The connection between Liturgy and Justice in the Prophets

“The connection between Liturgy and Justice in the Prophets”

God bequeathed Israel with the Law to teach them His ways so that they may live in relationship with Him. To genuinely love God is to obey the Law. The Prophets, communicating God’s Word to Israel, called the people back to obeying the Law, that is, to loving Him. This love was not to be mere outward obedience, but a loving surrender that came from the heart. When the Law was lived out authentically, it gave genuine expression to the Israelite’s love in a two-fold manner: through public ritual worship, or liturgy, and justice. This paper will argue that the prophets’ greatest concern is Israel’s lack of authentic love for God, manifested in the people’s divorce of these two expressions of love for God.
Loving God and obeying the Law are not two distinct actions, but in fact one. When loving God is mentioned it is frequently in conjunction with keeping His commands, statutes and ordinances.[1] The commands from God regarding how He expects His people to live fall into one of two categories: how right worship is to be carried out (which includes all the laws stipulating the conditions of purity or impurity attached to certain actions, as well as the instructions for carrying out the liturgy in the temple),[2]and how they are to live in relation to fellow human beings and to God, namely, what justice should look like.[3] Thus, in living the Law, Israel ought to manifest its love for God through liturgy and justice.

Real love, however, must stem first and foremost from the heart.[4] If inner motivation and external actions are not integrated, actions become meaningless.[5] The prophets heavily criticize externalism in observing the Law,[6] and repeatedly affirm the need for the Israelites to change their hearts.[7] In particular, if either the liturgy or justice as carried out by Israel is lacking, it is symptomatic of the absence of genuine love from the heart. This is because they are inseparable aspects of obeying the whole Law, and ignoring (at least) one aspect means that one is not truly obeying the Law, implying that one does not love God. They are both meant to be expressions of that love, but when that is non-existent, they express nothing.[8] The prophets therefore display great concern for corruptions of justice and liturgy in the life of Israel, because they are symptomatic of hearts that have forgotten God.[9]
Corruption of justice takes the form of injustice. This in itself is a grave evil, an offense against the God who loves justice,[10]and is perfectly just.[11] He loves justice because He loves every individual, and so Israel is bound to love those He loves, if they profess to love God.[12] God made it clear from the establishment of Israel as His people that part of their call as a holy nation was to be a just society. The criticisms of the prophets reveal a very different reality to this ideal, as it seems Israel is doing precisely those things that God expressly commanded them not to do.[13]Injustice is rampant across all strata of society,[14] such that the prophet struggles to find even one just person,[15]as was the case in Sodom and Gomorrah, making Isaiah’s contempt quite apt.[16]. When the people attempt to do justice, they can only manage to pervert it,[17] revealing that they have become so used to doing evil that they struggle to do good.[18] This often arises out of selfishness, as they are denounced for their greed,[19]which leads to oppression of the poor for their own gain.[20]In their pursuit of wealth, the vulnerable are ignored.[21]This essentially places the self over and above God as one’s highest priority, replacing love of God in the heart with one’s personal desires.[22]God repeatedly directs Israel’s attention to the necessity of justice through specific commands to live it,[23]or by stating its value,[24]particularly by way of how inextricably bound up with their liturgy it is.[25]So while the prophets’ rhetoric may seem overly dramatic to modern ears,[26]it in fact reveals that they have understood the full extent of the seriousness of what Israel’s behaviour implies- that they do not love God.
The corruption of liturgy in the eyes of the prophets lies in hypocritically participating in it while continuing to live in a determinedly unjust manner. It seemed Israel complacently thought that as long as they enacted the ceremonies correctly, God would allow them to live however they liked.[27] But the prophets make it clear that combining iniquity and worship is most displeasing to God.[28] They depict this coexistence of evil and liturgy as being untruthful.[29]Since is a sin to lie to one’s neighbour,[30] the gravity is much greater when effectively lying to God, and is certainly contrary to loving Him, since love rejoices in the truth.[31]
However, liturgy is the public, habitual expression of man’s relationship with God through ritual, an act that flows from both his nature (an integration of body and soul), and his recognition of the worship that is due to God as his creator.[32] Thus, participation in the liturgy with no intention of amending one’s life when it is not in accord with God’s law is to dishonestly express a non-existent love. The liturgy is only valuable insofar as the individual is living morally,[33] for the rituals of the liturgy exist to cleanse the people of Israel, such that they may enter God’s holy presence and receive a share in His holiness and blessing. To behave as though one was in an intimate, loving relationship with God when profoundly unworthy, and being forgiven when one was not repentant and intended on continuing to sin,[34] was a serious desecration of God’s holiness. Such recklessness in His presence is life-threatening,[35]and risks calling severe judgement upon oneself.[36]Thus inappropriate involvement in the liturgy is both hypocritical and sacrilegious, and an affront to the Lord’s generosity in extending the possibility of relationship with Him.

