Summary: Religious exercise can become a snare if in our efforts we fail to seek the Lord. Religion for the sake of religion is a dreadful snare.

“Like a pregnant woman

who writhes and cries out in her pangs

when she is near to giving birth,

so were we because of you, O LORD;

we were pregnant, we writhed,

but we have given birth to wind.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,

and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.

You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!

For your dew is a dew of light,

and the earth will give birth to the dead.” [1]

Give me that old time religion!

Give me that old time religion!

Give me that old time religion!

It’s good enough for me! [2]

Canadians could easily be singing this old hymn without thinking of what they are requesting. You see, we are incurably religious. I realise that many Canadians would claim they are agnostic, and possibly even say they are atheists. Despite such claims, the vast majority of Canadians will nevertheless argue that they are “spiritual,” despite not belonging to a religious organisation nor participating in religious rites. Actually, most Canadians do have a religion, of sorts. For most of us Canadians, our religion is little more than crass superstition, but it is religion nevertheless. Perhaps our religion consists of wearing a favourite jersey on hockey night so our favourite team will win, but for us it is a religious ritual that demands that we wear that jersey—our team depends on what we do! Or perhaps our religion consists of some long-standing ritual performed at Christmas or perhaps also at Easter. We aren’t really all that excited about how the churches try to horn in on our celebrations, but we continue the traditions we inherited from our parents—the family expects this.

Down deep, we believe there is a God, and we may even be convinced that we live where we do because we are deserving of this life. We are Canadian, and we deserve the blessings because… well, because we deserve it! We expect that the pastor will be available when our child is ready to be married; and when grandpa dies we expect a preacher to tell us what a great guy he was. Or we may hire a funeral director to utter a few pious platitudes when a loved one has died, making us believe that despite a life void of God’s presence the one who died is now in Heaven. I mean, after all, religion on our own terms is our right as Canadians. Well, we appear to think that to be the case.

Allow me to challenge you by asking you to seriously consider a few questions. Does your religion assure you of answered prayers? Do you actually pray? Or do you merely fling words into the ether, hoping that somehow what you are saying will make a difference? Political leaders often encourage us to offer “thoughts and prayers.” Do your thoughts accomplish anything other than making you feel good about yourself? Does your religion give you lasting peace in the midst of turmoil? Does your religion have any realistic hope of securing your eternal destiny? Or is it all a charade? You and I need to take a hard look at our religion so that we can assure ourselves that we are holding to something that leads us to the throne of God. We must assure ourselves that we are practising a religion that enjoys the blessing of the Eternal God because we seek Him.

We can be counted among those who practise a form of popular religion, or we can ardently pursue the Risen Saviour. If we practise the popular religion, no one will be disturbed by us, because we will not be offensive to anyone. However, if we are fully committed to Christ as Master over our life, we will shortly discover that even the most innocuous acts are offensive to many among whom we live. Jesus warned of this when He said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” [LUKE 6:26].

Elsewhere, Jesus warned against thinking that people will automatically love you because you are His disciple. Jesus warned, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” [MATTHEW 10:34-39].

Perhaps you imagine that I am attacking the state of the Faith in Canada, but in reality I am cautioning that religion, wherever it is found, is deadening to those who practise that religion if the religion fails to point the one participating to Christ the Lord. I care not whether we are speaking of the Buddhist in India, the Catholic in the Philippines, the one practising Shintoism in Japan, the Muslim in Pakistan, the Lutheran in Sweden, or the Evangelical in the United States, if religion turns the one practising that religion away from knowing Christ the Lord, that religion is an offense to God.


“Like a pregnant woman

who writhes and cries out in her pangs

when she is near to giving birth,

so were we because of you, O LORD;

we were pregnant, we writhed,

but we have given birth to wind.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,

and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.”

[ISAIAH 26:17-18]

The prophet speaks on behalf of Israel, though the people likely paid scant attention to what he said or wrote. Isaiah confessed that the people had accomplished nothing through their own efforts. They had no enjoyment in their attempts at worship, no sense of relationship with the LORD. They went to the House of God expecting nothing and their expectations were fulfilled; they saw themselves as doing their duties and they received precisely what they expected—nothing. They were going through the motions of worship without actually worshipping the Lord. They kept the holy days, observed the Sabbaths more or less, recited the prescribed prayers, went to the Temple on the feast days—yet, for all their efforts, it was obvious that they had no heart for God. Like many religious people who fill our churches each Christmas and Easter, they were eager for time away from work and time with the family, but gave little thought to pleasing God.

