What does God want form us; what sort of religion is he interested in? Here the prophet Hosea answers this question for the ancient Israelites. But it’s an answer with timeless relevance, not least because centuries later Jesus twice quotes Hosea’s message when correcting the Pharisees (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). It’s important we learn this lesson too. Hosea and Jesus are warning us against one of the devils most subtle tricks: false security from distorted religion.
First, what situation / who did Hosea’s original prophesy address? After the golden age of King David, then Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel split in two. The ten Northern tribes broke away, led by Jeroboam son of Nebat. This Northern Kingdom is the ‘Israel’ Hosea is primarily addressing. The book of Kings describes how successive rulers of this Northern Kingdom ‘followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat’(2 Kings 13:2). Basically Jeroboam established a hybrid religion through which the Israelites attempted to win favour from various ‘Gods’, primarily through sacrifice and ritual. It was characteristic of local pagan religions to emphasise such things rather than moral teaching.
Hosea point’s out that this sort of religion is not pleasing to the true God. He desires something more than religious ritual ‘“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”’. What exactly does this mean? The word translated ‘mercy’ here (‘hesed’) has special theological significance. It could alternatively be translated ‘constant love’ or ‘steadfast love’. In the Old Testament this word refers almost exclusively to God’s love towards His people. It’s a love that’s undeserved, self giving, reliable: the LOVE OF GOD. Hosea’s point is that although sacrifices are part of what God prescribes in the Old Testament, they are not primarily what God desires. Rituals serve a purpose (for example the burnt offering signified total devotion to God, and the guilt/sin offering showed sin must have a penalty), but what God primarily wants from us is ‘hesed’. He wants us to reflect His love, both back to Himself and out towards others. As Jesus put it, ‘“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”’(Matthew 22:37-40). This is not surprising since ‘God is love’(1 John 4:8&16) and ‘God created man in his own image’(Genesis 1:27). He wants us to be what he intended.
The Israelites however were not fostering a loving community. As Hosea put it, ‘There is cursing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break boundaries,’(Hosea 4:2). Even worse, pagan practices had totally corrupted their religious rituals: ‘the men… sacrifice with the shrine prostitutes’(Hosea 4:14); ‘‘They offer human sacrifice’’(Hosea 13:2).
Imagine the Jewish Pharisees horror when Jesus compared them to these idolatrous Israelites. But in fact the Pharisees were falling into a similar trap. They emphasised religious observance to the neglect of love. In Matthew chapter 9, the Pharisees disapproved of Jesus defiling himself by reaching out in love to the then corrupt Matthew and his friends. Similarly in chapter 12, they disapproved when the hungry disciples ate some corn as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. In fact this was entirely lawful according to Deuteronomy 23:25, but the Pharisees had added a rule to say this should not be done on the Sabbath. They had turned the Sabbath into a religious burden when it was supposed to be a day of rest and recuperation prescribed for us by a loving God. Mark records Jesus adding ‘“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”’(Mark 2:27). As Matthew records Jesus saying, ‘“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.”’(Matthew 23:23)
We must beware of falling into the same trap. The greatest danger for evangelicals is thinking that believing Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins is all God expects from us, like holding a ritual piece of saving knowledge in our heads. In fact this is simply to understand salvation’s mechanism of action. We must not neglect the more important matter of what we’ve been saved for: to bask in and reflect God’s love. As James put it, ‘Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith’(James 2:18). Above all else God wants us, through our relationship with Him, to express His own supreme attribute: hesed – divine love.