In this chapter, Yahweh calls the prophet to address the problem of false religious observance. While this ostensibly has to do with two religious disciplines, fasting (vv. 3-12) and Sabbath observance (vv. 13-14), those are only the manifesting problems rather than the root problem.
The root problem is people who observe spiritual disciplines for selfish reasons (to gain God’s blessings) while ignoring the hunger, poverty, homelessness, and nakedness of those in need.
The root solution is true devotion to God, which grows naturally out of love for God. People who love God will worship him for the sake of honoring rather than manipulating him. And if we love God, we will also love those whom God loves—our neighbors (broadly defined—see Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan). That love for God and neighbor will be manifested by taking concrete steps to care for those in need (those who are hungry, poor, homeless, naked, or otherwise in need).
This chapter or portions thereof occurs three times in the common lectionary:
• Epiphany 5A, Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
• Ash Wednesday ABC, Isaiah 58:1-12
• Proper 16C, Isaiah 58:9b-14
The chapter has an essential unity, so I have chosen to treat the chapter only once but in its entirety. Not only is that easier administratively, but it is best if the preacher who sets out to preach on particular verses first understands the whole chapter.
Oswalt notes a three part pattern (true religion, the people’s inability to keep true religion, and God’s power to heal the people) that occurred first in 56:1—57:21 and recurs in 58:1—59:21. “True religion is depicted in 58:1-14; the people’s failure is spoken of in 59:1-15a; and God’s action on his people’s behalf is portrayed in 59:15b-21” (Oswalt, 493).
ISAIAH 58:1-2. DECLARE TO MY PEOPLE THEIR DISOBEDIENCE
1“Cry aloud (Hebrew: bega·ron qera’—call with the throat), don’t spare,
lift up your voice like a trumpet (Hebrew: so·par’), and declare to my people
their disobedience, and to the house of Jacob their sins. 2Yet they seek me daily,
and delight to know my ways: as a nation that did righteousness, and didn’t forsake the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
“Cry aloud, don’t spare, lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (so∙par’) (v. 1a). If the prophet is to get the people’s attention, Yahweh must first get the prophet’s attention. This charge should do it! Yahweh calls the prophet to shout—to “call with the throat,” which means to call with full voice.
He is to lift up his voice like a trumpet (so∙par’). The so∙par’ is a ram’s horn, an instrument that could be used rather like a bugle to call soldiers to assembly or to battle. It could be used to call people to special occasions, such as the enthronement of a king. Priests used trumpets in worship (2 Chronicles 5:12; 7:6; Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 12:35, 41). Blowing a trumpet was the best way to get people’s attention
“and declare to my people their disobedience, and to the house of Jacob their sins” (v. 1b). These two phrases are an example of parallelism, a pattern which we see repeated throughout these verses. They express the same idea twice, but in different words.
The purpose of getting people’s attention is to announce their rebellion—to make them aware of their sins. They truly don’t understand the scope of their sins. They are in the dark regarding the problem, so they certainly don’t have a clue as to the remedy (see also Micah 3:8).
“Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways” (v. 2a). In verse 1b, Yahweh said that these people were rebels and sinners. Now Yahweh says that these people “seek me daily, and delight to know my ways,” a phrase that makes them sound as if they are the epitome of faithfulness. Verse 2b will resolve this apparent inconsistency.
“as a nation that did righteousness, and didn’t forsake the ordinance of their God“ (v. 2b). Next, Yahweh adds “as” or “as if”—making it clear that the faithfulness of these people is not real. They have not been faithful. They have failed the righteousness test. They have forsaken obedience to God’s laws.
This will come as a surprise to these people. They think that they have been faithful. They imagine that their fasting and Sabbath-keeping have pleased God. What they are about to learn is that God considers them to have been majoring in minors—to have been faithfully keeping the lesser parts of the law while neglecting (in Jesus’ later words to the scribes and Pharisees) “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23). It isn’t that the lesser requirements of the law (fasting, Sabbath-keeping, tithing, etc.) are unimportant. Jesus will later tell the scribes and Pharisees that they should have observed the lesser requirements “and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
“they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God” (v. 2c). The irony is that these unrighteous people are asking God for “righteous judgments.” They fail to understand that, if God were to render “righteous judgments,” he would condemn rather than vindicate them.
