Strict religious observance
In spite of all their sins, the people of Israel were very devout in their religious observances. They were faithful to attend religious services and offer daily sacrifices. They were so faithful in their tithing and offerings that they even followed the once every three years tithe God commanded in Deuteronomy 14:28. They were constantly offering sacrifices of all kinds. They were very, very devout in their religious devotions.
God calls their religious observances sin
Instead of being pleased with all of this religious devotion, God instead calls it all sin. Every worship service, every sacrifice, even their tithes God considered to be grave transgressions. Instead of earning God’s favor in their religious actions they were instead only bringing greater wrath and judgment upon themselves.
What God truly desires
All of this brings us to the true question, “What is it that God truly desires?” The overwhelming answer found in every part of Scripture is that God desires obedience, faith, justice, love, and repentance, not religious deeds (1 Samuel 15:22, Psalm 51:16-17, Matthew 23:23, etc.) As with Cain and Abel God looks far more on the heart of the one bringing the sacrifice than the fact that they brought a sacrifice. Man looks at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7.)
One of the unseen things here is that they were not truly worshiping God. Bethel and Gilgal were places of idolatry. Even though they “followed God’s Law” they were actually engaging in horrible idolatry. We can be doing all the right things yet be worshiping a false god even in a Baptist church. When we conceive of God other than what He has revealed Himself to be we are committing idolatry.
For us today
This brings us to one of the greatest sins of our day, seeking to cover our sin through religious deeds. We believe that if we go to church, tithe, celebrate Christmas, etc. that we are right with God. However, we can draw near to God with our lips and our hearts be far from Him (Matthew 15:8.) We can go to church every week and only be multiplying our sins and storing up greater judgment for ourselves. We do this by being concerned with religious observances and not with actually loving God and keeping His commands. The mark of someone who is truly born again is not religious deeds; it is conformity to Jesus Christ and His commands.
Has there been a true change of your heart that leads you to love Jesus and live like Him, or are you trusting in your religious deeds to earn God’s favor?