In the first chapter of Isaiah, God expresses his dissatisfaction with the sacrifices Israel offered (Is. 1:11–16). On the outside, they are doing exactly as God asked: they sacrifice rams and bulls, fat and blood, lambs, goats, and incense. They honor the Sabbath. They have a system for remembering when to feast and celebrate what God has done (Is. 1:14).
But God says their sacrifices are meaningless. “I have had enough . . . I do not delight . . . bring no more.” Quantity is not the issue. Quality is. And it’s not a matter of extravagance. Their elaborate prayers use their lips and their hands (Is. 1:15) and look great on the outside (Matt. 6:5), but there is no heart behind them.
Other religions made sacrifices to their gods because they believed they were feeding them. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary says, “Popular Israelite religion frequently forgot that God was not actually fed through sacrifice and sought to manipulate him through such offerings.”
So, what’s the problem? They forgot why they were making sacrifices. They thought they had to feed the God who created the world. But God wasn’t dependent on the Israelites and their sacrifices. They were dependent on him.
As the Faithlife Study Bible says: An increase in offerings is meaningless without a change in attitudes. The sacrifice fundamentally represented Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, by which Israelites acknowledge dependence on Him. There was no point in going through the motions if they’d abandoned that dependence—either through idolatry or pride in their self-sufficiency.
The sacrifices were meant to be an external symbol of an internal process: repentance (Is. 1:16–20). The FSB says: “God calls for inward repentance after condemning the empty efforts of outward observance.” They were cleaning the outside of the cup, while filth festered on the inside (Luke 11:39).
As we begin a short Christmas series on the names of Jesus in Isaiah 9, they directly address the system God established for dealing with sins, it had been abused for too long. The death of innocent animals was not enough for guilty humans to see the error of their ways (Heb. 10:4). The status quo wasn’t working. Isaiah called for change in the present, and pointed to a bigger change in the future (Heb. 10:10). This is the beginning of the Christmas story, the change promised by God for a direct intercessor, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who will save us from our sins.