“And the Lord said: ‘Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.’”
— Isaiah 29:13
Many of us are familiar with this verse, especially with the beginning of it. When we are under godly teachings in the church, something we are hopefully quick to learn is that we must not just walk in an outward obedience to God, but ensure that we have our hearts towards Him—hearts that are loving God and the things of God. This is hugely important. Without a heart that is inwardly towards the Lord, we cannot hope to truly live our lives for Him or glorify Him.
We look at the Pharisees in Christ’s day as an example of the devastating consequences of giving lip service to God, but keeping our hearts far from Him. Indeed, Jesus speaks directly to this verse in light of the Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-9. As we learn that true worship of God and true religion towards God must come from the heart, this verse has more illumination to give us on the condition of the heart that opposes this.
In the second half of the verse, Isaiah says, “...and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” The great trouble that began in Israel was that they imagined they could serve a man-made religion formed out of their own ideas from the law, but they failed to realize that this was just as much idolatry as any wooden or silver statue. They assumed they were safe in their idolatry if they simply formed it from the things of God. The people of Israel preferred these false ways over true obedience to God. And worse, they sought to use the things of God for evil—to “appease” God so that they could do whatever they wanted.
Israel had began trying to turn the very things of God, the very things of holiness, for evil use. They of course could never do this with the actual things of God, so they began making their own versions of them, a man-made version of the law, all in order to permit their sin, their pride, and to turn away from serving the Lord in order to serve themselves.
The gravity of this danger is no less real for any of us in the church today. It may or may not be clear to us, but often this exact same self-indulgence is sought out by us in the midst of the things of God, as it was in Isaiah’s day. We may be aware of the Pharisees’ legalism, but so often we are entirely unaware of our own desire to misuse the things of God for our own ideas and gratifications—just like the Pharisees. Any way in which we seek out a permission for our desires in the Word of God, rather than seek the Word in order to obey Him, is the same misuse.
Sadly today this misuse of God’s Word is quite prevalent. If we are to be true to the Lord, we need to be warned against such presumptions that can lead us away from the truth. We commit great sin when we seek not to serve the Lord as He commands us to serve Him, but rather in an attempt to “appease” Him in order to get what we are after—our sinful desires. This is the great root of corruption that has sprung up within the church over the years: Those who are not out to serve the Lord, but themselves (Rom 16:18). We would do well to understand that at the root of our hearts must not be only desires or emotions towards God, but that we must also have pure obedience towards God if we are to be kept safe from such corruption.
The church does well when she seeks to grow true affections for God. But let us also learn the full meaning of this verse, and realize that our affections mean very little if they are not one with pure obedience. Simply put: when we have affections for our own ideas about God, then they are no longer affections for God but for our sin. This is why we must ensure that our affections and our obedience are one.
The Lord Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Love and obedience must be one: We cannot possibly hope to love God if we do not also rightly obey Him. If we are to truly take the full warning of this verse to heart, then we must seek to love God from our hearts, and also seek to ensure that our obedience is not just of our own making, but is purely from the commandments of God. If we will do this, we will understand that love in the heart and right obedience to God are truly one and the same.
Our safety from deception is found in true obedience to the Lord, not in whatever obedience we decide to offer up. I say this because it is quite common for Christians to walk in morals and ideals that sound right to us, and to offer these up to God. We ignorantly assume that anything we think is good is right obedience, and this is our deception. We have to be very careful to not live by what we think is good and right, but only by what the Lord says is good and right. It is very common for us to be awakened to morality and goodness, only to run off in a trust of ourselves to guide us in it. We do not remain true to the Lord, allowing Him to teach us and show what is good and right, but we trust in ourselves to find it. This is how the good seed in us is often easily corrupted into a disobedience rather than molded into obedience to the Lord.
We deceive ourselves when we think that we can offer up to God any obedience that we like, just as Israel once presumed to do. Whatever form this false obedience, morality, idealism, philosophy, or doctrine takes doesn’t really matter—they are all of the same sin nature—to seek out our own self-gratification and serve ourselves. What it really comes down to is if we are going to serve ourselves and what we think, or if we are going to serve the Lord.
Thinking We Can Hide
The great deception of Israel is that they imagined the Lord to be a fool. Matthew Henry comments on Isaiah 29:13 saying, “Their religion is only to comply with custom, and to serve their own interest… those that think to conceal themselves from Him in effect charge Him with folly.” (source)
When we operate this way, it is because we have the idea that we can hide our disobedience from God. And perhaps this statement might bring you back to Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve hid from the Lord after they sinned. The great evil of this is that we show what we think to be true of God, and the very nature of this action reveals how evil we are in our hearts. We imagine of God:
That He’s not just—that He will not call us to account for our sins against Him and against others. This shows our desire to get away with sin, and participate in evil.
That we are more powerful than God—that we think we can hide from Him and keep our sins hidden. We imagine ourselves to have power that we do not have, nor have any right to try to possess.
That God is foolish, stupid, and blind—thinking God is some fool that we can prevail over, some puppet to serve ourselves with.
It is great wickedness to even seek to hide our sins because it reveals just how evil our desires are, and what we truly desire God to be—a servant of evil and not of good, a servant to us, rather than for us to be a servant of Him. And it reveals our great pride and foolishness, thinking that we can walk all over God. When our affections do not align with obedience to the commands of God, our heart is exposed, showing us what we really think about God and about what is good, just, and true. When we presume to “love” God yet don’t truly obey Him, it reveals that we do not either actually love God, or fully love Him. Love for God is one with obedience to Him because God is all that is good, holy, just, and true. Only in obeying God, are we actually loving what is good, holy, just, and true. If we do not obey Him rightly, we only show that we do not actually love these things, but something else. It reveals our own foolishness and deception. And it reveals how wicked in nature we truly are.