Religion as practised in Canada, like the religion practised in most nations today, may enable us to feel as though we have done something good. However, the feeling must always be fleeting, transient, ephemeral. Inevitably, the feeling fades and reality sets in. When this happens, and it will always happen, we are aware that we have accomplished nothing. Nothing has changed and we are still unable to compel God to accept us on our terms. We bow our heads in an act designed to bring us near to God, and when we are finished we again lift our heads unfulfilled. Despite reciting prayers, despite trying to be “good,” despite keeping whatever holy days we claim to be meaningful, we are yet unfulfilled and disappointed. We move through life, imagining that we are accomplishing something significant, though in reality we are chasing some undefined sense of accomplishment which seems always to be just beyond our reach.

Admittedly, whenever I speak of religion in the western world, I am most familiar with the United States and Canada, having lived in these two nations for my entire life. Thus, I speak out of my own observations based on the days of my life. And my observations are obviously biased. Most of the religious practises I have observed, even among professed Evangelical Christians, are perfunctory, carried out by rote, and they are rendered meaningless because they make no pretense of seeking the mind of the Lord.

Can you remember when you last came to the House of the Lord to worship, and because you met with the people of God you knew that you had been in the presence of the Living God? Have you even once had the experience of meeting God and being awed at the knowledge that you were in His presence? Have you met Him and known the majesty, the awe, the glory that marks His divine presence? Have you found yourself crying out as did Peter, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” [LUKE 5:8b]?

A Christian should anticipate that each time he or she goes to the House of the Lord, the presence of the Lord will overwhelm each one who is present. It should be the expectation of each worshipper that after having met together in worship that all present would confess, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us” [LUKE 24:32a]. We should witness the common reaction of outsiders who happen into our services to be as the Apostle describes the response of outsiders coming into a meeting where the Lord is present in power. You will recall that Paul wrote, “If … an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” [1 CORINTHIANS 14:24-25]. We should commonly witness outsiders being convicted of the Lord’s righteousness and their need of His salvation as they pass our meeting places. Christ’s presence should mark our meetings with His grace and power.

It is precisely the absence of the knowledge of God’s presence that condemns modern churches as too often being mere façades, a gathering of individuals seeking their own respective ends with no sense of community. While those present share in the rituals of that particular church, they share nothing of their lives with one another. It is a case of “go to church” and ignore everyone else who may be present that day. I grew up hearing some of the older folks in my town speak of such attitudes when they said it was a case of “every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.” Why do you attend services of your church? Is your focus on what you can get, or on the One whom you will meet?

Rituals, and even the fleeting emotional feeling that lulls us into spiritual slumber because we convince ourselves that we are doing something positive, are vastly different from the knowledge of having been in the presence of the Living God. To be sure, God does touch our emotions, but His touch serves always to transform us from merely performing rites to actually meeting Him, actually worshipping the Lord. Moreover, when He touches us, it will draw us closer to His holy people, increasing our love for the brotherhood of believers. And our love for one another leads us to realisation that we are the Body of Christ. We need one another, and we long for true fellowship.

Jesus confronted religious charlatans as He walked among us. Perhaps you will recall an incident that is recorded in Mark’s Gospel. Here is the account to recall. “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’

“And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother;” and, “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.” But you say, “If a man tells his father or his mother, ‘Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban’” (that is, given to God)—then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do’” [MARK 7:1-13].

In the view of the religious leaders challenging Jesus, the ritual was more important than righteousness. They believed the ritual was necessary for righteousness. Their view was not unlike those today who insists that a prayer is null if you don’t use the proper formulation, or that forgiveness is not possible without auricular confession, or that we need an intermediary in order to be heard when we call our to our Saviour.

Within the Christian community, it is easy enough to turn the hot glare on Catholics or High Church Anglicans with their ever increasing number of traditions imposed on those who attempt to follow that communion. However, we need to turn the bright glare of Scripture on us Evangelicals to bring us back into conformity with the Word. If we fail to say, “In Jesus’ Name” when we conclude our prayer, do we invalidate what we request? Am I less holy if I fail to wear a suit and tie when I go into the church building? Does the way I wear my hair actually determine whether God hears me as I pray? Is reciting a formulaic prayer required in order to be heard by God?

