When God called Isaiah to be a prophet, he told him that his ministry would be largely fruitless—the people would not listen to him.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”Isaiah 6:8–10 ESV
God intends to work out his plans and purposes, and in his goodness and wisdom that included a prophetic ministry for Isaiah that resulted in the people neither hearing nor understanding—nor believing!—his message. Still, Isaiah preached the word of God to the people faithfully.
In chapter 29 he warned the city of Jerusalem (which God calls “Ariel”; this word refers to the top part of the altar) that destruction was coming. Judgment was on its way in the form of Assyria, yet God would not allow Assyria’s rebellion against God to go unpunished. In 29:5–8 he promises that the nations that fight against Jerusalem would also be destroyed. God would bring the nations against Jerusalem as an act of judgment, yet would in turn punish those nations for harming Jerusalem! It is remarkable how God can use the sin of others to further his purposes, yet he remains holy! This sounds very much like the death of Jesus as Peter explained in Acts 2:23; it was the definite plan of God for it to happen, yet it happened by the hands of lawless men. While Assyria would the instrument of Jerusalem’s judgment, Assyria would not get away with harming the city.
Beginning in verse 13 we read this:
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”Isaiah 29:13–14 ESV
We’ve all been there. Singing in the gathered assembly while our minds are elsewhere. Hearing Scripture read while thinking about lunch. Laughing at a joke in the sermon (obviously when Dan is preaching) but not paying attention to the actual point. This isn’t what God is talking about, however. The people—his people—were merely going through the motions. They would draw near to God in worship, but only with their mouths and their lips. In other words, they would say the right things. “Praise the Lord”, yet live as though he were not worthy of praise. They would go through the ceremonial aspects of worshiping him, yet their hearts, their joy and desire and affections, were far from God.
Even more, God says their fear of him is a commandment taught by men. We should fear God! We should have a healthy respect and reverence for him. He is God; we are not. His presence is dangerous. We can draw near to him through Christ, yet we must recognize that God is holy. Of course we teach this, but this, too, is not what he means. The people were “fearing” God as an external act of obedience. The context makes clear how they were doing this: with their mouths and their lips. In other words they were saying the right things.
It would be easy to detect rebellion against God if it were always explicitly stated. If the people were saying, “God is not worthy of worship,” there would be no question as to the state of their hearts. They were not saying this. Quite the opposite. They were saying, “God is worthy of worship”—but only with their lips. God is not limited to what we say. God sees the heart, and he declares their hearts are far from him.
This raises a question in my mind: who in the world would ever teach others to do this? Who would ever actually teach people to say the right thing, but to live in a way that is contrary? If their fear of the Lord were merely a commandment taught by men, who was teaching such a thing? No one, at least not explicitly. No one was teaching people directly to praise the Lord with their words but to go ahead and live lives in rebellion against him. It was much more subtle than this. They emphasized the rightness of the formality of worship while completely underemphasizing the rightness of living out the truth of worship.
It is entirely possible, and maybe even common, to emphasize the outward aspects of worship while forgetting that the worship God desires is also inward and personal. The prophet Amos captures their (and our!) tendency to emphasize the outward acts of worship with a mocking call to worship.
“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord GOD.Amos 4:4–5 ESV
Bethel was the original location of the tabernacle. Gilgal was also an important location for worship in Israel’s history, for it was the place Joshua set up the twelve stones from the Jordan River as a memorial of God giving them the land. God calls them to worship at these important places, but notice the mockery. God calls them to those places of worship in order to multiply their transgression. They love to bring the morning sacrifices. They love to bring their tithes. The law required it to be given every third year, but God calls them to bring it every three days! They love to bring their thanksgiving offering. They love to give their freewill offerings. In fact, they love to proclaim them, to publish them. They love to be seen “worshiping” God and to brag about their generosity!
Another prophet cut through this false worship.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.Hosea 6:6 ESV
The outward requirements of worship were never intended to be the full expression of true, genuine worship of God. They were meant to be a reflection of the heart of worship, which is love for God. Consider these words from the New Testament.
…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…1 Peter 2:5 ESV
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called…Ephesians 4:1 ESV
…for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.1 Corinthians 6:20 ESV
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.Romans 6:13
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Romans 12:1 ESV
Far from being a merely inward reality, true, genuine worship of God is both inward and outward. Our heart of love toward God must be reflected in our outward actions, and our outward actions must be a reflection of what is in our hearts. We must praise him with our lips, and we must praise him with our lives. Real, genuine worship is both inward and outward.