“I desire hesed, not sacrifice”: What is the theological connection between Hosea 6:6 and similar OT statements?

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Eric Tully’s Advanced Hebrew Exegesis of Hosea course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Please note: I use the Hebrew Bible’s chapter and verse references below, which can at times be different than what one will find in our English translations.

In 6:6, YHWH says, חסד חפצתי ולא־זבח (lit. “I desire hesed and not sacrifice”). We find similar sentiments throughout the OT. Given the abundant occurrence of this theme, the interpreter and Biblical theologian do well to investigate this theme. In particular, we will examine the theological connection between these other Old Testament texts and Hosea 6:6. In so doing, we will arrive at a more holistic and Biblically-theologically informed position regarding Hosea’s statement, חסד חפצתי ולא־זבח.

In 1 Sam 15 Saul directly disobeyed God by saving the good livestock among the spoils of war rather than destroying everything as God had commanded. Saul defended himself by claiming that they were spared for the purpose of sacrificing them to YHWH. But Samuel responded that God has greater delight in obedience than sacrifices (1 Sam 15:22-23). In Ps 40:6-8 the Psalmist cries that God has not required sacrifices; but his (the Psalmist’s) desire is to obey God’s will. In Ps 50 God declares that He has not prescribed sacrifices as if He were in need. Therefore, He commands, cease making sacrifices the end and make the goal actual obedience. According to Ps 51:16-17, the sacrifice that God truly desires is a broken spirit, or in Prov 21:3, righteousness and justice (cf. Mic 6:6-8). It is not sacrifice ex opere operato that pleases God, for “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to YHWH” (Prov 15:8;). When abused, even those things that God prescribed have become the very thing God detests (Isa 11:11-17; 66:3; Amos 5:21-25). To abstain from sacrifice but seek YHWH earnestly and reverently is better than to make offerings foolishly (Ecc 5:1; cf. Isa 66:2). In Jer 7:21-23, God even states He did not command Israel’s ancestors concerning sacrifices (when in fact He did) in order to emphasize that His ultimate desire in redeeming Israel from Egypt was obedience and relationship.

In sum, when God states, חסד חפצתי ולא־זבח, God is not condemning sacrifice as if He is somehow self-conflicting, for God Himself demanded sacrifices. Rather, He condemns the abuse of such prescribed worship, which then is no true worship at all. [1] Worshiping God apart from sincere reverence (cf. וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים) and allowing such reverence to pervade one’s lifestyle is worthless and totally misses what God truly desires (חָפַ֖צְתִּי). No sacrifice or burnt offering can substitute a sincere pursuit of God, both genuinely knowing Him (וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים) and its corresponding obedience (חֶסֶד).[2] The sacrifices and offerings were never an end in and of themselves. God’s desire was for relationship with His people—a relationship initiated by God with means provided by God. The sacrifices were a provision towards that end. They made provision for God to dwell amidst a sinful people. Therefore, to make these sacrifices the end in themselves was to short-circuit their entire purpose and fail to achieve God’s true desire.

[1] As Calvin (231) says, we could paraphrase this, “Mercy pleases me more than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God pleases me more than burnt-offerings” (emphasis added). He says, “When the Prophet says that sacrifice does not please God, he speaks, no doubt, comparatively; for God does not positively repudiate sacrifices enjoined in his own law; but he prefers faith [וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים] and love [חֶסֶד] to them… It then appears that God is not inconsistent with himself, as though he rejected sacrifices which he himself had appointed; but that he condemns the preposterous abuse of them, in which hypocrites gloried.”

[2] Interestingly, this passage combines what Jesus would later argue are the two greatest commandments—love of God (וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים) and love of man (חֶסֶד).