Henry Alford (1810-1871) wrote Come, Ye Thankful People, Come. But on this Thanksgiving Sunday, what if our worship is not thankful? What if it is empty? During Isaiah’s prophetic ministry Israel’s worship was anything but thankful. The lack of inward righteousness made a mockery of Israel’s external worship of the Lord. This theme began the prophecy of Isaiah. Right out of the gate this gospel prophet brought God’s case against Israel for their hypocritical worship. Heaven and earth were called to witness how disobedient Israel had become (vv. 2-4). Israel had itself to blame for why its land was in desolation (vv. 5-9).
Inward Corruption Derails Outward Ritual
One of the outstanding characteristics of Hebrew poetry (and prophecy too) is parallelism. This is where one line is parallel to another line in thought and meter. Parallelism aids with variety in form yet often intensifies the thought being made. In our text today there are several examples (vv. 10, 11, 13,14, 15, 18, 18-20). The word (dabar) of the Lord and the instruction (torah) of God came to the leaders and people of Israel who figuratively are called Sodom and Gomorrah—not complimentary.
Isaiah called out God’s people for their empty worship. God was totally frustrated by the motions of worship without the proper motives for worship. No amount of “form” can atone for the lack of genuine faith. First was the issue of sacrifices. God had commanded sacrifices, burnt offerings, the fat of fattened animals, the blood of bulls and lambs and goats, and incense (Leviticus 1-7). But God basically said, “Enough already.” When worship is more the state of the art than the state of the heart God takes no pleasure (delight) in it. Worship amounted to nothing more than trampling God’s courts. The offerings were meaningless (empty) and the incense was detestable (disgusting or abominable).
Second was the issue of festivals. God’s people have always been “liturgical animals” (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love). If we are not given patterns or traditions, we will create them. God had given Israel special celebrations that coincided with the calendar. Sabbaths, New Moon Feasts, and special convocations were all part of Israel’s religious memory (Numbers 28:11-14; Leviticus 16:31; 23:3, 4-7, 15-21, 24, 26, 27, 34, 39). These appointed festivals were not bad in and of the themselves. But God said, “I hate them with all my being.” They became a burden (cumbersome or trouble), and God was weary of bearing (lift up as in forgiving someone) them. Even the prayers that accompanied these festivals (1 Kings 8:22; Lamentations 1:17) wearied God. He said that he would shut his eyes and not listen to them. Empty worship does not trick God. The final accusation was, “Your hands are full of blood!” But the blood stains were not just external. They were worse. They were internal.
Inward Cleansing Drives Outward Behavior
Acceptable worship sometimes has nothing to do with ceremony or liturgy. Often it has to do with lifestyle and behavior (Romans 12:1, 2). God called his people to an internal cleansing that would show up in moral excellence and proper behavior toward others. This is worship outside of the worship service.
Nine imperatives precede one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible on forgiveness (Isaiah 1:18). The first two of those imperatives parallel that beautiful verse. Wash (bathe) and make yourselves clean (pure). This was an image that Israel understood (Exodus 30:17-21), to say nothing of the mikveh, a ritual cleansing tub or cistern capable of holding 200 gallons of water.
Worship that was not empty was described in the other seven imperatives. Take(remove or abolish) evil deeds away, stop doing wrong, learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed, take up the cause of the fatherless, and plead the case of the widow were the others. The latter half of these dealt with what might be called biblical justice concerns. Acceptable worship consisted of taking good care of others.
Verse 18 is an imperative, an invitation, and a court order all rolled into one. God was not unwilling to help Israel with moving their worship from empty to acceptable. But it had to start with the heart. Let us settle (reason, decide) the matter. Their sins could be like scarlet and crimson, but they could be like snow and wool if the people became willing and obedient (shema—the word for hear and heed) and would not resist and rebel. Good things come to those who obey God and worship in spirit and truth (John 4:16-26). Henry Alford would remind us, “Gather Thou Thy people in, Free from sorrow, free from sin; There, forever purified, In Thy presence to abide.”
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Lesson based on The Lookout’s Scope and Sequence ©2018. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.