God and Empty Religion (Isaiah 1:10-18)
Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Passage: Isaiah 1:10–18
I. God's Word Through Isaiah
This past week we began reading the book of Isaiah, the first and longest book of what are called “the writing prophets”. In light of those readings, let's look together this morning at Isaiah chapter 1. Please turn there or navigate there if you haven't already.
II. The Passage: “No More Vain Offerings” (1:10-17)
Though our main text this morning is found in verses 10-18, before we get there, let me touch very, very briefly on the opening verses of chapter 1. When did Isaiah serve as God's prophet? 1:1 reveals that Isaiah prophesied in the southern kingdom during the reign of four Judahite kings, kings with a combined reign of about eighty years (from 767 BC to 686 BC). What was the spiritual state of God's people during Isaiah's ministry? Well, the opening verses of chapter 1 are chock full of words and phrases like this: “rebelled”, “do not understand”, “sinful”, “laden with iniquity”, “offspring of evildoers”, “deal corruptly”, “forsaken Yahweh”, “despised the Holy One”, “estranged”, “sick”, “faint”. Clearly, God's people were spiritually in a very bad place. And as verses 7-9 describe, they were suffering under God's discipline as a result of their iniquity. How severe was this discipline? Look at verse 9...
If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.
Those cities were completely wiped out by God's judgment, weren't they? But the people to whom Isaiah spoke seemed to recognize God's mercy in the fact that some had survived. And I believe God wanted to them to also recognize his mercy in the words of the prophet. God's words about our sin can sometimes sound harsh at first. But often, the very fact he is speaking to sinners is evidence of his mercy; of his merciful correction.
So this morning, I want us to think very carefully about how and why God is correcting his people here. I think as we do that, we'll discover something very important with which we can test our own hearts. The first thing I want you to consider is from the second half of our text. Notice in these verses that God is detailing...
1. The Iniquity of Their Injustice (vs. 10, 15c-17)
Before we drop down to verse 15, notice that the comparison with Sodom and Gomorrah continues from verse 9 to verse 10. But this time, the comparison is not related to the severity of God's judgment. No. It's a comparison centered on character. The people of (1:1) “Judah and Jerusalem” were just as corrupt as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. But how? Were Isaiah's listeners also guilty of extreme sexual immorality; sexual distortion? No. Through the prophet, God describes their corruption, beginning in the final phrase of verse 15. Look there...
...your hands are full of blood.  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
If you drop down to verse 23, it's clear that this climate of injustice is fed by corruption:
Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
And when you get to the second half of chapter 3, the connection between this corruption and God's judgment is crystal clear. 3:14-15...
The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses.  What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord GOD of hosts.
Though there isn't any indication they were sexually corrupt like Sodom and Gomorrah, Isaiah's listeners were nevertheless compared to those notorious cities. Why? Because they were just as corrupt. But they were corrupted by their greed. Their materialistic bent, their love of comfort and opulence, resulted in economic corruption and injustice. As so many lined their pockets, the most vulnerable Israelites were ignored... or worse... taken advantage of; oppressed. Along with idolatry, this is the iniquity, this is the evil, God highlights at the beginning of Isaiah's oracle.
What an important corrective for us today, when sexual distortions can tend to dominate our descriptions of the sin-sick society in which we live. There is another kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, isn't there; another culture of corruption that God calls us to watch out for.
But strangely, this isn't the first issue God addresses. The iniquity of their injustice is abundantly clear. But before God's indictment concerning those issues, he first speaks to the...
2. The Emptiness of Their Worship (vs. 11-15)
Look with me at verses 11-15. After addressing them as Sodom and Gomorrah, God declares...
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations [i.e. the Israelite festivals]—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen...
Think about this: before addressing their acts of corruption, God is addressing their acts of worship. A number of features of Israelite worship were just mentioned in that passage: the offering of sacrifices, the offering of incense, observance of the Sabbath, prayer, and throughout the year, the celebration of certain festivals, or convocations, or assemblies; specific holy days. Now keep in mind, all of these things were prescribed by God through the Law of Moses. The people were called by God to worship him in precisely these ways.
So why is God condemning them here? To be clear, he's not condemning them for the what or how of their worship. He's condemning them for the why of their worship.
Jesus spoke to this same issue when he asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46) If these sacrifices and assemblies had been true worship, obedience would have also characterized these worshipers. For how could someone committed to a lifestyle that dishonors God also be committed to genuinely honoring God through biblical worship? That's not how true worship works.
So if these Israelites discarded what God's law revealed about love of neighbor, especially the poor, why were they still following the Law's requirements for worship? Was it peer pressure? Was it mere civil religion, for the sake of social cohesion? I don't think so. I think the only answer that makes sense is they somehow believed that by carrying out these religious rituals, they were giving God what he wanted, so they could live as they wanted.
Apparently, they were redefining God's revelation, so as to be religiously 'in compliance', as long as they continued to carry out these rituals... as if God only cared about the performance of certain rituals. I think that's exactly why God confronts them on this issue first, before he addresses their iniquity of injustice. Look back at verses 11-15. In no uncertain terms, He guts their view of sacrifice; he clears away the smokescreen of their incense offerings: “I don't care how many animals you bring... I'm tired of your well-fed and choice sacrifices... You offer them in vain... your worship is actually an abomination... I'm wholly sickened by your holy days. When you appear before me, I will not look at you. When you pray, I will not listen.”
