Then the Lord said,
“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,
Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous;
And the wisdom of their wise men will perish,
And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”
Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the LORD,
And whose deeds are done in a dark place,
And they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?”
You turn things around!
Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay,
That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”;
Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:13-16)
Flattery will get you nowhere. In the ancient world of which Israel was a part, the worship of gods consisted of ceremonies and rituals. In order to get the gods to perform as they wanted, the people believed that all that was needed were the right words, said just the right way, accompanied by just the right sacrifices, incense, and music. If everything was done just right by the priests, then the gods would be mollified and would answer them favorably.
But Israel’s God was not like that. He was not a force of nature to be manipulated as a man might manipulate an axe. God could tell the difference between the right words and the right motivation. In fact, he told the Israelites that he didn’t really care much about what they said. What mattered was what they did: how they lived. It was so easy to focus on the forms and ceremonies and rituals. Like lawyers, we become concerned that we say just the right words in just the right order and that they be exactly what has always been said so that no one is disturbed and no one can misunderstand. But words so easily can become empty, can be reduced to mere superstition, as if the right words can substitute for a right heart.
God is concerned with how we treat other people—and how we are when no one sees us but him. God made us; we do not make God. He cannot be manipulated with words any more than he can be carved from wood. He’s a person. He will do what he wants, when he wants, for the reasons he wants.