Throughout my years of walking with the Saviour, I’ve witnessed innumerable myths that were embraced as necessary if one was to be accepted by the Lord. Women couldn’t wear slacks. Men couldn’t wear bell-bottom trousers. Men could not have a beard. Long hair on men and short hair on women disqualified an individual from acceptance by the Lord God. Taped music was an abomination to the Lord. To read from any Bible other than one approved by the Sanhedrin of the denomination was a grave sin of monstrous proportions. Guitars and/or drums in a service of worship was the devil’s music. And the list went on, seemingly growing with each passing day.

It is as though we were witnessing again the first great disturbance among the faithful that is recorded in Doctor Luke’s study of the early churches. You will recall how we read, “Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’

“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will’” [ACTS 15:1-11].

Isn’t it time that we again embraced the message of grace? God teaches us, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [EPHESIANS 2:8-10]. Amen.


“Like a pregnant woman

who writhes and cries out in her pangs

when she is near to giving birth,

so were we because of you, O LORD;

we were pregnant, we writhed,

but we have given birth to wind.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,

and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.”

[ISAIAH 26:17-18]

If our religion is demonstrated to be unnecessary, even to be unprofitable, why bother with religion? Why should we care about our religion? At best, our religion, those things we do in our fruitless efforts to coerce God, may make us feel good about ourselves for a brief moment. However, the feeling of satisfaction at the thought that we have done something good will pass quickly, and we’ll find ourselves left with a sense that we must do again whatever it is that we have done, perhaps even doing something more than what we did the first time. We’ll be trapped in an endless cycle of repetitive effort that will never succeed. Religion is like that; it can never satisfy the soul that seeks peace with God. So why bother attempting to practise our religion?

Isaiah is forcing Israel to look at their efforts. They went through the motions of performing the rituals established for Temple worship, but their efforts were futile. Nothing came of their repetitious efforts. Now, the nation was being compelled by reality to acknowledge that all their efforts left them with no permanent result. They had read the words of Solomon, when he warned,

“The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,

but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.

The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD,

but he loves him who pursues righteousness.”

[PROVERBS 15:8-9]

But in their eagerness to perform the prescribed rituals they had forgotten that it was not the performance that mattered—it was being upright, pursuing righteousness that brought one into a right relationship with the Living God. It is a lesson that we dare not neglect.

I know that it must appear that I am woefully negative about religion. Actually, I know that those who meet the Living God will want to do something; they will want to engage in some particular activity to enshrine in their heart the experience of meeting the Lord. Perhaps you will recall the response of Jacob when he met the LORD. Jacob had been compelled to flee from his home because he took matters into his own hands and swindled his brother out of the birthright. Fleeing toward Haran, we read that as he was sleeping one night, he had a dream. And in the dream, he witnessed the LORD standing above the earth and speaking to him. The experience of knowing that he was in the presence of the Living God shook Jacob.

Thus, we read that when Jacob had wakened from his sleep, he said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” [GENESIS 28:16]. We read, “He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” [GENESIS 28:17].

Then, “Early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” [GENESIS 28:18-22].

Having met the Lord, Jacob wanted to worship, and his worship was expressed through erecting an altar with the stone on which he had rested his head the previous night and making a vow to the LORD Who had appeared to him. It is not unlike the response of Peter when he witnessed the Master conversing with Elijah and Moses. Seeing this, Peter blurted out, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah” [MARK 9:5]. The most natural thing in the world is to attempt to create a setting or to establish an act to mark the experience when God reveals His majesty. The problem is not in establishing a rite or ritual, but ensuring that the rite established is what the Lord expects of His people. Our religious efforts must reflect the will of God, and not what we imagine Him to will.

Our religion must change us. We perform the rites and the rituals God prescribes, not in order to change God, but we do what we do in the knowledge that we will be changed. We are not baptised in order to secure a position in Heaven, we are baptised to identify with the Risen Saviour and to honour Him. We don’t partake of the Communion Meal in order to be made righteous; we share in that Meal as an act of worship, testifying to the work that Christ has performed and that He will continue to perform until we are received by Him into Heaven itself. We attend the services of the congregation, not to be holy, but in order to meet the Risen Saviour and to learn of Him. Our religion must change us, rather than thinking that we can manipulate God through our religious efforts.

