In this essay we are studying chapter 58. Israel’s sin situation laid out in chapter 57 was so serious that God told Isaiah to shout loudly in a voice like a trumpet an announcement about their rebellion and sin. The word translated “trumpet” is shophar. The shophar, usually make from a ram’s horn, was the primary means of getting attention in a Jewish community. It made a very loud, piercing sound. When the shophar was blown, everyone would stop dong what they were doing and pay attention. It could be the sounding of an alarm, or a call to some community activity. In time of war the shophar called the troops to action, etc. So the image of shouting with a voice like a shophar was a strong one. Isaiah was to make the announcement as strongly as possible.
Verse two reveals something important about whom the sinners were. They were people who were seeking God every day, people who believed they were pleasing God. They “practiced righteousness,” at least they thought they did. They kept the ceremonial law; they asked God to work righteous judgments; and they delighted in drawing near to God through their worship. Isn’t that interesting? It’s also a little scary. We are religious people who believe we are pleasing God with our worship. Should this give us pause?
Now then, verses 3-5 give us further insight into their attitude. Before we talk about the content of these verses, let me say a word about fasting. As you know, fasting is to deny oneself something for a certain period of time, usually food. The only required fast day in the Mosaic Law was the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). But individual Jews fasted, and leaders in Israel occasionally called for fast days down through the years (Judg. 20:26; 1 Sam. 7:6, 31:13; 2 Sam. 12:21-23; 1 Kgs. 21:27; Ezra 8:23; Neh. 1:4; Est. 4:16).
Interestingly, in the first part of verse three we see these religious sinners complaining about God: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Do you see their problem? They thought they should be rewarded for their piety. In other words, they did what they did in order to get what they wanted from God. Their piety was a means of manipulating God for their own purposes. At heart, that is paganism. As we know, true biblical religion calls us to surrender our manipulative self-interest and receive from God those blessings he wishes to bestow.
The second part of verse three and verses 4-5 give us God’s perspective on the matter. We could even say it is his response to the complaint. “Look you serve your own interest (literally “desire”) on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” Now the situation becomes even clearer to us. These people are very religious; they engage in a lot of pious activity; but they only do it to get their own way; and the fact that they oppress their workers indicates that their religion doesn’t touch the rest of their lives.
Isaiah is using hyperbole in verse four. And the listeners probably were shocked and offended by his charge that they fasted in order “to quarrel and fight.” Of course they would deny fasting in order to promote strife. But Isaiah made his point. Unfortunately scholars are not entirely sure what the point was. The most likely suggestion is that God was saying through Isaiah that their mistreatment of the poor negated their pious acts. That’s why their fasting did not make their “voice heard on high.” I wonder how many Christians think that their pious activities are pleasing God, while their actions in life prove them wrong.
Now then, having set forth the people’s idea of fasting and part of God’s response, God continues his response through Isaiah in verses 6-12. In these verses God declares that his vision of fasting, in contrast to that of Israel, includes loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing food with the hungry, finding shelter for the poor (see NIV), clothing the naked, and not hiding from their “own flesh and blood” (NIV). In other words, they should be helping other people rather than abstaining from food.
The last clause of verse seven literally reads “your flesh.” Scholars debate whether it means their “kin” or relatives (NRSV), or whether it means other people generally (NIV). It’s one of those “pay your money and take your choice” situations.
Notice in verses 8-9a that there are four positive consequences of doing the kind of “fasting” that God wants them to do, namely helping others, especially the poor. First, their light would “break forth like the dawn.” Light penetrates into and dissipates darkness. Of course the Lord was talking about spiritual light and darkness here.
Second, their healing would “spring up quickly.” Again I think the emphasis in Isaiah’s mind would have been spiritual healing, but all kinds of healing would be part of it.
Third, their “righteousness” would go before them. The Hebrew word literally means “righteousness,” or “righteous one.” So I’m not sure why the NRSV translators used “vindicator,” with a note offering “vindication as an alternative. Translating it as “righteous one” opens up the possibility of a reference to the Lord himself, in which case the Lord would be the vanguard and the “glory of the Lord” the rear guard. Notice the Exodus imagery. But scholars generally agree that the reference is to the people’s righteousness in the sense of the good works that would lead to these benefits.
Finally fourth, we see the most significant benefit of all. The presence of God would be with them. The Lord would answer their calls for help and be there for them.
Verses 9b-10a tell us what we should do. Some of it is repetitious of what we saw in verses 6-8. We must remove the yoke of oppression; we must stop mocking one another (that’s the finger-pointing), and stop the malicious talk (NIV). In other words, the poor must no longer be seen as objects of scorn and contempt. They must be seen as persons of worth and dignity. Offering food to the hungry is mentioned once again. If we will do these things instead of depriving ourselves of food, then our light will rise, the Lord will guide us; he will satisfy our needs, and he will strengthen our bones, meaning our bodies. Indeed we will become like a watered garden and a spring of water. In other words we will produce an abundance of gifts to share with others, and we will overflow with the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit.
Verse 12 mentions another benefit. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt.” At one level Jerusalem is meant. Cyrus rebuilt it in the sense of permitting it to happen and providing some support (45:13). But the Jews did the actual work. At a deeper level, this points to the restoration and rebuilding of their spiritual lives. And it is at that level we can apply it to our lives.
In verses 13-14, Isaiah turns to the subject of Sabbath Keeping. This proves that the main issue of the chapter is not fasting per se. The main issue is what pleases God. Sabbath keeping was another example of religious ceremony, like fasting. And like fasting, it had to be done for the right reasons. They were to honor the Sabbath in order to worship God and surrender their lives to him, rather than do it to try to manipulate God for their own purposes. Verse 14 ends the chapter by declaring that if they would do this for the right reasons, they would “delight in the Lord,” they would “ride upon the heights of the earth,” a poetic way of saying they would be with the Lord; and they would enjoy the heritage of their ancestor, Jacob, which ultimately means eternal salvation.