The prophets were interpreters of the law. The audience they preached to (Judah and Israel), were plagued with the same ceremonial instincts that their Pharisaical descendants would possess centuries later. They placed such confidence in the external that they believed that their participation in the ritual of sacrifice (emblems of the grace of God), somehow obligated God to be merciful toward them. Thus, they took something that was by nature gracious and tried to turn it into something meritorious! They had adopted an attitude of entitlement rather than humility toward God. They led immoral lives devoid of justice and mercy and all of the while believed that a trip to the temple would cover it all and obligate the Almighty to forgive them!
The prophets spoke as one against this abuse of the law. They taught that ritual without a right heart was meaningless. They taught that the true meaning of law was total alignment with God – not just performing at the temple. Listen to their words:
- “I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
- With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
- “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals 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 in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:11-17)
If the Pharisees had understood these things, they would have understood the law! They would have acted mercifully rather than accusingly. Law cannot be understood apart from understanding the character of the One who gave it!