Rebuilding the Foundations
We love rituals and sacrifice, things that seem holy, sacred, or mystical. But does God?
I don't generally quote the Bible passage in these commentaries in hopes that you will look it up and read the passage before reading my commentary.
Verse 10 sets the stage for the rest of this passage, which would make no sense without it. God abhors the rituals of the disobedient and rebellious, not of the righteous.
God addresses Judah as "Sodom" and compares them to the people of Gomorrha. (Isaiah was a prophet under four kings of Judah, so unless he specifies otherwise, he is addressing Judah, not Israel.) He commands them to "hear the Word of the Lord" and to "attend to the law of God."
The purpose of the Scriptures is to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Thus, we can be confident that the purpose of all of God's words are to equip us for every good work. This was true in ancient Israel, and it is true under the New Covenant as well (Tit. 2:13-14). Under the New Covenant, though, God provides not only guidance but also the Holy Spirit to empower us (Rom. 8:2-4).
God is looking for the people of Judah to simply obey his Word, whether through the Law of Moses or through the prophets he sent. But as we saw in the first half of Isaiah 1, Judah was bent on wickedness despite the destruction that was being brought on them.
In Isaiah 1:11-15 we find God rejecting the various rituals and ceremonies that the people of Judah were continuing to perform despite the fact that they were not obeying God in any other areas.
It's easy to perform rituals. In modern times, we can perform the Protestant ritual of going to church once a week in two or three hours even if we include time to dress and to travel to the service. Roman Catholics need an additional trip to the church building for confession, but their time is not greater even with the extra visit. As a child, our whole family of six could get in and out of confession in less than ten minutes. We went to the early morning Mass, which always had the shortest homily ("sermon" for you Protestants), and we were often out in 35 minutes. Yahoo!
But obeying God? Not so easy. It was clear to me as I was growing up that the rest of the family was not as sensitive, caring, and kind as I myself was. (That was sarcasm against myself. Not serious!) Often this made me horribly angry, but the only strong effort I made to control my anger was when releasing it would get me in trouble.
The work of obeying God is not something we like doing. That is why Paul told Timothy to "affirm constantly" that all believers be careful (lit. "thoughtful" or "anxious") to maintain good works (Tit. 3:8). It is why the writer of Hebrews told us to exhort/encourage each other daily (Heb. 3:13). It is why the apostle Paul himself subdued his body daily, so that he wouldn't wind up a pretender (1 Cor. 9:27, very paraphrased).
It's hard even to think about God, much less to obey him, when our cheeks are red. When we have been embarrassed or angered, we think of defending ourselves or of revenge, not of glorifying God. At our church here in Memphis, I like to tell the disciples that they'll know where they're at with God by how they think and obey when their cheeks are red.
It is impossible to miss that God is saying—over and over and in the strongest terms—that he not only rejects rituals performed by those in rebellion against him, but he hates them. He even complains, "I am too tired to put up with them!" (v. 14).
When I was Roman Catholic, we had an out when we didn't obey. We could go through the ritual of confession, giving up perhaps five minutes of our time to say the appropriate introduction to the priest, confess our major or repeated sins, get our sentence (penance), and then perform it. As a kid, it usually cost me 5-10 memorized prayers to sin all week.
I know that the Catholic Church does not want confession handled that way, and devout Catholics would never handle it that way, but I and many others did. Even as a child, I wanted confession to take root in me, but not enough to do any more than say the assigned prayers.
Protestants are remarkably similar. We don't have a priest on earth to confess to, but we have Jesus, and no one, not even the pastor, gets to listen in on our confessions to Jesus. The Catholics have confession, and we have 1 John 1:9. "I confessed my sin, therefore it is forgiven." Never mind that three or four verses later the apostle John tells us all that if we don't keep the commandments of God, then we are lying to ourselves about knowing him. ("Lying" is the word John used. Look it up. 1 John 2:3-4.)
If those words sound harsh, consider verses 10-15 in our reading today. They're pretty harsh, too!
The whole purpose of the Scripture is to get us to obey and glorify God (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Trying to hide our disobedience behind rituals and confessions makes God angry, exhausted, and causes him to hate our rituals. As Samuel say, "To obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22).
The truth so many of us miss is that it is the offerer who purifies the offering, not vice versa. Rituals performed by the righteous can be pleasant to God, but sacrifices offered by the unrighteous are a stench in his nostrils.