Isaiah opens with God’s lament, and a description of devastation that was still nearly forty years away. God would, however, rescue a remnant.
Morsel of Mercy
If the Lord of hostsIsaiah 1:9 (NRSV)
had not left us a few survivors,
we would have been like Sodom,
and become like Gomorrah.
For the hearers of this oracle, what the image Isaiah’s words conjured up must have been shocking!
Think of the affront that Sodom and Gomorrah was to Isaiah’s audience, where not even ten righteous people could be found. The remnant God rescued from those magnificent, wealthy and powerful Cities of the Plain was a total of three people. One man and his two daughters. Not even Lot’s wife made it to safety.
Okay, hold on now, someone might have called out from Isaiah’s audience. Have you been to the temple lately? Do you see how we follow every command of God concerning the sacrifices, the feasts, the holy Levitical laws?
Not on your life, Isaiah would have shot back.
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
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 fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me,Isaiah 1:10-14 (NRSV)
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
Trample My Courts No More
Just imagine, for a moment, that a well-known pastor, or Christian leader, came to your church. This person had already contacted your church staff, perhaps your lead pastor, and said, “I have something really important I need to start teaching, I know this is from the Lord, and I am certain your congregation needs to hear it.”
Maybe it is a Sunday morning, and this well-known pastor has been given the pulpit for the worship service’s teaching time. There is a sense of anticipation, everyone hushes, and leans forward.
And then, the speaker says to you and your church what Isaiah said to his audience in 739 B.C.E.
Would jaws drop?
Would people begin to rustle and murmur?
Would a few get up and walk out, maybe some others stand up and angrily address the speaker, or your pastor?
And what would your pastor do?
Yet, it seems many of the worshippers in the temple participated in the evil practices God was condemning. According to Isaiah, they were contributing to the moral, economic, and political corruption of their nation. The rulers and the people maintained a religious façade to cover up their sinful lifestyles, and their wrongdoing.
Between you and me, I think the Lord has been removing that façade in recent years by bringing about the exposure of otherwise well-known and highly-respected Christian leaders.
The truth of the matter is that God’s people were treating the Lord like an idol, like one of the gods in the nations that surrounded them, a god like Marduk, or Chemosh, or Ba’al and Astarte. Temple-goers acted as though they were buying God off, keeping God happy with lots of religiosity and rituals so the Lord would give them what they wanted.
I Am Weary With the Burden
Isaiah’s audience had reduced their relationship with God to bribery and manipulation: I’ll scratch God’s back, God will scratch mine. God owes me, after all the good I have been doing, I go to worship service regularly, I follow the religious calendar, I observe every fast and every feast, I tithe and pray at all the prescribed times . . .
But now they were hearing God say, All of your religious observances have become a burden to me, and I am weary bearing them.
It was not as though God somehow needed—or took any pleasure in—the slaughter of beautiful creatures at the hands of sinful humanity.
They had forgotten that all those sacrifices were for them not for God. All those tithes and offerings were for them.
Purpose of Sacrifice
The sacrifices were meant as substitutes, ones which would die in the people’s place for their sins. The people were meant to be reminded of the horror of sin, the suffering and death that sin wrought. As they laid their hands on that innocent animal’s head, they were to experience humble gratitude that God had given them this way of propitiation, so the guilt of their wrongdoing could be removed from them.
The sacrifices pointed forward to Messiah, who would one day carry all the sins of the world.
The Purpose of Tithes and Offerings
And it was not as though God needed human beings to gather wheat, and pour out wine, so the Lord could have a meal.
As the Psalmist Asaph had prophetically declared, as the voice of God,
“I am God, your God.
Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house,
or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you,Psalm 50:7-15 (NRSV)
for the world and all that is in it is mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
or drink the blood of goats?
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and pay your vows to the Most High.
Call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
- The tithes and offerings were for the people. They were for the poor and destitute, so they would not be hungry. They were for the Levites and priests, to free them to work in the temple and serve the people.
- Religious observances were for the people. To help them remember God, to connect with God, to listen to God and learn from God.
- The feasts were for the people. To commemorate the glorious ways in which God had rescued them in the past and would be there for them in the present. And to remember their roots, to stay connected with who they were as God’s people.
Your Hands Are Full of Blood
It was not the blood of sacrifices God was referring to. It was the blood of their own people, and of their own sins, the injustice and oppression, the poverty and hunger they had grown callous towards.
When you stretch out your hands,Isaiah 1:15 (NRSV)
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
I wonder if the people finally trembled when they heard these words from God through Isaiah.
What would be the point of going to the temple, bringing sacrifices, celebrating the feasts, burning incense on the altar of prayer if God would turn away and not listen to their prayers?
It is a reminder to you and me that outwardly conforming to “righteousness” but in reality going our own way estranges us from the God we love, and Who loves us. None of that outward righteousness and religiosity counts for much when our relationship with God is strained to the snap point.
It is also a reminder to you and me that what we do (or do not do) about righteously tending and caring for the physical earth itself matters to God; what we do (or do not do) about hungry people and homeless people, marginalized people and people in need matters to God. We can not simply buy God off with personal “good behavior.”
Even the best of us needs a reminder like that, from time to time.