How Can God Use Me When Others Suffer

| Isaiah 58:1-12

Week of January 19, 2020

The Point:  God calls us to stand up for those who suffer from injustice.

 True and False Fasting:  Isaiah 58:1-12.

[1] “Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. [2] Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. [3] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. [4] Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. [5] Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? [6] “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? [7] Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? [8] Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. [9] Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, [10] if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. [11] And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. [12] And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.   [ESV]

“A fast acceptable to Yahweh [58:1-12]. The previous chapter set out the twofold message of divine healing and peace for those who are contrite in heart, on the one hand, and of divine judgment on the wicked, on the other. However, the problem inevitably arises of those who wrongly identify the group to which they belong. This is particularly true of the religious formalist who engages in practices he feels should commend him to Yahweh [58:3], but who lacks heart commitment. He focuses on outward behavior and fails to appreciate that genuine piety requires total inner dedication in love and loyalty to Yahweh. This chapter consists mainly of divine speech in which Yahweh sets out the message He is giving the prophet to convey. This accounts for the switches from first-person to third-person references as Yahweh or the prophet is considered to be the speaker. The religious formalists of Isaiah’s day – and subsequently – are confronted with the inconsistencies of their practice as regards fasting [58:3]. Yahweh’s criteria for acceptable fasting are set out [58:6-9a], along with the blessings that will flow from such behavior [58:9b-12]. A similar analysis is then briefly presented regarding their observance of the Sabbath [58:13-14]. Those who are nominally the people of God are thus called on to abandon merely formal, outward adherence to the standards of the covenant so that they may enjoy to the full the salvation that has been made available for them.

Denunciation of formalism [58:1-5]. The commands in verse 1 are addressed to Isaiah and urge him to fulfil his prophetic commission. Unlike the slumbering watchmen of 56:9-12, he is to cry aloud, projecting his voice far and wide, and is not to hold back from announcing the message of Yahweh. A trumpet (ram’s horn) was used to attract attention over a wide area, in situations both of alarm and of battle, and also to summon to religious festivals. It therefore constituted an appropriate comparison for bold prophetic proclamation [cf. Hosea 8:1; Joel 2:1; Amos 3:6]. Isaiah’s declaration [cf. Micah 3:8] was to consist of denunciation of the Israelites’ transgression … sins, the plural denoting specific shortcomings. Still the message is to my people, which recognizes the covenant relationship and calls for repentance regarding what has gone amiss concerning it. House of Jacob views the community as possessing covenant privileges, but also as struggling to live in a manner that was consistent with their status. Though many modern commentators take the words of verse 2 as describing the approach of those who are genuinely worshiping Yahweh and who go on in verse 3 to complain of His lack of response, it is more plausible, in the light of the initial adversative yet and the comparison as if they were a nation, to read this verse as a critique of behavior which, while outwardly seeming proper and appropriate, lacks an essential dimension. There is a measure of astonishment expressed that those whose sin is to be declared to them still engage in religious exercises, and indeed find fulfilment in doing so. To seek Yahweh is the language of traditional piety, and denotes a desire to enter God’s presence and hear what He has to say. With apparent devotion and without interruption (daily), they took delight in getting to know my ways. Their satisfaction appeared to be as genuine as that of a nation which did righteousness, conducting itself in accordance with divine precepts. Possibly the addition of did not forsake the judgment of their God is more ominous, implying that this is precisely what the Israelites had done with respect to the standards of the covenant. But the people are unaware of any divergence in their behavior from what God requires. The statement that they ask of me righteous judgments indicates either that they seek directions as to how to achieve righteousness or, more probably, that they plead with Yahweh to adjudicate in their favor in their disputes with their enemies. While some repetitions in this chapter (call in 58:1,5,9,12,13 and day in 58:2,3,4,5,13) are just verbal links, the recurrence of delight (twice in this verse and again in 58:3,13) is of thematic significance. Far from neglecting the worship of God, they were eager to approach God and derived satisfaction from engaging in the various ceremonies and activities of the sanctuary. They were sure that they were displaying true piety, and on that basis felt that God should view them with favor. In the first two lines of verse 3 Yahweh cites a complaint which the people had lodged against Him. They had fasted, deprived themselves of food and possibly engaged in other acts of self-abnegation, and they were disappointed that it had not achieved what they wanted. You see it not expresses their frustration that God had not fulfilled what they considered to be His side of the bargain. Humbled ourselves is a term traditionally taken to include fasting. It was prescribed for Israel on only one day in the year, the Day of Atonement [Lev. 16:29], but note also the divine injunctions in Joel 1:14; 2:12,15 at a time of national calamity. Apart from fasting as an individual exercise connected with bereavement or disaster, additional days of communal fasting were observed at later times, and no doubt these were instituted as a means of grieving over what had offended God in their national life and of providing an opportunity for repentance. However, the people complained that Yahweh took no knowledge of what they had done and had not given them what they were seeking. Their thinking was basically pagan in that they felt that fasting earned them kudos with God which would induce, or coerce, Him to act as they wanted. With Behold [3], Yahweh calls the people away from their reading of the situation to a radical alternative which takes in the whole of their conduct. Allegiance to the covenant required appropriate behavior in two spheres: first, as regards Yahweh and, secondly, as regards their fellow members of the covenant. In that those addresses as you … your (plural forms in 58:3-4) employ workers, it is the upper echelons of society that Isaiah has in view. By their conduct they have turned the holy day into a day where they seek their own pleasure. Oppress comes from the same root as that of ‘taskmaster’, or ‘slave driver’, in the Egyptian oppression [Ex. 3:7], and workers are those who toil with painful effort. The picture seems to be that the workers, whether fasting or not, were compelled to maintain their usual work pattern while their employers enjoyed themselves as took their fancy – and all this on a day supposedly of religious self-abasement before Yahweh. Behold [4] again presents an expose of the true situation as regards their fasting. Though the people would not have recognized the description of their conduct, to God it looked as if all they did was designed to achieve strife and contention. Because they had no true perception of self-humiliation before Yahweh, lack of food only served to make them ill-tempered and quarrelsome, ready to hit with a wicked fist. If their goal in fasting was to make their prayers heard by God, they were inevitably going to fail as they displayed no awareness of the essence of covenant relationships. Their attitude in fasting is further probed by questions that look for negative responses [5]. To humble oneself was not inappropriate; however, it was not just a matter of outwardly looking compliant and submissive. Like a reed, something that is easily bent in the wind, may convey the idea of how deeply, or of how thoughtlessly and automatically, they bowed. Sackcloth was a coarse fabric worn in mourning. This might also be accompanied by sprinkling ashes on one’s head. Here the picture seems to be that of lying on a bed of such materials. But, on their own, all these were simply gestures. Did they correspond to genuine inner responses to their situation? So each individual (you is singular) is challenged as to whether such behavior could really constitute fasting and a day acceptable to the Lord. Acceptable is employed in the ritual of sacrifice, and here refers to God’s approval of worship offered to Him.

