Committed to True Worship
Isaiah 1:10–20; 2 Kings 15:32–35
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Identify worship attitudes and practices that Isaiah said pleased the Lord and those he said did not.
2. Explain the relationship between attitude and practice in worship.
3. Identify one area in his or her life that hinders true worship and make a plan to change it.
How to Say It
Ezekiel. Ee-ZEEK-ee-ul or Ee-ZEEK-yul.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, June 11—Praise for God’s Goodness (Psalm 65:1–8)
Tuesday, June 12—Doing Right in God’s Sight (2 Kings 15:32–36)
Wednesday, June 13—Here Am I; Send Me (Isaiah 6:1–8)
Thursday, June 14—The Fast That Pleases God (Isaiah 58:6–12)
Friday, June 15—Comfort for God’s People (Isaiah 40:1–5)
Saturday, June 16—Not Desiring Sacrifices (Isaiah 1:10–14)
Sunday, June 17—Learn to Do Good (Isaiah 1:15–20)
Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Why Teach this Lesson?
Say the word worship and your students likely will think of what they do for an hour or two on Sunday morning. But could it be that worship is broader than this? Could our worship of God include the way we treat other people? Is it possible that our worship of God is validated by how we work to bring about justice in the lives of people who are being oppressed or even killed?
Your students need to embrace worship as a lifestyle to be lived. Today’s lesson should help your students come to understand better the true scope of their worship of God.
A. Surprised by Trouble
As a child, I once came cheerily into the house, only to be confronted by my parents. They clearly were upset with me. My mother said, “Well, it looks to me like he is ready for a spanking!” I do not remember what wrong I had done. I do not even remember what happened thereafter. However, I do remember vividly that my heart began pounding and my toothy grin dissolved. I came in thinking everything was great; but suddenly I was surprised by trouble.
In today’s text, Judah is also surprised by trouble. Isaiah had a message from the Lord that was designed to wipe the grins off their smug faces, as though saying, “It looks to me like they are ready for punishment.” Isaiah 1 is a vision designed to move people to repentance.
B. Lesson Background
Isaiah 1:1 allows us to date Isaiah’s lengthy prophetic ministry between 740 and 680 b.c. Last week we saw Hosea, an older contemporary of Isaiah, tell the northern kingdom of Israel to repent and recommit their ways to the Lord. Sadly, they refused. Within a few years after Hosea’s ministry, the northern kingdom was defeated and dispersed. That happened in 722 b.c.
Isaiah’s ministry to the southern kingdom of Judah had only slightly better prospects. The Lord told Isaiah that his preaching to Judah would also fall on deaf ears. But though they would also be taken into exile, the Lord would preserve a small remnant (Isaiah 6:9–13).
Isaiah’s book contains glorious passages of this restoration of Judah, one of which is the text for next week. Apparently the original readers latched on to the good news and ignored the warnings and calls for repentance. They mistook the miraculous deliverance from the Assyrian army in 701 b.c. as a sign that God would never allow Judah to fall. By seeing the temple as something of a good-luck charm, they deviated from true worship (compare Jeremiah 7:4).
Isaiah 1:2–31 introduces the entire book of Isaiah. Therefore it was probably written after 701 b.c., when the people clearly had failed to understand the Lord’s message. So the Lord presents to Isaiah a vision in a form of a lawsuit.
Ancient law courts were different from modern ones, but many roles are similar. It is important to identify the role that each character may represent (judge, plaintiff, defendant, witness, etc.) and the purpose for the scene (to level charges, to prove guilt, to announce a verdict, to impose a sentence). Within the drama of the trial, both the Lord and the prophet may take more than one role. When the prophet steps out of the drama, he speaks to the reader.
Isaiah 1:10–20 forms the central part of the trial scene. The author seems to interrupt the trial drama with interludes, something like a reporter may do. Here is one possible way to identify the back-and-forth of Isaiah 1:
In verse 10, where we begin today, the defendants are called to trial. Charges are leveled in verses 11–15. Then the trial motif takes an unusual turn: the offer of a chance for a stay of sentence in verses 16–20.