The same problem continues today. Most (perhaps all) who think themselves righteous are simply self-righteous—i.e., have pronounced themselves righteous when, in fact, they are not. We think of fundamentalists as being guilty of this sin of self-righteousness—of majoring in minors—of fulfilling the lesser Christian duties while ignoring the weightier duties. However, while making that sort of judgment, we assume a stance of morally superiority and, in the process, become self-righteousness ourselves. We would do better to acknowledge that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)—and that, like Paul, we are foremost among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Then we will appeal to God, not for “righteous judgments,” but for mercy.
ISAIAH 58:3-4. WHY HAVE WE FASTED, AND YOU DON’T SEE?
3“‘Why have we fasted,’ say they, ‘and you don’t see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exact all your labors. 4Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to strike with the fist of wickedness: you don’t fast this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high.”
“‘Why have we fasted,’ say they, ‘and you don’t see? Why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge?'” (v. 3a). This is the people’s complaint. They have fasted (abstained from food to demonstrate their repentance and to honor God), but God has failed to reward their devotion. In their minds, it should be a quid pro quo proposition (a situation in which they can give something in order to receive something). If they comply with their obligation to fast, then God should return the favor by conferring blessings on them.
In other words, they believe that fasting establishes an obligation that God is duty-bound to meet. If that is true, it puts them in a position where they can pull strings and obligate God to jump. With regard to power, that would reverse the positions of the creator and the one who was created.
However, their assumption is wrong on at least two points. First, God is God and they are God’s creation. God has the right as creator to impose obligations on them, but they have no right as the creation to impose obligations on God. Second, their fasting is but a tiny part of their religious obligation (Jewish law, after all, requires fasting only on the Day of Atonement), and faithfulness in fasting counts for little if they fail to observe the rest of their religious obligations—which, in fact, is the case.
Quid pro quo theology continues to afflict us today. Preachers are tempted to tell people that God will bless them financially if they tithe, and people are tempted to hope that God will honor that promise. Many prayers follow the model, “If you will do this, God, I will do that.” We would do better to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
“Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure” (v. 3b). The people have stated their complaint—God has ignored their fasting. Now God states his complaint—as an act of repentance or devotion, their fasting is fatally flawed. They have not fasted to honor God, but have instead fasted for selfish reasons. They have assumed that God would reward their fasting, so they fasted to earn the reward. Their purpose was not to give devotion to God but to gain a blessing from God. Their fasting, therefore, was exactly the opposite of genuine fasting. Rather than an act of self-denial, it was a self-centered grasping for reward. Their fasting was not an act of humility but of pride. There is no virtue in that kind of selfishness, and they cannot expect a reward.
“and exact all your labors” (v. 3c). Furthermore—this deserves emphasis—FURTHERMORE, these people have practiced their flawed religious devotions WHILE AT THE SAME TIME OPPRESSING THEIR WORKERS! Haven’t they understood ANYTHING!
Jewish law is replete with expressions of God’s concern for widows, orphans, and others in need. It requires the Jewish people to provide for people in need (Exodus 22:22-24; Leviticus 25:35-43; Deuteronomy 10:18; 15:7-18; 16:11-14; 24:17-21; 27:19). The law even forbids oppression of aliens dwelling in their midst (Exodus 22:21, 23:9, 12; Leviticus 19:33-34). How, then, can these people imagine that they can obtain a reward for fasting (a minor observance) while at the same time oppressing their workers (a major transgression)?
“Behold, you fast for strife and contention, and to strike with the fist of wickedness” (v. 4a). The meaning of these words is uncertain, but perhaps they were vying for top honors in fasting and their competition led to fisticuffs. “The fasting of the hypocrites does not prepare their mind for prayer to God but produces contention and strife. Instead of the heart looking to God, the fasters became irritable and upset” (Young 418).
