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God’s Word for You

Isaiah 1:12-14 Your incense is an abomination

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, December 22, 2023

12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked for this from your hands:
this trampling on my courts?

Isaiah’s contemporary, Micah, often speaks about the very same things. We get the impression that the two prophets sometimes responded to one another’s messages with similar words, sometimes even completing one another’s thoughts and themes. Micah lived outside the city walls of Jerusalem out among the villages, while Isaiah lived in the city, rarely leaving the crowded streets and temple courts. Micah asked: “Will the LORD be delighted with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of streams of oil?” (Micah 6:7). The Lord had commanded that the men of Israel appear before him at the sanctuary three times every year (Exodus 23:17), and that they bring offerings: “No one is to appear before the LORD empty handed” (Exodus 23:15). But they were to do this with faith in their hearts, not just mindless service like animals or robots. Without faith, “whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled” (Haggai 2:14). As another prophet put it: “Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves” (Malachi 2:11).

So the people might say, “How can you ask, ‘Who has asked for this?’” But the answer is: “No one. The Lord did not ask for worthless offerings. He invited you to worship him by bringing gifts from the heart, gifts you considered and thought about; gifts that come from faith. But you have brought him the sweepings from your floors, the leftovers from your rummage sales. You offer the Lord a donut you’ve already taken a bite from, and you act as if he should be thrilled with your service. You shame yourself and you condemn yourself without realizing it!”

13 Stop bringing worthless offerings!
Your incense is an abomination to me.
I cannot stand your sinful assemblies on the new moons,
on the Sabbaths, and on the holy days.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
I hate with a passion.
They have become a burden to me.
I am tired of putting up with them.

These festivals were regular holidays for the people. The new moon was the beginning of every month; the Sabbath of course came every week. Other holy days were the appointed feasts like Tabernacles and Passover. But their worship was not in the heart. God’s language is incredibly strong here: “I hate it with a passion” (NIV, “my soul hates”), a phrase that we also find in Psalm 11:5, “The wicked and those who love violence his soul hates.”

How could God hate anyone who comes to worship him? This is such a simple answer that it is heartbreaking to see so many people in the world blind and deaf to the answer. What is it that damns? Unbelief damns (Mark 16:16). What saves? Only faith saves, on account of the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8), and this faith is faith in Christ alone, our only Sovereign and Lord (Jude 1:4). Since it is only in Christ that sin is atoned for, anyone who puts their faith in someone or something else is chopping down the cross and throwing it in the fire. They are removing Jesus from their hearts. When churches and other institutions abandon Christ or trample on his Gospel, our confession declares, “It would be better to abandon them or tear them down rather than preserve them with their blasphemous services, invented by men, which claim to be superior to the ordinary Christian life and to the offices and callings established by God” (Smalcald Articles). Such “service” God calls “sinful, evil” aven, in verse 13. And, “as I have observed, those who plow evil (aven) and those who sow trouble will reap it” (Job 4:8).

At the same time, we must also remember that the ordinary Christian might be confused by verses like these if they are mishandled and misapplied. God does not say that he hates formal worship, as if we should be ashamed to gather our children and head off to church each Sunday to worship God and receive his forgiveness and encouragement. This is certainly what he wants us to do, without fail (Hebrews 10:25), and without useless or confusing innovations. The plain, ordinary service leads us to worship in faith, not in unbelief. It strengthens our trust in Christ. The gospel, the sacrament and the absolution knock all the people’s secret doubts away, so that they are built up with an ever-increasing faith and trust in Jesus. This is just the very sort of worship the Lord wants from us: “His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Psalm 95 describes this kind of worship. In Latin, its first word is Venite, “O Come!,” and we use its words as a delightful song of praise. “Come let us bown down in worship, let us kneel before God our Maker, for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Psalm 95:6-7). Worship in faith, not in doubt. But if you do have doubts, run even more quickly to worship, so that Jesus may assure you of his love, his forgiveness, of the resurrection on the Last Day, and of your place with him at his banquet table for all eternity.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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