Great irony lies in the fact that in this state of perpetual iniquity, it is precisely now that Israel is most in need of their liturgy, to restore them to purity, so that they may enter God’s presence and share in His holiness. Sin, depending on the gravity, reduces or even completely removes holiness. The sin and guilt offerings, with the Day of Atonement rituals, were intended to remove uncleanness, so that one was able to offer the burnt and peace offerings.[37] The burnt and peace offerings first brought God’s presence, and then allowed the Jews to eat a meal in His presence, signifying their intimate communion. Intriguingly, these offerings of forgiveness and atonement seem to almost never be mentioned in the prophetic literature.[38]The offerings that are mentioned, when specified, are usually the burnt offerings.[39]This would seem to underscore the idea that the most offensive aspect of their hypocritical liturgy, is their shameless participation in those most sacred of rites. The constant and serious disregard for justice has defiled the people,[40]and in turn they defile God’s sanctuary. The prophets point out, however, that as long as the people’s hearts remain untouched, the liturgy cannot accomplish its purpose.
Idolatry is the most grievous of these corruptions to the prophets, as it breaks the first and most important of the commandments.[41]It constitutes a corruption of both justice and liturgy, as it renders the liturgy a lie, and deprives the Creator of His due worship.[42]Idolatry is usually accompanied by nominal conformance to Jewish liturgical observance, although at times even pretending to worship God is abandoned. Liturgical observance accompanied by incense burnt to idols,[43]sacrifices made to them,[44]and making idols that are lifeless are all strongly condemned by the prophets.[45]This is because they reveal that while God is not in fact foremost in their lives,[46]they are participating in all the things that are meant to express the fact that they love Him above all else. Man’s heart will always be captivated by something, and they have allowed idols to replace God.[47]
The prophets frequently employ marital language to convey the enormity of Israel’s rejection of God. Turning to other gods is described as unfaithfulness to the Lord,[48]who is their loving spouse.[49]Instead of attentively and devotedly loving Him, they forget Him,[50]while He remains supremely faithful,[51]waiting for their return. Israel has become a harlot,[52] but grieves God even further with its pretence to faithfulness in its performance of the liturgy. The underlying reality is that the hearts of God’s people are far from Him,[53] giving rise to their abominable treatment of Him and each other.
The prophets therefore do not condemn liturgy in itself as something hateful to God,[54]rather they condemn going through the motions when one intends to actually live in a manner contrary to God’s will. This is evidenced by the both the fact that the loss of the temple and the associated sacrifices is regarded as a punishment, a deprivation of an objective good, and also that liturgy plays a prominent role in the restoration of Israel. The Lord declares that He will deprive Israel of access to His presence in the liturgy by allowing its destruction, until they learn to love Him as they ought,[55]and the exiled people are said to suffer as a result of the lack of the temple.[56]In a vision of hope, God shows Ezekiel how the new temple should be built when they come out of exile, connecting the restoration of Israel as God’s people with the restoration of His presence among them for worship.[57]Thus will Israel’s spousal relationship with God be restored,[58]and their feasts will once more be seasons of joy and gladness.[59]
The purpose of God’s judgement is always to bring His people back into communion with Him.[60] Thus, while informing Israel of the dire things to come if they do not repent, the prophets always follow with hopeful promises. Some of these promises speak of God’s readiness to forgive them if they would only turn back to Him,[61]for He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.[62] The Lord reveals His plan to restore their love for Him by pouring out His Spirit on His people,[63] cleansing them and giving them new hearts.[64] Other promises pertain to the promised Messiah,[65]and lay out a grand vision of the perfect peace that he will bring, when God gives His people these new hearts to love Him fully, such that liturgy and justice harmoniously express that genuine love. In this way all nations flock to God’s holy mountain,[66]to learn His Law,[67]such that Israel fulfils its purpose to bring all nations to love God.
In conclusion, for the prophets, hypocritical liturgy, injustice and idolatry are inseparable symptoms of an interior rejection of God. They are corruptions of the two basic expressions of love for God, namely, liturgy and justice. Liturgy in itself is not rejected, but rather inauthentic participation in the liturgy is condemned. When liturgy and justice are divorced, it reveals the true state of one’s heart- that it has turned away from God. Since intimate relationship with God is the whole purpose of the Law and covenants, indeed, man’s very existence, this disregard for God is the most fundamental concern of the prophets. Finally, one should note that all their promises are finally fulfilled in Christ, whose perfect sacrifice was the ultimate expression of love for God,[68]perfectly uniting justice and the worship of God.