GOD CENSURES HUMAN EFFORT — God can be absolutely fierce in rejecting efforts to manipulate Him. For instance, recall this rejection of Israel’s religious efforts given in the writings of Amos. The Lord rejects their efforts when He says,

“‘I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,

I will not look upon them.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

[AMOS 5:21-24]

The LORD is pointed when rejecting man’s pitiful efforts to manipulate Him. You may be assured that He is equally determined in His rejection of our efforts to use Him for our own ends when we have deceived ourselves into thinking we are worshipping while attempting to mould Him into our image. Apparently, the LORD had sent other prophets to warn Israel against their detestable efforts to manipulate Him. Listen, for instance, to Amos, who warned, “‘Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,’ says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts” [AMOS 5:25-27].

The words of the Lord GOD that have been delivered through what Amos wrote echo what was written by the Court Prophet Isaiah. Earlier in Isaiah’s prophecy, we witness God speaking through His servant to reject the religious efforts of Israel. The Lord GOD confronted His people, who professed His Name. Listen to His challenge.

“When you come to appear before me,

who has required of you

this trampling of my courts?

Bring no more vain offerings;

incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—

I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.

Your new moons and your appointed feasts

my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,

I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.”

[ISAIAH 1:12-15]

Having excoriated the people for their religious perfidy, the LORD then admonishes,

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

learn to do good;

seek justice,

correct oppression;

bring justice to the fatherless,

plead the widow’s cause.”

[ISAIAH 1:16-17]

To Isaiah, it had become tragically obvious that the people’s efforts at worship were not meant to honour the LORD. The people of Israel had concluded that they could manipulate God, coercing Him to bless them because they were performing the prescribed rituals. They imagined that God was their servant rather than their Master. They held a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of the LORD.

It is as though the people imagine they could isolate God in a little box, taking Him out of the box whenever they desired so that they could use Him to do whatever they wished to be done. When they were finished using the LORD, they could put Him safely back in His box until they needed Him again. They thought they could reduce God to a convenience rather than the True and Living God.

About the same time Isaiah wrote, another prophet of God also spoke in the Name of the Lord. Malachi confronted the people, saying, “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts” [MALACHI 1:6-9].

What was true in that ancient day holds true to this day in many religions. The Muslim performing the daily prayers seeks to compel Allah to accept her. The requirement to keep the fast, go on Hajj and extensively donating to charity is for the benefit of the Muslim performing the rituals and not to honour their god. In this respect, the practising Muslim differs not a whit from the professing Christian who performs the rituals associated with the Faith in order to gain an advantage with the Lord rather than endeavouring to honour Him. In the estimate of many professing Christians, baptism and the eucharist can be reduced to a necessary ritual meant to compel God to accept the person rather than an act of identification with the Saviour meant to glorify His Name.

The thought that we can manipulate the Lord Who gives us our being is integral to our fallen nature. We imagine that we must avoid disgraceful acts on the day before we share in the Communion Meal, never giving a thought to the evil that plagues us throughout the days leading up to that decision. We don’t want to think negative thoughts when our loved one is ill, lest we are the cause for something worse happening to that one for whom we care. Somehow, our view of that same loved one is inconsequential in the days following their recovery. My point is simply that without thinking about what we are doing, we have so many occasions when we consciously, or unconsciously, attempt to manipulate God into doing what we want.

It is a tragic part of the fallen condition that we witness foxhole religion, an effort to use God for our own purposes. We are prepared to bargain with the Lord, seeking our advantage for whatever it is that we imagine we want or need. God is reduced to a convenience that can be called upon at a time of crisis, and put away and out of sight at all other times. However, we must know that such thoughts will surely invite divine rebuke, judgement of our sinful efforts, and rejection at the moment when we most need Him.

There is, in the Proverbs, a terrifying message warning against such thinking. Wisdom is cited as speaking, though it should be obvious that it is the LORD speaking. Certainly, no one should imagine that God can be shut out of life, being used as man thinks best, without dire consequences. Thus, we read the warning,

“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?

How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing

and fools hate knowledge?

If you turn at my reproof,

behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;

I will make my words known to you.

Because I have called and you refused to listen,

have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,

because you have ignored all my counsel

and would have none of my reproof,

I also will laugh at your calamity;

I will mock when terror strikes you,

when terror strikes you like a storm

and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,

when distress and anguish come upon you.

Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;

they will seek me diligently but will not find me.

