“I will not accept them.” Offerings and sacrifices were never designed to make a person with an evil heart acceptable in the sight of God, as if God would overlook evil and sin if the person offered sacrifices. Nor was just “going through the motions” of praying, sacrificing, and giving offerings what God wanted. No one could procure God’s favor just by doing a sacrifice if their heart was not in the right place. Sacrifices and offerings were designed to show, in a very visible manner, the obedient and humble heart of the person who brought the offering. Animal sacrifices were also designed to show how horrible sin was and the cost required to forgive it, and to show that God indeed forgives or favors people who had an acceptable sacrifice or offering.
The Bible says that when a person is evil and unrepentant, the sacrifices, offerings, and prayers that he or she makes are simply rejected by God: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination; how much more so when he brings it with evil intent” (Prov. 21:27). God’s favor is not for sale, nor is He some kind of vending machine that if you put prayers or offerings in you get grace and mercy out. It is very worldly, and very tempting, to treat these offerings as if they are gifts that buy God’s favor instead of being gifts that express love and thankfulness for God’s favor and forgiveness. They were meant to be done “after the fact.” The sinner was to repent and genuinely seek God’s favor before he offered the sacrifice so that the sacrifice would be acceptable to God. If the heart was evil and unrepentant, the sacrifice was not acceptable to God, and it did not procure any favor from God.
For much of the Old Testament the system God lovingly put in place to support the priests was actually abused by many of them. The priests were allowed to eat part of many of the sacrifices offered by the people and thus could profit from the failure of the people. For example, the priests ate some of the grain offerings (Lev. 6:4-16, 18; 7:9-10), the sin offerings (Lev. 6:26, 29), the guilt offerings (Lev. 7:6), and the fellowship offerings (Lev. 7:28-34). Since they ate a portion of some of the sacrifices, unscrupulous priests had no incentive to really work with the people to help them overcome their weakness and sin; instead, they wanted to see sin continue. That some of the priests did not do their best to stop the sin in Israel but enjoyed eating the sin offering is no doubt why God accused them: “they feed on the sin of my people” (Hos. 4:8. “sin” can also be translated “sin offering”). Amazingly, in spite of their elevated status and the level of luxury they enjoyed because most people were not wealthy enough to eat meat regularly, many of the priests were still unthankful to God even though they were afforded this privilege (Mal. 1:7-14; see commentary on Malachi 1:7).
Although the drink offering accompanied many of the sacrifices, it was always to be poured out (Num. 28:7). One thing accomplished by that was the priests did not get drunk (some Christian denominations allow the priest to drink leftover wine from the Lord’s Supper and some of them do get drunk, which is a sin).
Many verses show that God does not accept the offerings or prayers of evil and unrepentant people (cp. Prov. 15:8; 21:27; 28:9; Isa. 1:11-15; 58:1-8; Jer. 6:20; 14:10-12; Hos. 5:5-6; Amos 5:21-23; Mal. 1:10; 2:13-14; James 4:6. Verses that specifically mention prayer include: Job 35:12-13; Prov. 15:29; Isa. 59:1-2; Ezek. 8:17-18; Micah 3:4; Zech. 7:12-13; James 4:3).
[For more on God being more concerned with love and obedience than sacrifices, see commentary on Matt. 5:24. For more on God not speaking much about sacrifices when Israel came out of Egypt, see commentary on Jer. 7:22. For more on the lawsuit that God had with Israel because they broke the covenant they made with Him, see commentary on Hosea 4:1].