God couldn't be any clearer. True worship and true obedience always go hand in hand. Why? Because both begin in the heart, and flow from a recognition of God as God. Near the end of the book, God speaks to these same issues; but this time, the act of worship in view is fasting...
[They say] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.  Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.  Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself [i.e., outwardly]? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wicked-ness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
And in the closing verses of that same chapter, we read this about Sabbath observance:
“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;  then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
What is God ultimately addressing in these chapters? He's addressing their hearts. He's calling them to turn from their greed and rituals, from their full bellies and their empty religion, to turn back in repentance, in light of the truth about their sin and its destructive consequences.
III. “White as Snow” (1:18)
Now please keep in mind what I said earlier about the prophet's words here as evidence of God's mercy. There is mercy in this indictment. There is mercy in this rebuke/correction. And we have explicit confirmation of that mercy, loud and clear, in 1:18. After God's rebuke, we read...
“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
What would be more reasonable than this? What would be more reasonable than confessing and turning from what is empty and destructive, in order to embrace that which is deeply satisfying and eternally profitable. That's what God is offering them here, in spite of their empty worship and corrupt lifestyles. God offers them full forgiveness; comprehensive cleansing. To what extent? From blood red hands and sin-stained, crimson hearts to snow-white, wool-white purity. Isn't that amazing?
Brothers and sisters, stop and offer up praise and thanks this morning, because that's the cleansing Christ has secured for us. Amen? As the hymnwriter expressed it, “Oh! Precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know; nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
And we need that cleansing just as much as these Israelites, don't we? Haven't we also been guilty of this ritual-centered mindset, where we tell ourselves that we're giving God what he wants, but ultimately shaping that list of religious duties so we can live how we want? No, our acts of worship don't include animal sacrifices and the burning of incense. But instead, some attend church, and sing songs, and offer financial offerings, and check off Bible readings, and pray before meals, and do a whole host of other things... and yet... their hearts, their minds, their lifestyles are corrupt. But again, they reassure themselves because those boxes are checked.
By God's grace, some of us came out of that kind of mindset, from empty religion to a real relationship. If that's your testimony, then praise God! But this morning, I want to sensitize you to the fact that all of us can still be tempted by that kind of mindset; that mindset in which we use our observance of evangelical rituals in order to reassure ourselves that spiritually everything is fine. And the flip side of that temptation is an insensitivity to destructive, me-centered living. Like Isaiah's listeners, we might think, “Well, it's not like I'm in the Sodom and Gomorrah bracket of sin.” But what did we learn this morning? They were in that bracket! They were just as corrupt.
Brothers and sisters, beware of ranking and minimizing certain sins. Beware of rationalizing me-centered choices. Beware of what is socially acceptable, but despised by God. Beware of clinging to certain religious standards, but neglecting the condition of your heart. And beware of adding to such a mindset, this practice of reassuring yourself with ritual: “Yes, but every Sunday, you know where I'll be. With the people of God!” But in the same spirit as Isaiah 1, God is saying to you this morning, “But what good is it if you attend, but aren't interested in really meeting with me or hearing from me? What good is it if you come to sing my praises, but are really only interested in your own glory?”
As Jesus taught, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Ritual is certainly not a bad thing... when those rituals are spiritual disciplines, personal and community disciplines, expressions of a grace-filled, worship-filled, humility-filled heart.
Can these rituals or practices be helpful to us, even when we come as those struggling? Absolutely. God can and does use them powerfully to grow us in grace. But if we, like ancient “Judah and Jerusalem” are seeing these acts of worship simply as boxes to be checked, so we can live how we want, and still be religiously reassured, God's wants to correct us.
Believer, God's word to us this morning is, “guard your heart”. But His word is also, “remember my mercy”. He wants us to remember at all times that the crimson blood of Jesus has made us, forever, “white as snow”. Why this cleansing? Not simply to save us from eternal judgment, but better still, to save us for eternal fellowship with Himself. Shouldn't that inspire true worship?!
Some might think, “Well, this kind of passage was only relevant for that Old Testament audience, right?” But imagine if Jesus were to address the church this way. How would he correct a church that reassured themselves that everything was perfectly fine, and yet, was in fact walking in the flesh rather than the Spirit? Well, we don't have to imagine what that correction would sound like. Why? Because we have the words of Jesus to the disciples in Laodicea. He declared...
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.  Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:17-20)
The God who said, “Come now, let us reason together...” is the same One who said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” This morning, wherever you are spiritually, respond to these offers. Respond with thanks. Respond with praise. By His empowering grace, respond with acceptance and surrender. Respond with true worship AND true obedience.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
August 27, 2023Praying for God's People (Daniel 9:17-19)
August 20, 2023Daniel's 'Not of This World' Example (Daniel 1:8-17)
August 13, 2023The Shepherd's Rescue (Ezekiel 34:10-12)