November 1 – Isaiah 58:1-12


Passage Intro

Last week we looked at the hollow religiosity God’s people have a bad habit of getting into, contrasted with true obedience and faithfulness to God. This week will continue in that vein in Isaiah 58:1-12, where Isaiah draws this contrast through the illustration of a fast, which we typically define only in terms of bodily self-denial (ex. not eating) that affects our individual reality. But Isaiah will call us to a fast that would “let the oppressed go free” and cause “your light to break forth like the dawn,” one that affects others’ reality. 

In this section of the book, Isaiah is wrapping up with some forward anticipation of God’s coming Kingdom, revealing what that Kingdom has in store for us now and calling into question any practices or ways of life that conflict with this picture. Put another way, if our hope is in this future Kingdom then that hope should align our belief and actions now. A study note, keep your eye on who is speaking and being spoken to in this passage. God speaks this whole chapter (he began this speech back in 57:15), and he starts in verse 1 by addressing Isaiah the prophet with, “Lift up your voice.” But the words he tells Isaiah to say are addressed to Israel, the “they” of verse 2. In verse 3 it gets a little confusing; there God quotes Israel, retelling what he has heard them say, “Why have we [Israel] fasted, and you [God] see it not?” So God is speaking this whole time, and aside from verse 1 he is talking directly to his people Israel.

The chapter starts by addressing misaligned belief and actions. Speaking of his people, God says, “They seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness.”(v.2) Here is a nation filled with both prayer and injustice; they claim to seek God in their religious practices, yet the way they behave towards fellow humans betrays their true state. And look at how they bring their complaints to God: “‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?'”(v.3) The irony is plain, they ignore God’s word by mistreating one another and yet complain that God ignores their words in prayer. Meanwhile they use their religiosity to further their own ends (v.3), to pick fights (v.4), or to appear holy before others (v.5). Glaring from the page is just how blind these people are to their empty religious games, which should caution us to examine our own blind spots.

And yet God calls them to something better. “Is not this the fast I choose…” is an invitation to true devotion to God, which inherently leaves us not oppressing other humans but serving them. God’s use of “fast” here is really interesting. Initially he describes the fasting of his people as a showy ritual that leaves them unchanged. One of the purposes of fasting from food is to identify with the poor, who have no food, and remember God’s kindness and mercy towards you. And yet they’ve been oppressing people even while supposedly fasting. Instead, the fast that God would choose for us to do actually do what he tells us to, to free the oppressed, bring the homeless into your home, to feed the hungry, and to clothe the naked. And God’s fast is truly revolutionary; instead of just withholding bread from yourself, you share it with the hungry, because your obedience to God isn’t just for you but for others too.

Here we have two reasons for us to engage in this real fast. The first is that each of these things we’re called to do, God has already done them for us. God has freed you from the oppression of sin, fed you, clothed you, brought you into his household and called you child. God is the epitome of this gracious service, and as God has welcomed us, so we welcome others. Second, look at verse 7, “…when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” According to the Lord, when we see another person, no matter their state, we should see them as ourselves, as our own flesh. From this same idea we get the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, not beneath you or different from you, but of equal worth. This means we actively refuse to see ourselves as better than anyone, a view point that takes real work to employ every day. So we love and serve because God has loved and served us, and because we see ourselves on equal footing to all other people. And let’s be clear, when we read this passage, feeding the hungry and bringing the homeless into your home are not metaphorical. I think this passage should make us think long and hard about ways we are unwilling to let God use us, and realize where we trust our comfort more than the Lord God.

Verses 8-12 gives us the resulting reality when God’s people live according to his word: they stand out as a beacon of God’s righteousness in the world (v.8), God goes from ignoring their prayers (v.3) to hearing their prayers (v.9), and they rebuild what has been lost over time (v.12, a similar theme in 61:1-4). But even with this we need to be careful not to fall into the same trap Israel was falling into at the beginning, imaging that if we do the “right” things God will bless us for our good performance. Our obedience doesn’t secure us the blessings from verses 8-12, it simply aligns us with a gracious God, and when we align ourselves with his word we also align ourselves with the role his people are meant to play in the world, that of a beacon of hope in the midst of darkness.

Questions for Discussion

• Would someone read Isaiah 58:1-12 for us?

• What stands out to you from this passage?

• What is God upset about in this passage?

• What is God calling his people to do in this passage?

• Looking at those things we’re told to do in this passage, how has God done these to you?

• Look at verse 7. What reason does this verse give us for doing this kind of justice?

• According to the passage, what is the result of God’s people doing these things?

• With this passage in mind, what does God want your life to look like on earth?