While it seems hard to imagine that an act of devotion would lead to violence, I read a news story about two men who got into an argument about which knew the Bible better. They argued for a time, and then one of them went away and came back armed with a gun. He shot and killed the other man. True story!
Or consider the heated discussions of abortion or homosexuality or other hot-button issues at our denominational conferences. Is it beyond imagining that such discussions could lead to violence?
“you don’t fast this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high” (v. 4b). God will not honor their flawed fasting.
ISAIAH 58:5-9a. IS SUCH THE FAST THAT I HAVE CHOSEN?
5“Is such the fast that I have chosen? The day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?
6Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? 7Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?
8Then your light shall break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard.
9aThen you shall call, and Yahweh will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.'”
“Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?” (v. 5). God asks if they think that he desires their self-serving actions. Do they imagine that it is an act of humility to manipulate God? Do they believe that their external observances (bowing the head and dressing in sackcloth and ashes) please God? This verse doesn’t go so far as to say that these actions are unacceptable to God, but God’s questions clearly expect a “No!” answer.
“Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?” (v. 6). In verse 5, God asked the people what they thought, and posed his questions to convey disapproval of their actions. Now he tells them clearly what he thinks—what he wants. God’s vision has four parts, but all four have to do with establishing freedom for those who are suffering injustice or oppression or bondage.
This is a far grander vision than fasting or sackcloth and ashes. It demands a great deal more of God’s people than they have understood until this moment. It is easy to go without food for a day or to dress in humble attire—especially if we think that we will receive a blessing from God for doing so. It is much more difficult to remedy injustice—to give freedom to those whom we have oppressed—to break yokes that bind people to servitude.
Just consider for a moment how difficult it would have been for a slave-owner in the South to free his slaves prior to the Civil War. How could he compete with his neighbors who continued to use slave labor? How could he survive their animosity when accused of endangering their way of life? Such action would have been far from easy, but God calls us to that kind of radical justice. There is a great deal of injustice and oppression in our world today—far more than any one of us can resolve. However, if every Christian took injustice and oppression seriously, God would enable us to make a mighty dent in the problem.
“Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him” (v. 7a). God continues sharing his vision. Instead of emphasizing fasting (denying themselves bread) as an act of religious discipline, God emphasizes sharing their bread with those who are hungry. They are to house the homeless and to provide clothing to cover those who are naked.
“and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” (v. 7b). We should not cross to the other side of the street to avoid relatives (or others) who might ask us for help.
“Then your light shall break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard” (v. 8). First God made it clear that the people’s fasting was flawed and was therefore unsatisfactory (vv. 3-5). Then God made it clear what was needed (vv. 6-7). Now God outlines what the people can expect if they do, indeed, remedy injustice and free the oppressed and feed the hungry:
• First, they can expect that “light shall break forth as the morning.” To really appreciate light, one must have stumbled through darkness. These people have done plenty of that during their long exile.
• Second, they can expect healing—quick healing.
• Third, they can expect that “your righteousness shall go before you” and “the glory of Yahweh shall be your rear guard.” It is a promise of protection front and rear, and is reminiscent of the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites on their wilderness journey—but switched to their rear to protect them from the Egyptian army when it pursued them (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:19-20).
With God as our guard, we need fear no enemy. Or, as Paul the Apostle will later say, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31).
“Then you shall call, and Yahweh will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.'” (v. 9a). Finally, and most importantly, if these people will establish justice and set the oppressed free and feed the hungry, God will answer their prayers for help. If they help others, God will help them.
ISAIAH 58:9b-12. IF YOU DRAW OUT YOUR SOUL TO THE HUNGRY
9b“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly; 10and if you draw out your soul (Hebrew: nap·se·ka) to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then your light shall rise in darkness, and your obscurity be as the noonday; 11and Yahweh will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in dry places, and make strong your bones; and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters don’t fail. 12Those who shall be of you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.”
