As we go about the business of serving God, there are many
distractions along the way. We go to church, we sing, we pray, we listen to the
sermon or class, we take the Lord's Supper, and we suppose we have done our
duty. We have done "God's will in God's way". But, because of the repetitive
nature of these acts, we sometimes go through the motions without any
participation of the mind and heart. In Hosea 6, the prophet complains that
Israel had done this. They thought that, if they offered the prescribed
sacrifices, they could devote their affections to themselves and even to idol
For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6 NKJV).
The Hebrew word for "mercy" in this passage is a hugely important term in the Old Testament, something like "agape" in the N.T. The word is "hesed" (H2617). It is used 248 times in the O.T. In the KJV, it is translated "mercy" 149 times, "kindness" 40 times, and "loving kindness" 30 times. It is translated by other similar words 27 times.
Thus, in our passage, the word expresses a tender affection that should be directed to God. In Matt. 9:13, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He reminded them of this passage in Hosea. They were offering sacrifices. They practiced their religion with incredible fastidiousness, but they didn't love God. And they had no tender compassion for their fellow man. Their religion was defined by pickiness and faultfinding.
"I desire" - The whole idea of religious activity is to give God what He desires.
"Mercy" - "Hesed" may include loving kindness, loyalty and holiness. In the Maccabean period, the righteous were called the "Hasidim", "godly", "devout".
"Not sacrifice" - Of course, God did want sacrifice. He instituted sacrifice at the dawn of creation. From Adam to Christ, He required animal sacrifice. This is one of those "not/but" statements in which one thing is negated in order that something else may be emphasized. He desired sacrifice, but He desired hesed, "loving kindness", even more. Note the last line: "...more than burnt offerings".
"The knowledge of God" - "Knowledge" can mean accumulated facts. But, in the Bible, it often means more. It refers to an intimate personal relationship. It is good to know a lot about God. Many atheists know about God. But they have no personal relationship with Him. They have no love for Him. God desires that we walk with Him in close personal fellowship.
So, we need to avoid this robotic execution of religious deeds and words. Whatever we do for God, it is important to remember that worship offered without thought and feeling is empty, futile and unacceptable.
By Jay Bowman
From Expository Files 13.11; November 2006