"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The prophet here is asking how he can possibly present himself as acceptable in the sight of God, in light of the fact that the Lord has rejected his people and threatened disaster despite their (outward) observance of the law. We can hear them saying, "We are following your law, Lord. What more do you want? More burnt offerings? More oil to anoint our priests? Sacrifice of our firstborn?" This is an example of what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 23:23 - the people of Israel were attempting to follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. Verses 6 and 7 show Israel's attempt to placate God through additional good works. As Matthew Henry brilliantly puts it, "They bid high, yet they do not bid right". Still thinking in terms of outward, external observance, they stoop so low as to suggest that the pagan practice of child sacrifice might somehow please God. This practice was expressly forbidden by God (Lev. 18:21) yet they eventually adopted it for themselves (2 Kings 3:27; 16:3; 21:6; 23:10). In verse 8, the Lord finally interjects the model for what he requires of his people; justice, kindness, humility towards God. These parallel the "justice, mercy, and faithfulness" described by Jesus in Matthew 23 as being neglected by the Pharisees. These qualities are not a prerequisite for salvation but rather proof of it. "He has told you, O man, what is good". What God reveals as good is what we should be constantly striving for. And he has not been unclear. These attributes are as applicable to us today as they were to the Israelites. And they were fully exhibited in the character of Christ.
What can we learn from this passage? We learn that God has clearly shown us in Scripture what he requires of us. We learn that he rejects mere outward observance of morality. And we learn that it is important to diligently seek out what God has called good, and make that our standard.
In our pursuit of holiness, let us make sure we are not merely "bidding high", but "bidding right" when it comes to following Christ. We could never bid high enough to make ourselves acceptable in God's sight. If there were something we could do make ourselves presentable, then there would have been no need for Christ to die. It is sheer arrogance to take God's revelation of what is good, twist it into a checklist of do's and dont's that is nothing more than moralism, and then present it to him as some great accomplishment on our part. "What more do you want Lord? More frequent church attendance? More money in the offering plate? Me to become a nicer person?"
He has told you, O man, what is good. It is our responsibility to believe and obey.