“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’” Isaiah 65:1
These are people with full and busy lives. They are not looking for God or searching after him. They don’t expect God to do anything in their lives. They haven’t been praying. They did not ask for God or seek God or call out to Him.
Secular people who don’t know God
You know folks like that. They might say “I respect your faith, but I’m really not interested. My life is full. I don’t have the time or the desire to seek after God.”
Maybe that describes you. People come to church for different reasons. You may be here because of your friends or your parents, but if someone asked you “What do you expect God to do in your life today?” You wouldn’t really know what to say, because you are not really expecting God to do anything in your life.
In Isaiah’s time, these people were known as “the Gentiles.” In the Old Testament, God made Himself known to Moses and to one nation of people, the people of Israel. But the other nations didn’t know Him—they didn’t have the commandments or the covenants. And because they didn’t know Him, they didn’t seek Him or call on Him either.
The first group Isaiah identifies are secular people. These are people who don’t know God. Across our country and across the world there are millions of people who would gladly identify themselves this way.
What do you think God would say to these folks? You might expect God to say “There are many people in this world who completely ignore Me. They don’t ask for Me, or seek Me. They don’t call on My Name. These people don’t have faith. They don’t pray. They don’t expect me to do anything in their lives. These people really aren’t interested in Me, and so I am not interested in them.”
God Seeks Out People Who Don’t Know Him
“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I’” (Isaiah 65:1).
That is not the God of the Bible. He “reveals Himself.” He puts Himself on the radar screen of folks who aren’t looking for Him. He says “Here I am,” to folks who don’t even know who He is. He turns up in the lives of people who didn’t even ask for Him.
Here’s what that means for us: You may not have been interested in God, but that doesn’t mean God is not interested in you. You may not be reaching out to God, but God is reaching out to you. People who are not looking for God, come to know Him, not because they find God, but because God finds them!
That opens the door of hope. Maybe you would say today “I don’t have much faith. I don’t know how to pray. I don’t know God, and I haven’t been looking for Him to do anything in my life. I don’t feel very spiritual at all.” You are exactly the kind of person God is looking to restore today.
Religious people who claim to know God
“All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good” (Isaiah 65:2).
These folks are different from the Gentiles in verse 1. We know that because in the New Testament the Apostle Paul quotes these verses from Isaiah. He tells us that they refer to a different group of people: “Isaiah boldly says ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But concerning Israel he says ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’” (Romans 10:20-21).
So, verse 1 is about the Gentile nations—secular people who did not know God. But verse 2 is about Israel, the people to whom God had made Himself known—religious people who claimed to know God.
Even if you’ve recently come back to church, this may describe you. Many of us were brought up with religion. For some this was positive. You look back on what you learned, and you’re thankful for it. For others, the religion you experienced was a burden. It felt empty, and it did not bring you near to God. At some point in your life, you were glad to be free from it.
Religion is a mixed bag
Notice what God says to these religious people who claim to know Him: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways that are not good, pursuing their own imaginations, a people who continually provoke me to my very face” (Isaiah 65:2,3).
He is not talking about secular people who don’t know Him. He is talking about the religious people who claim to know Him. He is telling us something very important that will be liberating for some of us today. Religion is a mixed bag. It’s a hodgepodge of good and of evil, of light and of darkness.
All religion that is sincere is not necessarily good, not if you read the God of the Old Testament. Some religion honors, God but some of it “provokes” Him (v2). God goes even further. He says that some religious people are “smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning” (v5). Clearly there is a kind of religion that God does not like! It does not come close to pleasing Him. In fact, it actually provokes Him!
What Kind of Religion Offends God?
How do you know what is good and honoring to God in religion, and how do you distinguish it from what’s bad in religion and provokes Him? The only way we’re going to be able to sort that out is in the Bible. Isaiah identifies six forms of religion that are offensive to God:
“Obstinate people who walk in ways not good” (v2).
Here are religious folks who “talk the talk,” but they do not “walk the walk.” They claim to know God, but they do not do what is good. God says, “That provokes me. That offends Me!”
If you have been provoked and offended by people who claim to know God but they do not do what is good, then you agree with the God of the Bible here. God is provoked and offended by the double standard of claiming to know Him and walking (that means following a pattern of life) that is not good.
“Pursuing their own imaginations” (v2).
Following your own imagination, means you just assume that God is for whatever you are for, and that He is in whatever you are in. It is remaking God in your image, so that your god becomes a projection of your own preferences, prejudices and desires. This is the worst kind of idolatry, and God says, “That offends Me! It continually provokes Me to My Face!”
“Offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick” (v3).
This is all about ritual. You might expect that God would be very impressed with people who are constantly offering sacrifices and burning incense. But rituals don’t change lives. A religion that’s all about rituals is ultimately empty. God says “That’s the kind of thing that provokes Me. The idea that religion is all about doing the same thing over and over again, that provokes Me!”
“Who sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil” (v4).
There is a brand of religion that takes a great interest in the dead. There’s a dramatic increase in interest in this form of religion in our time. The TV schedules seem increasingly filled with it, especially at this time of the year. But in the Bible, God prohibits this sort of thing. He says that it offends Him, so don’t go near it.
“Who eat the flesh of pigs and whose pots hold broth of unclean meat” (v4).
Remember, according to the Apostle Paul, these words are directed to Israel. In the Old Testament God’s people were given specific laws that marked their special relationship with Him. Food laws were included that were appropriate to God’s people before the time that our Lord Jesus Christ came. So, for a person in Old Testament Israel to “eat the flesh of pigs” and “the broth of unclean meat” was just open rebellion against the Old Testament commandments of God for that time.
This person is saying “Whatever God has commanded, I will do the opposite. I am going to be my own god.” And God says “That provokes Me. That offends Me.”
“Keep away; don’t come near me for I am too sacred for you” (v5).
This is a marvelous description of a religious people who is unbearably proud. But God says “If your religion makes you proud, if it makes you feel morally superior to other people that you work and live beside, then your religion provokes me. It offends me when religious people think that they are better than anybody else. ‘Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day’” (v5).
The gospel has the opposite effect. When I understand it, it brings me to the place of saying “I am a sinner who’s in need of the Savior, Jesus Christ. And it cost Him His blood that I might be forgiven.”
I meet a lot of people who’ve been burned by religion. They’re drawn to seek God but they’ve been discouraged by things they’ve seen in church. They’ve found that among people who claim to know God there are many who are far from Him. Religion is a mixed bag, and much of it offends God! But God is looking for something that is authentic and true and He wants to draw you into that.
Religion can be a way of hiding from God
I want to challenge us today. Some of us are glad to be a part of the church, and we like to be connected to some other people. But religion, even in an evangelical church, can be a safe place, it seems, to hide from God. God knows those who are hiding from Him in church. It’s possible, you know, to get involved in church world and completely miss Jesus Christ.
When I was a student at seminary a group of us went on a summer mission to a small town in Scotland. There were two churches in the town: St. Marks had invited our team, and the other church was known simply as “the parish.” The plan was that we would visit every home in the town, and that we would offer to speak about Jesus Christ and leave some literature.
On the first morning, we went off in our pairs, to knock on the door of the first house. An obviously well-dressed and well-educated lady came to the door. I said, “We’re with a student team, invited by St. Mark’s to talk with people about Jesus Christ.” “Oh!” she said “I’m not interested in that. I belong to the parish!”
There are many people who find that religion is a convenient way of hiding from God. Jesus said “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Don’t hide from God in religion.
God Sorts Out People Who Claim to Know Him
“This is what the Lord says: ‘As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes and men say, ‘Don’t destroy it, there is yet some good in it,’ so will I do in behalf of my servants; I will not destroy them all’’” (v8).
You pick up a cluster of grapes. Some of the grapes have gone bad, but you don’t throw them all away because some grapes in the bunch are good. You sort out the good from the bad. God says, “That is what I will do with religious people who claim to know me.”
Our Lord Jesus tells us that one day God will bring all people to account—secular people and religious people. On that day, some religious people will want to show God a long list of what they have been doing for Him. And Jesus said He will say to them, “Depart from me; I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21).
All of us need God to save us
Here’s what God is saying through Isaiah: He seeks out people who don’t know Him and He sorts out people who claim to know Him. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if we start out as secular people who don’t know God, or religious people whom claim to know God. All of us need God’s saving intervention in our lives.
Paul talks about this in Romans: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written, ‘There is no-one righteousness, not even one’” (Romans 3:9-10). You may want to come to God today and say “Save me from a secular life that ignores You. Save me from a religious life that provokes You.” Either way, all of us need to come to Him.
What does God say to people who provoke Him? You might expect God to say “There are some religious people who claim to know Me, but what they do offends me. These people give Me a bad name and so I repudiate them, I disassociate Myself from them. I want nothing to do with them.”
That’s not the God of the Bible! God is speaking to people who are walking in ways that are not good, following gods of their own imagination, pursuing darkness, throwing themselves into open rebellion, looking down on others with intolerable pride, and “this is like smoke in my nostrils,” but God says to them “I hold out my hands to you–all day long!” (v2)
Jesus came into the world seeking and saving
That’s Grace! This is the amazing God of the Bible; the God who seeks those who ignore Him and who saves those who provoke Him! How does God do this? How does God seek people who ignored Him? That is why Jesus Christ came into the world.
God became man “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) in Jesus Christ. The invisible God revealed himself, made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ. “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made Him known” (John 1:18). When you come to know Jesus, you have come to know God.
Jesus said that He came “to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). This Lord Jesus Christ looks for people who aren’t looking for Him. People whose lives were changed by Christ in the Gospels often weren’t seeking Him at all. He sees Peter, James and John and steps into their lives and saying “Follow me!” He restores people who aren’t expecting him to do anything in their lives!
How does God save people who have provoked Him? That’s why Jesus died on the cross. Think about this: Face-to-face with the Son of God, and brutal men scourged Him, mocked him, struck him on the head, spat on Him, pressed a crown of thorns on Him, and then excruciatingly nailed him to the cross.
Picture Christ on the cross, and hear these words from Isaiah again “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, a people who continually provoke me to my very face” (Isaiah 65:2). That is what God was doing at the cross.
It’s very significant that those who did this were secular men who did not know God, and religious men who claimed to know God. As they are nailing Him to the cross, Christ reaches out His hands and in His agony says “Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).
That’s the God of the Bible. He seeks people who have ignored Him. He saves people who have provoked Him. And when you see who He is, you will want to turn to Him, trust Him, know Him and follow Him.
© Colin S. Smith
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