Mercy, not sacrifice
If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matt. 12:7 NIV)Jesus' remark in Matt. 12:7 arose during a controversy with the Pharisees over Sabbath laws. In it, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea (Hos. 6:6) in order to demonstrate how empty the Pharisees’ adherence to the letter of the Law was. He had used this same quotation in another controversy with the Pharisees (Matt. 9:10-13), with essentially the same import. But, by citing Hosea, Jesus was saying more than that—He was making it clear that the Law and the Prophets intended something far deeper than restricted behavior from the very outset—and that Jesus was not merely a revisionist.
So, what does it mean, when God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”? (Hos. 6:6a)
The key word is “mercy.” The Old Testament uses chesed, the Hebrew word translated “mercy,” numerous times, usually meaning God’s mercy towards sinners, Israel, or a specific person. In this context, “mercy” is the action of God withholding His just wrath (Gen. 19:19; 20:13; 24:27; 32:10; 39:21; Ex. 15:13; 34:6,7; Num. 14:18,19; Deut. 5:10; 7:9). It can also mean kindness or generosity (Gen. 21:23; 24:12, Josh. 2:12,14). Some examples of kindness towards one another are found in Gen. 40:14; 47:29. The Psalmist uses the word abundantly, 128 times, particularly in the repeated formula in Ps. 136, “His mercy endures forever,” but also many other places. In Ps. 136, the AV renders the word as “mercy;” NIV and the Message, “love;” ASV, NASB, Darby, “lovingkindness;” Young, “kindness;” NLT, “faithful love;” ESV, “steadfast love.” It is a favorite word in the Old Testament in describing the Lord’s favor.
One difficulty we have with the meaning of the passage is that our word, “mercy,” has narrowed in meaning since the time of the AV translation (1611). It is now restricted to the legal sense of “mercy,” to specific acts or institutions of charitableness, and to the withholding of punishment. It is evident that the envelope of meaning attached to chesed is far broader. When Jesus used the word, it doubtless had the meaning that the Old Testament attaches to it, not our more restricted meaning in English.
Some of the Old Testament usages clearly refer to covenant behavior, that is, God showing mercy in response to fidelity to the covenant. But the usage in Hosea 6:6 is different in an important way, that is, it describes an attitude of man rather than God. This does not require its meaning therefore to be fundamentally different, but it does mean that the assumptions one makes about the “mercy” of God do not necessarily hold as applied to man.
C. H. Toy (Quotations in the New Testament, 1884) wrote that what God wanted from Israel was a heart in accord with Himself. Gaebelein (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1979) asserted that eleos, the Greek word for “mercy,” as a translation for the Hebrew chesed, is close in meaning to “covenant love.” These two analyses point, I think, in a common direction.
We also have two clues, close by, as to the meaning of “mercy” in the context of Hosea. One is the usage of chesed in Hosea 6:4 (though the AV translators rendered it as “goodness” and the NIV translators, “love,” the underlying Hebrew word is directly related). In verse 4, whatever the feature being talked about is, it comes and goes. Such language certainly speaks of fidelity (or the lack of it) to Israel’s covenant responsibilities.
The second clue is in the second half of verse 6, “and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6b NIV) Hosea was strongly poetical throughout his book, and he reported the Lord’s speech in the form of synonymous parallelism, that is, the two halves of the verse are analogous to each other. This means that “mercy” has approximately the same relationship to “sacrifice” as “acknowledgment of God” has to “burnt offerings.” Since burnt offerings and sacrifices refer to essentially the same thing, one must conclude that mercy and acknowledgement of God are, if not the same thing, at least strongly related, that is, they both describe the deeper adherence to the covenant relationship of Israel to its God than mere sacrifices.
Thus, the verse contrasts the classic antitheses of appearance versus reality, form versus substance, and ultimately, faithfulness versus hypocrisy. The word rendered here as “mercy” is loaded with meaning, and the accusation implicit in it is damning in the most literal sense.
Finally, let’s not forget Who is speaking. It is the Lord telling us, “I desire…” If no other lesson can be derived from the Bible, there is this, that when God wants something, either He gets it or there is an accounting. In quoting Hosea 6:6, Jesus not only exposed the Pharisees’ weakness and sin but their danger as well.
