October 1, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more!
Bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch 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.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove your evil deeds
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil;
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
Sabbath matters to God, to be sure. But it is only part of what it means for us to live in right relationship with God and people. For God to be honored in our resting, we must also seek God’s kingdom and justice in all that we do.
Series: Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest
In this devotional series, Unwrapping God’s Gift of Rest, we have repeatedly seen just how much sabbath means to God. God rested on the seventh day of creation in order to set an example for us. The divine law makes it clear that all people—even slaves and immigrants—are to stop working and rest on a regular basis. God’s righteous anger was stirred when the people of God failed to honor the Sabbath. Thus, we would rightly conclude that God intended the people of Israel to keep the Sabbath faithfully.
Therefore, when we come to the first chapter of Isaiah, what we read is both unexpected and even a bit shocking. God cannot “endure [the] solemn assemblies” of the Israelites, including “new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation” (1:13). God even goes so far as to say, “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them” (1:14). Wait! God actually hates the religious practices of Israel, including their sabbath keeping? How is this possible? Why would God become “weary of bearing them”?
These questions are answered in the latter portion of today’s Scripture passage. When the Israelites lift their hands in prayer, God does not listen because their “hands are full of blood,” presumably the blood that comes from wounding or killing others unjustly (1:15). The failure of the Israelites to treat each other with justice and righteousness means that their religious rituals, even those rituals commanded in the divine law, do not please God.
What must God’s people do to make right what is so egregiously wrong? First, God says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean” (1:16). The people must recognize the evil they have done and turn from it. They must do what God has required in order to experience divine forgiveness and cleansing.” But that’s not all.
Second, the Lord says, “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16-17). God calls the people to positive action in addition to repentance. In particular, they should seek justice for those who were not empowered to secure justice for themselves: the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. Part of this justice, of course, involves making sure those without social power can stop working and keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:10).
What will happen if the people stop doing evil and start doing the good God requires? Here’s God’s answer, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (1:18). God will forgive and cleanse the people. When this happens, when they obey God’s directives, then they “shall eat the good of the land” (1:19). They will be blessed in their daily lives and work. Though it’s not stated explicitly, the logic of this passage shows that God will also delight once again in the religious activities of the Israelites, including sabbath keeping.
Though we live in a very different time of history from that of the original audience of Isaiah 1, this passage speaks plainly and powerfully to us. As God looks upon us today, God is not necessarily impressed by our faithfulness in religious practices. We might attend church weekly, read our Bible daily, and even set aside a full day each week for rest, but if we are not treating others rightly, then God is not pleased. Like the children of Israel, we must seek justice for all people, especially for those from whom it is so often denied. Sabbath matters to God, to be sure. But it is only part of what it means for us to live in right relationship with God and people. For God to be honored in our resting, we must also seek God’s kingdom and justice in all that we do.
Have you ever been tempted to think that your religious activities will somehow cover the sin in your life?
In what ways are you seeking justice for the oppressed, orphans, and widows, and for others for whom it might be denied?
Gracious God, today I am reminded that for you to be honored in my sabbath keeping I need also to live according to all of your directives. You make it clear that my faithfulness includes seeking justice for those for whom it is often denied. Help me, Lord, to follow your guidance in every part of life. Help me to serve you, not only by resting regularly, but also by serving the interests of your justice in this world. Amen.
Banner image by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Gods View of Our Work (Isaiah).
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.