Pesky Prophets & Rotten Rituals — (Part 1)
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. (You can read Chapter 2 Part 1 and Part 2 if you wish).
“Like those others, I had been trying to find the easy life of blindness to pain.” — Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers
Pesky Prophets & Rotten Rituals
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 (that is, if you’ve read the earlier chapters). While there are 66 chapters in this book of the Bible, there are two that will make the point: Chapter 1 and 58.
In reading them we find that 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.
Samuel is a prophet who has two books of the Bible that tell the story of his life. In a confrontation with King Saul, Samuel proclaims, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (I Samuel 15:22). It’s a pointed question and we’ll come back to the answer.
Nathan is the prophet who caught King David in his tangled web of lying and lust and murder. From him, David learned this important truth, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (Psalm 51:16) In other words, these acts that we think bring about God’s mercy are not even pleasing to God.
Jeremiah is another prophet warning God’s people about another exile. Again, offerings and sacrifices, the rituals of worship are turned down, “Of what use to me is frankincense from Sheba, or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.” (Jeremiah 6:20). In other words, it doesn’t matter how special you make the sugar and spice, they just aren’t that nice.
Amos is a prophet who makes bold proclamations at a time when there is an extreme gap between privilege and poverty. Offerings and sacrifices are rejected in no uncertain terms, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps…Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:21–23, 25)
Micah is a prophet who shared the stage with Isaiah. You can hear echoes of Isaiah’s message, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6–7). The pointed questions are rhetorical.
So, here we have prophet after prophet making bold proclamations and asking pointed questions about some of the most important rituals of worship. Not only do they question them, they renounce them. They understand that offerings and sacrifices are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves. In the end, God is not satisfied with sacrifices and offerings. God is after much more than that and the pesky prophets are happy to announce it over and over again.
Samuel says, “Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” (15:22)
David goes on to write, “A sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (51:17)
Jeremiah reminds God’s people of God’s command, “Obey my voice…and walk only in the way that I command you.” (7:23)
Amos, again in no uncertain terms makes God’s desires clear, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:24)
The prophet Micah sounds much the same, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).
Of course, the prophet Isaiah has as much to say,
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:16:17
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
“do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,”
- Isaiah 58:6–7, 10
There is another prophet, named Hosea, who summarizes all of this in just a few words. Hosea sees the same veil and knows the same pain and understands God in the same way. Through him God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice; an acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” (6:6).
Over and over again, what we find is that what satisfies God is not sacrifices and offerings but obedience. It begins with a sincere remorse for faults and failures, but it results in a walk, a way of life. It is a way of life that is just and kind and humble. It defends the oppressed and takes up the cause of widows and orphans and immigrants. It shares food and provides shelter and clothes the naked. It does not point the finger or talk down to others. In short, what satisfies God is a life that is forgiving and generous and patient and lovingly loyal.
So much of what the prophets have to say should prove the point of Chapter 2. While it may appear that the death of innocent animals spares the life of God’s people, that is not what is happening. If it was, the powerful and influential people could appease God with a multitude of sacrifices and carry on with business as usual, blind to pain and causing it at the same time. The prophets would not have it because God would not have it. God would not have his image ruined by false worship. And, God would reject any offering and refuse any sacrifice that was not presented out of a sincere desire to live life rightly. In the end, the sacrifices and offerings are not essential or effective. God doesn’t need them and they don’t change God.
The sacrifices and offerings are methods to meet with God, to learn his ways, and a sign of trust; enough trust to walk in those ways. Should someone stumble or fall or stray from the path while trying to walk in that way, God, out of his mercy and grace and patience and loving loyalty, provides ways to begin again or continue on without fear. The sacrifices and offerings, then, are avenues of God’s mercy, means of God’s grace. God provides ways for his people to meet with him and learn from him and, most importantly, live like him.
Obviously, a life of justice and care for the marginalized requires more of someone than killing some animals on an altar. What the prophets know is that people will always search for an “easy life of blindness to pain.” What is obvious to the prophets is how people will settle for easy ways to affirm and prove their own goodness while trying to hide a lot of bad, even evil. Prophets will always pull back the veil on those acts of cruelty and injustice and indifference that people try to hide, but that are very apparent to God, disheartening to God, even infuriating to God. This is the challenge of the prophets.
But, there’s comfort too. It’s in Part 2 of Chapter 3.