God now moves the conversation from proving to Israel that He loves her to His first accusation against her. He says the priests of the nation do not honor Him with the honor He is due. God makes it clear in the remainder of this chapter that while He is a Father who loves His children, He is also a King and Master due respect and reverence. The priests of Israel have forgotten their roles as guardians of His worship – and the worship has become trivial and evil. The people approach God on their terms instead of His and give Him the leftovers instead of their best. Their view of God has become very small.
This text has much to say to a Christian community living in a casual time that sometimes stresses God’s approachability and love to the exclusion of His majesty and power. The same God who reassures Israel that He loves her also chides her for not appropriately fearing Him.
Accusation and Response
In verse 6 God lays out the charge against the priests of Israel. He says that a father is honored by his son and a master is respected by his servant, but He receives neither honor nor respect from the priests. Even more, He gives the priests a name – O priests who despise My name. By not giving God the honor and respect He deserves they effectively despise His name – they dishonor His very nature and being. God points out throughout the book the importance of the honor of His name – and while doing so always refers to Himself as the Lord of hosts – the One who reigns over all creation.
The priests respond to God’s accusation with astonishment. They ask, “How have we despised Your name?” They seem to be floored by God’s words. God did not pull any punches in His accusation so it is not surprising that the priests respond strongly. To hear that you despise God’s name would certainly warrant some attention – especially when worship of God is your vocation. But it is revealing that they seemingly have no idea what God is talking about. They assume everything is okay because the temple is active and sacrifices and worship go on as required. Their lackluster approach to worship has been going on so long that they now think it is the norm. They are so blind that they do not realize they are in darkness anymore. [Sin always deceives – ALWAYS.]
It is interesting that God does not ask Israel about its love for Him. He told the people He loved them (verse 2) but in this first accusation He says nothing about their love for Him. He instead asks for honor and respect. They showed by asking, “How have you loved us?” in verse 2 that they do not understand His love. They now show they do not understand HIM. God knows they ultimately do not have an affection problem – they have a perspective problem.
God explains in several verses how they despise Him. They present defiled food upon His altar. They bring blind, lame, and sick sacrifices to offer. They bring blemished sacrifices taken by robbery. And it is not only what they bring that condemns them. Their attitudes toward worship are also wicked. They say, “The table of the Lord is to be despised.” “The table of the Lord is defiled, and as for its fruit, its food is to be despised.” They also say, “My, how tiresome it is” in regard to worship and sacrifice and disdainfully sniff at it (“it” can also be translated “Me” – they effectively sniff at God in their disdain). Even more, they take a vow to give the best of their flock but then replace it with something far less when they actually come to the temple. The whole process is a pain – mandatory and joyless. And while they have to do it because of the law, they certainly will not allow it to be costly. God describes their worship as evil (verse 8).
Remember that God discusses the priests here – not the people. The priest themselves are at the point where their duties are afterthoughts or burdens. They have no awe as they approach God in His temple. Thus they do not teach or rebuke the people for the inferior offerings they bring. The people worship as the priests allow – and what the priests allow is anything and everything. Worship is what is left over after the best is kept by the people.
God points out to them that their sacrifices could never be used as tribute (verse 8). Their governor – likely a Persian-appointed official – would never accept the substandard animals they bring to the temple. The people must give only the best to the human authority over them but see no problem with bringing what costs them nothing to the divine Authority over them. Their eyes are on this world only. They bring what costs nothing because they value money over God.
Their approach to God is so bad that God mocks it in verse 9. He quotes what the people say when they bring their sacrifices to the priests – “Will you not entreat God’s favor, that He may be gracious to us?” The picture is of someone holding a mangy lamb or goat that looks like road-kill and asking the priest in all sincerity if he will entreat God’s favor as he sacrifices it. God’s response is, “With such an offering on your part, will He receive any of you kindly?” God effectively says, “Are you kidding?”
God tells them He is so disgusted with their worship that He wants them to stop. He says in verse 10, “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar!” When Amos prophesied to Israel before the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria, God told the people, “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps” (Amos 5:21-23). What was true of the Israelites three centuries ago (the very people who were so wicked God removed them from the land forever) is true again of the present day population – their worship is so insincere that God wants it to stop. Bad worship is worse than no worship. The best thing a priest could do now is to close the temple. The very men charged with calling the people to worship should now just shut it down because what goes on there is only evil.
