“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). These words give us an important glimpse into the heart of God. Jesus even quoted them on two occasions. Unfortunately, some have used them as “proof” that substitutionary atonement is false, that this notion is “just what Christ resisted.”
Our first rule in biblical interpretation is “Never read a Bible verse.” We have to look at the verse in its context. In this case, you only have to read the rest of the verse to start getting the idea:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
In the parallelism of this verse, we see mercy equated to the acknowledgment of God. Look farther out and we see God complain that their love is as fleeting as “the morning mist” (v4), they have broken the covenant (v7), and they have become wicked and defiled (v8ff).
Like in Isaiah 58, God is complaining that the people of Israel perform religious rituals without concerning themselves with those matters that are important to God – loving people and obeying God in every matter.
This is how Jesus applied this passage in Matthew 12. The Pharisees were more concerned with rules than with feeding the hungry, and Jesus showed them that even God’s law could bend to show kindness to people.
Jesus was not telling us to ignore God’s laws but warning us that sacrifices, tithes, and fasting are no substitute for “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).
If in everything we do we seek to love God and love people we’re going to be ok because “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
2 Bad Arguments Against Substitutionary Atonement
All for Good?
Will God Give You What You Desire?