"'With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for the sin of my soul?' He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:6-8
God's physical redemption of the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage brought with it a spiritual law that promised to keep them in right relationship with Him, should they follow this law with all of their hearts. This law is founded upon the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20), but it includes many seemingly monotonous rules and regulations found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Keeping all of the law was the only means they had to maintain absolute inner purity and outer cleanliness as God's people. Commonly known as the Old Covenant, God gave His law as one part in His redemption plan. Yet God knew the law was never going to redeem mankind from the sin condition because no man could ever live up to the letters of the law.
Have you ever wondered why God gave the law in the first place? Why not just send Christ right away to take care of our sin condition before any problems ever occurred?
But see, this is where God's wisdom is always so much greater than ours, for God knew the pompous pride of the human heart. He understood that unless we were convinced that we cannot do it on our own, we would still try. No one will call upon a Savior who isn't convinced he needs saving. Further, God has never been interested in outward obedience alone; He has always wanted our hearts' affections. So the Lord gave the law.
All that to say, God's chosen people never could keep themselves in right relationship with their God. They could not deal with their sin condition through the law. The people of Israel ultimately endured two different captivities, one to Assyria and one to Babylon, because of their continued rejection of God. The prophets, whose words are tucked into the back pages of the Old Testament, were the vessels through which God chose to address His people in these days. While there are many themes in these books, there is one theme common in almost every book of the prophets: returning.
"If you return, O Israel, declares the Lord, to me you should return." Jeremiah 4:1
"So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God." Hosea 12:6
"Thus declares the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts...Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds..." Zechariah 1:2, 4
God's call for His people to return to Him is interwoven throughout the words of the prophets. It is a call of love and tenderness at times, but a call of judgment and righteous anger at others. His people had attempted to keep His law without changing their hearts. They were religious in ways, but they were not repentant. They were not true followers of God. Instead, they made a mockery of God's holy courts.
"When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings...I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly...When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, your hands are full of blood." Isaiah 1:12-13, 15
"For you have forgotten the God of your salvation and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge." Isaiah 17:10
God's call to His people was for repentance and a full allegiance of their hearts. If only they would! If only they would come to Him, returning, that He might save them, cleanse them, and heal them!
"In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." Isaiah 30:15
"...they have forgotten the Lord their God. Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness." Jeremiah 3:21-11
"Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us, that He may heal us; He has struck us down, and He will bind us up." Hosea 6:1
"Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts." Malachi 3:7
God's call rang clear from the prophets' mouths. His call resounded in the quietness of the some 400 years between the last book of the Old Testament and the time of Christ's birth. It echoes on the pages of history. As the Israelites anticipated the coming of their Messiah, the One through whom the prophets told redemption would come, God called for them to return.
And today, His call is the same: "Return to Me!" As we anticipate our annual celebration and remembrance of Christ's birth, in the fullness of God's redemption plan, He still calls to us. Return!
God does not want our beautiful Christmas Eve services when our hearts are hardened. He does not want our service to the church when our lives look no different than the world around us. He does not need our tithes and offerings when they are given from reluctant and sin-stained hands. He will not hear our poetic worship songs from lips that speak empty words and foolish talk.
He wants our hearts, and thereby all of us.
"Yet even now," declares the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster." Joel 2:12-13