I. Defendants Subpoenaed (Isaiah 1:10)
10. Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
Sodom and Gomorrah are used figuratively for Judah. These cities were destroyed because of extreme wickedness (Genesis 19). The references to both the rulers and the people show the same to be true of Judah. The Lord threatens punishment because his chosen people are sinful at all levels of society. The word of the Lord is parallel to the law of our God, both referring to the specific charges in the next section.
What Do You Think?
How can you better prepare yourself to hear the Word of the Lord? What progress have you made in this regard?
[Make sure to consider Proverbs 8:34; Ecclesiastes 5:1; and Matthew 6:7, 8 in your answer.]
As I get older (don’t we all!), more and more infirmities come my way. I won’t bore you with the whole organ recital, but a recent concern has been my hearing. I still believe my hearing is good. No one has suggested I need a hearing aid. Certain loud noises, however, give me a headache and I avoid them.
Another problem is background noise. This can take the form of road noise in a car, conversations at adjacent tables in a restaurant, or even other conversations during a social gathering. All this can prevent me from really hearing what a person is saying. I sometimes have to say, “I’m sorry; I can’t hear you.” But technically, that’s a matter of definition. In the sense that the sounds being made are registering on my eardrum, I actually can hear the other person. But I can’t decipher these sounds sufficiently to understand the words being used. It helps to remove the distracting noise and concentrate on the speaker.
The same applies in the spiritual realm. When the Lord speaks to us, there sometimes are so many other background noises that we do not hear with enough clarity for the message to register in our consciousness. We may then need to eliminate the distracting noises and concentrate on the speaker. “Hear the word of the Lord!” —J. B. N.
II. Plaintiff Reads Charges (Isaiah 1:11–15)
A. Disgusting Sacrifices (vv. 11–13a)
11. “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
The Lord begins his testimony with a rhetorical question—a question that actually makes a statement. The expression what are they to me occurs only two other times in the Old Testament in the Hebrew original: Genesis 27:46 and Job 30:2. In all three cases the phrase has to do with importance or value.
The problem is not the number of sacrifices (a multitude of them) nor the type of sacrifices (burnt offerings prescribed in the law). Neither is the quality of the animals at issue. The phrase fattened animals is merely descriptive of the good quality of the animals (compare 2 Samuel 6:13; 1 Kings 1:9). It must shock the readers to learn that even though they offer sacrifices that are plentiful, correct, and good in and of themselves, God is not pleased (compare Proverbs 28:19).
What Do You Think?
What offerings have you brought to God in the past that you think he was dissatisfied with? What spiritual blind spots did you become aware of in getting back on the right track?
[Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 5:23, 24 can help you frame your answer.]
12. “When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
To appear before refers to the offering of the sacrifices mentioned in verse 11. The trampling may be that of the animals, but more likely it is the unfitness of the worshipers themselves.
13a. “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
Offerings is a general term for sacrifices, both grain and animal. The Hebrew behind the adjective meaningless is translated “misuse” in the Third Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:11) in connection with the use of God’s name. Incense can refer generally to spices (Exodus 30:1, 7–9) or to specific sacrifices. But here it probably refers to sacrifices generally (as in Psalm 66:15) that are supposed to be as pleasant to the Lord as incense.
The nation’s offerings are useless; worse, they are all detestable to the Lord. He is disgusted with them all.
B. Insufferable Gatherings (vv. 13b, 14)
13b. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Observances of New Moons and Sabbaths, along with various other assemblies, were established by God himself (Exodus 20:8; Leviticus 23; Numbers 10:10; 28:11, 14). These are various religious gatherings under the Law of Moses.
What Do You Think?
How might our assemblies become iniquities in the eyes of God? What safeguards can we implement?
Even though God had established these observances, he now says I cannot bear the way his people conduct these events. The Lord cannot tolerate any sacred assembly that is characterized by wrong motives and evil intent.
14. “Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
The blistering indictment continues with strong statements of the Lord’s contempt. On page after page of Scripture, we can see the Lord’s patience. But his patience has limits.
