Problem: Moses commanded the use of sacrifices in the worship of the Lord, saying, “And you shall burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord; it is a sweet aroma, an offering made by fire to the Lord” (Ex. 29:18). However, the later prophets seemed to repeatedly repudiate the sacrificial system. Hosea quotes the Lord, saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6). David confessed to God, “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering” (Ps. 51:16). God declared through Jeremiah, “Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet to Me” (Jer. 6:20).
Solution: The later prophets did not repudiate the OT sacrificial system—they only stressed that God did not desire mere outward observance, but also inward obedience. This is clear from three lines of evidence. First, God expressed approval with the offering of sacrifices, even during the same period in which many of the above quoted verses were written, which are mistakenly taken to express His disapproval. For example, Solomon offered thousands of burnt offerings to the Lord, which God accepted by a supernatural manifestation of fire from heaven (2 Chron. 7:1–4). The godly King Josiah manifested his obedience to the Law of Moses by eating the passover lamb (cf. 2 Kings 23:21–23). Other good kings offered burnt sacrifices which were acceptable to God (cf. 2 Kings 16:15; 2 Chron. 29:18). Even after the captivity, at the end of the OT, sacrifices were offered during the time of Ezra (cf. Ezra 3:5; 8:35) and Nehemiah (cf. Neh. 10:33) which were accepted by God.
Second, even the later prophets themselves offered sacrifices and/or encouraged others to do so. Samuel offered a “burnt offering to the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:9). Elijah offered a “burnt sacrifice” on Mt. Carmel which God accepted (1 Kings 18:38). The prophet Joel lamented that “the grain offering and the drink offering have been cut off from the house of the Lord” (Joel 1:9, 13). Likewise, Zephaniah prophesied of a time when worshipers would return with an “offering” to the Lord (Zeph. 3:10). Ezekiel also predicted the continuance of offerings in the future kingdom (Ezek. 40:38). Even David, who stressed the need for inner purity of heart, nevertheless, in the same psalm, spoke of the need to offer a “burnt offering” (Ps. 51:19).
Finally, the verses that seem to speak against sacrifices and offerings do not condemn them as such, but only in the vain way in which they were being offered. It was ritual without reality that God condemned. They had a “form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). That this is what the verses mean is evident from several facts: (1) As just noted, during this same period God was accepting sacrifices offered with a right heart. (2) Also, as just observed, even the prophets themselves offered sacrifices to the Lord. (3) Samuel the prophet, who made one of the condemning statements (1 Sam. 15:22), offered a sacrifice to the Lord in the very next chapter (1 Sam. 16:2, 5). (4) The very wording of this condemnation implies that God was not against sacrifices as such. For example, the prophet Samuel said “to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). It is clear that this is not a condemnation of sacrifices, but of sacrifices without an obedient heart.