Pesky Prophets & Rotten Rituals — Part 1

The Prophet Isaiah, Marc Chagall

“Like those others, I had been trying to find the easy life of blindness to pain.” — Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers

Prophets stand in the gap. What that means is, prophets stand in between two people or groups of people and help them hear and see one another. They form a sort of bridge. In the Bible, prophets stand in between God and God’s people. They speak on behalf of God to the people and sometimes they speak on behalf of the people to God. There are also times when prophets stand in the gap between people of privilege and people who are oppressed. They can speak words of challenge just as easily as they can comfort. Because prophets often stand in the gap, they often stand apart and they often stand alone.

Standing alone results in a couple of things. The first can be a sense of loneliness. The second is a unique point of view. The prophets see things in more dramatic fashion than many others. Abraham Heschel describes a prophet’s sensitivity, “Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice — cheating in business, exploitation of the poor — is slight; to the prophets, a disaster.” (The Prophets) In other words, where we might respond to bad behavior with a shrug of the shoulders, prophets stomp and scream and flail. What we might see as an unfortunate circumstance, the prophets see as a tragic crime against humanity.

Prophets not only make bold statements, they also ask pointed questions. They question the way things are and the way things ought to be. The quote above comes from a modern-day prophet of sorts, Elias Chacour. He grew up a young boy in the countryside of Palestine. It was a time when Jews and Arabs lived and worked alongside each other in peace. His life and family and village were traumatized after World War II when his village and the surrounding area were divided up by forces beyond their control. Their land was stolen by people who had never lived on it. He watched as violence tore apart families and futures. He asked,

“And still rumors of violence whispered through the hills, bloodshed and terrorism everywhere in the land. Were there only two choices left to us — surrender to abuse or turn to violence?”p. 76

Elias’ prophetic calling would lead him to search for a different way, but not necessarily an easier way. It was a way that was hidden to so many others. Maybe because they didn’t want to see it.

Prophets disrupt the status quo with their bold proclamations and pointed questions. But, in my mind, the reason that prophets are hated is because they make us look where we would rather not see. They make us feel something we are trying to ignore. They make plain our faults and failures that we would rather pretend don’t exist. They call us out whenever we try “to find the easy life of blindness to pain.” You see prophets don’t stomp and flail because they are obsessive or over-bearing or irrational. The prophets shout because they see how much people are hurting. They want to remove the veil that gets draped over suffering so that humanity can be rescued from its pain.

You are familiar with names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day. You very likely know Gandhi and Malala Yousafzai. You might recognize names like Bishop Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela or Oscar Romero. If so, you know what prophets are like. You know what they stand for and how their lives have been lived. The prophets in the Bible are very much the same. They are calling people away from the easy life they use to veil themselves from pain. In the Bible, the veils they want to remove are often those rituals of worship that we discussed in the previous chapter. The way God’s people sing, the way they pray, the way they sacrifice looks good on the surface, but are spoiled underneath. In the eyes of the prophets, the rituals have become rotten.

In this chapter, I want to show you two things. The first is a repeated refrain throughout the prophets. It is a refrain that criticizes the rituals of worship and calls God’s people to a different way of life. In this way I want to reinforce the idea that what truly satisfies God is not bloodshed and death, but a renewed way of life. This is the challenge of the prophets. The second thing I want to show you are some examples of God’s grace. What you will see is that when God’s people fail, God doesn’t give up. In fact, it seems that God increases his grace. In other words, God responds to faults and failures with a better promise than the last one. This is the comfort of the prophets.

“I Desire Mercy…”

The first prophet that I want to introduce you to is Isaiah. The book of the Bible with his name on it is the longest of all of the prophets. When it comes to God and the death of Jesus, Isaiah is the most quoted of all of the prophets. His prophecies cover many years, but the focus of the early chapters is a warning to God’s people. They have “turned their backs on God” (1:4) and are in danger of being swept away into exile. His words cover some of the same time as the kings Ahaz and Hezekiah, so you have an idea of the problem that he is addressing. While there are 66 chapters in this book of the Bible, there are two that will make the point.

