Isaiah 58: The Fasting God Chooses

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READ: Isaiah 58 study notes

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Prologue

Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 58 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verses:

Isa. 58:6-8 – Isn’t the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and to not ignore  your own flesh and blood? Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard.

Quick summary:

Isaiah takes to task those who go through the motions of religious observance while at the same time committing sins and promoting corruption. The kind of worship pleasing to God includes a desire to live an upright life and to help the poor and oppressed. It also means setting aside the Sabbath as a time to worship God and delight in Him rather to pursue worldly pleasures.

Take note:

The poor and oppressed are always close to the Lord’s heart. Consider these passages of Scripture:

  • Deut. 24:14-15 – Do not oppress a hired hand who is poor and needy … You are to pay him his wages each day before the sun sets, because he is poor and depends on them. Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be held guilty.
  • Prov. 14:31 – The one who oppresses the poor insults their Maker, but one who is kind to the needy honors Him.
  • Jer. 5:28 – They have become fat and sleek. They have also excelled in evil matters. They have not taken up cases, such as the case of orphans, so they might prosper, and they have not defended the rights of the needy.
  • Amos 2:6-7 – The Lord says: I will not relent from punishing Israel for three crimes, even four, because they sell a righteous person for silver and a needy person for a pair of sandals. They trample the heads of the poor on the dust of the ground and block the path of the needy…
  • Luke 1:52-53 – He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

Fruitless Fasting, Pointless Praying (Isa. 58:1-5)

The Lord instructs Isaiah to proclaim loudly (literally “with throat”) the sins of the nation. He is not to “hold back” but is to raise his voice “like a trumpet” so that all the people of Judah know that God sees and judges their transgressions. Verse 2 describes the outward righteousness of the people as they go to the temple, obey God’s laws, fast, and appear eager to serve the Holy One of Israel. But the Lord, who sees the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), is not impressed with the external trappings of religious rituals. Remember what He tells His people in chapter 1: “What are all your sacrifices to Me? … I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams and the fat of well–fed cattle; I have no desire for the blood of bulls, lambs, or male goats…. Stop bringing useless offerings. I despise [your] incense…. I hate your New Moons and prescribed festivals. They have become a burden to Me; I am tired of putting up with [them]. When you lift up your hands [in prayer], I will refuse to look at you; even if you offer countless prayers, I will not listen” (Isa. 1:11-15). Quoting Isa. 29:13, Jesus offers a similar rebuke to the religious leaders of His day: “These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men” (Matt. 15:8-9).

These are important passages that speak to Christians today. Is our worship a humble response to God’s grace, or is it a self-centered effort to draw attention to us or to curry God’s favor? Warren Wiersbe notes, “When we worship because it is the popular thing to do, not because it is the right thing to do, then our worship becomes hypocritical” (Be Comforted: An Old Testament Study, S. Is 56:9). The Jews are commanded to observe only one fast per year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31), but they are permitted to fast personally at other times. Somehow, the permission to fast devolved into a contest among God’s people to gain His attention. Now they complain that the Lord hasn’t “seen” or “noticed” their fasting. They are showing off their “piety” to God while engaged in pugilistic activities among themselves.

Wiersbe summarizes: “True fasting will lead to humility before God and ministry to others. We deprive ourselves so that we might share with others and do so to the glory of God. If we fast in order to get something for ourselves from God, instead of to become better people for the sake of others, then we have missed the meaning of worship. It delights the Lord when we delight in the Lord” (S. Is 56:9).

True Worship (Isa. 58:6-14)

Fasting is meant to encourage believers to respond positively to God’s commands. As they deprive themselves of certain physical needs – food, sleep, or sexual relations, for example – they are better able to see the weakness of their flesh and to hear God’s voice. Although the citizens of Judah are fasting, they are neglecting the clear instructions from the Lord to care for the less fortunate among them and to treat them as members of their own family who at one time had been slaves in Egypt. In others words, they are missing the point. Fasting should result in self-denial, not self-indulgence. When believers share with others it serves as a reminder that all they own ultimately belongs to God.

