The Lord Desires Genuine Devotion, 1-14

58:1 “Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loud as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin!

This chapter deals with religious observance, false and true.

‘Even as syncretism and paganism are abominable to God, so is religious formalism.’ (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible)

Fasting was ‘a kind of ritual mourning’ (Webb). It was associated with times of personal sorrow and national emergency. In the law of Moses, fasting was prescribed only in connection with the Day of Atonement. So the people could have argued that their fasting, being voluntary, was going over and above what God required.

‘The fast days were impressive, solemn occasions, when the whole community gathered. Ths was good in itself, but it was also dangerous, for it created an impression of piety which was often far removed from the real state of affairs. It imposed a uniformity of observance which disguised the difference between those who were genuine mourners and those who were not.’ (Webb)

‘Within the Isaianic literature, chapter 58 belongs with Isa 1:10-20, in condemnation both of the “unholy alliance” between religious punctiliousness and personal and social indiscipline, and of a religion that assumes a relationship with God while discounting a relationship with other people.’ (Motyer)

There is a chiastic structure to the chapter: rebuke (v1) and promise (v14); fast without blessing (vv2-25) and feast with blessing (13-14a); the middle section (vv6-12) speaks of God’s chosen fast. (Motyer)

In its rejection of hypocrisy and its promotion of practical expressions of godliness this chapter anticipates the teaching of James.

‘The loudness of the call is intended to suggest the importance of the subject, and perhaps the insensibility of those to be convinced.’ (Alexander)

Matthew Henry points out that just as the Holy Spirit is called the ‘Comforter’, but has a ministry of conviction, Jn 16:7-8, so Isaiah is called to comfort the Lord’s people, Isa 40:1, but is here appointed to convince and rebuke them.

58:2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees;
they want to be near God.

Outwardly, the people have been doing all the right things. They have sought God on a daily basis. They seemed eager to know his ways. They have sought God’s wise counsel and seemed eager for him to approach them. But all this is hollow, because they are, in fact, a nation who has ‘forsaken the commands of its God’. As the following verses will make clear, they have forsaken God in inward motivation and outward behaviour.

As Motyer says, this seems the very model of religion. It is assiduous (’day by day’), committed (they seek God out), God-centred (it is God they seek), and eager. They want to know God’s truth and experience his very presence.

Matthew Henry says: ‘It is owned that they have a form of godliness. (1.) They go to church, and observe their hours of prayer: They seek me daily; they are very constant in their devotions and never omit them nor suffer any thing to put them by. (2.) They love to hear good preaching; They delight to know my ways, as Herod, who heard John gladly, and the stony ground, that received the seed of the word with joy; it is to them as a lovely song, Eze 33:32. (3.) They seem to take great pleasure in the exercises of religion and to be in their element when they are at their devotions: They delight in approaching to God, not for his sake to whom they approach, but for the sake of some pleasing circumstance, the company, or the festival. (4.) They are inquisitive concerning their duty and seem desirous only to know it, making no question but that then they should do it: They ask of me the ordinances of justice, the rules of piety in the worship of God, the rules of equity in their dealings with men, both which are ordinances of justice. (5.) They appear to the eye of the world as if they made conscience of doing their duty: They are as a nation that did righteousness and forsook not the ordinances of their God; others took them for such, and they themselves pretended to be such. Nothing lay open to view that was a contradiction to their profession, but they seemed to be such as they should be.’

‘Men may go a great way towards heaven, and yet come short; nay, may go to hell with a good reputation.’ (M. Henry.)

The prophet and the world may be considered as engaged in two opposite problems. The problem which the world is ever seeking to discover is to find out what is the least religion they may have, and yet be saved; the problem which the prophet is here endeavoring to solve, is what is the most religion you may have, and yet be lost. (D. Moore, M. A.)

Barnes puts it well: ‘A hypocrite has no real delight in the service of God, or in his truth, but it is true at the same time that there may be a great deal of professed interest in religion. There may be a great deal of busy and bustling solicitude about the order of religious services; the external organization of the church; the ranks of the clergy; and the claims of a liturgy. There may be much pleasure in theological discussion; in the metaphysics of theology; in the defense of what is deemed orthodoxy. There may be much pleasure in the mere music of devotion. There may be pleasure in the voice of a preacher, and in the power of his arguments. And there may be much pleasure in the advancement of the denomination to which we are attached; the conversion of people not from sin, but from a side opposite to us; and not to holiness and to God, but to our party and denomination. True delight in religion is in religion itself; in the service of God as such, and because it is holy. It is not mere pleasure in creeds, and liturgies, and theological discussions, and in the triumph of our cause, nor even in the triumph of Christianity as a mere party measure; but it is delight in God as he is, in his holy service, and in his truth.’