The problem is not that people have forgotten their rituals of worship. It’s not that they are forgetting to sacrifice or remember special days or say their prayers. They are right on track with all of the rituals, but for some reason their worship is no longer worthy of God. In other words, to most people everything appears to be just fine, but from Isaiah’s perspective something is terribly wrong. Isaiah can speak for himself,

“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.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

- Isaiah 1:10–15

What you see in the words above is that God is questioning the sacrifices of his people. God is taking no pleasure in them. All of their gatherings and festivals have become a burden to God. When they lift up their hands in prayer, the eyes of God are hidden and the ears of God are covered. There is blood on their hands and it is not the blood of bulls or goats or turtledoves or any other animal sacrifice. The blood on their hands is the blood of widows and orphans. It is the blood of theft and bribery, indifference and injustice. The city used to be full of justice and righteousness, but now it was stained by violence. Again, Isaiah can speak for himself,

See how the faithful city
has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her —
but now murderers!

Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.
Your rulers are rebels,
partners with thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.

- Isaiah 1:20–23

Isaiah can see how much people are hurting, especially the widows and the orphans. What he sees is how God’s people are using the rituals of worship to cover up their cruelty and greed. It seems that people hope that they can distract God from their evil deeds by putting on a good show. But, God knows the truth. Isaiah knows the truth. Everyone else seems confused.

Isaiah 58 is very similar to Isaiah 1. The problem is not that people have forgotten how to pray and fast and seek God. The problem is that God is not taking notice of them any longer. God is surprised that they should be so surprised,

For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

- Isaiah 58:2–3

The words in bold make a direct connection to Chapter 2 and the Day of Atonement. There you read these words:

“For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all of your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever.” — Leviticus 23:30–31

Remember that the Day of Atonement was a very important day in the life of God’s people. It may be the most important day. The Day of Atonement was the day for God’s people to make a clean break from the previous year and a fresh start for the new one. God had commanded them to rest on this day and to humble themselves. Now they have, but God seems not to have noticed. They were going through the rituals of their religion just like God has commanded, but it seems that God has not seen them. Why?

For your hands are stained with blood,
your fingers with guilt.
Your lips have spoken falsely,
and your tongue mutters wicked things.

- Isaiah 59:3

Again, the blood of their hands is not that of animal sacrifices. It is the blood of exploitation and quarreling, the blood of wicked fists. They were murderers and liars.

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?”

- Isaiah 58:4–5

Once again, God’s people expect to be able to go through the motions of worship and earn God’s favor. But, God is not impressed. So, it’s not that God is ignoring them. In fact, God knows them all too well. It’s not that God can’t see them or hear them, it’s that God has seen the strike of every fist and heard every quarreling word. They have made all of their sacrifices and rituals of worship insincere.

The point that I tried to make in the last chapter was that it was not the death of an animal that satisfied God. Rather, it was the sincere remorse and desire to be renewed that satisfied God and renewed God’s mercy. What atoned for the rebellion of God’s people was their genuine desire to meet with God, hear all of God’s commandments, and obey them. What made them right with God was not death, but a life rededicated to right living. Again, the sacrifices were not substitutes but outward signs of that inward dedication.

Unfortunately, what has happened is that the people got everything turned inside out. They began to see the rituals of worship and the death of the animals as the main point. They thought the sacrifices themselves would appease God and that they could then go about business as usual. The rituals became rotten because the people imagined that all of the sacrifices and offerings on the altar before God would serve as a veil of “blindness to pain.” God saw right through it. Isaiah saw right through it. All the prophets saw right through it. That’s what made them so pesky.

And there are a lot of them. You can read about them in Part 2.

Partner, Parent, Pastor & potential Placemaker pursuing God's peace and stopping occasionally to play golf.

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