“Worship With Meaning”
Lesson Text: Isaiah 29:9-16
Background Scripture: Isaiah 29
Devotional Reading: Luke 8:9-14
Isaiah 29:9-16 (KJV)
9 Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink.
10 For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.
11 And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:
12 And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned.
13 Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
14 Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.
15 Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?
16 Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?
To examine what Isaiah had to say about the shallow worship of God’s people and God’s response to it.
To understand how worship can deteriorate to the point where it becomes mere lip service to God.
To examine ourselves as to avoid insincere worship described by Isaiah.
Time: approximately 711 B.C.
“If I Only Had a Heart”
The words in the above heading will be recognized by many as a theme sung by the Tin Man in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man was hollow, he said, because he had not been given a heart when he was made. He was encouraged by Dorothy and the Scarecrow to travel to Oz to see whether the wizard would provide him one.
Our maker did not forget to put a literal heart within us when He created us. Neither did He forget to give us the capacity to “have a heart for” various things. But sometimes we fail to “put our hearts into” things we should, including worship. In today’s lesson, we will see the prophet Isaiah describing what amounts to the “heartless worship” by God’s people.
In last week’s study, we noted how Isaiah called on God’s people to include the nations among the audience as they praised the Lord for His great works (Isaiah 12:4). The prophet then proceeded in chapters 13–23 to cite specific nations and cities (including Jerusalem) as the recipients of either judgment or blessing (in some cases, both) from the Lord.
Isaiah 24–27 continues the theme of global judgment. Yet interspersed within that message are several glimmers of hope. Isaiah 25:8 is a particularly noteworthy example, foreshadowing the destruction of death in language found in the description of Heaven in Revelation 7:17; 21:4.
Isaiah 29, from which today’s printed text is drawn, begins with a “woe” directed toward Ariel. The word Ariel means “altar hearth.” The fact that Ariel is also called “the city where David dwelt” in verse 1 indicates that this term designates Jerusalem. The picture of an altar hearth (a place where a fire burns) is quite fitting for Jerusalem as the home of the temple, where many sacrifices are offered. But it also portrays what awaits Jerusalem, for it is to come under siege and is to be set on fire as part of God’s judgment against it (v. 3).
In time, however, the “multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel” (Isaiah 29:7) will themselves be judged and humbled before the Lord (vs. 5-8). They will become “like small dust” and “as chaff that passeth away” (v. 5).
Following this promise of deliverance comes the indictment of the people’s shallow worship in today’s text. It seems that the people of God were their own worst enemies. The insincere worship of the people was just a symptom of a far greater problem that could be remedied only by a serious self-examination and a realignment of the people’s thinking toward God’s holy purposes.
A Spiritual Stupor (Isaiah 29:9-12)
1. How does Isaiah describe the spiritual condition of the people of Judah (Isaiah 29:9)?
At this point the people of Judah needed spiritual discernment that begins with faith to understand Isaiah’s prophecy. Unfortunately, in their sinful condition, that was precisely what they lacked. So Isaiah begins by discussing the deplorable spiritual condition of the city’s inhabitants. This was necessary, for it was their sin that would lead God to use the Assyrians to judge His people.
Isaiah exhorted the wayward residents to be “stunned and amazed” (v. 9) concerning the judgment the Lord would bring on them. After all, from a divine perspective, they were completely “drunken,” and staggering. Expressed differently, the chosen people were in a spiritual stupor when it came to heeding the Lord’s directives and being sensitive to His will.
One sees a description of individuals who have put themselves in a position where they have lost their spiritual bearings and are stumbling about. As such, they are completely unaware of the doom that awaits them.
What Do You Think?
What are some indicators of spiritual apathy? How do we fix this problem when we see it?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
In corporate worship | In private devotional time | In unmet ministry needs | Revelation 3:15-18 | Other
2. What were the consequences for the people’s continued disobedience to God’s Word (v. 10)?
This verse attributes the people’s lethargy to the Lord: it is He who “hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes.” The word for deep sleep is the same as that used of the deep sleep brought upon Adam by the Lord in Genesis 2:21, prior to God’s removing a rib from Adam to create Eve. The word also describes a deep sleep that came upon Abram (Genesis 15:12) and one that the Lord brought upon King Saul (1 Samuel 26:12).
The purpose of the sleep forms part of the Lord’s judgment of His wayward people. The Lord’s action here may be similar to that described in Romans 1:24, 26, 28, where He “gave them up” or “over” to the consequences of their evil actions.
That the Lord has closed the people’s eyes also calls to mind His words to Isaiah following that prophet’s response to the Lord’s call: “Shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:10). Scripture uses the idea of blindness not only as that of a physical condition but also of a spiritual one (Matthew 23:16, 17; John 9:40, 41; 2 Peter 1:9).
