A Broken & Contrite Heart
In Psalm 51, the writer expresses great sorrow for sins he had committed. It is thought this Psalm was written by David after his sin with Bathsheba. He repeatedly asked God for mercy and forgiveness. Consider verses 16-17 which say, “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart — These, O God, You will not despise.”
What did David mean when he said God did not require sacrifice? Sacrifices were required under the law of Moses. David was not trying to nullify the Old Testament, but instead, he was placing an emphasis on the inward man (note also vs. 6 and 10). The idea is this, “You do not only require sacrifices, but You also (especially or in particular) require a broken and a contrite heart.”
David probably could offer more animal sacrifices than anyone in Israel. Sacrifices were necessary, but God also wanted a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart (note also Is. 1:11-18). Usually, a broken spirit is not good. For example, an animal which has been beaten and abused is sometimes characterized as having a broken spirit. But, in David’s case, this would be a good feature. David had sinned; he needed to feel guilt for what he had done; he needed a broken and a contrite heart. His heart, or mind, needed to be crushed, or broken, by the guilt of his sins. This would lead to repentance and ultimately to the forgiveness he longed for, and then he could again experience the joy of his salvation (vs. 12).
Today, when we sin, we need to have sorrow and guilt. Note what Paul said in II Corinthians 7:10, “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” Some people sin and have absolutely no sorrow. This is very dangerous because without sorrow there is no forgiveness of sins.
In conclusion, David makes it clear that God could not be “bought off” by sacrifices. As with us today, he needed to have the proper sense of remorse and contrition; he needed to repent so his sins could be forgiven.