Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. (Isaiah 1:13-14)
“When sinners are under the judgments of God they will more easily be brought to fly to their devotions than to forsake their sins and reform their lives.” – Matthew Henry, Commentary on Isaiah 1
Worship can become corrupted in two ways:
- In the mode of worship given (e.g. the devotions and ceremonies used, if offering that which God has not commanded)
- In the hearts of the ones offering worship (through disobedience to moral law).
If the mode of worship is corrupt, those who offer it may still have regenerate hearts and be mortifying the flesh (as Paul says, dying to sin and being raised to new life). The worship is corrupt though not necessarily the worshipper.
However, if the hearts of God’s worshippers are corrupt through unrepentant sin, then not only is the worshipper corrupted in the eyes of God but his worship is corrupt even if offered by a correct mode. This passage suggests that the people in that time were offering true and commanded ceremonies (e.g “who hath required this at your hand”, v.12) yet they were disobedient. In v.15, the people spread out their hands in prayer and God does not look upon those prayers. Why? Because their hands are stained with blood.
What God is saying here is that “formalism” is a real temptation and a real sin. The offering of correct ceremonies is not sufficient for God. Though we may offer right worship according to the mode, if we reject the one to whom we worship (v.4), our ceremonies are of no use. Why? As we will learn in Hebrews 10 tomorrow, the ceremonies of Israel were “shadow of the good things to come” (v.1); therefore, they show us Christ and his sacrifice. A regenerate Israelite offered sacrifices knowing that he needed a savior. The types and shadows pointed ultimately to Jesus, apprehended by faith in the Old Covenant through the ceremonies.
In our passage in Isaiah, however, because the people offered ceremonies without hearts of repentance before God, he rejected those ceremonies because they did that which was evil and they did not offer the sacrifice in a spiritual manner (out of hearts zealous for God’s glory) but instead they offered the sacrifice in hopes that the blessings they had would not be taken away. They offered carnal sacrifice not spiritual. This can be inferred from v.7, wherein we learn that the country was desolate and being burned by outside invaders.
Therefore, because what was offered according to the commands was offered with a heart turned away from God (the people were unrepentant, “turned away backward – v.4), God did not accept what was offered.
Reflecting on this, we should keep something in mind. While we may be zealous for the right worship of God (caught up in the “worship wars” so called), whatever we offer to him is vain if we do not seek to reform our lives. If we are not living with repentance for our sin and clinging to Christ, we cannot approach a Holy God in sincerity. Seek to live in obedience to him; he is not satisfied with outward things but seeks the renewal of the inner man.