Isaiah: Right Worship, or Just Relationships?

By Bryant Myers

Photo by Ben_Kerckx /

We probably all know that Isaiah is a book about a people whom God decides to exile from the land he gave them, as a punishment for their faithlessness. And we all know that the God of the Bible is a jealous God. But what, exactly, was the nature of Israel's unfaithfulness?

A close look at Isaiah reveals a puzzling, even confusing, description of God's problem with his people. Yet I believe making sense out of what appears to be confusion is important to us.

Let me see if I can make clear what I mean, and then let's see what we can learn from it.

Isaiah 1

The first chapter of Isaiah is a little like a preamble. In a single short chapter, Isaiah paints the problem that God has with Israel. A glance through this first chapter sets the stage for 50-some chapters that follow.

But I find it to be a confusing preamble, at least at first glance. It begins with a focus on worship and yet ends with a damning indictment of social injustice. And we are faced with a very important gospel question: What's the bottom line, right worship or just relationships?

We are faced with a very important gospel question: What's the bottom line, right worship or just relationships?

In verses 2-4, God's problem with Israel seems clear. Through Isaiah, God announces to the heavens that his children have rebelled against him.

God complains that while every ox knows his master, "Israel does not know, my people do not understand."

What don't they understand? "They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him."

Israel is suffering from an identity crisis. Israel has forgotten who she is and to whom she belongs. The text goes on to indicate that the evidence of this crisis is in her worship.

Isaiah tells us that Israel's worship is empty, without meaning or intention. All the externals of worship are there: bulls, fattened animals: but God rejects them as "meaningless offerings."

OK, so Israel is suffering from a kind of nominalism or false religiosity. We can understand this. After all, our churches struggle with the same thing.

But then Isaiah appears to change the subject. How does God know that the offerings and the religious practice are empty? What evidence does God cite to support his conclusion?

"See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her… Your rulers are rebels, companions to thieves;… They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them."

The indicators of true worship appear to be the way that Israel and her leaders act in terms of caring for widows and orphans.

What a strange migration. The evidence of true worship is just social behavior? Can this be true?

Perhaps Isaiah lost his train of thought, or something got lost from the original text.

Isaiah 2 and 3

Chapter 2 continues the same theme. "You (God) have abandoned your people, the house of Jacob." And what reason was given for this abandonment?

"They are full of superstitions from the East; they practice divination like the Philistines and clasp hands with pagans" (2:6). "Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands" (2:8).

OK, this is better. Isaiah is back on track with the theme of right worship. Only God is God. Only God must be worshiped and Israel is no longer faithful to her God. She is worshiping other gods and this is clearly wrong.

The rest of chapter 2 tells us that the reaction of God to this false worship will be judgment, and chapter 3 describes what God's judgment is to be. Isaiah seems back on track now.

But when God takes his place in court and rises to judge the people and enter his judgment in Isaiah 3:13, his complaint never mentions false worship or idols.

"It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?"

Just as in chapter 1, the evidence of Israel's unfaithful worship is not what we normally think of as false worship. It is lack of justice and its impact on the poor.

Isaiah 58

This strange back and forth between true worship and just relationships continues right through Isaiah and culminates resoundingly in Isaiah 58.

This chapter begins with God's call for true worship and moves to a description of true fasting. Yet the description of true fasting is not what we expect.

"Is this not 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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

Once again a conversation on worship ends up addressing social justice and the care of "the least of these."

And it is not only Isaiah who seems to make this effortless move between right worship and social justice. The same theme appears in Ezekiel, when he describes Jerusalem's sins.

"Men accept bribes to shed blood; you take usury and excessive interest and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord" (Ezek. 22:12).

When we act unjustly and take advantage of others, Ezekiel seems to be saying that this means that we have forgotten God.

So, right worship or just relationships? Which is it? Are Isaiah and Ezekiel confused? Or could it be that we are the ones who don't get it, just as Israel failed to get it? How might right worship and just social behavior be related? Is our understanding of worship somehow too narrow, too limiting?

How might right worship and just social behavior be related? Is our understanding of worship somehow too narrow, too limiting?

As always, Jesus gives us the answer, and it's really pretty simple.

When Jesus was asked what must be done to inherit eternal life, he affirmed what he called the greatest commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27).

This is one commandment, not two. It is a commandment about our relationships—our relationship with God, and with each other.

It is a commandment not just about whom we must worship but also about whom we must love. It is a commandment not just about what we must believe but also about what we must do.

Loving God and loving our neighbor are two sides of the same gospel coin. They are inseparable, seamlessly related. When we attempt to do one and fail at the other, we fall into error just as Israel did.

When we worship God and fail to love our neighbor, our worship becomes empty and our Lord becomes angry.

At the end of the day, how we treat the poor is a measure of whom we truly worship.

Bryant Myers is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. Previously, he served as vice president of World Vision International. This essay originally appeared in the August 2002 issue of World Vision's MARC Newsletter, reproduced here by kind permission of the editors.

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