Further acts of divine judgment are pictured in the remainder of the verse: “the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.” The parallel way in which the second half of the verse is arranged indicates that all of the city’s acclaimed visionaries were spiritually blind. The indictment is that even the most esteemed religious leaders failed to pay attention to what God repeatedly tried to tell them.
The combination of human choice and divine judgment in verses 9 and 10 is summarized quite well in this thought from John N. Oswalt: “There can be no more frightening motivation to listen to God than this, the thought that if you refuse to hear today, one day you might no longer be able to hear.” The sobering thoughts in the verse before us make themselves felt again in Romans 11:8.
What Do You Think?
What things today contribute most to spiritual blindness and deafness? How do we recognize and resist these influences?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Matthew 13:18-22; Colossians 2:8; 1 Timothy 1:18, 19; 6:9, 10, 20, 21; 2 Timothy 4:10a | Other
3. How was Isaiah’s “vision” from God like a sealed scroll (vs. 11-12)?
The vision now being discussed probably refers to the prophetic message uttered by Isaiah to this point. But even as Isaiah’s prophetic vision is committed to writing, those who should be able to read the resulting book (scroll) cannot because it is sealed. The seal here may not be literal; it may be a figurative symbol, much as drunkenness (v. 9) and blindness (v. 10) are in this passage. It may represent the people’s opinion that the prophet’s message is too difficult or mysterious to try to understand.
The apostle John weeps when he learns of a book that apparently no one is able to open (Revelation 5:1-4). Here the situation is quite different. No one weeps because of the inability of anyone to open or read this book. Apparently, no one has any desire even to try. Lack of education is not the problem, since the one that is learned knows how to read! This person seems to have no desire or passion to discover more about the message of the book. This individual is content to remain ignorant.
In verse 12 of today’s lesson, another person is pictured as receiving the book. This time it is someone who is not learned and therefore cannot read. This is the reason why the book remains sealed to this individual. Once more, the issue appears to be one of desire or interest. If this person really wants to learn the contents of the book, he or she can consult someone who can read the contents. This is a matter of personal initiative. After the people return from exile, they will indeed take this initiative (see Nehemiah 8:1-3). But that is not the mind-set in Isaiah’s day.
In the cases of both the learned and the unlearned cited by Isaiah, the problem can be traced to the lack of desire to learn more about Isaiah’s message. Cannot this be compared with the lack of interest today among many Christians regarding the opening and reading of our book, the Bible?
Many may consider the Bible to be too challenging or too “ancient” to grasp, so the book remains “sealed” to them. Others have not been taught how to study the Bible or have not bothered to learn how to do so. Like him that is not learned in this verse, they do not know how to “read”—they end up “seeing” but not “perceiving” (Mark 4:12; Acts 28:26, 27; both quoting Isaiah 6:9-10). Then the question must be raised, “Where are the leaders in the church who are willing to ‘unseal’ the book—to teach others how to read it?” Have they become just as apathetic as the people?
What Do You Think?
What excuses do Christians offer for never having read the Bible in its entirety?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Excuses offered by those who are “learned” | Excuses offered by those who are “not learned”
Israel’s Day of Reckoning (Isaiah 29:13-16)
4. How does understanding and applying God’s Word lead to our mouths and hearts being in one accord as described by Isaiah and Jesus (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:6-7)?
We now see a consequence of the failure to “open the scroll” and learn the message of Isaiah’s prophecy: the people’s worship has become empty and meaningless. With their mouth, and with their lips the people profess loyalty and devotion to God, but they have removed their heart far from Him. They are merely “going through the motions.” During his call experience, Isaiah had confessed his own and his people’s unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5). Here the lips appear to speak what is right, but whatever they utter is nullified by a heart that has little passion or desire for a genuine relationship with God. Centuries later, Jesus applies these very words of Isaiah 29:13 to the scribes and Pharisees in His day (Matthew 15:7-9; Mark 7:6-8).
Why were the people of Jerusalem so ignorant of what was going on? Their hearts were far from God (Isa. 29:13). They went through the outward forms of worship and faithfully kept the annual feasts (29:1), but it was not a true worship of God. Going to the temple was the popular thing to do, but most of the people did not take their worship seriously.
What Do You Think?
Which Scripture best describes the status of your heart for worship today? Why?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Isaiah 29:13; John 4:23, 24; Romans 12:1; Hebrews 12:28, 29 | Other
5. What “marvellous work” was God about to perform in Judah (Isaiah 29:14)?
In 1446 B.C., the chosen people saw the wonders of God as He delivered them from Egypt. Now the residents of Jerusalem and the inhabitants of Judah would again be astounded with amazing events. There is a bit of irony in Isaiah 29:14, for the marvelous work of God would involve the judgment, not the deliverance, of the Judahites. In short, the Lord would use His awesome power to deal firmly with their rebellion. In this way, He would disprove the alleged prudence of the “wise” and discredit the supposed insight of the intelligent.