Fasting defined correctly [58:6-9a]. Fasting is no more rejected out of hand than sacrifice had been earlier [1:11]. The rhetorical question now expects a positive response as it highlights how fasting (or any other religious practice) may be conducted appropriately. Isaiah’s audience would probably have been surprised that Yahweh’s counsel did not mention their specifically religious activities, but focused instead on social reform within the community so as to avoid oppression and exploitation. However, the obligations of the covenant extend beyond ritual observance to require both loving the Lord their God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The bonds of wickedness are unjust and oppressive obligations enforced for improper motives, and again those addressed seem to be in the upper classes of society. If they want to abstain from something for a fast day, let them renounce the unjust hold they exercised over others. Twice mention is made of the yoke, the wooden bar that attached animals to a plough and that was used as a metaphor for political oppression, external or internal [cf. 9:4; 47:6; Lev. 26:13; 1 Kings 12:4]. The straps of leather which bound their fellows to the yoke as though they were mere animals ought to be undone, a verb associated with freeing from prison. Also those held in indentured service because of debt or other personal misfortune should be sent away as if their time of service had ended. The community as a whole should remove all such restrictions on others and allow them their freedom in a way that reflected the ultimate release effected by the Servant [cf. 42:7]. When the period of service of a bond-servant terminated, he was not to be sent away empty-handed. So too the self-denial to be displayed in the true fast should not just affect the status of others, granting them liberty, but those professing to worship Yahweh should be filled with such a spirit that they are personally prepared to meet the immediate need for food, shelter and clothing of the less fortunate members of society. Your own flesh probably refers to their kith and kin, fellow members of the covenant community, rather than to humanity in general. Hide yourself is a way of describing deliberate avoidance of an awkward problem, hoping that someone else will deal with it, or that it will just go away. The switch back to a singular you may well suggest that it is individual charity that is being described here rather than social provision, though one of the clearest instances of behavior in accordance with these norms occurred at the national level [cf. 2 Chron. 28:15]. Then [8] emphatically points to the consequences that will follow such adherence to covenantal norms. You and your remain singular to the end of the chapter. Although in this verse that may point to individual, personal blessing, later in the passage it is more probable that it is the community as a whole that is being addressed. Darkness is the consequence of choosing a lifestyle on the basis of one’s own autonomous and sinful choices, while light is an emblem of salvation, the consummation of Yahweh’s provision for His people. If they commit themselves to Yahweh’s standards, then they will enjoy ample reward. Break forth is used of rapid change, resembling the suddenness of an eastern dawn. Healing is used to describe the growth of new skin over a sore or wound, but spring up is an unusual term to employ in that connection. It may be that there is a deliberate reference back to the springing up of new things [cf. 42:9; 43:19] and that this is seen as a first stage of that process. It is not immediately clear whether your righteousness refers to the status accorded by Yahweh, or to the right conduct that His people pursue. Inasmuch as the imagery reflects that of 52:12 and of the protection afforded by Yahweh to His people at the time of the Exodus, it is preferable to take your righteousness as the right standing He bestows on His people and so, in parallel with the term the glory of the Lord, as referring to His presence and the manifestation of His power and perfection. As their rear guard, He will provide them with the security of his care and protection. It is on this basis that the problem of unanswered prayer may be addressed. When they are living in covenant harmony with Yahweh, He will be present with them and ever ready to respond to their requests. Indeed, the construction used in he will say implies that it is virtually the one action with the preceding you shall cry. There will be no time lapse between the two because the monitoring care of their Shepherd means that He is already aware of their need.

