From Commentary on the Minor Prophets (1860)
“For I desired mercy and not sacrifice.” God had said before that they should seek him “with their flocks and herds and not find him.” So here God anticipates their excuses with the same answer with which he met those of Saul, when he would compensate for disobedience with burned offerings. The answer is that all which they did to win God’s favor or turn aside his wrath of no use, while they willfully withheld what he required of them. Their mercy and goodness were but a brief, passing show. In vain God had tried to awaken the by his prophets. Therefore, judgement was coming on them. For, to turn it aside, they had offered God what he did not desire, sacrifices without love, and had not offered him what he did desire, love of man out of love for God.
God had himself, after the fall, enjoined sacrifice, to foreshow and plead to himself the meritorious sacrifice of Christ. God, who had enjoined both mercy and sacrifice, does not contrast them. When then they were contrasted, it was through man’s severing what God united. If we were to say, “Charity is better than church-going,” we should be understood to mean that it is better than such church-going as is severed from charity. For, if they were united, they would not be contrasted…
Sacrifice represented all the direct duties to God, all the duties of the first table [of the Law]. For sacrifice reflects God as the one God, to whom, as his creature, we owe and offer all. As his guilty creatures, sacrifice reflects that we owe to God our lives also. Mercy represents all the duties of the second table [of the Law]. In saying then, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice,” God says, in effect, the same as St. John, “If a man say, I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar. For how can a person not love his brother whom he sees but love God whom he cannot see?”
As the love, which one may pretend to have for God, was not real love, if a person does not love his brother, so likewise, sacrifice was not an offering to God at all, while one withhold from God that offering which God does most require, that is, the oblation of one’s own self. They were, rather, offerings to satisfy and bribe one’s own conscience…
The prophet adds, “and the knowledge of God more than burned offerings.” The two parts of the verse fill out one another, and the latter part explains the former. The knowledge of God is, as before, no inactive head-knowledge, but that knowledge of which St. John speaks, “hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” It is a knowledge, such as they alone can have, who love God and do his will. God says then that he prefers the inward loving knowledge of himself and loving kindness toward man above the outward means of acceptableness with himself which he had appointed. He does not lower those appointments which he had himself made, but only when, emptied of the spirit of devotion, they were lifeless bodies.
Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) was a priest who served as Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford for more than fifty years. He was among the primary leaders of the Oxford Movement, Anglicanism’s Catholic revival. He wrote several of the Tracts of the Times, and sacramental confession and religious sisterhoods were restored in the Church of England through his influence. His Commentary on the Minor Prophets is his major work of Biblical scholarship. He is commemorated on September 18 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.