For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6 ESV)
Jesus quoted the first half of this verse when he confronted the Pharisees. When they reviled him for eating with sinners and outcasts, he told them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13).
He gave them a homework. He told them to do some serious personal Bible study or discuss this Scripture in their small groups. And they need to ponder its implications.
Why? They know their Scripture but they don’t care to apply it. All they care about is their external display of their religion. As long as they were faithful in doing the externals like observing purification rituals and the offering of sacrifices, for them those were the things that matter.
For them, but not for God. Yes, he also desires that his people offer sacrifices and observe purification rituals. That is why he commanded it. But that is not the end he has in mind.
The language of Scripture is so strong as to make the impression that God doesn’t want any of those things, “I don’t want your sacrifices!” God wants to emphasize here that external religion is not the point. The external must point to the internal. Outward religion must be an overflow or an expression of the inward realities of the heart.
Knowing God and loving others should be the desires of those who offer sacrifices – or for today, those who go to church, those who preach God’s Word, those who pray in public, those who lead in worship, those who give their money to the church and to the poor, those who are active in church ministries, and those who are involved in missions.
If not, all outward displays of our religion are worthless. But if we do, the sacrifices we offer to God are a pleasing aroma, fully acceptable to him.
Most Pharisees didn’t get it. We Christians today are also having a hard time getting it.
So Jesus is giving us a homework.
Not to google the meaning of “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
But to search our hearts with all honesty before God, repent of our hypocrisy, and ask that he renew our hearts so that we begin and continue to desire what his heart desires.