Under the administration of both the old and the new covenants, authentic worship is a burning concern. Jesus, for example, proclaims that "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23–24). The qualifier true implies that there are other kinds of worshipers in the world—false worshipers whose worship is either not true, not wholehearted, or both. Furthermore, the old covenant prophets also had a lot to say to the people of Israel about true and false worship. Having the Mosaic law, the Israelites should have had little trouble rendering worship that God would have found acceptable. Today's passage is but one of many Old Testament texts that shows us how the Lord, at points, actually hated the worship of His old covenant people.
The language of God hating worship may seem strong to us, given modern man's assumption that the Lord can by no means ever hate anyone. Nevertheless, our holy Creator is clear that not everything done in His name is pleasing in His sight. It is easy, of course, to condemn blatantly false acts of worship such as human sacrifice and false preaching done in God's name. However, the Lord may hate worship even when it is conducted according to His regulations. We must draw this conclusion from today's passage wherein God rejects the feasts, solemn assemblies, songs, and offerings of ancient Israel, all acts that are prescribed in His Word (Lev. 1; Deut. 16:1–8; Ps. 150).
Amos pronounced Israel's worship despicable, not because none of it conformed to God's law but rather because it was dead. Mere formalism had replaced hearts eager to serve the Creator, as evidenced in the prophet's substitution of justice and righteousness for approved acts of worship (Amos 5:21–24). Worship was not transforming men and women into people who promoted God's standards in every sphere; it merely papered over their ill-treatment of the weakest members of society. The false worshipers thereby assured themselves that all was fine when they really were facing the Lord's judgment.
Amos 5:25–27 indicates that not all was well regarding even the outer form of Israel's worship, and the prophet condemned that behavior as well. Still, God's willingness to reject even worship that outwardly conforms to His rules is a lesson for us. If we are unconcerned to make sure justice and righteousness are abounding in our lives, He will hate it when we come before Him in worship.
It is not that God wanted Israel to abandon what He said about the form of worship, as we will see in other passages that address this issue. The goal, rather, was for worship to be true in form and function, to be so deeply rooted within the heart that justice and righteousness inevitably resulted. If worship is not leading us to repent and do good, it is not worship from the heart. We must remember, as Matthew Henry comments, that "the sacrifice of the wicked is really an abomination to [God]."