“For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6
Hosea was a prophet sent of God to the true church in the northern kingdom at a time of great apostasy. The book of Hosea teaches the greatness of God’s faithfulness in light of the grievous sins of His spiritual wife.
The verses preceding our text describe God’s chastisement. God’s chastisement had the purpose of calling His people away from a sinful walk in the way of repentance. The chastisement was accompanied with the amazing promise that God would heal and bind up those His chastisement had torn and smitten (compare Mal. 5:14 with Mal. 6:1). His chastisement may be severe, but it was relatively short (2a). God’s goal in the chastisement was that they would live in His sight, that is, live godly, enjoying His fellowship (2b, 3a), with the assuring promise that as certainly as the morning follows the night, so He would come to them (3b).
There was fruit to the prophet’s preaching. They did turn from idol worship to the formal worship of Jehovah. But Israel/the church was not yet where she had to be, for the repentance they exhibited was shallow and brief—it vanished like the morning dew (4). God expresses through Hosea His grief at the lack of sincerity and depth to their spiritual and religious life. He sent His prophets repeatedly to proclaim His love and to warn them of His judgments (5), but to this point all His chastisements did not result in bringing Israel back to true and complete godliness.
Now in our text the inspired prophet declares that God desires of His people not just repentance but more. Specifically, God desires that His people show that they truly and deeply know and appreciate God’s love and mercy for them. When we really know and appreciate God’s boundless mercy to us, then our hearts are filled with love for Him and mercy toward others.
Their profession of love for God, if sincere, will be demonstrated in mercy for their neighbor.
Notice the Hebrew parallelism found in the text. “Sacrifice” is parallel with “burnt offerings” and “mercy” is parallel with “the knowledge of God.” The close relation between the knowledge of God and mercy is also found in 4:1, “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is not truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.”
The knowledge of God is much more than having a correct intellectual understanding of who and what God is. It is far more than being able to pass a test on theology. In Scripture, to know is to love. When God declares that He foreknew those whom He predestinated (Rom. 8:29), He is declaring that He loved them before He predestinated them. His everlasting love is a powerful demonstration of His grace, for there are no works or merit on man’s part. It is all grace and mercy; an undeserved love and blessing! When God’s loved ones consciously receive His knowledge of them, they render “grateful returns of ardent love to Him” (Canons of Dordt, I, 13). They truly know Him! And this true knowledge of God is always demonstrated in being merciful to others. As the forgiven forgive (Matt. 18:23-35), so those who have true knowledge of God are full of mercy!
We are helped in understanding the truth of our text by considering how Jesus quoted this passage. Twice He used this passage in dealing with the Pharisees. In Matthew 9:13 He used it to condemn the Pharisees who had severely criticized Him for eating with those publicans and sinners who wanted to see Jesus. These publicans and sinners knew themselves to be sick and in need of the Physician. Jesus declared that the Pharisees were without a heart of love and mercy for their repenting neighbors. They were without a love that reflected God’s love. Those who know themselves to be in need of mercy and are receiving divine mercy will show mercy (Luke 6:36).
In Matthew 12:7 Jesus condemned the Pharisees for condemning His disciples for harvesting grain on the Sabbath day. For the Pharisees, proper Sabbath keeping meant a literal keeping of the command not to do any work. Legalism buries the real law (to love God and the neighbor) under a mountain of man-made traditions (Matt. 15:3, 6; 23:23, 24). True Sabbath rest is the joy of rendering grateful returns of ardent love for the finished, perfect work of Jesus by serving God and serving the neighbor with unmerited mercy.
Jesus used Hosea 6:6 to teach the teachers (Pharisees) what God desires of His people, those with whom He has so graciously established the most wonderful relationship. He desires their hearts, their love, which love of Him is inseparably connected with their love of their neighbor.
God implies in this passage that it is possible to offer sacrifices all day long and not know that one’s sinfulness required the sacrifice of God’s beloved Son! Outward actions of worship can be easily performed without a right heart. Another prophet declared that outward activities of worship can easily be a rending of garments and not a rending of the heart (cf. Joel 2).
Israel was easily and quickly satisfied with their traditional worship, their rituals, their lip service, their legalistic obedience. We also can think that merely attending a worship service is all that God requires. The elders saw us in church—twice! We can think that our giving a per-family percentage of the General Fund budget satisfies the requirements asked of us. We can think that our loud singing or our singing in beautiful harmony is sufficient.
But “sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required” (Ps. 40:6). Mere acts of worship without a heart of love are rejected as displeasing to God and are abominations in His eyes. Samuel said, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (I Sam. 15:22). Jesus was saying to the Pharisees what Isaiah said to Judah:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this of your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I can not away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons, and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood (Is. 1:11-15).
Now notice that God calls them to learn what He does require of them: “Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is. 1:17). He requires mercy of them!
Thus we find it also in the more familiar words of Micah:
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:6-8).
God declares that those who have true knowledge of Him who “delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18) will always give evidence of that in their loving mercy.
Just how absolutely horrible insincere acts of worship are is seen in the following verse. “They like men [literally, Adam] have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me” (Hosea 6:7). God had established a relationship with Adam and Adam seriously violated that intimate relationship when he consciously and deliberately chose to disobey the command of loving obedience to his God. The sins of God’s children are far worse than the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah (Is. 1:9, 10). Nothing is worse than hypocritical actions of worship!
God desires mercy. Mercy is a fervent desire to bless, to be kind and useful to those who are in a most miserable condition and who are completely unworthy of receiving any kindness.
Those who know what it is to receive mercy—noth- ing but mercy (for His mercy is new every morning)—will show mercy (Luke 6:36). True mercy flows from a heart that knows God and how abundantly merciful He is to me, the sinner. Knowing God and being merciful to the neighbor always go together. Therefore, “let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord” (Jer. 9:23, 24).
When I am not merciful, then I am not thinking of God’s merciful heart toward me. And I cannot truly show mercy to others unless I, knowing my sinfulness, see God’s constant mercy to me.
Thus God desires a steadfast love, an intimate communion and fellowship. He wants my heart of love. A heart that really knows God relieves the oppressed, the fatherless and the widow. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
Look at the heart of God (really know Him), and know how loved you are. This knowledge will move you to be merciful.