The Watchdog Barks

Introduction: Chapters 54-56 give numbers of glorious promises of the saving mercy of God and the expansion of his kingdom throughout the world. The end of chapter 56 warns of irresponsible and unwatchful watchmen. Chapter 57 describes a person who, unwarned of the evil that comes, wanders from righteousness into sordid sin. Into this slough of sin divine grace comes and rescues the sinner, brings to him or her contrition and humility (57:15). “For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry” (57:16) God will, by his grace, create “the praise of the lips” (57:19).


I. A Call to Preach with Power – Isaiah, however, is not to be a blind watchman or a mute dog. He sees what God shows him and speaks with vigor and conviction about the nature of true contrition and true delight.

A. Verse 1) – The importance of the message is to be reflected in the sound of the voice. The prophet must insist on being heard for the eternal state of men and the glory of God constitute the subject of preaching. He is to cry loudly. The effect should be that of a trumpet blown to assemble for battle.

B. He does deal with subtleties or circumlocutions but in a straightforward and unmistakable tone of denouncement speaks of transgressions and sins. The message will not be devoid of encouragement, but no encouragement will be given apart from a confrontation with insincere worship and selfish dealings with neighbors and the poor. Among the large number of instructions Paul gave to Timothy we read his admonition: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). The age is too evil, the heart is too corrupt, and the outcome is too significant for instruction in sin and righteousness to be done with nonchalance.


II. A Form of godliness without the power -Verse 2 gives a picture of a people who had looked to every external requirement of worship and were seeking punctilious conformity. They conducted themselves in a way that showed they were completely oblivious to their serious departures from holiness, true worship, and social righteousness. While they are being rebuked for transgression, “Yet they seek me . . . as a nation . . . that has . . . not forsaken the ordinance of their God.” They feign a desire for justice and nearness to God. Like those against whom Paul warned Timothy, they had a “form of godliness” while they denied its power (2 Timothy 3:5). Jesus warned against the same kind of religiosity that had no true holiness, an external conformity to traditions and religious forms with no intent of love for God and man. In Matthew 23 Jesus issued 7 warnings beginning “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” with the general pattern of reprimand fitting the statement in verse 28, “So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”


III. A self-righteous expectation (3a) – They felt that the show of religion should gain recognition from the Lord. The had no sense that all of their supposedly righteous acts of external religiosity were corrupt, filled with offensive moral smells, and like filth before God. They did not grasp that God’s saving acts are from pure grace, that we do not lay claim on blessings from any merit of ours. They wanted to hold God captive to their performance. “Why have we fasted and you do not see?” We have been humble, but you have not noticed. Sham humility is the height of arrogance. Matthew Henry noted, “Reigning hypocrisy often breaks out in daring impiety and an open contempt and reproach of God and religion for that which the hypocrisy itself must bear all the blame of.”


IV. An admixture of evil and feigned good (3b-5)– They completely missed the purpose of the fast, both those commanded by God and those that might be pursued voluntarily.

A. God lays bare the contradiction between their fast and their action. On the day of fasting they also pursue their own pleasure. Perhaps they looked at their religious exercises like those who complained in Malachi when they said, “O what a weariness” (Malachi 1:13). When they fast, they require extraordinary toil on the part of their workers. They seek to impress with religious exercises while they are merciless toward their servants and also impatient in their hearts with the exercise. Their hearts are set on a future pleasure, just enduring the religious duty until it is over. They have no delight in sensing the presence and holiness of God nor joy in the well-being of their neighbors.

B. He exposes the impotence of even their extensive attempts at showing fervency. He bows his head “like a reed,” he spreads out sackcloth. The prophets of Baal cut themselves till their blood gushed (1 Kings 18: 28) in pursuit of seeing the intervention of their god; but no one was there. The travesty of misplaced religious exercise is no more potent in pagan worship than it is in insincere, heartless, hypocritical attempts to appear genuinely pious. Jesus gave a vivid picture of this kind of fast: “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:16).


V. The ceremony of the fast and the goodness of the second table (6, 7) – Fasting should promote the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

A. Fasting is to indicate a heart willingness to forsake one’s personal comfort and public esteem for the sake of those who are in need, those who are victims of injustice, and those who are under a yoke of oppression. Wash your face, and dress fittingly while you fast, and become active in seeking a flourishing situation for your neighbor.

B. Fasting should drive us to concentrate less on our personal prosperity and more for the safety and well-being of others. “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9).

