The Pleasure of God in the Prayers of the Upright

The sacrifice of the wicked
is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright
is his delight.

Last week we turned a corner in our series on the pleasures of God. Up until that time we focused on the pleasures of God in his own perfections and his own works of creation and providence. We stressed his self-sufficiency and his overflowing fullness of joy and his sovereign freedom from coercion or constraint or bribery or blackmail.

The Most Important Practical Question 

Then last week we turned to consider what kind of human responses would give God pleasure. From a practical standpoint this seems to be the most important question of all: How can I, as a sinner, please God? What can I do or what can I be that God might delight in?

If There Were No Way to Please God . . . 

I assume that even if God would allow me into heaven as a person totally displeasing to him, it would not be heaven but hell. How could we bear living in the presence of God if he only turned from us in disgust and found nothing at all to delight in when he looked at us?

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:9 that whether he was in heaven or on earth, he would make it his aim to please God. It would be an eternity of misery if there were no way that we could respond to a holy God that would please him or delight him.

Why Spend So Much Time on God's Delight in Himself?

So someone may ask, If this is the most important practical question, why did you spend seven weeks talking about God's delight in himself instead of getting right to the practical matter of how we can delight the heart of God?

The answer is that the vision of God developed in those seven messages is the foundation of my hope that I—sinner though I am—may yet be able to please God. And a hope like that needs a deep foundation! How you view God will determine your idea of how you can please God. And how a person decides to try to please God is the most fateful decision a person can make.

What if you discovered (like the Pharisees discovered) that you had devoted your whole life to trying to please God, but all the while had been doing things that in God's sight were abominations? Someone may say, I don't think that's possible; God wouldn't reject a person like that. Do you see what that person has done? He has based his conviction about what God would be pleased by on his idea of what God is like. That is precisely why we must begin with the character of God. That is why we had to begin with the pleasures of God in himself.

The Foundation of Hope for Desperate Sinners

What we saw in those messages was that God has no needs that I could ever be required to satisfy. God has no deficiencies that I might be required to supply. He is complete in himself. He is overflowing with happiness in the fellowship of the Trinity. The upshot of this is that God is a mountain spring, not a watering trough. A mountain spring is self-replenishing. It constantly overflows and supplies. A watering trough needs to be filled with a pump or bucket brigade. So you glorify a spring by drinking not by hauling water up the hill and dumping it in the spring. And since that is the way God is, we're not surprised to learn from Scripture—and our faith is strengthened to hold fast—that the way to please God is to come to him to get and not to give, to drink and not to water.

My hope as a desperate sinner who lives in a desert of unrighteousness hangs on this biblical truth: that God is the kind of God who will be pleased with the one thing I have to offer—my thirst. That is why the sovereign freedom and self-sufficiency of God are so precious to me: they are the foundation of my hope that God is delighted not by the resourcefulness of bucket brigades, but by the bending down of broken sinners to drink at the fountain of grace.

Or as we said last week,

His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man;
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.

In other words, this unspeakably good news for helpless sinners—that God delights not when we offer him our strength but when we hope in his—this good news that I need to hear so badly again and again is based firmly on a vision of God as sovereign, self-sufficient, and free. The reason we didn't jump straight to the practical question of how can I please God, is twofold:

  1. our efforts to please God would almost surely become self-exalting and legalistic if we did not see this vision of God; and
  2. our hope in the overflowing grace of God simply will not stand without a deep foundation in the doctrine of God.

Prayer as the Outworking of Our Thirst

Today we look at a text that expands the good news of what human responses God delights in. You could say that today's text is a specific application or outworking of last week's. The text is Proverbs 15:8,

The sacrifice of the wicked
is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright
is his delight.

My hope is that the effect of this message will not only be that you feel encouraged to pray, but mainly that the nature of God as a fountain of free grace will be reaffirmed—that God is the kind of God who delights most deeply not in making demands but in meeting needs. Prayer is his delight because prayer shows the reaches of our poverty and the riches of his grace. Prayer is that wonderful transaction where the wealth of God's glory is magnified and the wants of our soul are satisfied. Therefore God delights in the prayers of the upright.

Now let's meditate on Proverbs 15:8 by asking some questions and probing why it is that God abominates the sacrifices of the wicked and enjoys the prayers of the upright.

How Can Sacrifice Be an Abomination to God?

My first question is this: How can something as good as a sacrifice to God, which God ordained in the book of Leviticus, become an abomination to the Lord? The first half of our text says, "The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD."

God's Focus on the Condition of the Heart

The answer seems to be that an act that is good in itself can become ugly to God when it is done with the wrong inner disposition. An outward act that looks pious to us can look horrible in God's eyes because it comes from a heart that is wrong. There seems to be a principle implied here that would go something like this: the beauty of an act is the outworking of inward beauty, and the ugliness of an act is the outworking of an inward ugliness.

Since God always looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), he always sees our outward acts not as man sees them but as extensions of what he sees on the inside. Whether our acts are immoral, like stealing and adultery, or whether our acts are moral like church attendance and community service, both will be abominable in God's eyes if the heart is not right.

Paul teaches the same thing when he says in Romans 14:23, "Whatever is not from faith is sin." And Hebrews 11:6 teaches this when it says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God." In fact, in Hebrews 11:4 the very issue of sacrifices is addressed that we have here in Proverbs 15:8, namely, why Abel's sacrifice was accepted by God and Cain's wasn't. The reason is that Abel's sacrifice was offered by faith but Cain's wasn't; and without faith a sacrifice is not pleasing to God; it is an abomination.