Fasting in the Old Testament normally lasts from sunrise to sunset. It is religious in purpose and is undertaken for a variety of reasons: to express grief (1 Sam. 31:13), to demonstrate one’s seriousness when appealing to God (Ezra 8:23), to indicate repentance (Jonah 3:5-10), and to honor the solemnity of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-31). Later generations will add commemorative days to the religious calendar and remember them with fasting (Zech. 8:19). In the days of Jesus, the Pharisees fast each Monday and Thursday (Luke 18:12). Jesus condemns the dirtying of the face to show others than one is fasting, but He does not denigrate the practice. In fact, Jesus appears to have fasted often, including the 40 days before His public ministry (Luke 4:1-2). “Isaiah’s point is that fasting as an expression of piety is of far less concern to God than a righteous lifestyle. Spirituality is shown by the loving quality of our personal relationships (Isa. 58:4) and by our commitment to social justice and to helping the poor and oppressed (Isa. 58:6–7), not by fasting” (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 442).

If the people have an inner righteousness, as opposed to a hypocritical outer righteousness, it will be revealed in acts of charity and justice honored by God. The blessings promised to Israel for obedience are spelled out in Deut. 28:1-14 and include:

  • Exaltation above the nations of the earth
  • Blessings in the city and the country (the entire nation will be blessed)
  • Blessings for descendents
  • Productive soil, livestock and herds
  • Abundant rain and food
  • Victory over enemies
  • Blessings in “everything you do”
  • Establishment as God’s holy people
  • Holding the surrounding nations in awe
  • Many children and animals
  • Being a lender to nations but not a borrower

In Isaiah 40, the Lord promises to reward obedience with light (often a picture of blessing), healing (spiritual restoration), righteousness (high standards), protection from trouble and answered prayer (vv. 8-10). Further, He will give His people guidance, satisfaction, strength, fertility and physical restoration. These are special blessings promised to Israel as God’s chosen people, who are to be a shining testimony of the one true God’s power, wisdom and grace.

For believers today, it’s important to avoid carrying these promises to Israel over into the church. Some Christian leaders today have adopted an entitlement mentality that says in effect, “Because I am a child of the King, and am a joint-heir with Jesus, I may claim my inheritance now – with health, wealth and worldly success.” While this is an attractive point of view to believers who live in a sinful and fallen world, the New Testament nowhere promises Christians a cushy life. Quite the contrary, the Apostles experienced intense persecution, and many suffered martyrs’ deaths. Further, Paul wrote in no uncertain terms that “all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Even so, believers should take heart because our treasure is in heaven and Jesus promises to compensate us for faithfulness with everlasting rewards (see Matt. 6:19-21; Rev. 22:12-14).

Closing Thought

Trent C. Butler writes: “If ritual fasting was simply boosting one’s own religious ego, what was the key to divine blessing? What was acceptable to the Lord? God called for concrete action, helping others in need. Again the emphasis is on overcoming injustice with righteous acts. God does not want anyone under someone else’s yoke. Here is the beginning of the fight against slavery of every kind. God hates oppression. He wants his people to set oppressed people free. God’s people are dedicated to providing the basic needs of life to those who do not own them. We feed the hungry and provide shelter for the poor, homeless wanderer. We clothe those who cannot afford proper clothing, and we make sure we take care of our own flesh and blood” (Holman Old Testament Commentary: Isaiah, p. 334).

4 comments

  1. Margo Johnson

    Thank you for this Bible Study. My Sister text me this scripture and I did not understand why. I have been fasting and this scripture now has me studying it, to make sure that I am in the right standing with God and that I am Worshiping God in Spirit and Truth. This has really open my eyes. Thank you.

    Margo Johnson

  2. Krystal M. Ortega

    Thank you for taking the time to share this Bible study on the true fasting. God bless you:)

  3. Manuels Johnson

    “New Testament nowhere promises Christians a cushy life. Quite the contrary”
    I don’t agree with that part of this write-up, when God blesses someone, common worldly riches cannot be compared. God’s blessings involves all great things. And from there, one can help the afflicted, oppress and the poor more even if persecution could still later be involved in this actions. But above all, God’s blessings is more than ‘cushy’.

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