58:3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’
Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires,
you oppress your workers.

With all the appearance of godliness indicated in v2, the people might well cry out, “What is the point of all this fasting? God pays no attention”.

Here is the fatal flaw: the eagerness of their devotion is paper-thin. Their fasting was an excuse for a day off work for themselves, while they took the opportunity to exploit their workers all the more. They were neither serving God nor others: they were pleasing themselves.

‘Only twice in the Old Testament does God command persons to fast. But in hundreds of places he commands his people to treat other people, especially those weaker than they, with respect, justice, and kindness.’ (Oswalt)

58:4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,
and fistfights.
Do not fast as you do today,
trying to make your voice heard in heaven.

Each fast-day ended in fisticuffs. Far from bringing peace with God, their fasting only served to alienate them from one another.

58:5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people merely humble themselves,
bowing their heads like a reed
and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this really what you call a fast,
a day that is pleasing to the LORD?

The physical expressions of piety (bowing the head and lying on sackcloth and ashes) have their place, Ne 9:1, but only as the expressions of a sincere and contrite heart.

Only a day for a man to humble himself? – lit. ‘to afflict himself’. The fasting was self-serving: ‘the worshiper is merely doing something to himself to show how devoted he is.’ (Oswalt). Whereas, the whole purpose of fasting should have been to free time and energy and resources to serve God and others.

We should not miss the irony here: they were making themselves hungry and afflicted, and yet would not lift a finger to help those who were truly hungry and afflicted.

‘Is there not danger of this now? Do we not often feel that there is something meritorious in the very inconveniences which we suffer in our acts of self denial? The important idea in the passage before us is, that the pain and inconvenience which we may endure by the most rigid fasting are not meritorious in the sight of God. They are not that at which he aims by the appointment of fasting. He aims at justice, truth, benevolence, holiness; (Isa 58:6-7) and he esteems the act of fasting to be of value only as it will be the means of leading us to reflect on our faults, and to amend our lives.’

58:6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.

The Lord goes on to describe how a fast day should be used, and what its activities and accompanying blessings will be.

‘Positively (6-14), the redefinition of fasting as social reform (6), loving care (7), and a forgoing of the luxury of ‘pointing the finger’ (9), is a foretaste of our Lord’s constructive approach to the law.’ (Kidner, NBC)

In this verse, true fasting involves the creation of a caring society. The time set free should be used to further the interests of justice, freedom and tyranny. This will involve work with the very structures of society.

These verses establish an unbreakable link between just and compassion on the one hand, and God’s presence and blessing on the other hand.

If you loose the chains of inustice, untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free, break every yoke, share your food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shlter, clothe the naked, not turn away from your own flesh and blood, do away with the yoke of oppression, do away with the pointing finger, do away with malicious talk, spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry, satisfy the needs of the oppressed

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, your healing will quickly appear, your righteousness will go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard, when you call, the Lord will answer, when you cry for help, he will say: Here am I, your light will rise in the darkness, your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always, he will satisfy your needs in a sunscorched land, he will strengthen your frame, you will be like a well-watered garden, you will be like a spring whose waters never fail, your people will rebuild the ancient ruins…

58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!

Attention to structural sin (v6) must be matched by care for needy individuals – the hungry, the homeless, and the unclothed.

‘Eat less in order to have food to give to the “hungry.” Wear less-expensive clothes in order to clothe the “naked”.’ (Oswalt)

58:8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard.

The true fasting that has been described in the preceding verses will be accompanied by great blessing. God will give a new beginning, a new dawn. He will heal their wounds. Their righteousness will go in advance before them and the glorious presence of the Lord will follow them.

58:9 Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’
You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.

A further blessing of true fasting is that they will enjoy intimate relationship with the Lord, expressed in unfettered prayer which is speedily answered.

“Here I am” – The Lord will give his personal attention to their prayers. This is the response of a willing, obedience servant, Gen 22:1,11 1 Sam 3:4!

‘Answered prayer is not like the sending of a food parcel; it is like a home visit from a doctor.’ (Motyer)

The last part of the verse begins to set out further principles of true fasting.

