Isaiah 1: God Wants Our Hearts

Growing up, I really struggled in my relationship with God because I thought that Christianity was all about keeping a list of rules. And God does give us commands in scripture to live by. In John 14:15, Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Obeying Him is absolutely necessary in order to love Him, but obedience alone is not love. Chapter 1 of Isaiah gives clear evidence that God is not looking for mere outward conformity to His laws, but obedience from the heart.

The chapter begins with the Lord’s addressing His people’s sin. He compares them to rebellious children (v. 2), and marvels that though animals know their master, Israel does not know hers (v.3). He continues to describe their sin in verse 4: “Alas, sinful nation, people laden down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the LORD, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him.”

Interestingly enough, it seems that Israel, though rebellious at heart, was still following God’s commands in regard to burnt offerings and sacrifices. And even though He had given very detailed instructions to Israel on sacrifices, He is now so frustrated with Israel’s hypocrisy that He addresses them as Sodom and Gomorrah and says,

“’What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats. When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you multiply prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood,’” (vv. 11-15).

When Israel brought their sacrifices for their sins, it was an insult to the LORD because He knew their hearts. He knew that they weren’t sorry for their sins. And because of their persistent rebellion and hypocrisy, God had to judge them with destruction (vv.5-9,28-30).

But, ever merciful and ready to pardon, the LORD gives Israel the opportunity to turn from their own evil ways and embrace His righteous ways. And we get a clear picture of what He wants in His people: the kind of heart that isn’t merely concerned with externals, but knows and respects the character of God well enough to act in consideration of Him in daily life: to cease to do evil, to learn to do good, to seek justice, to reprove the ruthless, to defend the orphan, and to plead for the widow—exactly what Israel wasn’t doing (v. 23).

We are human just like the people of Israel were. It’s easy to condemn Israel for her hypocrisy, but aren’t we often guilty of the same kinds of things? We go to church, but then we live however we want. We say we love God, but then we make fun of or despise the people He created and Christ died for.

Being a Christian isn’t just going to church on Sunday. Being a Christian is about knowing God through His Word and being changed by it. It means living differently than the people of the world—keeping a clean heart, fighting for justice, standing up to those who are wronging others, defending the helpless. This is how we love God.

“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widow in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” (James 1:27).

Isaiah

A month or so ago, I came to Isaiah in the normal course of reading through my Bible. Confession: in the past when I have read Isaiah, I mostly zoned out because I had this idea that since it was prophecy, I wouldn’t be able to understand most of it, anyway.

But this time through, I wanted the experience to be different. I wanted to actually pay attention to what I was reading.

So I sat down with my Bible, a pen, and a journal and started in. I took notes as I went so that I would have to pay attention, and what I quickly discovered was that Isaiah is an amazing book—amazingly beautiful because it’s mostly God sharing His heart through poetry.

As a lover of poetry, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover this treasury by the Creator of poetry Himself. The whole book is rich in literary devices—imagery, parallelism, metaphors, similes, etc. But what is even more striking to me is the message of the poetry. Here in Isaiah, we find our God using poetry to express His feelings and thoughts, plans and desires. Knowing His heart is the greatest treasure.

For anyone who has ever longed to obey the greatest commandment–to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Mark 12:30), Isaiah is a must-study. Why? Because in order to love God well, we have to know who He is, and Isaiah is like an open window straight into the heart of God. Being able to see who He is will first mesmerize us with His beauty and secondly motivate us to action. A great example of this is Isaiah himself who in chapter 6 sees the Lord in His glory and immediately realizes his own sinfulness and, upon forgiveness, offers himself to the Lord’s service. As we see God’s character in the book of Isaiah, we too can be moved to repentance, awe, and loving surrender.

So I have decided to share some of the “take-aways” that I found in the book of Isaiah in the coming days that they may encourage and strengthen you as they have me.

Manasseh and our Merciful God

Second Chronicles 33 recounts the story of Manasseh, one of the kings of Judah who reigned shortly before the Babylonian captivity. He was a very bad king. Verse 2 says, “He did evil in the sight of the LORD according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had dispossessed before the sons of Israel.” The chapter goes on to list his numerous sins: he built high places and altars to idols, worshiped the hosts of heaven (even building altars to them in the Temple of God), participated in child sacrifices, practiced witchcraft, put an idol in the Temple, led his people into greater sin than the godless people who lived in the land before them, and ignored God altogether.

God allowed Manasseh to be captured by the king of Assyria and hauled away to Babylon, and that is where Manasseh’s story takes an incredible turn. This man who had blatantly disregarded God and His ways humbled himself before the Lord and cried out to Him. And the Lord heard him. Verse 13 says, “When he [Manasseh] prayed to Him [the LORD], He was moved by His entreaty and heard his supplication and brought him again to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.”

When Manasseh arrived back in Jerusalem, he was a changed man. He removed the altars to idols that he had made, set up the altar of the LORD, sacrificed peace and thank offerings, and ordered his people to serve the Lord.

What can we learn from Manasseh’s life?

Our God is merciful.

The story of Manasseh gives us hope because it shows us that God is ready and willing to forgive no matter what we’ve done. If we humble ourselves before Him like Manasseh did, acknowledging that He is right and we were wrong, He will have compassion on us and forgive us.

Our God is powerful.

If I knew someone as blatantly against God as Manasseh was, that person would be the last person I would ever expect to repent and turn to the Lord. But Manasseh’s story contradicts human logic. Our God was able to humble the most unlikely of souls and radically transform his life. And He can do the same for the people around us today-wayward loved ones, antagonistic co-workers, ungodly leaders, our worst enemies. The Lord’s power to humble and change Manasseh should give us the courage to pray boldly for these people.

We have a choice.

When the Lord brought the king of Assyria to take Manasseh captive, Manasseh had a choice. He could have chosen to continue ignoring the Lord and living his own way. But he didn’t. He chose to humble himself before God. Sometimes the Lord has to put difficult circumstances in our lives because we have forgotten or ignored Him. When we face that distress, we have a choice. We can continue on our own path of destruction or we can humble ourselves and turn toward the Lord. When we choose to humble ourselves that is when God can do amazing things in our lives.