To do righteousness and justiceThis proverb may be another example of a narrative being condensed into two lines. Specifically, it could also be a compression of 1 Samuel 15:22–23 into six little Hebrew words.
is chosen by Yahweh above sacrifice. (DJP)
Clearly, Yahweh is not saying that He utterly negates sacrifice. He is the one who created the sacrificial system of Israel. This verse is not a denigration of sacrifices offered in believing obedience.
This verse, I think, says the same thing: God does not want people who heedlessly do wrong and blithely commit injustice, because they know they can just pop by the Temple later and slice a lamb. Rather, God wants people who so believe in and love Him that they obey Him, and “do righteousness and justice.”
Therefore, a godly walk is one part of acceptable worship to God.
To expand on that a little, I have heard this same idea expressed by Christians in many false dichotomies. For instance:
- It is more important to be loving than to be orthodox
- It is more important to be loving than to be truthful
- It is more important to care about people than to care about ideas
- It is better to walk with Christ than to attend church
- It better to be kind than to be right
- It is better to live the Gospel than to tell it
- Etc. ad infinitum et ad taedium
Going back to Proverbs 21:3, liberals in years past have taken such statements in Proverbs and in the prophets as indicating an anti-Temple faction. One can only get there, however, if one rejects the canonical ascriptions of authorship, which requires (at least de facto) rejection of the inerrancy and authority of the text.
Accept the authority of the text, and we go in another direction: the intent is to help readers/hearers evaluate and identify what most matters to God. One knows at the outset that God cannot be saying "Don't do sacrifice," because it was He who enjoined sacrifice in the first place. Likewise, no Bible-believer can imagine that God wants us to reject the teaching of His word in doctrine and theology, or to disdain wrestling intensely for the faith or casting down ideas that oppose themselves to the knowledge of Christ, or refuse to attend church — because it is God Himself who commands that we do such things; and, if we believe Him, we do them, to the best of our ability.
If so, then Solomon is saying to us what God told Saul through Samuel (1 Sam. 15:22-23):
And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king."...only he said it in a single, pointed, pithy proverb.
Wisdom, and its balances, is hard.
Guess that's why there's a whole book in the Canon devoted to it, and to grounding it in the fear of Yahweh.