So I answer our first question by saying that the reason a good act (like a sacrifice) can be an abomination to God is that an act is viewed by God as an outworking or an extension of the condition of the heart. If the heart is wicked, the acts it performs, no matter how pious or moral, are an abomination to God.

A Possible Objection

There is a possible objection to this. Someone might say that when you read the prophets like Isaiah and Amos, the reason God despises the sacrifices and the prayers of the wicked is not their inner disposition but their outer behavior when they are not in the temple.

For example, in Isaiah 1:13 the prophet says, "Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly." Then in verse 15 (at the end) and verse 16 Isaiah tells why God is so displeased with the worship of his people: "Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow."

So is not the reason that God abominates the sacrifices of the wicked simply because he hates the inconsistency of someone being a shyster during the week and pious on Sunday?

The problem with this objection is that it does not go to the heart of the matter. Yes, God hates that inconsistency. But when a wicked person comes to God and makes a sacrifice with a heart of penitence, his sacrifice is accepted. That is the whole purpose of the guilt offering. A person who has been sinful during the week can be accepted through the sacrifice when it is accompanied by a repentant heart.

So what Isaiah is really saying is that the reason God abominates the sacrifices of the unjust is that they come before the Lord with hearts that are not broken for their sin and with no true intention of forsaking it. And this heart condition of stubbornness and impenitence is why their sacrifices are an abomination to God.

So I think our conclusion stands: the sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination because God sees all our acts as extensions or outworking of the heart, and where the heart is bad, the deed is bad whether secular or religious.

What Is an Upright Heart? 

So my second question is: what is the essence of the badness of this heart? Or more importantly, what is the opposite of this heart? What makes a person upright instead of wicked in heart so that his prayers will delight God instead of being an abomination to him? I'll mention just two characteristics of the upright heart.

The Heart That Trembles at the Word of the Lord

The first mark of the upright heart is that it trembles at the word of the Lord. I get this from Isaiah 66, which deals with this very same problem of some who worship in a way that pleases God and some who worship in a way that doesn't. Verse 3 describes the wicked who bring their sacrifices. It says, "He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; and he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog's neck." In other words, their sacrifices are an abomination.

Why? Verse 4 says, "When I called, no one answered, when I spoke they did not listen." Their sacrifices were abominations to God because the people were deaf to his voice.

But what about those whose prayers God heard? Verse 2 says, "This is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." So I conclude from this that the first mark of the upright, whose prayers are a delight to God, is that they tremble at God's word. These are the people to whom the Lord will look.

So the prayer of the upright that delights God comes from a heart that at first feels precarious in the presence of a God. It trembles like Josiah when he heard the reading of the law of God, because it feels so far from God's ideal and so vulnerable to his judgment and so helpless and so sorry for its failings.

This is just what David said in Psalm 51:17, "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."

This is what the Lord said (to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14) is the first thing that makes a prayer acceptable to God: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray . . . I will hear from heaven."

So the first mark of the upright heart whose prayers please the Lord is brokenness, contrition, humility, trembling. In other words, what makes a heart upright and what makes prayers pleasing to God is a felt awareness of our tremendous need for mercy.

The Heart That Trusts in the Mercy of God

The other thing that marks the upright heart is trust in the willingness and power of God to show mercy. Psalm 4:5 says, "Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord." I take that to mean that an essential part of the upright heart whose sacrifices are not an abomination is trust.

We could easily make the mistake of thinking that when the Old Testament speaks of the "upright" or the "righteous," it cannot mean us because we are still sinners. But the righteous and the upright are not perfect. They are persons who confess their sin, hate it, and trust God for forgiveness and help.

One of the best places to see this is Psalm 32. It begins, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." So the psalm is about forgiven sinners, not about perfect people. Then at the end it distinguishes the wicked from the righteous and upright. What is the difference? Verses 10–11:

Many are the pangs of the wicked;
but steadfast love surrounds him
who trusts in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Verse 10 contrasts the wicked with those who TRUST in the Lord. Then verse 11 calls them righteous and upright in heart. And the word for "upright" is the same word used in Proverbs 15:8.

So I conclude that there are at least these two essential marks of the upright heart. First, it trembles at the word of God. It feels precarious and helpless and in tremendous need of mercy. Then, second, it trusts the mercy of God to forgive and help and save.

Why Does God Delight in the Prayers of the Upright? 

Why, then, does God delight in the prayers of the upright? He delights in their prayers for the same reason that he abominates the sacrifices of the wicked—because the prayers of the upright are the extension and out working of the heart; but, unlike the heart of the wicked, the heart of the upright magnifies the power and grace of God.

The prayer of the upright is a delight to God because it expresses those affections of the heart which call attention to the all-sufficiency of God.

So this week's text takes us a step beyond last week's. Last week we saw from Psalm 147:11 that "The Lord takes pleasure in those who hope in his love." Today we see that the Lord takes pleasure in prayers that give expression to that hope. The reason our hope is pleasing to God is because it shows that all our joy comes from the bounty of his grace. And the reason our prayers are pleasing to God is because they express this God-exalting hope.

It is a precious thing beyond all words—especially in the hour of death—that we have a God whose nature is such that what pleases him is not our work for him but our need of him.

A Closing Gospel Appeal 

I close with this gospel appeal: glorify the God who made you! Delight the heart of the God who loves you! How? Draw near in prayer to the throne of grace, bow down before its majestic authority, and on your knees drink from the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God (Revelation 22:1).

The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.

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