Summary: The religion of sacrifice vs. the way of mercy. God made the sacrifice and shows the mercy!
Have you ever received an apology that wasn’t sincere? Somebody does something to hurt you, and in order to win you back, they say they’re sorry. In spite of their good-sounding words, you know they don’t mean it. You can tell by the tone of their voice and the look in their eyes that they aren’t really sorry, and they don’t really want to change their behavior. Sometimes, such apologies hurt just as bad as what they did to you in the first place. Can you imagine how God feels when we do that to him?
God’s charge against Israel was that “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery.” (4:1b-2a) They had become evil and corrupt, infected with the idolatrous ways of the world. Yet, through it all, they still maintained the outward appearance of worship. They observed the appointed religious festivals, and they brought the proper sacrifices that were required by the law. Obviously, this kind of charade didn’t fool God. So God said that he would hide himself from them until they admitted their guilt and earnestly sought his face.
Oh, they tried to tell God they were sorry, and on the surface, it sounded good. They said, “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.” (6:1-3)
That’s what they wanted. When they talked to God they expected the soft, soothing rain of a springtime shower. Instead, they got a storm! God said to them, “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you. (6:4-5)
Their understanding of God was seriously flawed. They treated him like a machine: put in your quarter (your offering, your sacrifice, or whatever) and out comes forgiveness. They wanted him to act according to their expectations, but they weren’t willing to act according to his. They brought God their pocket change, but God was looking for a change of heart. He wanted more than just “lip service”. He said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (6:6)
THE WAY OF SACRIFICE
At this point, someone might say, “But didn’t God command them to offer sacrifices?” And the answer would be, “Yes.” In Leviticus, there are five types of offerings they had to give: burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and trespass offerings. There are also seven festivals they were required to observe: The Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
In fact, it is fair to say the average Israelite in Old Testament times probably had to work harder at his or her religion than most Christians work on their faith in modern times! There were an awful lot of rules and regulations they had to keep track of—and today, we think we’re doing well if we can just keep the Ten Commandments straight!
The problem is that the people, for all their outward piety, missed the point of what they were doing. They came to see their religion as an obligation to be fulfilled rather than a relationship with the living God! They also didn’t see the connection between their worship life and the way they treated other people the rest of the time.
Before we become too critical of them, however, it is important for us to examine our own lives to see if we’re not guilty of the same thing! How many times do we just run through the words of the Confession, Creed, or Lord’s Prayer without really thinking about what we’re doing? Do we give our worship of God any more thought than the countless other rituals that make up our daily routine, like brushing our teeth or tying our shoes? Or do we simply think that if we can check off one more Sunday that somehow God will be happy with us—that he will somehow let us into heaven if here on earth we have patiently endured the “Purgatory of the Pew”? Have we stood up at the Communion rail without giving any thought to the body and blood of our Lord, there for us to eat and drink? Have we pictured Baptism as a kind of magic incantation that automatically entitles us to heaven, without ever giving any thought to its daily significance in our lives or our promise to remain faithful, renouncing the devil and all his works and ways? Even pastors, if they are honest, will admit that it’s all too easy to just “turn on the autopilot” on Sunday morning.