Mercy and not sacrifice

by David H. Petersen

Hosea 6:1–6 is a familiar section of Holy Scripture:

“Come, and let us return to the Lord; For He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; On the third day He will raise us up, That we may live in His sight. Let us know, Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord. His going forth is established as the morning; He will come to us like the rain, Like the latter and former rain to the earth. ‘O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, And like the early dew it goes away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; And your judgments are like light that goes forth. For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings’” (Hosea 6:1–6, NKJV).

This is a beautiful example both of what the Old Testament is all about and of the interplay between Law and Gospel. Hosea explains that the Lord preaches the Law to us for the sake of the Gospel. He has torn us in order to heal us, has struck us down to bind us up. The Physician is of no value to those who don’t know they are sick.

“On the third day, He will raise us up.” The resurrection of Jesus on the third day is certainly fore-shown here, but this clause is also typical of how the Lord operates on us. This phrase, “third day,” is slightly vague in Hosea. Because of how days were counted in Hebrew, “the third day” can mean “the day after tomorrow,” but it can also convey the idea of something in the very near future whose exact time isn’t known, much in the way that we might say “two or three.”

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is lived out in the life of the Christian. We live in the in-between time, the time of sorrows. But this time of sorrow is limited. It will not last forever. Relief is coming. Some of that relief comes it fits and spurts. We get glimpses of it. We feel joy, gratitude and peace now, in part. We know something of beauty and acceptance and love. But it is not yet perfect and full. Soon, as surely as Jesus rose, it will be. We will be revived.

Then the speaker shifts. This is often the case in the Old Testament. They didn’t use the sort of indicators that we are accustomed to in modern writing to indicate the speaker. Thus we have to pay close attention to the words. Without warning, Hosea stops speaking about God and God Himself starts speaking, through Hosea, in the first person. Hosea had been explaining to us how God uses the Law for the sake of the Gospel and then suddenly God Himself is bringing some heavy Law down upon us. Our love has been shallow, fleeting and fickle, like morning dew. Because of this the Lord has hewn and is hewing us by the prophets, even by Hosea. He is preaching the Law to slay us. This He does because He desires mercy and not sacrifice, faith not burnt offerings.

Jesus quotes this critical passage in Matthew 13: “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Matthew 9:11–13).

When Jesus says “go and learn what this means,” we ought to pay close attention. He does not use this passage from Hosea simply to demonstrate that He is guilt-free in eating with tax collectors and sinners. He uses it to explain His entire purpose, person and mission. This phrase “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” lays bare the heart of the Father. He desires mercy; that is, He desires to be merciful and does not desire works to appease His wrath.

This is the peculiar light, the light of the Gospel, that is needed to understand all of the Scriptures and also all of our suffering. That is why we must learn what it means. God is not impotent. What He desires, He obtains. He desires to be merciful to us, to heal us, to bind up what was torn, and to revive us. Thus has He taken up our flesh and made atonement for our sins in Himself. He desires us and He gets us. He eats with tax collectors and calls sinners to Himself and we are saved.

As surely as Jesus rose, He will raise us.

The Rev. David H. Petersen is the pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind.

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