It is not unusual to study a text of Scripture and to find layer after layer of rich meaning imbedded in it and its surrounding context and background, for much of the Bible is like that. But few passages are so densely packed as these, the two episodes with Jesus, and the passage from Hosea, a “minor” prophet who has the temerity to proclaim what God “wants.”
I am going to step out on a limb and suggest that what God wants, what these passages are talking about, is well described by the word “friendship.” (John 15:14,15) He wanted His people to keep His Law, not just because of the alternative of punishment, but because He is good, just, loving, and merciful, worthy of friendship and allegiance. God called Abraham His friend (Isaiah 41:8), because Abraham believed God and did what God commanded, in awe before God's majesty. In this age of grace, He still wants the same thing, goodness and mercy, justice and neighbor-love, all the products of a heart that is a friend to God. C. H. Toy was right: God wants people to learn how to have a heart like His. And He sends His Spirit to us to create that new heart. (Rom. 8:14)
The Law was a framework for grace, for friendship, for peace between God and man for the building of a people who would ultimately harbor the Son. Their rejection of the Son was the last straw (Matt. 21:33-42) in a long-term relationship that had gone wrong at almost every turn.
The Pharisees did not understand Hosea 6:6 rightly for the same reason that they did not understand the Law rightly. Jesus accused them, through the Hosea quotation, of the most extreme hypocrisy, adherence to form while omitting the substance, feigning allegiance to the Lord while practicing idolatry in their hearts. Numerous times, Israel had been told the secret of their relationship to God: “the Lord will circumcise thine heart,” (Deut. 30:6) and “Rend your heart, not your garments,” (Joel 2:13) etc. Moreover, Hosea was not the only one to record the Lord’s displeasure with outward form without inward substance. There is Isaiah,
“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates…” — Isaiah 1:13,14 (NIV)
"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
— Amos 5:21-24 (NIV)
And the Pharisees had ignored it, explained it all away.
Don’t forget: when we read about the Pharisees, we are reading about ourselves. For, each of us was as dead as a Pharisee inside before Jesus called us into life. We cannot ignore the latent (let alone, active) Pharisee, the hair-splitting legalist, the self-righteous bigot, the seeker of salvation through works, the religiously respectable, in ourselves. So, now the question comes to us.
This is the Great Divide: what do we love better than friendship with God? Are there formalities that we Christians honor above true worship and service? Do we love the sounds of other voices better than His Word? Are we giving lip service to God while hiding idolatry in our hearts? Are we willing to admit the breadth of meaning that can attach to “idolatry?” (Col. 3:5)
Jesus’ teaching here cannot be ignored. Are we listening? Are our Christian institutions teaching and practicing “sacrifice” rather than “mercy,” and are we standing by silently while they do so?
I can hear it now from faithful readers: “Yes, but at my church…” Yes, I know, and at my church, too. I regularly find the service deeply meaningful, the liturgy satisfying, the sermon to be uplifting spiritual food, and so on. Often, I feel that the sermon or message had a singular meaning for me, that the Lord was speaking to me in a special way through the service.
But I challenge you today (and me, too) to hear the words of Jesus in Matt. 9:13, to go and learn what this means, “I want mercy, not sacrifice.” Jesus intends for us to understand this. He wants us to realize the capacity to be friends with God, through Himself. He wants us to ignore appearances and seek the reality, to avoid formalities and seek the substance, to be faithful and avoid hypocrisy. He has rich blessings in store for those who make the effort. It begins with seeking the Kingdom, and then all the other things will be added, as He promised. (Matt. 6:33)
There is more. The church is being purified in our era, and all that is not gold will be burned away. How much of our life, both individually and corporately, is empty traditions or hollow ritual? Probably more than we want to admit—more even than we suspect. Well, the Lord, who is the Lord of the Sabbath, can breathe life into the deadest things (like me) and raise any of them to be living, loving, caring partners in His ministry to the world. If we hold onto the empty and the hollow, we will lose more than an opportunity.