C. Disregarded Prayers (v. 15)
15. “When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
To spread out your hands in prayer is to extend the arms with palms up, as in a plea to receive from God. But no matter the physical posture, the Lord intends to hide his eyes. Does it surprise you that the Lord doesn’t always heed prayer? The Lord explains that the people themselves are the problem: your hands are full of blood. This can mean the guilt for various kinds of killings (Deuteronomy 19:10; 22:8). Here it probably refers more broadly to all kinds of injustice that harm others (compare Isaiah 33:15; Ezekiel 9:9; Nahum 3:1).
All their acts of worship (sacrifices, gatherings, prayers) are detestable because the people are guilty of sin against others; they refuse to connect ritual with obedience. They expect God somehow to have “selective vision”—seeing their pious sacrifices while ignoring the daily injustice they practice. Such arrogance!
What Do You Think?
What can you do to assure that God hears your prayers? Conversely, how do you make sure that nothing hinders your prayers?
III. Judge Offers a Chance (Isaiah 1:16–20)
A. Stop the Bad (v. 16)
16. “Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
The verse offers specific commands to the people. To wash can be used of simple bathing or of ceremonial washing. The context requires this to refer to the ceremonial. We see ceremonial washing in the New Testament in Matthew 27:24; John 13:1–17; etc.
Make … clean has a moral sense in the Old Testament. Thus wash refers to more than mere ritual washing; moral cleansing must be involved (compare Luke 11:39). God’s faithful people will actively pursue both a genuine inward and outward righteousness because they love their God and want to be like him.
B. Start the Good (v. 17)
17. “Learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
The Lord now gives five positive commands concerning the character of the true worshiper. These move from general to specific, the last three being applications. To do right may mean “to be pleasing,” “to be skillful,” or “to do what is moral or ethical.” The context of unethical behavior makes clear that the Lord means the latter. Learn implies growth. The readers are surprised by trouble because they are very shallow in their understanding of what it means to relate to God. Changing one’s moral fiber is going to involve will and effort.
The people of Judah are to promote justice in dealings with one another. Deuteronomy 16:20 insists that the people are to “follow justice and righteousness alone” as a condition for inheriting the land.
The application encourage the oppressed seems clear enough, but another translation is possible. The Hebrew word translated oppressed occurs only here in the Old Testament, though the same root occurs in one other place, namely Psalm 71:4: “Deliver me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of evil cruel men.” There this root occurs behind the word cruel. This fact leads some to believe that encourage the oppressed here in Isaiah 1:17 may be translated something like “rebuke the oppressor.” Surely the Lord expects both!
The next two applications involve the protection of the powerless of society: defend the cause of the fatherless and plead the case of the widow. God’s faithful people will seek to deal ethically with all people and pursue justice. Christians may not be able to rectify all wrongs. Yet we are to seek justice for all and protection for the defenseless at every level of society. This is a continuing battle.
What Do You Think?
What are some ways your church can help the oppressed, the fatherless, the widow, and the widowers? What should your own part be in this ministry?
Johann Wichern (1808–1881) was a German minister who was moved by the suffering of children in the impoverished sections of the city of Hamburg. Convinced that something ought to be done for them, he helped organize the Rough House as a home for boys in 1833. This was similar to an orphanage but based on the principles of family education to provide for both spiritual and physical needs.
Under Wichern’s expert organizational skills, the Evangelical Church in Germany formed the Inner Mission in 1848. It supervised 1,500 various charitable activities of the German Protestants. Ultimately this Inner Mission included nursing centers, prison reform activities, orphanages, and homes for those who had mental retardation. Before the Nazis closed down the system in 1938, there were 3,800 institutions under the umbrella of the Inner Mission.
Similar to Wichern is the story of George Mueller (1805–1898), a German who came to London in 1829. In 1832 he established an orphanage in Bristol that ultimately cared for more than 2,000 children. These are just two examples of the kind of thing God pleads for through Isaiah: “encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” They are examples that speak to us—and convict us—yet today. —J. B. N.
C. The Only Chance (vv. 18–20)
18. “Come now, let us reason together,”
says the Lord.