Blessing bestowed [58:9b-12]. The pathway to enjoyment of divine favor is restated, again in terms of the conditions to be observed [9-10] followed by the blessings that will ensue [10-12]. First of all, there must be the removal of all that blemished their public conduct. The yoke from your midst refers to oppressive impositions on members of the community who had fallen on hard times. Pointing of the finger expresses contempt and mockery, possibly making sly suggestions and false allegations. Speaking wickedness is not just a general term for malicious speech, but relates specifically to the kind of speech that undermines or dismisses another person within the community. Yahweh also demands that positive action be taken to address the social needs which are evident around them. Pour yourself out is an unusual expression. Evidently it describes an empathetic compassion expressing itself in practical remedies for the afflicted, rather than a cold, impersonal form of charity. If both the required types of behavior are present, then it will be clear that they are living in terms of the covenant, and Yahweh will not be slow to bless them. Your light is the light that is provided for you, where light is used in a way similar to 58:8. Gloom refers to a time of perplexity, and when this is banished they can see the way ahead as clearly as if it were midday, so that their hope is strengthened and they live in confident expectation of all that Yahweh will provide for them. Yahweh promises to guide … continually as the Shepherd of His flock. If they give to satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then He will repay them in good measure and will satisfy your desire. The description scorched places refers to the most unpromising, harsh and stressful of circumstances. He will not leave His people to endure the heat, but will give respite. More than that, using an opposite idiom to wasting away, it is promised that Yahweh will make your bones strong, which stand for their whole body. Their renewed strength and vitality will make them like a watered garden, one that is artificially irrigated to endure throughout the time of heat. The picture is not one where on the other side of the garden fence lie weeds and rough ground; rather, it is one where the ground outside the fence is parched, arid and utterly unproductive. Comparison with an unfailing spring again pictures endurance under testing. It is a perennial water source, unaffected by lack of rain. So those guided by Yahweh will be able to cope with conditions of spiritual pressure and drought. The emphasis on water reflects the presence of the Holy Spirit, by whom Yahweh transforms His people as well as their environment, and that in a way which never leads to disappointment. The final aspect of the promised reward is that you will be enabled to rebuild sites long since devastated, restoring their foundations and filling in the breaches made in their walls, so that alleyways in cities that had been deserted will once again be lined with houses ready for occupation. The picture of a restored city is a spiritual analogy for recovery from the disruption and desolation caused in human life by the ravages of sin.

Reflection. Worship is not entertainment designed to please the worshippers. It is directed to God and must be acceptable to Him. This requires that it be correct in form and in spirit. Care must be taken that what is done in worship consists only of what God has endorsed as legitimate. Otherwise it is an affront to Him. However, while formalists appreciate that, they rest content with the appearance of godliness [2 Tim. 3:5], and fail to see that acceptable worship is with reverence and awe [Heb. 12:28]. It must be done in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him [John 4:23]. It is by the anointing of the Spirit that the individual renewed for holiness can come acceptably before God to worship Him, and in pleasing Him find true satisfaction and delight. Though not practiced during Christ’s earthly ministry [Matt. 9:14], fasting is still viewed as having a role in the life of the church provided it is done without ostentation [Matt. 6:17-18]. It should be an exercise of repentance [Joel 2:12-13], accompanied by prayer [Dan. 9:3; Joel 2:17].” [Mackay, pp. 450-463].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is the central problem addressed in this passage? Why is God upset with His covenant people? What is the transgression [1] of God’s people?
  2. Why were the people fasting? What did they hope to accomplish with their fasting? Why did God not respond favorably to their fasting? What must the people do in order for God to answer their call [9]?
  3. How should we apply this passage to our worship and service to God today? Note that the suffering and injustice dealt with in this passage is among the covenant people of God which is comparable today to all true believers. How does your church deal with injustice, disagreements and suffering among its members? How are we to treat fellow believers who attend other churches?
  4. Mackay writes: “Allegiance to the covenant required appropriate behavior in two spheres: first, as regards Yahweh and, secondly, as regards their fellow members of the covenant.” Pray that God will convict you of your failures and enable you to be faithful to God in these two spheres.

References:

Isaiah, vol. 2, John Mackay, Evangelical Press.

The Prophecy of Isaiah, J. Alec Motyer, Inter Varsity.

The Book of Isaiah, vol. 3, Edward Young, Eerdmans.