I have been reading through the history books of the Old Testament as well as the prophets lately. Yesterday morning juxtaposed Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 28) and Hosea 6. Hezekiah, one of the few good kings of Judah, sought to bring his kingdom back to the Lord. One of the ways he did that was to renew the sacrifices to the LORD in the temple. Then I flip over to Hosea and read this familiar verse that we usually hear interpreted along the lines of “God doesn’t really like sacrifices.”
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Hosea 6:6 (ESV)
I think we have been misreading this verse, at least in circles in which I have spent most of my life. If God didn’t like them, he would not have been so exacting in explaining to Moses how Israel was to offer them.
If we shift from God-man to lover-beloved and think through this, it makes sense. (There is a reason God equates idolatry with adultery in many of the prophets—most graphically in Hosea with his marriage to Gomer.) Consider a wife whose husband is being unfaithful. Maybe not even full-blown adultery; perhaps he is just showing a lot of affection to someone or something else.
Our hypothetical wife will notice the shift in two areas, the more quantifiable being “you don’t bring me flowers anymore.” The less quantifiable, but more serious is, “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.” Addressing the former doesn’t necessarily fix the latter. Our wife doesn’t want flowers for their own sake. She wants the affection and attention of her husband.
This is the same situation we see in Israel (and Judah after the kingdom split). They repeatedly left God in order to engage in idolatry with other Gods. When they did this, normally the proper worship in the temple faded away. Even when it remained, it was hollow and more of an offense to God than no worship at all. Flowers don’t fix the effects of a one-night stand with your secretary.
With this is mind, we look at Hezekiah. He seeks to bring Judah back to God and away from the other gods they have been chasing. The temple worship resumes. Is he violating the injunction issued by Hosea? (For now, never mind that Hosea was a prophet in Israel not Judah.)
The answer is that it’s hard to tell. I tend to be quick to attribute good motives and the work of the Holy Spirit to the actions of the few “good kings” in the Old Testament. But just as I wrote the other day, sometimes it doesn’t seem to be enough. Only God can truly judge the heart. We have a very difficult time trying to do it from a few paragraphs written long ago and far away.
God likes liturgy and the words of Hosea 6:6 do nothing to abrogate that. What it says is the same thing an angry, jealous spouse says when presented with flowers. “You don’t mean that.” God wants our heart and he wants our actions to flow from that love. He desires our sacrifice and worship.
The problem Israel often faced is that they tended to view the temple as their vending machine of divine blessing. We put bulls and sheep in, God’s blessing comes out, just like all the other gods we serve. To that, God says, “Keep it.”
God desires our gifts as a token of our affections, not in place of them. Let us pursue steadfast love and knowledge without abandoning the other. In fact, the more we know and love him, the more we will want to give him.