Properly understanding this well-known verse requires that the reader remember that the Lord is still speaking in his role as judge. When he says to Judah, Come now, let us reason together, he does not mean to invite these people to sit down over coffee and doughnuts to discuss things. This is not a give-and-take negotiation. Rather, the Lord is challenging them in court to consider the truth of what he has been saying, to realize the peril in which they find themselves!
18b. “Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
After confronting his people with the reality of their sin, the Lord now holds out the hope of the good they may experience. He then lays out the condition for that good (v. 19) and warns them of the punishment for failure to repent (v. 20).
The colors scarlet and crimson are synonyms. Scarlet may be used positively, as in parts of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:4; 26:1; etc.), of good quality clothing (Proverbs 31:21), or even the color of beautiful lips (Song of Songs 4:3). It may be used neutrally simply of thread (Genesis 38:28, 30). However, scarlet thread also is used in a purification ritual (Leviticus 14:4, 6, 49, 51, 52; Numbers 19:6) and may also have the suggestion of sin, as it clearly does here.
Yet there is good news: the scarlet color of sin can change to be as white as snow! Snow is a descriptor of a degree of whiteness; it is a symbol of moral purity that also is found in Psalm 51:7. Likewise wool is used as a descriptor of whiteness parallel to that of snow in Daniel 7:9 and Revelation 1:14.
Though not named, it is clear that only the Lord can transform the impure into pure (compare Romans 3:21–26; 12:1-2). The Lord offers hope for true renewal. However, the Lord leaves a vital part for us to play: choice.
Visual for Lesson 3
Use these five elements of true worship as discussion starters. For each ask, “What is a specific way to implement this one?”
19. “If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
The conditions for blessing are that the people be willing and obedient. The willingness involves consent to obey the Lord.
The phrase eat the best from the land is similar to “eat the good things of the land” in Ezra 9:12. The idea in both places is “to live well from the land, to prosper.” This blessing from the Lord is that the Judeans remain in the land of promise. Their role, as God’s chosen people, is to bring the Messiah into the world. All the punishments that Isaiah has been preaching can be avoided if they repent. Sadly, we know from history that this repentance didn’t happen. The people had to go into exile in Babylon. Yet even after that exile is finished, Ezra 9:12 reaffirms this promise. God is a God of second chances!
20. “But if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
To resist and rebel is the opposite of being willing and obedient. To refuse the Lord’s will has serious consequences! Notice what happened to Pharaoh (Exodus 12:29). The idea of refusal is found numerous times in Jeremiah. Most refer to the refusal of the people to admit their sin or repent (Jeremiah 8:5; 9:6; etc.).
The word rebel should remind the readers of how both Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter Canaan because of their respective rebellions (Numbers 20:10–12, 24; 27:14). Very commonly, the idea of rebellion is applied by the prophets to God’s people (examples: Isaiah 3:8; 63:10).
The opposite of “eat the best from the land” in verse 19 is to be devoured by the sword. Judah was delivered miraculously from Assyria in 701 b.c. It had seemed like certain disaster. Now the Lord is warning them that unless their ritual is accompanied by a heart that proves its love for him, they will suffer even greater devastation in war. They can prove their love by obedience in their personal lives and in their behavior toward others. The threat is real because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
The rage on television these days is the “reality show.” The idea is to show people in states of raw emotion by placing them in very stressful circumstances. Other than that, though, this type of show has very little to do with what we may call everyday reality. But even everyday reality is not the same as ultimate reality. The sacrifices, gatherings, and prayers that the people of Judah were participating in were “real” in the sense that they happened. But these things were not genuine or sincere.
God’s people today must be genuine. Giving money to good causes (even to the church), going to church, and praying do not prove that a person has a genuine relationship with the Lord. Real relationship means that these actions will be accompanied by a heart and lifestyle consistent with the character of God himself. God is not mocked; no person can manipulate the Lord to get into Heaven.
Thought to Remember
“To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22)
Dear Lord, we thank you for counting us as purer than snow. We love you because you first loved us. May our love for you drive us to examine honestly our deepest thoughts and motives, that in the end our scarlet lives may become white as snow. At all times we rely on your grace to save us in spite of our shortcomings. In the name of Jesus our Savior, amen.
Underwood, Jonathan ; Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2006-2007. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing