While preparing for a bible study on Hosea 6-7 I found it difficult to interpret the word”mercy” in Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (NIV). The same word is translated “steadfast love” in ESV, “loyalty” in NASB, “goodness” in ASV, “faithfulness” (NET). So, which is it?
The Hebrew has two main words for love, “ahab” and “hesed”. Love in ahab sense is the closest to the English meaning and is usually refer to the love between people (husband and wide, parent and child, friends) or of people toward God. More rarely, it may also refer to the love of God toward people. Hesed is best translated as kindness but not in the modern English sense. It assumes a hierarchy, where the one at the higher position is giving the hesed. Hence, the word is very often used in the sense of God’s love or kindness toward people and people’s mercy or kindness toward others. It is never used to mean love of people toward God.
This last statement is very important for interpreting Hosea. For example, when looking at Hosea 4:1 “There is no faithfulness, no love (hesed), no acknowledgment of God in the land.”, a first impression one gets is that love here refers to people’s love for God. Yet this is impossible since the word “hesed” is used. Similarly, in Hosea 6:4, “Your love (hesed) is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” the mentioned love is not of people toward God but kindness and mercy of people toward each other.
I was delighted to see that Anchor Bible Dictionary, one of the best scholarly bible dictionaries in existence today, confirmed my observations (made purely on the basis of using a concordance). However, they provide a few additional insights by pointing out that Hosea might have intentionally played on the potential double meaning of hesed. To show love, mercy and kindness to others is one of the primary way we can show our love for God. It is as if God says to the Israelites in Hosea 4:1, You don’t love me because you do not show love and kindness toward other people.