The yoke of oppression is lit. just ‘the yoke’. In contrast to v6 it seems that personal, rather social, behaviour is in mind here. Taken with the rest of this sentence, we might think of acts of ‘hint or innuendo, the nod or wink in the right place, “putting the knife in,”the destructive sneer and the unattributable “leak”.’ (Motyer) And all of this mischief-making may be exhibited at the same time as outward dutifulness (v6).

58:10 You must actively help the hungry
and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.

The sense of this verse could be, ‘If you give to the needy what you desire for yourself…’

The ‘light’ here is not so much the dawn of a new beginning (v8), as of a guiding light, v11. Although we feel we are in darkness, the Lord will not allow our foot to slip.

58:11 The LORD will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.

The Lord will guide them through dark places, supply their needs in a hostile environment, give strength when the going gets tough.

The Lord will not only sustain them through difficult times, but provide cool, life-giving refreshment.

Barnes writes thus of the supplies which God makes for his people: ‘The fountains of pardon, peace, and joy are ever open and ever full. The streams of salvation are always flowing. The weary pilgrim may go there at any season of the year, and from any part of a desolate world, and find them always full, refreshing, and free. However far may be the pilgrimage to them from amidst the waste and burning climes of sin, however many come to slake their thirst, and however frequently they come, they find them always the same. They never fail; and they will continue to flow on to the end of time.’

58:12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the streets inhabitable again.’

A further blessing is that of restoration. The devastation of past disaster will be replaced by secure and lasting dwellings.

58:13 You must observe the Sabbath
rather than doing anything you please on my holy day.
You must look forward to the Sabbath
and treat the LORD’s holy day with respect.
You must treat it with respect by refraining from your normal activities,
and by refraining from your selfish pursuits and from making business deals.

‘Lest it should seem that philanthropy is all, these verses describe the strictness and the gladness of the Sabbath-keeping God desires. If fasting is to be an opportunity to show love to our neighbour, the Sabbath should express, first of all, our love of God.’ (Kidner, NBC)

Call the Sabbath a delight – ‘This appropriately expresses the feelings of all who have any just views of the Sabbath. To them it is not wearisome, nor are its hours heavy. They love the day of sweet and holy rest. They esteem it a privilege, not a task, to be permitted once a week to disburden their minds of the cares, and toils, and anxieties of life. It is a ‘delight’ to them to recall the memory of the institution of the Sabbath, when God rested from his labors; to recall the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, to the memory of which the Christian Sabbath is consecrated; to be permitted to devote a whole day to prayer and praise, to the public and private worship of God, to services that expand the intellect and purify the heart. To the father of a family it is the source of unspeakable delight that he may conduct his children to the house of God, and that he may instruct them in the ways of religion. To the Christian man of business, the farmer, and the professional man, it is a pleasure that he may suspend his cares, and may uninterruptedly think of God and of heaven. To all who have any just feeling, the Sabbath is a ‘delight;’ and for them to be compelled to forego its sacred rest would be an unspeakable calamity’ (Barnes)

The Sabbath is not a day for doing as they please; and yet it should be a delight. Isaiah does not spell out in detail what they should and should not do, he ‘deals in principles, not directives: what is done on the Lord’s day must recognise that it is a holy and special day’ (Motyer).

Speaking idle words is mere chit-chat.

58:14 Then you will find joy in your relationship to the LORD,
and I will give you great prosperity,
and cause crops to grow on the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob.”
Know for certain that the LORD has spoken.

‘True Sabbath-keeping brings delight in the Lord’ (Motyer).

To ride on the heights means to ‘rise above earthly difficulties’ (Motyer).

To feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob means to enjoy all of the Lord’s ‘past promises and covenanted mercies’ (Motyer).

People today are still apt to use religious behaviour as a way of manipulating God while at the same time neglecting “the weightier matters of the law.” If it is not fasting, then it is church attendance, tithing, and so on. These things can all to easily become self-serving rather than God-pleasing.

Oswalt gives the example of the recent frequent use of the ‘prayer of Jabez’:

1 Chron 4:10 Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.

People say, “I’ve prayed this prayer every day for a month, and my business has never been so good.” But this is to reduce God to the level of a genie in a lamp, and prayer to conjuring trick. ‘Surely the idea’ (says Oswalt) ‘is not to repeat Jabez’s words but to emulate his attitude of committing himself to God.’