In Isaiah 29, Isaiah is prophesying against Jerusalem and, by extension, the rest of Judah (verse 8). He predicts judgment on the kingdom due to their sin—judgment that will come through invading armies (Isaiah 29:3–4). However, the prophet also affirms that God is incredibly graceful and will restore Judah after bringing justice upon their enemies (Isaiah 29:5, 18–24). In the middle of Isaiah’s prophecy, he diagnoses Judah’s problem of hypocrisy, which is bringing about their judgment: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13). While the Israelites were saying the right things, their hearts were far from God.
The word heart is a common metaphor. In English, heart often represents someone’s emotions. When we say that someone has a “heart of stone,” we do not mean that his blood-pumping organ has been mineralized; we mean that he is unmoved by emotional appeals. When an ancient Israelite used the word heart metaphorically, he was thinking of the center of someone’s soul, the place where he makes all his decisions and experiences all his emotions. The “heart” was the location of one’s will and intellect. Therefore, when the Bible commands us to love something “with all our hearts,” it means loving with everything we have on the inside.
When God said that “their hearts are far from me,” He meant that they had chosen other loyalties besides God. While they might have sounded religious, they did not love God or obey Him. Their thoughts and their decisions were bent away from God. The NET Bible has a helpful translation here: “These people say they are loyal to me; they say wonderful things about me, but they are not really loyal to me. Their worship consists of nothing but man-made ritual” (Isaiah 29:13). In English, we might say that the Israelites worshiped “but their hearts weren’t in it.”
In the New Testament, Jesus quotes this verse in an important confrontation with the Pharisees (Mark 7:6–7). They, too, had hearts far from God. The Pharisees pretended to care about God’s law by following outward acts like handwashing, but they did not care about God on the inside. When they met God in the person of Jesus, they tried to kill Him! After quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus scathingly summarized their heart condition: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8). The Pharisees still did religious things but had forgotten the reasons behind their actions. They said the right things, but their hearts were far from God.
As Christians, we face the same temptation as the hypocritical Israelites. Sometimes, it is easy to maintain the outward appearance of religious obedience by following basic rules, yet we lack any real relationship with God in our hearts. We start “going through the motions” without growing in love for God or for others. We might faithfully go to church every Sunday but ignore God the rest of the week. Like the Pharisees and the ancient Israelites, “faking it” is not spiritually healthy, and it will eventually catch up with us.
Isaiah 29:13 is a stark reminder that rules and rituals, by themselves, cannot please God. God wants true righteousness. God wants you to love Him with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).