Samuel is a prophet who has two books of the Bible that tell the story of his life. In a confrontation with King Saul, Samuel proclaims, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (I Samuel 15:22). It’s a pointed question and we’ll come back to the answer.
Nathan is the prophet who caught King David in his tangled web of lying and lust and murder. From him, David learned this important truth, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (Psalm 51:16) In other words, these acts that we think bring about God’s mercy are not even pleasing to God.
Jeremiah is another prophet warning God’s people about another exile. Again, offerings and sacrifices, the rituals of worship are turned down, “Of what use to me is frankincense from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.” (Jeremiah 6:20). In other words, it doesn’t matter how special you make the sugar and spice, they just aren’t that nice.
Amos is a prophet who makes bold proclamations at a time when there is an extreme gap between privilege and poverty. Offerings and sacrifices are rejected in no uncertain terms, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps…Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:21–23, 25)
Micah is a prophet who shared the stage with Isaiah. You can hear echoes of Isaiah’s message, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6–7). The pointed questions are rhetorical.
So, here we have prophet after prophet making bold proclamations and asking pointed questions about some of the most important rituals of worship. Not only do they question them, they renounce them. They understand that offerings and sacrifices are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves. In the end, God is not satisfied with sacrifices and offerings. God is after much more than that and the pesky prophets are happy to announce it over and over again.
Samuel says, “Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” (15:22)
David goes on to write, “A sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (51:17)
Jeremiah reminds God’s people of God’s command, “Obey my voice…and walk only in the way that I command you.” (7:23)
Amos, again in no uncertain terms makes God’s desires clear, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24)
The prophet Micah sounds much the same, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).
Of course, the prophet Isaiah has as much to say,
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:16:17
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
“do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,”
- Isaiah 58:6–7, 10
There is another prophet, named Hosea, who summarizes all of this in just a few words. Hosea sees the same veil and knows the same pain and understands God in the same way. Through him God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice; an acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” (6:6).
Over and over again, what we find is that what satisfies God is not sacrifices and offerings but obedience. It begins with a sincere remorse for faults and failures, but it results in a walk, a way of life. It is a way of life that is just and kind and humble. It defends the oppressed and takes up the cause of widows and orphans and immigrants. It shares food and provides shelter and clothes the naked. It does not point the finger or talk down to others. In short, what satisfies God is a life that is forgiving and generous and patient and lovingly loyal.
So much of what the prophets have to say should prove the point of Chapter 2. While it may appear that the death of innocent animals spares the life of God’s people, that is not what is happening. If it was, the powerful and influential people could appease God with a multitude of sacrifices and carry on with business as usual, blind to pain and causing it at the same time. The prophets would not have it because God would not have it. God would reject any offering and refuse any sacrifice that was not presented out of a sincere desire to live life rightly. In the end, the sacrifices and offerings are not essential or effective. God doesn’t need them and they don’t change God.
The sacrifices and offerings are methods to meet with God, to learn his ways, and a sign of trust; enough trust to walk in those ways. Should someone stumble or fall or stray from the path while trying to walk in that way, God, out of his mercy and grace and patience and loving loyalty, provides ways to begin again or continue on without fear. The sacrifices and offerings, then, are avenues of God’s mercy, means of God’s grace. God provides ways for his people to meet with him and learn from him and, most importantly, live like him.
Obviously, a life of justice and care for the marginalized requires more of someone than killing some animals on an altar. What the prophets know is that people will always search for an “easy life of blindness to pain.” What is obvious to the prophets is how people will settle for easy ways to affirm and prove their own goodness while trying to hide a lot of bad, even evil. Prophets will always pull back the veil on those acts of cruelty and injustice and indifference that people try to hide, but that are very apparent to God, disheartening to God, even infuriating to God. This is the challenge of the prophets. But, there is comfort too.
Prophets are not very popular precisely because of the kind of challenge that you just read about. As a result, the words of promise and comfort that they bring are often missed. This is true for a couple of reasons. Sometimes people hear the prophet’s challenge and just stop listening because the message is inconvenient or uncomfortable. So, they never get to hear it. Or, if people stick around long enough to hear the words of comfort, they have a hard time getting passed the criticism. They don’t really trust God’s mercy and grace and leave only remembering the challenge.
In this section, I want to show you how God often makes better promises to his people after they fail. Typically, when someone fails or takes advantage of a privilege the response is to pull back and offer less. People who falter typically have to prove themselves again in order to earn their privileges back. God’s ways are different. As you learned in Chapter 1, God’s ways are forgiving and generous, patient and lovingly loyal.
For example, recall the story of God’s people and Moses and the golden calf. Remember that God had lead his people out of suffering and slavery and had them on the road to a land of promise, flowing with milk and honey. Through the wilderness, God had provided water and meat and bread. All they had to do was collect it. When they arrive at God’s mountain, Moses walks up to meet with God and receive God’s instructions. Apparently, it takes a little too long.
