True Fasting, 1-14


Isa 58:1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.”

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.

Isa 58:2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

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.’

Isa 58:3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all 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)

Isa 58:4 your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

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

Isa 58:5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable 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.’

Isa 58:6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every 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…

Isa 58:7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from 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)

Isa 58:8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD 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.

Isa 58:9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,”

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).

Isa 58:10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the 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.

Isa 58:11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.

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.’

Isa 58:12 your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

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

Isa 58:13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,”

‘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.

Isa 58:14 “then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” The mouth of 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.’