  1. Fasting should prompt us to find those who do not have food, whose every day is an involuntary fast, and help furnish them with it. It is not merely to abstain from eating, but to give what you would have eaten to another.
  2. Fasting is to take action to help the homeless find shelter or make one’s own home the shelter they need. Hebrews reminded its readers, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
  3. Fasting should drive us to find those who need clothing and provide it for them. Fasting should remind us that Jesus taught, “Therefore, do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31 -33). Fasting should help us cultivate the words of Paul, “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content,” and to count true godliness as great gain (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
  4. Fasting involves increasing the concern that we have for our “own flesh.” We must make sure that in all legitimate ways our families are secure. This can be done in a way consistent with godliness and consistent with the need to share. God’s providence gives us greater or lesser responsibility according to different spheres of closeness in responsibility. “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5: 8).


VI. Results of true righteousness (8-9a) – True repentance brings an immediate sense of truth (“your light will break out”) and spiritual recovery will be sensibly known. “Your righteousness will go before you.” This is not the absolute righteousness by which we are justified through imputation, but the true, though relative, righteousness of one who is heartily pursuing obedience to God’s law. The change results in a love of the law of God and a recognition that its demands will always require more energetic application of zeal for truth and righteousness (Psalm 119:34-40, 47, 96). Given such transformation, the glory of God no longer will be our fear but will be our joy and our protection. The penitent will find the Lord to be a prayer-hearing God (9a; Luke 18:13, 14).


VII. The Operation of grace in the repentant (9b-14). When the fast is observed in the spirit of Christ’s own humiliation, when we emulate the mind of Christ in giving himself to others, we find grace operative in the heart and the actions of the true fast are accompanied by the blessings of God for true spiritual benefit.

A. The specifics of repentance

  1. Eliminate oppression. Not all servitude is unjust or oppressive (1 Timothy 6:1, 2). But many abuses may accompany the relation of servant, or slave, and master. Abuses are unholy and will shut off the blessing of God. Carelessness in this matter indicates weakness in matters of grace or absence of it.
  2. Do not engage in false accusation. “Pointing the finger and speaking wickedness” in order to accuse someone unjustly results in divine judgment. Grace will give a person a desire for truth, for true confession and repentance of one’s own sins, and will minimize pointing out the faults of others. If one is caught in transgression, no spirit of self-righteousness or finger-pointing should be part of his restoration. The person should be restored “in a spirit of gentleness” watching oneself “lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).
  3. Be ready to help the needy (10a). As already given in clear admonition (verse 7), true religion is not a mere external display of religious acts. It has to do with personal contentment and purity which flows into a care for others. James reminded his congregation “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
  4. “Call the Sabbath a delight.” (13) Using the time that God has set aside in his law for true worship and transformation of life by the truth results in gracious blessings in the things that matter eternally.
  • The sabbath under the old covenant drew attention to the work of God in creation (Exodus 20:8). It was for national observance and civil penalties accompanied its violation (Exodus 19:1, 2, 30; 31:12-17). Here God promised great spiritual blessings to those who ceased from their own ways, their own pleasures, their own words to find deeper delight in the words, ways, and pleasures of God.
  • Under the new covenant we are drawn to the rest from sin, guilt, and condemnation given by God in the redemption purchased by Christ (Hebrews 3:14; 3:9, 10, 11). That rest is given us in the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, the seal of a new creation, the first day of the week ( Luke 24:1; John 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). Though civil arrangements are different, the Christian should see the Lord’s Day as filled with spiritual promise. It is a commandment designed to increase spiritual delight in the word, ways, and pleasure of God.

B. The Refreshment of grace

  1. Darkness of mind and heart will give way to light (10b & cf 8a). When the fast is seen in its true spiritual intent, light will rise in darkness. The darkness of sin and ignorance will be dispelled by truth and forgiveness. “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Paul told the Gentile Christians, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). Light from revelation dispels the darkness of ignorance of God. The light of regeneration brings the glory of God to our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6).
  2. You will find continual spiritual refreshment. For those who grasp the meaning of the fast, they will not find themselves hungry and thirsty but will find perpetual refreshment in the knowledge of God, the forgiveness of trespasses, and the hope of eternal life. They will find living water (John 4) and the bread from heaven (John 6) to suffice for all needs. They will be like a “watered garden” and find the fulfillment of their desire in a scorched land, a land destitute of the knowledge of God.
  3. They will rebuild Jerusalem (12). Those who find this grace of true desire for the knowledge of God will be among those who return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and the temple. They would be among those upon whom the refreshing power of the Law of God came after the walls had been rebuilt (Nehemiah 8:8-10).
  4. You will take delight in the Lord (14) – The true indication of the blessings of grace is that a people take delight in the Lord. They praise him and love to do so. They find the prospect of continual praise to the triune God in heaven in the presence of his glory to be the sum of all delights and the one fully satisfying thing that will never cease.
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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