“I desire.” What God desires here—mercy and knowledge of God (both intellectual and experiential)—is timeless. Although the verb is in the perfect tense, the translation in present tense catches the meaning and is preferred in almost all translations. Jesus certainly understood the meaning of this verse to be a timeless truth and quoted it on two different occasions (Matt. 9:13; 12:7).
“mercy.” The word translated “mercy” is hesed (#02617 חֶסֶד), and it has a very broad range of meanings. The translation “mercy” was chosen because of the way the verse is quoted in the Septuagint and in the Greek text of Matthew, which read eleos (#1656 ἔλεος), meaning “mercy; kindness or good will towards the poor, weak, afflicted.” The Shem-Tov Hebrew manuscript of Matthew reads hesed, as the Hebrew Old Testament does.
[For more on “mercy” and hesed, see commentary on Hosea 4:1. For more on the Shem-Tov manuscript of Matthew, see commentary on Matthew 3:3].
“and not sacrifice.” By the time of Hosea, the sacrificial system had been perverted and the heart of the people was cold toward God. We can see this from both the historical books such as Kings (cp. 2 Kings 17:7-23), and from the prophets, such as Hosea, as well as Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, who were all contemporaries with Hosea but at different times during his life. Moreover, God never intended for sacrifices and offerings to make people be, or feel, accepted in His sight if they were not also genuinely repentant for their sin and had a desire to obey His Word. Sacrifices and offerings do not buy God’s acceptance. In fact, the offerings and even the prayers of the wicked are not accepted by God. Humility and obedience always comes first and are what God is looking for. [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].