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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 58

Verse 1

(The beginning of Section C of Division VI (Isaiah 58-66)

As Kidner observed, "God's trumpet call to the formalists is related to the previous indictment in Isaiah 57:1-13";[1] and this indicates that the period of Isaiah's own times and reaching down to the captivity is the historical era to which the chapter evidently refers. Hailey, a very dependable scholar, agreed with this, and fixed the period after the invasion of Sennacherib (that is, in the times of Manasseh) as the times visible in this chapter, stating that, "This is the most reasonable of the theories."[2] Barnes' analysis indicated that this prophecy applied to, "the reign of Manasseh, at or near the time of one of the public fasts; and the fact that the external rites of religion were observed among the abominations of that wicked reign led to the severe reproof here."[3]

Most of the writers, however, it appears to us, missed the real reason for the denunciations here. Barnes thought that the rebuke was, "of their formality and hypocrisy";[4] and Archer supposed that it was due to the failure of the Jews to conform their lives to the moral requirements of true religion, writing that, "No religious observance has value (in the eyes of Jehovah) that is not supported by a godly law-abiding life."[5]

As they stand, such opinions are true enough, except that they do not address the principal reason for God's vehement denunciations. And what is that? It is simply this, "that God had never commanded all of those fasts the people were having!" The only fast God ever commanded the Jews to observe was that on the day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31); and all the rest of their many fasts were purely of human origin with no divine authority or sanction whatever.

Of course, the critical community, hunting some excuse to date these chapters after the exile, point out that the Pharisees of Jesus' times fasted "a hundred times in the year" (twice a week, Matthew 9:14); but this habit of Israel's multiplying the number of their fasts was going on long before the times of the return from Babylon, as witnessed by Zechariah 7:7. The prevalence of that habit cannot be divorced from the times of Manasseh.

In view of these facts, therefore, we believe that the great sin of Israel was their departure from the Word of God in the multiplication of their fasts. Of course, we also admit their formality and hypocrisy in this; but even if they had been "sincere," which Rawlinson believed many of them were,[6] God would never have approved and accepted all of those man-commanded fast days. There are many people of our own times today who are perfectly sincere and faithful in following human forms and systems of worship who stand in the same jeopardy as did those whom God so severely condemned here. Men simply do not have the right, or the authority, to change what God has required of his human servants.

The continued strong evidence of Isaiah's authorship of all of Isaiah should not be overlooked here. As Cheyne noted, "Hoffman in particular uses this chapter as evidence of Isaiah's authorship."[7]

This is the beginning of Section 3 of Division VI of Isaiah, and Douglas professed to have found a three-fold division of this section, three chapters each, corresponding to admonitions connected with, "The kingly office of Christ in Isaiah 58-60, his priestly and prophetic offices in Isaiah 61-63, and with the final messages of Jehovah in Isaiah 64-66."[8] Such divisions do not appear very distinct to this writer, and they have not proved to be very helpful.

Isaiah 58:1-3

"Cry aloud, spare not, lift tip thy voice like a trumpet, and declare unto my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways: as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God, they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near unto God. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find your own pleasure, and exact all your labors."

"Voice like a trumpet ..." (Isaiah 58:1). One would not warn a man that his house was on fire in a soft casual voice. Isaiah was here commanded to deliver this warning in a manner consistent with the urgency of it. We wonder if some of the soothing, casual, and conversational voices of many of our modern preachers should not be more consistent with the urgency of the Divine call to repentance.

Isaiah 58:2 states that Israel were transgressors and sinners "as a nation, etc.," "as if they were a nation" that did righteousness and had not forsaken the ordinance of their God. Note the singular "ordinance." What was it? It was that single fast that God had commanded on the day of Atonement! That is precisely the thing they had omitted in favor of all kinds of fasts proclaimed by their false leaders. God's further word in Isaiah 58:3 notes that, "In the day of your fast (not mine), ye find your own pleasure, and exact all your labors." Some have applied this to the exaction imposed upon servants by their masters; but we fail to see how "your labors" can be applied to servants, as they have not been mentioned here. We believe the reference is to all the work and bother that the hypocritical Jews were going about in order to observe their own fast days, while neglecting God's one sacred fast day on the day of Atonement. Adam Clarke thought the reference meant that, "Some disregarded the most sacred fast (the day of Atonement); but obliged their servants to work all day long (on that day), in numberless cases, having changed the fast day into feast day!" See Footnote No. 15.

Many of the things written about the situation here are in error because they are founded upon the mistake that God is not concerned with anything except social justice. It is very significant here that the very first sin God mentions is their neglecting "God's ordinance." Of course, God is also concerned with social justice; but all social justice, in the final analysis, derives from honor paid to the Word of God and the holy worship He has commanded.

Verse 4

"Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness; ye fast not this day so as to make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I have chosen? the day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down as a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Jehovah? Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?"

"Ye fast for strife and contention ..." (Isaiah 58:4). Barnes quoted the Syriac version here which rendered the place, "In the day of your fasting, you indulge your lusts, and draw near to all your idols."[9] The strife and contention associated with those ancient fasts could have been with reference to the "new religion" of the day that the leaders had introduced to replace the old. Also, there could have been instances like that described in Philippians 1:15, in which men actually preached the gospel through envy and strife.

