“I hate, I despise, your feasts! I can’t stand the stench of your solemn assemblies. Even if you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will have no regard for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle. Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever received a gift you really didn’t want? I remember playing a big family White Elephant game when I was growing up. I can’t remember exactly what the first gift I opened was, but it was something pretty cool and I was pleased. But then, my uncle used his turn to steal it for my cousin. The second gift I opened was literally a paperweight. I was crushed. I may have gotten a gift, but I most decidedly did not want it. That was a little bit like how God felt about the worship of the Israelites here. He wanted one thing, but they kept giving Him another; and He wasn’t happy about it.
Let’s just call this what it is: These are really strong words here. God is telling the people to quit worshiping Him. But why? Why would He do that? Because their worship was offensive to Him. He would rather them not even try than continue doing what they were doing. Okay, but again, why?
Well, for starters, they were neck deep in idolatry. It wasn’t that they weren’t worshiping God at all because they were. The problem was that they were worshiping God and other gods as well. This is the thing we sometimes don’t realize about the people of Israel when we see them blasted over and over for practicing idolatry. They were still going through the rituals of worshiping God.
The problem wasn’t a lack of worship, but rather a corrupted worship. They were treating God just like He was no different from all the other gods of the peoples around Israel. He was being treated like some minor regional deity. When they needed what they thought of Him as being able to provide, they went to Him. When they needed what another god had covered by his range of powers, they went there instead. They may have been called by God to be something different, but they were functionally pagan in their basic operation…just like everyone else around them.
This was an offense to God not because He somehow needed their worship like the other gods did, but rather because it was a violation of His character and identity. Ontologically speaking, He wasn’t like those other gods. Just like you don’t like being treated in ways that are wildly out of sync with your character (for instance, being accused of stealing when you haven’t), God doesn’t either. He preferred that they not worship Him at all over what they were doing.
But, that all being said, that’s not the reason He wanted them to quit their worship here according to the text. Well, it wasn’t the most central reason. To understand the real reason He wanted them to quit and why it matters for us, we need to understand a bit more about what worship is in the first place.
When we worship God, we are involved in three things. First, we are acknowledging the character of God. When we say things like, “God is great,” we are recognizing who He is. That’s an important part of worship. Second, we celebrate the character of God. When we worship, we are not simply declaring God is good and worthy of our praise, we are delighting in that fact. We are calling others to join with us in delighting in it.
Now, some folks think and act like that is the sum total of worship. It’s not. There is one more element, and this one is truly critical to getting worship right. In addition to recognizing and celebrating who God is, in worship we participate in who God is. That is, we don’t simply declare who He is, we do some of the same kinds of things that make Him great so that others can see it for themselves.
So, when we worship, we recognize, celebrate, and participate in God’s character and identity. Got it? Okay, but why all three of these? Why can’t we have worship with just a couple of them? Because of the nature of His character. If God really is who we proclaim Him to be, then the logical necessity of that demands our participating in His character by doing the kinds of things He would do. Indeed, to not include the participation element suggests that one of two things are true: Either He really isn’t all we are claiming Him to be, or we don’t really believe He is. Either way, we’ve got a problem.
For Israel, the real problem God had with their worship is not that that they were worshiping idols (although that really was a big deal). The real problem was that they were leaving off the participation piece of their worship. They may have proclaimed Him a host of great things, but they weren’t living like it. They called Him a God of justice, but allowed injustice to flourish. They declared Him to be a righteous God, but had a culture decidedly lacking in righteousness.
Here’s the thing: That’s always the result of idolatry of any kind. We become like what we worship. If we worship things that are not God, but are mere reflections of ourselves—or worse, something demonic in nature—we are going to gradually come to reflect those things instead of Him. This is literally no way to live; it is not the way to life. God wants us to live and so He takes a pretty hard line against anything that would move us in this direction.
If they were going to worship Him in a way that really counted, they had to include the participation element. Otherwise, they were not simply wasting everyone’s time; worse, they were declaring God to be other than He is. That’s something He was simply not going to abide.
This same lesson is one we need to be sure we are learning in our own lives. When we go to worship the Lord—perhaps in a church on a weekly basis?—do we have all three of these elements as a part of what we are doing? The fact is, much of our worship falls to only having two of them. We recognize and celebrate His character in the worship center, but then we don’t do anything about it when we leave.
How can you do something meaningful about who God is once you’ve exited the doors of the sanctuary? How can you serve someone else in His name? How can you love someone who is hard to love? How can you show grace to another person? How can you extend forgiveness where you’ve been wounded? How can you participate in God’s character? If you want to get your worship right, if you want it to be the kind of worship He’s willing to accept, you’ve got to do it. Nothing less will do.