“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.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow's cause.
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.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Having been “encouraged” to play outside, there I stood in a stare-down. He looked like a cat and must have come from the woods at the back of our yard. Through my three-year-old eyes, he certainly seemed interested in my caress. So forward I went to meet the new friend. In an instant, he turned, raised his tail, and, with precision aim, blasted me in the chest. It didn’t hurt, my face wasn’t hit, but my feelings were deeply bruised. I had been attacked, and I began to wail. In what seemed precisely the same moment, the skunk retreated to the woods, I lept back onto the porch, and my mother arrived at the door.
Then came the therapy. Still unsure of what had happened, I was stripped to the skin, deposited into the bathtub with a box of laundry detergent, and my clothes burned on the spot where they lay in the yard. Being sprayed didn’t really hurt but being enthusiastically scrubbed really did. Yet when my father came home a few hours later, no amount of “squeaky-clean-ness” could disguise the events of the day. The stench lingered, a pungent reminder that being clean meant more than washing off and changing clothes.
Scripture often reminds us of the same truth, but the prophet Isaiah calls us to recognize an even more breathtaking reality. Isaiah teaches the people of Israel that their very acts of righteousness—the sacrifices and the incense—are a stench before the Lord. Religiosity did not cover the stink of their sinful hearts and callous actions.
Jesus echoed these very same thoughts in describing the Pharisees as “white-washed tombs.” They were outwardly clean, playing by the rules, righteous in their own eyes, but inside, where the Lord sees, there was the lingering stench of death.
It is a sobering truth that our worship, service, and sacrifice may be the very things of which we must repent. When we begin to believe that it is those things that obligate God to love us, we are like the toe-headed boy demanding a father’s embrace yet smelling decidedly un-clean.
Isaiah calls God’s people to put aside their rituals of self-righteousness, their deeds of evil, and bear God’s image as the protectors of the fatherless, the guardians of the widows, and the seekers of justice. God, in Christ, makes us white as snow and turns us from crimson-stained, self-righteous sinners playing church into His adopted, worshiping children. In Christ, we are not washed off; we are re-made. Then, says Isaiah, we live out the new reality of willing obedience to God, reflecting His character in His world.
May we, as God’s people, be a fragrant aroma before the Lord, righteous in Christ alone.