Isaiah 29:13 shows us that the way to have a heart that loves the Lord, and not just offer him lip service, is found in truly obeying Him. The sin of Israel’s heart being far from the Lord was one and the same with their disobedience. What the church must truly grasp today is that only love and affection offered up in right and full obedience to God is actual love for Christ.
The Evil of Our Desires
The heart of this type of deception and disobedience is a desire for sin, not for God. We must realize this. All those prosperity gospels, proud preachers, worldly Christians, new-age Christians—the desire in all of them is for sin, not for Jesus Christ (Rom 16:18). It can seem to us on the surface that they are simply trying to access the Lord in a different way, but that’s entirely untrue. “... According to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Rom 16:26) Obedience is faith and faith is obedience. The truth of Israel was that they didn’t desire the Lord, because they did not obey Him, and we must not be foolish to think it is any different today with us if we do not obey Him.
When we look at our own hearts, we must realize that every area in which we desire to walk in any false permission is an area in which we are desiring sin over the Lord. What is worse about this sin is that we also desire to deceive ourselves and appear holy when we are not. We want to fulfill our evil desire while appearing to be holy. This is a great, great evil.
The way for us to become truly honest is to look at our hearts through the Word of God. And the only way for us to see our wicked sin is in honestly examining our hearts by this Word. If we do this, it can be quite difficult (Matt 7:14), but it will yield the peaceful fruits of righteousness.
As we grow and learn to direct our affections towards God, we must not allow this to replace an equal call to direct right obedience towards Him. If we are only depending upon our affection, we are liable to be deceived. This is because it is quite easy to love what we have made to be “God”, rather than to truly love God Himself. When we follow our affections alone, we do not have obedience and the Word to check us, and ensure that our affections are for the Lord and not for a false god.
Yet this is extremely common in the church today. People serve their moralities, idealisms, and fantasies, fully thinking they are serving Christ. In reality they are only serving their ideas of Jesus, ones which they desire for Him to be, and not truly serving Jesus Himself. They fail to truly serve and love the Lord.
It is easy to be passionate about anything without being truly passionate about the Lord. Often we trust in our affections alone to lead us and by this we permit ourselves whatever obedience seems right in our own eyes. The Lord is never pleased with this.
There is safety to be found. When we talk of deception it is important that we do not fall into an unbelief and mistrust of God. The Lord can keep us, and He has provided the means for us being kept. It’s important that we do not despair or give in to feeling overwhelmed, but rather accept the rebuke of God and walk in repentance—this is our safe road.
Our safety against this deception and sin is that we ensure we are true to the Word of God, and continually in His Word daily. If we are disobeying this clear command of God (Deut 17:19, Matt 6:11), then we cannot help but be deceived. But if we continue in the Word every day, long enough to apply ourselves to what we read (rather than reading one verse for two minutes in the morning), then this is our great help and hope against deception. This leads us onto the right road of obedience and truly examining our heart before the Lord. But we must be faithful to actually apply ourselves to the Word, and give it real time in our lives each day.
The second thing is that we must be careful to truly discern the scriptures correctly, and not try to interpret them through what we think is right or good, but only through what God reveals. We may wrestle to understand the Lord, and find it to be a great battle to transform our minds (Rom 12:2), but make no mistake, Christian, this is all of our duty. If we are faithful to God, to seek to transform our minds to His revealed Word, and not to try to manipulate His Word to our own meaning, but find what is right doctrine, then He will keep us from deception.
Thirdly, we must actually obey the scriptures, and do what they say, regardless of how we feel, or whether we understand or not. Obedience is faith. Often we have to walk in what we cannot yet see, and we do this both in trusting God’s promises and in obedience to Him. We must learn that righteous living isn’t meant to falter at circumstances. If it does, then we are not continuing in holiness. God’s grace is always there to help us who seek to obey Him. There is great hope for the obedient child.
Fourth, be true to Christ. In all ways we walk in this life, remain firm to Jesus Christ. Do not allow some other “god” to creep in: no philosophies of the West, or idols of the East, no universalism or ideas of tranquility. Anything that is not of Jesus Christ Himself must be thrown out and condemned as a false god. Faithfulness to Jesus Christ alone will keep us, but if we give way to all these false gods, whatever form they take, we will be deceived. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…” (Rom 12:2)
And fifthly, trust the Lord to help you and keep you. I put this last because it’s important for us to realize that while the Lord promises to keep those who seek refuge in Him (Ps 46:1), He does not promise to keep those who do not desire to be kept. Often as we lean on the promises of God, we seek to lean upon them but to the neglect of our own obedience. The Lord has promised to keep us, and He does this by His promises and by obedience. If we neglect the first four of these, then we cannot wrongly presume that we will escape their consequences (Deut 28:15). We are called to the whole Word of God, not just part. And that means we are called to trust in His promises as we also trust to walk in obedience to Him. It is the child who seeks to trust God’s strength and who also seeks to trust God by obeying Him, that is pleasing to the Father.
When we live by our own feelings and thinking alone, this is a great danger to us. If we continue to trust in ourselves, then we will always continue in deception. Our hope is in not trusting in ourselves, but in Christ (Prov 3:5-6). We do this by relying entirely upon Him, the Word, the Holy Spirit, and obedience to Him alone.
With one hand we must learn to cultivate a true heart towards God, one that actually loves Him, and with the other we must make sure that the affections we are fanning into flame are actually for Him and not for an idol of our own making.