Why Their Lackluster Worship is Evil
God explains in verses 11 and 14 why He considers the people’s approach to worship evil. It is because He is a great King. His name will be great among the nations. The whole world will someday worship and honor Him (verse 11 points to a future time). His name is feared among the nations (apparently the nations around Israel have not forgotten His mighty works even if Israel has). God is Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign King. He is the source of all things and the One who holds all things together. He is truly the great King of the universe. He spoke all things into existence. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. This is the One the Israelites approach as an afterthought. This is the One to whom they throw the scraps of their lives.
God’s Final Solution
In verses 10 and 14 God gives His ultimate response to their poor worship. He says, “I am not pleased with you – nor will I accept an offering from you.” He also curses the one who vows one thing but gives another. Their worship – which is worthless in their eyes – is now worthless in His eyes too. There is no value in it because God is no longer listening or accepting. The fire they kindle on the altar is useless. God now treats their worship with as much disdain as they do. They can keep the temple doors open if it makes them feel better, but nothing of value goes on there – God has left the building.
Implications for the Believer
God is our affectionate and merciful Father but He is also the holy and majestic Sovereign of the universe. He is to be loved and feared – approached with affection and awe (stressing one over the other gives an incomplete view of God). Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name” (Matt 6:9). By addressing God as Father He emphasized the close and loving relationship that is afforded all who believe in Him. But by also adding that God is our Father IN HEAVEN He made sure to remind us that God is not like us – He transcends us – He is eternal and almighty. This is why the first petition in the prayer is for the name of God to be hallowed – set apart as holy and glorified. We come boldly before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Christ – but we do in fact come to a THRONE. He is the great King whose name will be great among the nations. One of the ways I know to fight against pride is through focused prayer. What I mean is that before you say one word to God, take a minute and imagine what it would be like to stand before His throne as you pray. Remember the visions of John in Revelation, and Isaiah; remember the many accounts of people coming into God’s presence and how it always caused the people to fall on their faces in terror. And then start to pray. (Francis Chan, Crazy Love; 25.)
- Great kings do not accept poor tribute. God points out to the Israelites that they could not give to their governor the substandard sacrifices they routinely bring to Him. This is because absolute authority commands only the best for itself. Bringing what costs nothing or offering only what is found or stolen will never satisfy the requirements of an ultimate authority (this is as true today as it was in the days of kings and conquerors – what is deducted from almost every paycheck before an employee receives his wages?). God is not the God of leftovers and spares. He is the great King who demands our best (which leads to the next point…).
- We do not bring goats and sheep to the temple but we do offer our time and service. And how we offer them reflects our view of God. How and when do we pray? How and when do we study God’s word? How much do we want to know Him and commune with Him? How do we approach church? Do we give God what is left over after we do all the important and fun things in our lives? Do we try to fit Him in around the edges? Do we see prayer as vital to a busy day or as the first thing to be dropped because of a full schedule? Do we come to God on His terms or on ours? Do we serve a great King we approach in awe or a cosmic butler we summon at our convenience?
- A poor understanding of God’s love reflects a poor understanding of God. The same people who question God’s love for them (1:2) treat worshiping Him as a burden. When we do not comprehend the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love for us it shows we do not comprehend Him. And when we do not comprehend Him we have no awe and no fear and ultimately no enthusiasm or joy when we approach Him. Making little of His glory means making little of His love and making little of worship.
- Big God equals small world – small God equals big world. When our view of God is of a great King whose name is feared among the nations He crowds out the love of the world in our lives. Compared to His glory and love and satisfaction the world looks puny and dull. But when God is small and is around only when we have time for Him, the world becomes very large. Compared to the fun of materialism and sex and comfort God looks joyless and dull. We worship what is great in our lives. We sacrifice (time, money) for what is great in our lives. A great God crowds out the world or a great world crowds out God. Our hearts are not benign; they follow what we value. If you don’t see the greatness of God, then all the things that money can buy become very exciting. If you can’t see the sun, you will be impressed with a street light. If you’ve never felt thunder and lightning, you’ll be impressed with fireworks. And if you turn your back on the greatness and majesty of God, you’ll fall in love with a world of shadows and short-lived pleasures. – John Piper
- Service and worship are responses more than disciplines. We can make sure to do all the right things and be at the right places, but our view of God ultimately dictates our approach to Him. Willpower and commitment only go so far – we ultimately serve Him as a response to who and what He is. The greater our God the more sincerely we worship and the more willingly we serve.
…and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. …and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal ; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. …and day and night they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD, THE ALMIGHTY, WHO WAS AND WHO IS AND WHO IS TO COME.” And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
Revelation 4:2-11 (abbreviated)