Aquinas, Thomas., Summa Theologiae, Thomas Gilby O.P. (Ed.) & T.C. O’Brien O.P. (Trans.) (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1965)
Boadt, Lawrence., Reading the Old Testament(Paulist Press: New York, 1984)
Casciaro, José María (Ed.), The Navarre Bible- Major Prophets (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2005)
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2nd Edition, English translation for USA (Washington, USA: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997)
Hahn, Scott (ed.), Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009)
Heschel, Abraham.,The Prophets Vol. 1(Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts, 1962)
Kleinig, John W., Leviticus (Concordia Commentary) (Concordia: St Louis, 2003)
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12, 2nd Edition, Berard Marthaler (ed.) (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003)
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Aquinas, Thomas., Summa Theologiae, Thomas Gilby O.P. (Ed.) & T.C. O’Brien O.P. (Trans.) (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1965)
Boadt, Lawrence., Reading the Old Testament(Paulist Press: New York, 1984)
Casciaro, José María (Ed.), The Navarre Bible- Major Prophets (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2005)
Casciaro, José María (Ed.), The Navarre Bible- The Pentateuch (Four Courts Press: Dublin, 1999)
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church: 2nd Edition, English translation for USA (Washington, USA: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997)
Dauphinais, Michael. & Levering, Matthew., Holy People, Holy Land (Baker Publishing: Ada, Michigan, 2005)
Duggan, Michael., The Consuming Fire- A Christian Guide to the Old Testament (Our Sunday Visitor: Huntingdon, Indiana, 2010)
Hahn, Scott (ed.), Catholic Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2009)
Heschel, Abraham.,The Prophets Vol. 1(Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, Massachusetts, 1962)
Larsson, Goran., Bound for Freedom: The Book of Exodus in Jewish and Christian Traditions (Hendrickson: Peabody, 1999)
Levering, Matthew., Sacrifice and Community- Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist (Blackwell Publishing: Carlton, Victoria, 2005)
Kleinig, John W., Leviticus (Concordia Commentary) (Concordia: St Louis, 2003)
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12, 2nd Edition, Berard Marthaler (ed.) (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003)
The Catholic Bible Concordance Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition C.W. Lyons and Thomas Deliduka (compilers) (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2009)
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[1]E.g. Deut. 6; Deut. 7:9; Deut. 11:1,13; Josh. 22:5; 1 Kgs. 3:3,6; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4; Sir. 2:15; Is. 56:6; In Ps. 119 the psalmist never explicitly says “I love you, O Lord,”  but the sentiment is evident, and the psalm is full of praise of God’s commands, thus connecting love of God and obedience to His Law. (NB: unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references will be from the RSV)
[2]Such as in Lev. 1-7, or Lev. 13; this is essentially how they are to be made holy in an ongoing way through the rituals God has instituted
[3]Such as Lev. 19, or Ex. 20; having been made holy in the liturgy, God reveals how to remain holy in everyday life
[4]1 Sam. 16:7; Ps. 40:8; Deut. 6:4-6: they are called to love God with their whole being, holding nothing back
[5]Jer. 17:10- the Lord examines the heart in order to judge man’s actions. They are not separate.
[6]Is. 51:4,7; Jer. 5:23-34; Zech. 7:12; Jer. 8:8-12; Joel 2:13
[7]Jer. 3:10; Jer. 4:14; Jer. 17:5; Jer. 24:7; Joel 2:12-13; Zech.1:3; Mal. 3:7; this is called for on both a corporate and an individual level, for God relates to each individual personally but also with the people as a whole
[8]Jdt. 16:16: fearing God takes precedence over sacrifice
[9]Jer. 2:32; Hos. 2:13, 8:14
[10]Ps. 33:5; Ps. 27:28; Is. 61:8; Jer. 9:24
[11]Deut. 32:4; Ps. 145:17
[12]Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, p. 216
[13]Some of God’s commands include: to not pervert justice in legal proceedings (Ex. 23:3,6),  live justly (Deut. 16:19-20) because all God’s ways are justice (Deut. 32:4), not oppress or extort the fatherless, widows and sojourners, for they ought to remember how it was for them in Egypt (Deut. 27:19; Lev. 19:34; Ex. 22:21; Deut. 28), have such concern for their neighbour (Lev. 19:18) that poverty should be non-existent if they obey the Lord (Deut. 15:4-6), but but if there is a poor man, they are to open their hands wide to their brother (Deut. 15:7-11).