The second half of this verse is cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:19 just after he notes that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness,” but “the power of God” to the saved (v. 18). Paul goes on to comment on how God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” and brought it down to nothing by means of the cross (vs. 19-25).
The cross of Christ should move us to humble worship—the kind that is sadly lacking in Isaiah’s day. No “precept of men” (Isaiah 29:13), no matter what it may be, can produce the degree of worship that the wonder of the cross can. May we who have accepted the crucified (and risen) Christ as Savior never lose our sense of wonder at that which so-called “intellectual” people of the world so often ridicule.
6. What happens when we have defiant and false views of God, our Creator (vs. 15-16)?
Once again, Isaiah interjected another “woe” (v. 15). This time the declaration of doom was upon those corrupt leaders and people who in their skewed thinking actually believed they could second guess the Lord and hide their misdeeds from Him. They falsely imagined that by performing their iniquities in secret, they would remain immune from detection and prosecution (see Psalm 10:11; 64:5-6). Isaiah represented the folly of questioning God in the personification of a clay pot doubting the potter (lsa. 29:16; see 45:9).
The potter’s clay has no right to command the potter, and it is utter foolishness for the clay to deny that the potter made him or her (see Romans 9:21). It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word translated framed in this verse is the word used to describe how “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground” in Genesis 2:7.
True worship can never come from a mind-set that considers human beings to be the potter. This displays the utmost contempt for the true potter, who is God alone.
POINTS TO PONDER
1. We must be sensitive to God’s will and Word, lest we fall into a spiritual stupor (Isaiah 29:9-12).
2. Let us not confuse ritual and repetition with relationship and true worship (Isaiah 29:13).
3. God is not impressed with the intellect of man, but demands a surrender of one’s total being to Himself. So God used the good news about His Son (grace through faith) to destroy the wisdom of the worldly-wise and to annihilate the understanding of those who imagined themselves clever (Isaiah 29:14).
4. When we depend upon our own devices instead of surrendering to the Lord, we act as if God did not have the wisdom or ability to help us (Isaiah 29:15-16).
“Wonder”-ing About Worship
Like many words, the word wonderful has become overused. People can have a “wonderful” time at an almost unlimited number of activities: a baseball game, a family reunion, a birthday party, or for that matter a church gathering. The feeling of wonder, by contrast, seems to be fading from the contemporary frame of reference, especially in the Western world. Advances in technology have become so impressive that seldom do people feel a sense of true wonder at anything anymore.
It can be easy to forget what makes Christian worship distinct if we allow ourselves: the wonder of “the old rugged cross.” The people in Isaiah’s day no longer associated the idea of wonder with God. Their worship had become stale and routine. Any weekly worship was done “weakly.” So Isaiah announced the Lord’s response: “Behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14).
Paul says that this wonder has been provided by something that at first glance does not appear to be all that wonderful as the term is commonly used—the cross of Christ. One reason the cross must remain at the center of Christian worship is because of what it says about the wisdom of this world. That wisdom, as impressive as it may seem at times, receives a grade of F in matters of the spiritual realm (1 Corinthians 1:18-23). And nothing says that more clearly than “the offence of the cross” (Galatians 5:11). Only as we keep the wonder of the cross uppermost in our preparation for corporate worship can real worship occur.
A Word About the Word
Another factor affecting the people’s worship in Isaiah’s day was their attitude toward God’s revealed truth. For the leaders of the people of God, the words of the prophet had become a sealed document. No one, whether educated or uneducated, had a real hunger to know what the scroll contained.
Not long after I became a Christian, someone gave me a copy of a Halley’s Bible Handbook, a classic Bible-study tool. This handbook is still in print today. Some of its contents are now a bit outdated, but one portion of that book has always stuck with me. In the back of the handbook is a challenge to Christians to make Bible reading a top priority. From page 816 of the 24th edition:
Every Christian ought to be a Bible reader. It is the one habit, which, if done in the right spirit, more than any other one habit, will make a Christian what he ought to be in every way. If any church could get its people as a whole to be devoted readers of God’s Word, it would revolutionize the church. If the churches of any community, as a whole, could get their people, as a whole, to be regular readers of the Bible, it would not only revolutionize the churches, but it would purge and purify the community as nothing else could do.
What a tragedy that many Christians do not make a more determined effort to know God’s Word better! Our worship will remain shallow if our Bibles remain “sealed” and unused.
Heavenly Father, may we keep our hearts close to You so that our worship may be in spirit and in truth. May we never lose our sense of wonder whenever we consider the cross of Christ. In Jesus’ name, amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
True worship is founded on Who God has revealed Himself to be.