I. “Learn what this means…”
Thoughts on ḥesed
… [Jesus] said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matt. 9:12-13 AV)
This dramatic moment with the Pharisees came at dinner—Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, while the Pharisees observed, outraged at Jesus’ “mixing” with these unrespectable people (9:10-11). Jesus’ answer embraced, with stunning brevity, both His calling and its purpose. But sandwiched in the middle of His answer is a short quotation from the prophet Hosea and a stern admonition to “go and learn what that means.”
So, what does it mean when God says, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice…”? (Hos. 6:6a)
The Old Testament uses ḥesed, the Hebrew word translated “mercy” in the AV, numerous times, usually meaning God’s ḥesed towards sinners, Israel, or a specific person. In that context, ḥesed is God withholding His just wrath (Gen. 19:19; 20:13; 24:27; 32:10; 39:21; Ex. 15:13; 34:6,7; Num. 14:18,19; Deut. 5:10; 7:9). It can also mean kindness or generosity (Gen. 21:23; 24:12, Josh. 2:12,14). The Psalmist uses the word abundantly, 128 times, particularly in the repeated formula in Ps. 136, “His ḥesed endures forever.” In Ps. 136, the NIV and the Message render the word, “love;” ASV, NASB, Darby, “lovingkindness;” Young, “kindness;” NLT, “faithful love;” ESV, “steadfast love.” Ḥesed is a favorite word in the Old Testament to describe the Lord’s character, far broader than our modern word, “mercy.”
But the use of ḥesed in Hosea 6:6 is different: it is applied to man rather than God. C. H. Toy wrote, concerning this verse, that what God wanted from Israel was a heart in accord with Himself. Gaebelein (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1979) asserted that eleos, the Greek word for “mercy,” as a translation for the Hebrew ḥesed, is close in meaning to “covenant love.”
We also have two clues, close by, as to the meaning of ḥesed in the context of Hosea. One is the use of ḥesed in Hosea 6:4 that speaks of fidelity, and the lack of it, to Israel’s covenant responsibilities, in that it that comes and goes.
The second clue is in the second half of verse 6, “… and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6b AV) Understood as synonymous parallelism, the verse is saying that ḥesed has approximately the same relationship to “sacrifice” as “knowledge of God” to “burnt offerings.” “Burnt offerings” are “sacrifices”, so we conclude that ḥesed and “knowledge of (or intimacy with) God” are, if not the same thing, at least strongly related.
I am going to step out on a limb and suggest that what God wants is well described by “friendship”—friendship of the very best kind, intimate and loyal. God wanted His people to keep His Law, not merely to avoid punishment, but because He is good, just, loving, and merciful, and thus worthy of friendship and allegiance. God called Abraham His friend because Abraham believed God and did what God commanded. In this age of grace, He still wants the same thing, goodness and mercy, justice and neighbor-love, all the products of a heart that is a friend to God. God wants us to have a heart like His heart. And He sends His Spirit to us to create that heart.
Robert McAnally Adams is a retired mathematician and curator of The Christian Quotation of the Day. See cqod.com