[14]Jer. 6:13; Jer. 8:10; Ezek. 7:10; Ezek. 9:9; Hos. 10:13
[15]Jer. 5:1
[16]Is. 1:9-10; also taken up by other prophets, as in Jer. 23:14;
[17]Mic. 3:9; Hab. 1:4
[18]Jer. 4:22
[19]Jer. 6:13; Jer. 8:10; Hab. 2:5; Jer. 22:17
[20]Ezek. 22:12,13,27; Hos. 12:8; Hab. 2:9; Isa. 10:2l;  Is. 3:14; Is. 11:4; Is. 26:6; Am. 2:7; Am. 5:11; Am. 4:1; Ezek. 18:12; Ezek. 22:29; Zech. 7:10
[21]Is. 1:23; Ezek. 22:7; Mal. 3:5
[22]Ezek. 33:31
[23]Is. 1:17; Hos. 12:6; Am. 5:15; Mic. 6:8
[24]Is. 1:17; Is. 5:7,16; Is. 9:7; Is. 16:3; Is. 42:3-4; Is. 56:1; Is. 61:8; Jer. 9:24; Hos. 2:19; Hos. 12:6; Am. 5:15; Mic. 6:8;
[25]By revealing His abhorrence to their liturgy when they are not living justly, as will be discussed in depth further in this paper
[26]Such as in Jer. 13:1-11 and Ezek. 16; Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 1, pp. 4-5
[27]Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, pp. 317-318; Jer. 5:12
[28]Is. 1:13; Am. 5:21-24; Hos. 8:13; Is. 43:24; Hab. 1:16; Is. 66:3; Jer. 6:19-20
[29]Hos. 10:2; Jer. 9:3; Isa. 48:1; Jer. 5:1-2
[30]Ex. 20:16; Deut. 5:20
[31]1 Cor. 13:6
[32]Kleinig, Leviticus, pp. 21-22; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae, 85, 1-2
[33]Heschel, The Prophets, p. 195
[34]As seen in Am. 8:4-6: the people are shamelessly waiting for the Sabbath or new moon feasts to be over so that they may continue with their unjust wealth-gaining practices
[35]Lev. 16:1-2; Lev. 10:1-7; Kleinig, Leviticus, pp.3,8
[36]Is. 3:8; Jer. 4:1; Mal. 2:3; Jer. 52:3
[37]Lev. 1-7; Lev. 16
[38]Apart from in Ezekial’s vision of the new temple- Ezek. 40-48
[39]E.g. Is. 1:11; Jer. 6:20; Hos. 6:6; Am. 5:22; Am. 4:5; Hos. 8:13; some of these also mention the peace offering
[40]Ezek. 36:17, Is. 64:6; Hag. 2:13-14; Ez. 39:24; Isa. 1:16; Is. 56:2; Jer. 4:14
[41]Jer. 16:18; Ex. 20:2-6; Jer. 2:12-13; Heschel, The Prophets, p. 4
[42]CCC 2095
[43]Hos. 11:2
[44]Ezek. 20:31, 23:39- these mention the horrific act of child sacrifice; Hos. 13:2; Jer. 44:19
[45]Hos. 13:2; Jer. 14:5,8,10; Jer. 51:17; Isa. 57:13
[46]Ezek. 14:5; Ezek. 44:10; Hos. 4:17; Jonah 2:8
[47]Ezek. 14: 3-7
[48]Hos. 4:1; Hos. 14:4
[49]Ezek. 16:1-14
[50]Hos. 2:13; Hos. 8:14; Jer. 2:32
[51]Jer. 31:3
[52]Is. 1:21; Jer. 2:20; Jer. 3:1; Jer. 13:27; Ezek. 16:15-63; Hos. 4:10-12; Hos. 5:3-4; Hos. 9:1; Mic. 1:5-7
[53]Is. 29:13
[54]As has been proposed by some scholars- New Catholic Encyclopedia Second Edition Vol. 12, p.514
[55]Hos. 3:4; Hos. 5:6; Hos. 9:3-4; Hos. 10:1-2
[56]Lam. 1:4-5, 2:6-7
[57]Ez. 40:48
[58]Is. 62
[59]Zech. 8:19
[60]Am. 4:6-11; Hag. 2:17;  Hos. 2:19; Scott Hahn, Catholic Bible Dictionary, p. 492; José María Casciaro (Ed.), The Navarre Bible- Major Prophets, p.18
[61]Joel 2:12-13; Zech. 1:3-4; Mal. 3:7; Is. 1:27; Jer. 18:8-10; Ezek. 18:30-32; Is. 30:18; Jer. 31:20
[62]Ezek. 18:23; Ezek. 33:11
[63]Joel 2:28-29; Ezek.  36:26-27
[64]Ezek. 36:26
[65]José María Casciaro (Ed.), The Navarre Bible- Major Prophets, pp.18-19
[66]Is. 66:18-20
[67]Is. 2:2-3
[68]CCC 2100

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