I’ve brought up this question before, but it bears examination again: Why should New Testament Christians study the Old Testament? Well, there are a few good reasons which most fairly mature believers commonly cite. First and foremost it tells us more about Christ. If all you know about your Savior is found in the New Testament, then your knowledge about him is woefully incomplete. Second, it shows us our desperate need for a Savior. As Paul said, through the Law we have a deeper understanding of how bad sin really is. He also said that the Law was like a tutor (actually, more like a “Nanny”) whose job it was to ultimately lead us to Christ.
But there’s a third purpose which a lot of Christians miss, and it’s really important to get this. The Old Testament, both the Law and the Prophets, is also there to give us insight into the mind of God. What’s important to him? What are his priorities, and what aren’t? When he tells us not to commit adultery, that says something about the value he places on marriage. Those values, those priorities, do not change, never ever ever. As you might have guessed, if you want more on this specific subject, I’ve talked about this before here, here, here, and here.
That brings us to today’s passage. The first verse makes it sound like Israel was repenting, but the scholars I’ve read seem in agreement that this is a shallow repentance. Their love for him was “like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” Of course this is saying that their love for him was fickle, here one moment and then gone without a trace the next.
What does he want from them? Well, here’s where I’m going to have to express a slight disagreement with my favorite translation, the NIV. It renders what God wants in verse 6 as “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” If you recall, one of my favorite words in Hebrew is chesed, which is translated as “love,” “lovingkindness (in older translations),” and “unfailing love.” It can also be translated as “mercy,” which the NIV does here. But in the context of the rest of the chapter, it seems like the best translation, as per the NASB is “loyalty” or, per the NET Bible “faithfulness.” They were being unfaithful to the Lord, and he’s calling them back to faithfulness.
Why did the NIV translate it as “mercy”? Well, my guess is that they let the N.T. affect how they translated it. You see, this seems to be one of Jesus’ favorite quotes from the O.T. In the book of Matthew, he cites it not once but twice. In Matthew chapter nine he calls the tax collector (who'd eventually write the Gospel which bears his name) from his booth to be a disciple/apostle. The religious leaders (of course) had a problem with this, and this was where he quoted the verse to them, and it’s rendered thus: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The Greek is really clear, and Matthew (under the Spirit’s inspiration) used that Greek word (eleos) to translate from Jesus’ Aramaic.
The other time Jesus uses it is in Matthew chapter 12. The disciples were walking along and picking heads of grain and eating them as they went along, something specifically authorized by the Torah. Again, the religious leaders had a problem with their actions, because they felt that shucking grain was working on the Sabbath. Jesus cited the story of David’s men who ate the bread reserved for the priests, and also the fact that priests themselves “break” the Sabbath by performing circumcisions on that day. Then again he quotes the verse from Hosea.
How are we to interpret this? Jesus was responding to the very specific charges from the religious leaders that he was breaking the Mosaic Law. They were overlooking the fact that God considers human life and dignity as far more important than strict law-keeping. And of course he—as the Lord of the Sabbath—has the right to interpret the Sabbath any way he pleases.
But Hosea himself—also under the inspiration of the Spirit, at that time was calling his fellow Israelites back to the Lord. The God of Israel was calling his faithless people back into a right relationship with himself.
So what does God consider most important? He wants most of all for us to have a right relationship with himself. And one of the main ways we express this right relationship with God is to show mercy in our “horizontal” relationships, to show his priorities in how we treat others. The purpose of any “black and white” rules is for our benefit, not so we can “check off” something on a list.
Once again, please don’t miss this very important principle: One of the main purposes of God’s word is to show us what’s important to him. If you miss that, you’ve missed something vital.
Father God, what’s important to you? How can my heart beat in time with yours? How can my walk be in lockstep with your Spirit?
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