In a recent study of Micah 6:8, I came across a 27-year-old journal article ("An Expository Exegesis: Micah 6:6-8," Faith and Mission Vol. 2, No. 2) written by Elmo Scoggin on the passage. This important verse is part of a larger context—a "covenant lawsuit." God has brought a lawsuit against his people, and he plays four different roles as the case progresses: prosecuting attorney, bailiff, judge, and plaintiff. The list below is a very brief summary of the verses leading up to Micah 6:8.
Micah 6:1 - The defendant, Israel, is called to the stand and challenged to speak up in self-defense.
Micah 6:2 - The court issues various witnesses—the mountains and the foundations of the earth—to hear the Lord's complaint.
Micah 6:3 - With Israel on the stand, the Lord asks, "How have I made you too weary to serve me?"
Micah 6:4-5 - Each year, Israel recited God's deliverance of their lives at Passover. Now, the Lord uses the very same tactic and turns the tables on Israel. He recites their history himself. Scoggin writes, "Why, then, not return, repent, and serve God with joy? Surprise! Israel has become so insensitive to the deeper spiritual values that she now misses the point entirely... The glamor of formal, ritualistic religion has acted as a narcotic that has desensitized God's people to the essence of true religion."
Then we get to the heart of the matter.
In Micah 6:6-7, Israel offers a flimsy defense. "With what shall I come before the Lord?" is more literally translated "With what shall I confront the Lord?" Israel was basically complaining, "How much will you demand of me, God? Do you want me to be crushed by religious burdens so that I bow down before you, God? Shall I sacrifice thousands of year-old calves? Would you be satisfied with ten thousand rivers of oil? Maybe I should offer child sacrifices! How demanding can you be, God?"
Scoggin continues, "What had actually happened was that the Israelites had become very religious in a formal, institutionalized way. They had impressed themselves at least with their religiosity.... Israel knew beyond any doubt that offerings that have no basis in ethics and morality, that have no deep roots in character are themselves an insult, an abomination to God. Israel knew that true religion...must issue from a character base built upon and confirmed by ethical behavior."
Then, in Micah 6:8, the prophet answers Israel: "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?"
God cannot be pleased through the sacrifice of thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil, or child sacrifices. And every human heart already knows this instinctively. Moreover, God has made it clear in his Word.