In Matthew 22:37–38, our Lord Jesus referred to Deuteronomy 6:4–5 as the “first and great commandment” in the Law. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
Throughout the Bible, the Lord calls us over and over again to love Him, not merely with outward acts of worship and obedience, but with a sincere heart of faith and love. Man-made religion has often tried to imitate heartfelt worship by ceremonies, deeds of penance, pilgrimages, holy days, and lavish gifts to charity, all expending fruitless effort. None of these actions can please the Lord apart from a deep-rooted love for the Lord Himself.
In the opening words of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet charges the nation of Israel as guilty of apostasy. Through the prophet’s words, God says of His people that “they have rebelled against me” (Isaiah 1:2). He calls Israel a “sinful nation,” “a people laden with iniquity,” and “children that are corrupters”; furthermore, Isaiah indicated that “they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward” (Isaiah 1:4).
From these dire words, we might assume that the Israelites had become atheists and forsaken religion altogether. But that was not the case! In fact, the people that God was speaking to were the “religious crowd”! They weren’t the idolaters of the northern kingdom but the men of Judah and Jerusalem who still worshipped in the Temple, observed the feast days, and kept the ceremonies of God’s Law.
The Lord asked the men of Jerusalem a profound question in Isaiah 1:11, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?” He went on to say: “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.”
God continued with a startling statement: “Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them” (Isaiah 1:13–14).
These were the sacrifices, the incense, the oblations, the sabbaths, and the appointed feasts that God Himself had commanded! Why was He weary to bear them? Why did He call them iniquity? Why did He say that their incense was an abomination? How do the empty feasts and animal sacrifices of ancient Israel apply to our own worship today?
The tragic, but all-too-common, answer to these questions is also revealed by God. “Wherefore the LORD said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men” (Isaiah 29:13).
Thus, God has stated the basic root problem with the worship of the men of Jerusalem:
They “have removed their heart far from me.”
The first and great commandment is to love the LORD our God with all of our heart, soul, and might. The men of Judah and Jerusalem, while maintaining all the outward forms of worship and devotion, had missed the central point. In place of true worship from their hearts, they had substituted three dangerous, familiar vanities as we can see in Isaiah 29:13.
- “This people draw near me with their mouth.”
How easy it is to “draw near” to God with the mouth, to give lip service to one’s supposed devotion! The Pharisees were experts at publicly praying very long prayers, yet Jesus said that they would “receive the greater damnation” (Matthew 23:14). How many times have you prayed to God when you knew that your heart was not clean before Him? How often have you sung a congregational hymn without considering the words? Or when have you understood the words you were singing and knew your heart was not in agreement with the words of your mouth?
- “With their lips do honour me.”The first substitute for true worship is upward, being a hypocrite before God Himself. This second superficial substitute is outward, being a hypocrite before our fellow men. How often have you opened the Bible in family worship, while knowing that your wife and children were fully aware of sin and inconsistency in your own life that you had not reconciled with God or with them? Do you share the Gospel or give testimony of Christ Jesus even while your own heart is cold and indifferent to eternal matters? Do you speak Scripture even while those same verses and the Holy Spirit are convicting your heart of your own backslidden condition? What proceeds from your mouth will match the state of your heart for good or for evil! According to Luke 6:45, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”
- “Their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men.”
This third substitute we employ in place of true heart worship is another way in which the Pharisees were guilty. They had made external obedience to be the mark of Godliness. Jesus called this added teaching “the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8–9). They had imposed their own man-made standards upon others. Later, Jesus said to these particular teachers: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Have you ever substituted the “precept of men” for the “commandment of God”? This is not to say that we should not hold firm, Biblical convictions. We should—and we must! But we also must be careful that our standards are firmly grounded in Scripture. We want to beware of not instructing our children and our brethren in Christ to fear God merely because of the precepts of men.
Thank God that the Book of Isaiah does not leave us without a solution! According to Isaiah 57:15, after the glorious promises are given of the coming Messiah, God gives us an invitation. “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
Have you been convicted that your own heart is far from the Lord? Does it seem that your prayers are lifeless? Does reading your Bible seem more of a chore or duty to be done than a joy and a delight? Perhaps you wonder if indeed your worship of God has become as cold and lifeless as that of the ancient Israelites? Take hope! The high and lofty One whose name is Holy desires to revive your contrite heart. If you will humbly acknowledge your backslidden condition, He will breathe new life into your heart and give you the desire and power to love Him as He so deserves.
This message regarding heartless worship is not an isolated message in the Book of Isaiah. The same malady was acknowledged by the prophet Ezekiel, as well as his echoing the cure: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). The prophet Jeremiah gave a similar promise: “And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:7).
What is the condition of your heart? When praying, are you just uttering words and petitions or is your heart wholly seeking Him and His will? Take courage! Humble yourself. Come before God with contrition and ask Him to revive your heart. You can pray confidently, according to God’s will, the same words as David: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). After all, proper worship of God is a matter of the heart.