The people get impatient and then nervous and then worried. They ask Moses’ brother, Aaron, to get them a god that will protect them and provide for them while Moses is gone. So, Aaron collects a lot of gold and fashions it all into a golden calf. All the people sing and dance and party around their new idol. When all of the commotion makes its way up to God on the mountain he is furious, terribly angry. For a moment he wants to wipe this people out, but that moment doesn’t last. He decides to reintroduce himself as the Lord who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Then, God says this:
“I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.” — Exodus 34:10
I imagine what God could have said was something like, “Obviously these people are a little spoiled, so here’s what I’ll do: I’ll continue with the bread and water, but no more quail. If everyone follows the rules for six weeks, then you can have some meat on Fridays. But meat is a privilege that you have to earn. If things don’t go well, I may have to take the bread away too.” Words like this would have been perfectly reasonable, maybe even just. But, that’s what makes God’s actual words rather exceptional. Rather than withhold his wonders and works, God does things “never before done in any nation in all the world.” Out of his mercy, God is going to expand his generosity with a better promise.
We find something very similar in the prophet Joel. You met him briefly in Chapter 1 as someone who also knows God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; who relents from punishing.” (2:13). Then, in much the same way as above, God begins to promise protection and provision. God will send abundant showers of rain in the fall and in the spring. The store houses will be full of grain. Their barrels will be full of wine and oil. God will even replenish what was lost during the years of famine. They will all have plenty to eat until everyone is full (2:19–27). But that is not the end of it all. God makes a better promise:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
- Joel 2:28–29
In other words, God not only wants to provide enough food to fill their stomachs, but the better promise is that God wants to share more of his own Spirit to fill their souls.
In each case, God’s promise is free. That is the essence of grace. God has already chosen to forgive, invited his people to return and already made a promise about what he will do if they take him up on his offer. In each case, the promise is to provide something better than they have known before. Even though God was terribly angry, God is not one to hold a grudge or savor a drawn out silent treatment. God’s true desire is for relationship where he can pour himself out generously. However, while the promise is free, it does involve some give and take.
Often times when God renews his relationship with his people, there is an “if” and a “then.” If you do this, then this will happen for you. For example, look again at Isaiah 1.
“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
then you will eat the good things of the land.”
- Isaiah 1:18–19
Here God makes a promise that the stain of blood will be washed away from them. If they are obedient, then they will eat the good things of the land. Something similar happens in Isaiah 58:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
Then, the Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
- Isaiah 58:9–11
Just for good measure, here’s the way Jeremiah says it:
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.”
– Jeremiah 7:5–7
What I hope you’ll notice in these last three passages is what the “if” does and does not include. If you are willing and obedient. If you do away with oppression, finger-pointing, and mean words. If you share your food and satisfy the oppressed. If you change the way you act and deal with each other. If you are just and welcoming and non-violent. All of the “ifs” have to do with a life lived rightly. None of them have anything to do with satisfying God with the death of animals. In other words, God does not say, “If you slaughter enough animals and shed enough blood, then things will go well with you.”
Time and again, the prophets call people away from “the easy life of blindness to pain.” The prophets point us to people who are suffering and reveal to us the ways that we contribute to that pain. They know that God will not be bought off with empty rituals of worship. God will not tolerate rotten rituals. But they also know that God will not despise a “broken and contrite heart” that will agree to walk in God’s ways.
When it comes to God and the death of Jesus the prophets are very helpful. By renouncing rotten rituals, they affirm for us that God does not demand a payment of blood in order to turn from his anger. God’s justice is not satisfied by death. The right way to please God is with a right way of life. So, what is important for us is the way Jesus lived. If his death is valuable for us it is because it is an extension of his life (“blood is life”). Jesus echoed many of the prophets in his call to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, and care for the sick (Matthew 25:31–46). In fact, Jesus echoed the prophet Hosea when he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13).
To be clear, what I’m suggesting is that God didn’t want or need Jesus to die in the way that we are often told. That is, it was not the death of Jesus that made it possible for God to forgive us and renew a relationship with us. In Jesus, God had already chosen to forgive, was inviting people back into a relationship with him, and was offering a better promise. If they would walk in Jesus’ steps, then the promise would be fulfilled.
I am suggesting this for three reasons. First, as you saw in Chapter 1, God is love whose own mercy triumphs over judgment apart from sacrifices. Second, as you saw in Chapter 2, it doesn’t seem that death was the focus of the sacrifices even when they were first commanded by God. Finally, as you saw in this chapter, the prophets continually point us to the idea that what pleases God is a certain way of life. The sacrifices and offerings may serve as a sign and seal of a sincere desire to follow that way, but they can never replace that way of life. In short, the God of mercy desires a people of mercy.