Hosea 6:6 reads, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Why does God desire love and knowledge of Him instead of burnt offerings?
The key to answering this question is found in the words of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Love for God was the number-one priority for the people of Israel. The whole Law, including the offerings and sacrifices, was to serve as an expression of this love for the Lord.
However, over time the Israelites began to worship other gods while continuing the ritual of the sacrifices. They “obeyed the Law,” yet they did not display love toward God, and they did not truly know Him. Hosea’s message was a response to Israel’s hypocrisy. God desired their love over external practices of piety. He longed for His people to long for Him rather than simply continue a religious tradition.
Scripture often notes that sacrifices to God are incomplete and even offensive without a changed heart that loves and knows the Lord. First Samuel 15:22 says, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (See also Isaiah 1:11-17; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 7:21-23.) The same is said of other religious rituals, such as circumcision (Romans 2:28-29).
Jesus would later use Hosea’s teaching against the hypocritical Pharisees, saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13; cf. 12:7). Without a loving relationship with God, all the rituals in the world couldn’t help the Pharisees.
With the coming of Jesus Christ, the Law was fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). As a result, Christians have no command to obey the Jewish Old Testament ceremonial laws. However, the principle of Hosea 6:6 is still relevant. Many religious people participate in Christian rituals, yet their hearts do not love God and seek to know Him. Those who practice empty rituals should heed Hosea’s words. God cares more about our heart’s love for Him than the things that we do in His name. We must not substitute religious traditions for a relationship with God. May we never be like those whom Jesus described: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).