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Jesus was asked in Matthew 9:13 about why he was eating with sinners. His response to the Pharisees was to ask them to go and learn about the meaning of Hosea 6:6 ("I desire mercy and not sacrifice...")

Matthew 9:11,13 (NKJV) And when the Pharisees saw [it,] they said to His disciples, "Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

Again in Matthew 12:7, he was questioned about why he allowed his disciples to rub heads of grain in their hands on the Sabbath. His response was that If they had learnt what Hosea 6:6 means as he had earlier instructed, then they would not have condemned the guiltless!

Matthew 12:2,7 (NKJV) And when the Pharisees saw [it,] they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!" "But if you had known what [this] means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Hosea 6:6 itself says:

Hosea:6.6 (NKJV) For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

I feel it must be really important for Jesus to have asked the Pharisees to learn the meaning of this passage on two separate occasions.

What are the layers of meaning associated with Hos 6:6 as regarding the contexts in which Jesus quoted it.

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I am not sure how many layers of meaning there are but the following is what comes to my mind:

The Pharisees and teacher's of the law sat in Moses' seat (Matthew 23:2). They were supposed to know, do and teach what God said, however, some areas of scripture were being over emphasized by them, and others left out.

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Luke 11:42 (KJV)

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Matthew 23:23 (KJV)

If they were following God's word completely, they would have extended mercy to those they were accusing of being 'sinners', like the priest allowing David to eat the hallowed bread (Mark 2:23–28; Matthew 12:1–8; Luke 6:1–5), the priest didn't say "sorry mate, no bread for you."

They might have been offering up the legally correct sacrifices and offerings, but their heart attitude was not right before God - they were actually guilty of not following God (Proverbs 30:10-14).

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. Luke 18:9-14 (KJV)

And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Joel 2:13 (KJV)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Matthew 5:7 (KJV)

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This verse is bigger than the translations. If you ask me which is right, I have to say all of them. The Hebrew word hesed (חֶ֔סֶד) doesn't translate to one English word. Knowledge of God means to be acquainted with God as your are with family or friend.

   For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; 
  Obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings. 
               (Hos. 6:6, JPS)

        For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, 
  the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. 
               (Hos. 6:6, ESV)

כִּ֛י חֶ֥סֶד חָפַ֖צְתִּי וְלֹא־זָ֑בַח וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים מֵעֹלֹֽות׃ (Hos. 6:6, MT)

Senses of חֶ֥סֶד

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Note these related verses.

   He has told you, O man, what is good; 
  and what does the LORD require of you 
              but to do justice, and to love kindness (חֶ֔סֶד), 
  and to walk humbly with your God? 
           (Mic. 6:8, ESV)

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me (וְיָדֹ֣עַ), that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love (חֶ֛סֶד), justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight (חָפַ֖צְתִּי), declares the LORD.” (Jer. 9:23–24, ESV)

Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:12–14, ESV)

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Hos 6:6 is only one of many places in the OT where the moral/ethical requirements of the law were given priority over the ceremonial requirements. Isa 1:10-17, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, 1 Sam 15:22, Hos 6:6, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Jer 6:20, Micah 6:6-8.

In the NT Jesus repeats this a number of times by quoting some of the above texts. In each case He does so to rebuke the Pharisaical attitude that reversed this priority. That is, the Pharisees regarded the ceremonial aspects of the law as greater than the moral and ethical requirements; this reversal of precedence by the Pharasees Jesus roundly condemned.

Here are some examples:

  • Matt 9:9-12 - Jesus condemns the priority of hand washing vs friendliness to strangers and calling of sinners and quotes Hos 6:6 in support of this idea.
  • Matt 12:2-8 - Jesus says that temporal needs of food are more important than the numerous silly Sabbath regulations of the Pharisees and quotes Hos 6:6
  • Matt 12:9-14 contains a similar story showing that healing of people and kindness to animals is more important than minutiae of Sabbath regulations.
  • Matt 23:23, 24 - Jesus again gives priority to morality over ceremonial regulations by quoting Micah 6:6-8
  • Mark 12:33 - Jesus gives greater priority to moral and ethical requirements in the law than the ceremonial aspects.

The Pulpit Commentary notes for Matt 12:7 -

Verse 7. - Matthew only. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I wilt have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless (on the quotation, see Matthew 9:13, note). Had you learned the simple Bible truth that God places the exercise of your moral faculties, particularly those of kindness, above merely external observances, you would not have committed this sin of taking up the position of wrong judges. He traces their error up to its true source, ignorance of the first principles of religion, ignorance of what God really desires.

