As we see God’s care for the forms of His worship, are we willing to pause and reflect on the content of the worship we have offered Him? Have we been asking only what pleases us instead of asking what pleases Him? Have we ever made the effort to look carefully at the teaching of the Bible on worship and compare that with the order of worship in our churches? Do we have acts of worship for which we ought to repent?
As the prophets clearly rejected the corruptions of the outward forms of worship, so they also spoke of the hearts of God’s worshiping people. Amos reminds the people that God expects them to return to Him (Amos 4:6) and God calls to them: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), a call very much in the context of worship. God expects worship to be correct and sincere.
Even in the midst of the most serious warnings of judgment on Israel’s worship, the prophets offered hope for forgiveness and renewal. The promises of Isaiah about cleansing are powerful: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes. . . . Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isa. 1:16, 18). Here is great encouragement for us all: where we have sinned, including in our worship, God will forgive us for the sake of Jesus.
When Isaiah tells God’s people to cleanse themselves, He is not teaching that we make ourselves clean or save ourselves. The prophet clearly teaches that it is the Lord who cleanses and forgives His people. We see that in the calling of Isaiah and his cleansing (Isa. 6:7) and also in this promise: “He who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst” (Isaiah 4:3–4). But in Isaiah 1:16–18, the prophet is stressing the responsibility of the sinners to turn to the Lord and promising that when they do, they will find mercy. Amos said the same: “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you” (Amos 5:14).
Now is a time we should examine our hearts. Have we become cold or indifferent in our worship? Have we at times only gone through the motions? We do need always the mercy and grace of God to help us to be faithful worshipers.
Forms and hearts rightly engaged in worship fulfill the first commandment, that we love God. But those who worship acceptably must also live lives acceptable to God, remembering the second commandment as well. Jesus taught clearly that you cannot truly love God and hate your neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40). The prophets, too, clearly show that you cannot approach God if you despise the image of God in your neighbor. Immediately after his searing words on worship, Amos appealed: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). He specifies what this justice means: “You trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him. . . . You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate” (Amos 5:11–12). God’s people must not be hard-hearted to the needy and oppressive and unjust to them. As Isaiah said, “Seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17).
We, too, must listen to the prophets and examine our lives. Have we loved our neighbors as we should? Do we seek to be a loving people? Where must we repent?
Today we are surrounded by great dangers. How many of us see the loss of worship as one of our greatest dangers? What if God does not open the way back to worship for us? Amos had spoken of the greatest danger a rebellious people faced: “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). In such a famine, people will hate faithful preachers: “They abhor him who speaks the truth” (Amos 5:10). To avoid such a calamity, we need to cling to the Word of God with its directions, warnings, and promises. We need to pray for the Lord’s mercy so that we may rightly worship Him again. We need to pray for a great renewal in the churches and a great turning to Jesus in true faith throughout our world. We need to remember the call of Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord. . . . Give ear to the teaching of our God” (Isa. 1:10).