A Humble And Contrite Heart

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”


The tumult and the shouting dies –

   The captains and the kings depart –

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

   An humble and contrite heart.

Lord God of hosts, be with us yet.

     Lest we forget, lest we forget!

                     (Rudyard Kipling in Recessional)


Rudyard Kipling, the youngest ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1907), was something of a reformer even if his genius was in writing children’s stories. A keen observer of the celebratory mood of the British Empire in his day, Kipling was critical of rulers “drunk with the sight of power,” indicated by such boasting as “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

He wrote Recessional in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897) as a warning that empires fall as well as rise, and that they are but transient in the face of God who is permanent. The poem became a hymn that is included in the hymnal of several denominations, including the Anglican Church of Canada and, unexpectedly, the Mormon Church. The above lines are but one of four stanzas. A forceful line in another stanza reads Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Each of the four stanzas ends with “Lest we forget, lest we forget.” Words intended to remind one of the perils of hubris, that sinful pride can destroy a nation. But more recently it is found on epitaphs, meaning something like Lest we forget the sacrifice they made. The line “Lord God of hosts, be with us yet” has Kipling saying that only God can save a nation from sinful pride. Then comes that great line that gives the poem its meaning:

          Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

          An humble and contrite heart.

Since he here describes an humble and contrite heart as an ancient sacrifice, he may be drawing on Psalm 51:17 where the penitent David says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – These O God you will not despise.” This means, of course not the sacrifices that God himself offers, but the sacrifices he is pleased to accept from human kind. This is made clear in the preceding verse: “You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering.” This may be the only instance in Scripture where the heart is depicted as a sacrifice to God – an humble and contrite heart.

Such a heart is given still a different emphasis in Isaiah 66, a section of Isaiah that is sometimes described as “anti-temple” in that it puts down the temple that the former captives in Babylon are building now that they have returned to Jerusalem. “Thus says the Lord: Heaven is My throne, And the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build Me” (Isaiah 66:1)? After rejecting the temple and its sacrifices as all that desirable, the prophet has God saying: “But to this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite heart, and who trembles at My word.”

This is what Kipling is saying in this poem: If the “ancient sacrifice” that pleases God is not the animal sacrifices offered by priests in their sacerdotal robes or the building of a illustrious temple bedecked with gold and silver, then can it be the proud military-industrial complex of the British Empire? The tumult and shouting of military conquest will pass, the victorious captains and kings will retire and be forgotten. Only the sacrifice of a humble and contrite heart will survive.

This leaves us to identify such a heart. I suppose the poor thief who cried out on his cross, “Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom,” had such a heart, as did the lowly publican who said no more than “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And the desperate father who pled with Jesus to heal his dying servant. “You don’t have to come, just say the word,” he said in simple trusting faith.

But sometimes a story tells it best. It is an old rabbinic story – and the rabbis were great storytellers. Here’s the story:

There were three Jews who traveled to a distant city to hear a famous rabbi, but they planned poorly for their journey and were soon out of food. They decided on a ruse that would cause people to provide provisions for the rest of their journey. One of them would dress as a rabbi, which would elicit almsgiving. It worked. People in the next town showered the pseudo-rabbi with plenty. But while there a notable man of the village asked the supposed rabbi if he would come and pray for his son who was nigh unto death. Unable to escape his predicament he went with the man and prayed for his son.

The grateful father provided the three visitors with supplies and even a wagon for the rest of their trip. They went on to their destination and enjoyed themselves, but they were apprehensive about returning through the same town and meeting up with the man who had befriended them. But as they approached the village the man came running to them, waving his arms and rejoicing. Embracing the fake rabbi, he cried out, “How can I thank you! it was within an hour of your prayer that my son was well again.”

Once to themselves again the two friends of the “rabbi” accosted him with, “What’s going on? Are you really a rabbi and never told us? What happened?” the humbled “rabbi” then told them he was smitten when that poor man asked him with such faith to pray for his dying son. He said he went into the boy’s room alone, knelt beside his bed, and prayed:

          God of our fathers, have mercy!

          As you know, I am a fake, one to be despised.

          This dying boy’s father think I am a rabbi,

          In profound faith he asked me to pray for his son.

          And I pray that in your great mercy,

          You will heal this body, not for my sake,

          For I deserve nothing, but for the father’s sake.