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  • What an amazing answer. Sad to see your profile is dead.
    – Michael16
    Sep 2 at 16:33
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“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” As has been noted by others, the translation of this verse is challenging in and of itself. Per the Christian Standard Bible website under Hebrew Word Study:

The Hebrew word used in Hosea 6:6 (hesed) is one of the most difficult words in the Bible to translate. At least 3 scholarly books have been written on its meaning. It conveys overtones of loyalty, love, and other concepts such as mercy and kindness. Some passages emphasize one sense, while other passages emphasize another.

https://csbible.com/hebrew-word-study-hesed/

Translation issues aside, Hosea 6:6 draws a clear distinction between what God desires (love, mercy) and the things that are offered to him in worship (sacrifice, burnt offerings). That Jesus twice quotes this verse in the NT underscores its significance. In those two instances, however, there are no sacrifices or offerings in view. The word sacrifice is thus meant to be representative of the various means by which men render worship to God but that do not bear the mark of obedience to his will.

  • In Matthew 9:12, the Pharisees questioned why Jesus ate with tax payers and sinners. The Pharisees did not associate with such individuals for fear of ritual contamination. They maintained this and other religious traditions that were inconsistent with or, as is the case here, in direct conflict with God’s will.
  • In Matthew 12:3-4, the Pharisees fault Jesus’ disciples for picking the heads of grain on the Sabbath. Jesus says that if they understood the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not condemn the innocent. His words echo those in Psalm 94:21 and hint that “the innocent” refers not only to his disciples but to himself as well.

Hosea 6:6 articulates what God desires of men. As such, its implications go far beyond what any one answer can address, but the main idea is that religion should be, above all else, defined by the effort to understand and obey God’s will.

This is precisely what Jesus came to do - to illuminate the will of God and to set the example of perfect obedience.

  • After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and offerings for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” – Heb 10:8-9

By laying down his life as the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 Jn 2:2), Jesus shows the way of God’s love and mercy.

  • For one will hardly die for a righteous person; though perhaps for the good person someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Rom 5:7-8
  • Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends. – Jn 15:13

Rather than layers of meaning, I would say that Hosea 6:6 has enormous depth and breadth of application. It touches every human relationship and binds us all under God’s will of love.

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Hosea 6:

6a For I desire mercy, not sacrifice

OP: I feel it must be really important for Jesus to have asked the Pharisees to learn the meaning of this passage on two separate occasions.

Right. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees on these two occasions because they spent far too much time on the minutiae of the sacrificial laws and not enough time on being merciful. They were too quick to judge people on the smallest detail of the laws. They were picky, legalistic, and judgemental by profession and by nature.

What are the layers of meaning associated with Hos 6:6 as regarding the contexts in which Jesus quoted it?

The first layer refers to the sacrifice laws. A higher layer refers to Mosaic laws in general.

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What does "I desire Mercy, not Sacrifice" Mean?

Matthew 9:13, NASB - But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus said to go figure out what "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" means, and didn't explain it himself.

The Pharisees showed an unmerciful attitude toward others, they would pick and pick and look for every flaw in others, they kept people on the defensive and reminded them of their failures. After Jesus invited Matthew Levi, the tax collector, to become a disciple, Levi spread a big reception feast for him. The account says: “At this the Pharisees and their scribes began murmuring to his disciples, saying: ‘Why is it you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’

Mercy-Spiritual Healing.

They were rebuked by Jesus with the words: "But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”[Compare Hosea 6:6]. Apparently, Matthew has invited tax collectors and sinners to his home so that they can listen to Jesus and receive spiritual healing, “for there were many of them who were following him.” (Mark 2:15) Jesus discerned that at least some of these “tax collectors and sinners” wanted to change. They were not at Matthew’s home simply to eat. Jesus wants to help them to attain a healthy relationship with God. Unlike the self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus does not despise such ones. He is moved with compassion and mercy; he can serve as a spiritual physician to all who are spiritually ill.

Jesus and his disciples were notable especially for their merciful giving of spiritual gifts of far greater value than material things.

Mercy-- Material Giving.

Mercy may also be expressed in material giving. But to count with God, it must be properly motivated, not be mere ‘enlightened selfishness.’ (Mt 6:1-4) Material things was among the “gifts of mercy in which Dorcas abounded (Ac 9:36, 39), and doubtless also among those of Cornelius, whose gifts together with his prayers brought a favorable hearing with God. (Ac 10:2, 4, 31) Jesus said the failure of the Pharisees was in not giving “as gifts of mercy the things that are inside.” (Luke 11:41) Thus true mercy must proceed from the heart.

Mercy to those in Need of Practical Help.

Jesus' parable of the Samaritan who found a traveler lying by the roadside, robbed and beaten. Moved with compassion, the Samaritan “acted mercifully,” binding the victim’s wounds and caring for him. (Luke 10:29-37) Does this not illustrate that mercy involves offering practical help to those in need? The Bible tells us to “work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.” Galatians 6:10

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