronicles 33)
Manasseh was a king of the southern kingdom of Judah.  He was actually in the line of David and his father was a good and obedient king – Hezekiah.  Manasseh, however, was not a chip off the old block.  He was an apple that fell far from the tree.  He was more evil than any other king of Judah.  He set up high places throughout the country so people could practice idolatry.  He set up idols and altars to idols IN the temple.  He practiced witchcraft, used divination, practiced sorcery, and dealt with mediums and spiritists.  He even offered up his sons as sacrifices to the false gods.  The author of Chronicles says of him – Thus Manasseh misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the sons of Israel (vs 9).  He was actually worse than the nations that God had Israel utterly destroy because of their gross wickedness.

As a result of his disobedience, God had him taken captive to Babylon (this was before the whole nation fell to Babylon – only Manasseh was deported).  In Babylon – humiliated and imprisoned – Manasseh sought the Lord.  And when he was in distress, he entreated the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers (vs 12).  He came to the end of himself and turned to Yahweh – the God of his father.

Now remember, this was the most wicked king in Judah’s history.  And not only was he wicked, he was most likely wicked for years.  He reigned 55 years and the text makes it sound like his change of heart was toward the end of his reign (the II Kings account of his life doesn’t even mention it).  And yet, see how God responded – When he prayed to Him, He was moved by his entreaty and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom.  Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God (vs 13).

Just like with Ahab, God responded favorably to a wicked man – probably even more wicked than Ahab – who humbled himself.  Unlike Ahab, however, Manasseh apparently truly changed.  He returned to Jerusalem and worshiped God, and took down the abominable things he had set up in the temple and called for the country to return to Yahweh.  His was a true repentance.

So what does Manasseh teach us?  That God can restore anyone who truly seeks Him.  No one who truly wants to return to God will be refused.  There is no such thing as being too ungodly to repent (there IS such a thing as being so given over to our heart’s sinful desires that we don’t want to repent, as Paul outlines in Romans 1).  If Manasseh could be restored, anyone can be restored.

Lesson 2: God can restore anyone who truly humbles himself and turns to Him in repentance.

David (Psalm 51)
The story of David and Bathsheba is a familiar one.  David committed adultery with Bathsheba and tried to cover it up – after his first plan failed – by having her husband killed.  He thought he’d gotten away with it until Nathan the prophet came to him and confronted him with his sin.  As a result of Nathan’s words and the sin being exposed, David penned Psalm 51 to express his repentance.  It is there that our study began and it’s there that we learn perhaps the most important concept in our search for understanding.

Before David talks about a contrite heart, he gives us perhaps the best illustration of what it is.  He says in verses 3-4:  For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against You, You only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You are justified when You speak, and blameless when You judge.  This seems to be a picture of someone humbling himself before God.  Notice what he realizes – his sin is ultimately and foremost against God (a concept that Paul repeats in I Thess 4:8).  Remember, this is a man who committed murder and adultery and sentenced his family to years of horrible strife and violence.  Yet he says he sinned only against God.  He understands what sin is and what makes it so awful – it’s an offense against the holy God he loves and serves.

He also says another key thing – my sin is ever before me.  This is a picture of being poor in spirit – what Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3).  David realizes he has no right to be in God’s presence and that he only stands because of God’s mercy.  He approaches God with an understanding of what he is apart from God.  His egregious sin showed him who and what he is, and that knowledge informs his approach to God.  He comes as a sinner with only one hope in two things – God’s mercy and love.

Notice something else.  If you read this Psalm you’ll see that David says nothing about the ramifications of his sin.  He knows he’s in for all kinds of awful things – Nathan told him that the child he conceived with Bathsheba would die and that his family would suffer enormously in the coming years (II Sam 12:7-14).  And yet he says nothing about any of it.  He focuses only on the offense his sin is against God.  He acknowledges that God is justified in punishing him, but he says nothing else.  This points out an important fact – we aren’t truly humbled if we’re mostly concerned about the ramifications and guilt of our sin.  If what concerns us most when we approach God is our sin’s effect on us, then we aren’t truly humbled before Him.  It’s when we understand our sin to be an offense against the One who had to go to the cross to redeem us that we’re humble.

So what does David teach us in this Psalm?  That humbling ourselves before God means that we see our sin correctly as an offense against Him.  We come to God understanding our status as sinners wholly dependent on Him.  It’s not our guilt or regret that informs our humility – it’s our understanding of sin as treason against the holy One who redeemed us.

Lesson #3: We humble ourselves before God when we understand that what makes sin awful is its offense against Him, not its ramifications in our lives.    

So what did we learn?

  1. God wants us to come to Him in repentance after we’ve blown it. He longs to respond favorably and mercifully to us.
  2. God can restore anyone who truly humbles himself and seeks Him in repentance.
  3. God honors the one who humbles himself before Him, and the one who humbles himself is the one who sees his sin primarily as an offense against God. It’s not sin’s effect, it’s sin’s offense.

[Aside – there is no formula for what this looks like in the life of the believer.  Many stories in the Bible show a person humbling himself by tearing his clothes or putting on sackcloth or perhaps fasting.  And there’s almost always an emotional component.  But humility isn’t what we do outwardly, and we obviously live in a much different culture than the demonstrative Middle East of biblical times.  The important aspect to humility is our attitude toward our sin and God – not whether we look humble or whether we display enough emotion.]

What are God’s awesome promises to those who humble themselves?
For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  Isaiah 57:15

Thus says the LORD, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD. “But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”  Isaiah 66:1-2

God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.  James 4:6,8

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