(4) What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. (5) Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgement goes forth as the light. (6) For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
In yesterday’s reading, we thought about Hosea’s call to the people to repent. Now we have God’s assessment of their response to the prophet’s message. There had been an initial response, but it had turned out to be short-lived (like the evening dew) and shallow (the love that they had expressed was not steadfast love). They had heard Hosea’s call and made a resolution to change. But a resolution is not the same as repentance.
The obvious feature of this divine assessment is the emotional element that is expressed by God. They are words of deep disappointment and regret. We don’t often imagine that God reacts in such a way to the behaviour of his backsliding people. Yet he is interested in them and concerned about where they are going.
We are not to think that the Lord had run out of ways by which he could restore them (v. 4). Instead his words of regret highlight the perversity of both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in treating with disdain the good promises of God.
This rejection of the Lord was long-term and deliberate (v. 5). He had sent them many prophets to warn them of what would happen if they continued in their departure from him. The threats had now come true (the experience is likened to being hewn with an axe, with God wielding it). The fulfilment of his warnings was very sore. Furthermore the judgement was very comprehensive (it was as extensive as the light is at sunrise).
What did the Lord want from his people? ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ This requirement does not mean that he despised the Old Testament sacrificial system. Instead it means that external religious practices are meaningless and sinful unless they are accompanied by true inner expressions of delight in God.
Jesus twice referred to verse 6 (from its rendering in the Septuagint which reads, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’), and on both occasions he was condemning the Pharisees for their religious behaviour. They had responded to sinful practices by inventing and expanding cruel expressions of legalism, which of course was not evidence of repentance. In contrast to such behaviour, the kingdom of Jesus is marked by mercy, which is the way covenant love reveals itself and shows that we have true knowledge of God.