Because they hated knowledge

and did not choose the fear of the LORD,

would have none of my counsel

and despised all my reproof,

therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,

and have their fill of their own devices.”

[PROVERBS 1:20-31]


“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.

You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!

For your dew is a dew of light,

and the earth will give birth to the dead.”

[ISAIAH 26:19]

The ministry of the Prophet of God will inevitably, and undoubtedly even of necessity, be a difficult service. Ezekiel describes how he was warned of the demands of the prophetic ministry. “‘Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey” [EZEKIEL 3:3]. But after devouring the Word which the Lord gave, the ministry assigned was extremely hard as he was constrained to warn the people of God’s judgement. Ezekiel would say of going to the people with the message God had given him, “I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the LORD being strong upon me” [EZEKIEL 3:14b].

The Revelator discovered the same truth when we read of his experience. In the Apocalypse, we read of the demanding ministry of prophesying. Witnessing all that is coming upon this earth, John testified, “The voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, ‘Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’ So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.’ And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. And I was told, ‘You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings’” [REVELATION 10:8-11].

Why, if the ministry God assigns His prophet is so demanding and if it costs the prophet so dearly, would anyone ever accept the appointment of the Lord? The answer is revealed in the text. The prophet of the Living God speaks as he does because he looks beyond the moment to the fulfilment of the ministry he has received. The one who prophesies is not thinking of the immediate consequence or even of the immediate pain his words will cause; he is focused on what lies beyond the moment. He is driven to honour the Name of the One who assigned him to the service he now performs.

Isaiah is unsparing in his censure of the futility the people have experienced through attempting to do religion to suit themselves. They have brought only misery to themselves. There is no lasting comfort, no sense of hidden strength or joy that will be found in our foolish efforts to coerce the Lord into doing our will. Either Christ is Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all. That message can only elicit pushback from those who hear what is said. The prophet, however, speaks the truth in love because he has peered beyond the moment.

Isaiah knows that this moment of darkness he was then living through would not be the end. He not only is filled with hope concerning what lies ahead, but he points those who hear him to lift their eyes from this dreariness that now marks their lives. Listen as Isaiah urges his listeners to look ahead to what the Lord GOD has pledged.

“Come, my people, enter your chambers,

and shut your doors behind you;

hide yourselves for a little while

until the fury has passed by.

For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place

to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,

and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,

and will no more cover its slain.”

[ISAIAH 26:20-21]

God, and those who deliver His Word, will not condemn the wickedness of His people without offering grace and mercy. Grace and mercy, however, are contingent upon obedience to the will of the Lord. God calls mankind to faith in the One Whom He has sent, Jesus Who took upon Himself all the sin and the brokenness of mankind. Those who hear must look to Him, refusing to pursue their own opinions to embrace His will. The people of God must cease presuming against the Lord, must cease imagining that they can somehow compel God to act to fulfil their own fallen desires.

The Lord rebukes those who attempt to reduce Him to their level. God, speaking through the Psalmist Asaph, has exposed those who imagine they can manipulate Him, saying,

“You do damage with words,

and use your tongue to deceive.

You plot against your brother;

you slander your own brother.

When you did these things, I was silent,

so you thought I was exactly like you.

But now I will condemn you

and state my case against you!

Carefully consider this, you who reject God!

Otherwise I will rip you to shreds

and no one will be able to rescue you.

Whoever presents a thank-offering honors me.

To whoever obeys my commands, I will reveal my power to deliver.”

[PSALM 50:19-23 NET BIBLE]

I’ve spoken at length, and all that I’ve said is applicable to both saved and lost. Those who are lost are called to look to Christ the Lord, believing that He will receive them, setting them free from the condemnation they justly deserve. You who are lost need to near the promise of God, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” [ROMANS 10:9-10]. You should know that the Apostle summarised what he wrote by reaching back through the dim reaches of time to something that the Prophet Joel had written. God, speaking through His prophet, invites all people to receive life, saying, “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved” [ROMANS 10:13].

To the saved people who are walking in the way of the Lord, keep on doing right. Keep on following the Saviour that He may be glorified in you and so that He can continue to guide your steps. To those who are saved, though they have begun to act rebelliously, be warned that God is righteous. And He shall hold you to account for the wickedness you promote though you know Him. The Prophet Amos warned, “Prepare to meet your God” [AMOS 4:12b]. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] “The Old-Time Religion,” Negro spiritual, 19th c.