“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly” (v. 9b). This is the first “if” statement. We will find another “if” statement in verse 10a. Verses 9b and 10a, then, outline what God wants them to do. Verses 10b and 11 provide the “then” statement, outlining what these people can expect if they live up to God’s expectations.
First, God calls these people to remedy three facets of unjust or oppressive behavior. The first remedy is to remove the yoke of bondage from those who are not free. The second is to stop finger-pointing, which could be either a gesture of contempt (Muilenburg, 682) or a way of casting blame. The third is to stop speaking evil of others.
“and if you draw out your soul (nap·se·ka—your soul) to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul”(v. 10a). This is the second “if” statement. God expects these people to feed the hungry and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. They are not only to feed the hungry, but are also to give them nap·se·ka—their souls—we would say “their hearts.” Passionless giving-at-a-distance isn’t enough!
“then your light shall rise in darkness, and your obscurity be as the noonday” (v. 10b). This is the beginning of the “then” statement—God’s promises. If the people do what God outlined in the two “if” statements (vv. 9b and 10a), then they can expect that light will dispel their darkness.
Light is a metaphor for many positive things, such as blessings (Psalm 112:4; Isaiah 9:2) and the word of God (Psalm 43:3; 119:105), and God (Psalm 27:1). Darkness is a metaphor for negative things, such as wickedness (1 Samuel 2:9), imprisonment (Psalm 107:10) and death (Ecclesiastes 11:8). God promises those who are righteous that light will drive out their darkness and the noonday sun will drive out their gloom.
“and Yahweh will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in dry places, and make strong your bones; and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters don’t fail”(v. 11). This verse continues the list of blessings promised to the righteous. It includes God’s guidance, and promises that the righteous will have their needs met even in parched places—a metaphor for any kind of difficult place in life. Making one’s bones strong is a metaphor for good health. Water is mentioned three times as a metaphor for prosperity. This prosperity, however, is not grasping, selfish prosperity, but prosperity akin to a watered garden that furnishes food for many or a spring of water that serves many. Unfailing waters is a metaphor for unending prosperity.
“Those who shall be of you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in” (v. 12). This verse further continues the list of blessings promised to the righteous. This set of blessings has to do with restoring ruins and foundations and streets as well as repairing breaches. These have an immediate application to these people who need to rebuild Jerusalem. God raised up Cyrus to give them freedom to return to Jerusalem, but they have their work cut out for them. This set of promises is that they will be equal to the task.
ISAIAH 58:13-14. IF YOU TURN AWAY YOUR FOOT FROM THE SABBATH
13“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, and the holy of Yahweh honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words: 14then you shall delight yourself in Yahweh; and I will make you to ride on the high places of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father:” for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.
“‘If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, and the holy of Yahweh honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words'” (v. 13). The religious observance here is Sabbath observance rather than fasting, but the same principle applies. Just as people tried to place God under obligation by fasting, so also they have tried to place God under obligation by Sabbath observance. Their observance has not grown out of genuine devotion to God, but has instead been a calculated effort to obtain blessings from God.
This verse, then, has another “if” statement that lays out for them what God wants from them. God wants them to observe the Sabbath as a holy day and not as a selfish attempt to procure something from God.
“‘then you shall delight yourself in Yahweh; and I will make you to ride on the high places of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father:’ for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it” (v. 14). This is the “then” statement that tells them what they can expect if they will fulfill the “if” clause of verse 13. They will not fear the Lord, but will take delight in the Lord’s presence. They will enjoy a thrilling ride through life, and will experience the heritage of Jacob.
The danger is that we might hear God’s promises as another form of works righteousness, so that doing justice would replace fasting as a way of earning rewards from God.
But the blessings that God will bestow on those who manifest these Godly behaviors includes such things as more functional communities and clear consciences.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph, The Anchor Bible: Isaiah 56-66, Vol. 19B (New York: Doubleday, 2003)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
McCann, J. Clinton, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan