The book of Isaiah opens with a description of Israel's corruption and its disastrous consequence for the nation. In our passage for study Isaiah speaks of Israel's religious life. It is all form and no substance. In proclaiming that their religious observances have no spiritual substance, Isaiah is not calling on them to abandon the Levitical cult, rather he is calling for inward reformation in three particular areas, i] attitude toward the divine, ii] personal life, iii] care toward their brothers.
v10. Isaiah describes the people and their rulers as inheritors of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, although "your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire", v7, the Lord is merciful toward his people in that the judgment is not on the scale of Sodom and Gomorrah.
v11. At the heart of the Lord's complaint against his people is religious observances that are devoid of substance. The blood sacrifices may be performed with the best of animals ("fattened"), but obviously are devoid of reverential fear, devoid of adoration. The outward form means nothing to the Lord, it adds nothing and achieves nothing.
v12. The Temple is the Lord's dwelling and the sacrificial system was the means of approaching Him ("to appear before me"). This provided a means of expressing reverential fear, awe, adoration, and particularly repentance. The formalism of God's people is a desecration of the Lord's dwelling place, a "trampling" of His courts with animals led to the slaughter.
v13. Their worship is meaningless, detestable, and unbearable to the Lord. Their gatherings for worship on the Sabbath or festival days is "evil", unholy. In v16-17 Isaiah indicates that Israel's sin is greater than just a disregard for the Lord, greater than just formal religious duty, but rather is infected by personal sinfulness and a disregard for their fellow Israelite.
v14. Although obviously once pleasing to the Lord, Israel's worship is now repugnant to Him.
v15. Israel's prayer, offered in worship, is similarly repugnant. The Lord turns away from it and does not hear. He does this because their hands, lifted up in prayer, are preoccupied with other matters rather than with the Lord. They are "full of blood" rather than full of humble (repentant) devotion - consecration, Ex.28:41. As with "evil" in v13, "full of blood" is not just full of formalism, but also full of personal immorality and a selfish disregard for one's neighbours.
v16-17. Isaiah now outlines Israel's necessary response to the three elements of their "evil" condition:
i] Humility. "Make yourselves clean before the Lord by the cleansing ordinance he has provided", Motyer. This is a call to use the cult with heartfelt repentance rather than formality. Israel's evil will then be taken from the Lord's sight.
ii] Renewal. Regarding personal morality, the Lord calls on Israel to abandon evil living ("stop"), understand His will ("learn") and set a new direction in life ("seek").
iii] Love. The focus here is on the communal life of the people of Israel. Deal with the oppressor (better than "oppressed" NIV), uplift the oppressed - the "fatherless", the "widow".
v18. "Come now, let us reason together." Although a difficult phrase, it is most likely a call from the Lord to those who have responded to his demands. They should come before His judgment-throne and hear the declaration of forgiveness.
v19-20. Those who are "willing" (ie. "wash" and "come") and live out their standing in the Lord, will live. Those who reject the Lord will face judgment.
Great truths can often be summarized with a one line grab, although it does take a brilliant communicator to make the complex simple. In our passage, Isaiah sums up the substance of doing church. Ask people why they go to church and you will get countless complex answers. Ask Isaiah and we get a simple answer: Israel goes to the temple to "appear before" the Lord.
Jesus said that when two or three gather in his name he is present. Church is the gathering of believers with Jesus - we come before him. We may do this in a church building, in a house, whatever. We may do it in different ways, from high liturgy to the silence of a Quaker's meeting. Yet, the substance remains the same, it is a gathering before the Lord.
What do we do when we gather before the Lord? Isaiah identifies what is lacking in Israel's approach. For the people it is a religious duty, formalism. What they lack is "the fear of the Lord" - awe and wonder leading to adoration. The word "worship" (adoration) probably best sums up the business of church.
There are many elements to worship and Isaiah identifies some of them for us:
i] Humility. Remember Peter's response when he sees the great draught of fishes? He looks at Jesus and says, "depart from me for I am a sinful man." We approach our Lord with a repentant heart.
ii] Renewal. We submit to the word of God read and proclaimed, checking our intentions, understanding His will and seeking to redirect our personal life.
iii] Love. We remember we do not commune alone, but in fellowship. We pray for a compassionate heart. Next Sunday when we gather in this place, remember why we are here.
List all the inward (of the heart) and outward elements of a worship service that you can think of and grade them in importance. Discuss your results.