"Ye fast not this day so as to make your voice heard in high ..." (Isaiah 58:4). This means, "You do not keep the day of Atonement, as God has commanded," because that is the only possible day, the observance of which, was able to cause one's voice to be heard "on high." Note too the singular designation of it in the next verse, and the purpose of the day "to afflict the soul." Note also that God is speaking of the "day I have chosen," the day of Atonement being the only fast day God commanded.

"Is it to spread sackcloth and ashes under him ..." (Isaiah 58:5)? The question that follows this question requires a negative answer; and the meaning is that they were sitting on sackcloth and ashes when they required their servants to provide them a feast; and they called that a fast!

Isaiah 58:6 indicates that there were widespread violations of the requirements of social justice, which should have resulted from the "afflictions" and meditations of the day of Atonement; but that day was not being observed in the manner God commanded.

Verse 7

"Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out into thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of Jehovah shall be thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and Jehovah will answer; thou shalt cry, and he will say, Here I am."

Here is a beautiful description of what composes true righteousness. It is shaft ng one's bread with the hungry; it is bringing the homeless, the dispossessed poor, into one's house; it is clothing the naked, etc. The great fault of the human race is that people who have plenty frequently have faces of flint toward the poor, hungry, helpless and downtrodden of the earth.

"Is it not to deal thy bread ..." (Isaiah 58:7). This means, "Is not the affliction, fasting, and worship of God in such services as the day of Atonement for the purpose of causing one to be thoughtful and concerned for the less fortunate, and leading to their relief provided by the worshippers of God?

Verse 9

"If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thine obscurity be as the noonday; and Jehovah will guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in dry places, and make strong thy bones; and thou shalt be as a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places; thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and Thou shalt be called the Repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in."

Here is a continuation and enlargement upon what has already been stated. "The yoke" refers to burdens and oppressions imposed upon the less fortunate; "pointing the finger" is a reference to accusations against others; and enough of this type of evil can destroy any society on earth, or any church.

"Draw out thy soul ..." (Isaiah 58:10). "This means to impart of thy own substance to those in need."[10]

"Light in darkness ... Jehovah will guide thee ... satisfy thy soul in dry places ... make strong thy bones ... etc." All of these are promises of the wonderful blessings of God for those who will heed his word. The watered garden and the spring with unfailing waters are also metaphors of the same gracious blessings.

"Thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations ..." (Isaiah 58:12). "The literal and spiritual restoration of Israel is meant by this; and it was prophesied that by this means marvelous results would be produced in the whole Gentile world."[11] These marvelous developments never occurred, because Israel refused to be restored spiritually, becoming instead a bitter enemy of the Messiah and opposing the preaching of his gospel with every device they could muster, including violence, murder, political intimidation, and mob violence. This was no denial of the great prophecy here. Note that tremendous IF that stands at the beginning of Isaiah 58:9b!

We believe that Rawlinson was wrong in his supposition that the returning Israelites from captivity would be the ones who would repair the breach and restore the old paths in which to dwell.[12] Man's sin is such a weight that no nation can lift itself into a state of restoration. These words point to the Messiah

Verse 13

"If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, and the holy of Jehovah honorable, and shall honor it, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words; then shalt thou delight thyself in Jehovah; and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father, for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it."

Again, notice that all-important IF standing at the head of Isaiah 58:13. The multiple requirement is (1) that Israel must stop doing "their own thing" on the sabbath day; (2) they must stop teaching and parroting the words of men (their own words) and begin honoring God's Word; (3) they are commanded to call the sabbath day honorable, and a delight; (4) they must actually honor the sabbath, not merely refer to it as honorable; and (5) they must actually do the things God commanded on that day.

This mention of the sabbath day positively identifies this chapter as directed to the pre-exilic generations from Isaiah and to the captivity; because Israel "could not have observed the sabbath" during the captivity. In fact the whole captivity was considered as a "sabbath" replacing the 490 years that the Israelites had skipped the observance of the sabbatical years. This recurrence of the "sabbath theme" in Isaiah is also absolutely Isaianic, being fully in accord with the plan of his prophecy, "here a little, there a little, line upon line, line upon line," etc. (Isaiah 28:10,13). See Isaiah 56:2,4,6 for my comments there.

"I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth ..." (Isaiah 58:14). This has not happened to the Israelites in subsequent generations from this prophecy; and the answer lies totally in the two IF's in Isaiah 58:9:b and Isaiah 58:13. On the other hand, the Jews have suffered more terrible persecutions than any other people who ever lived on earth, even down to the current century.

From 2 Chronicles 36:21, we learn that the sabbatical years had not been observed during the period of the later monarchy; and it would appear from Isaiah's commandments here that even the observance of the weekly sabbath had been neglected.[13]

None of the Old Testament references to the sabbath should be understood as binding upon Christians; however, it appears to us that it would be in keeping with the Word of God for the Lord's Day to be honored with the same love, devotion, and worship which was supposed in the Old Testament to have been given to the sabbath day. The necessity for providing rest for man and beast, as well as the weekly observance of worship and devotion were a much better condition than that provided by the mad pursuit of pleasure, sports, and so-called recreation on the part of the current godless generation. The people of this generation have legislated the Lord's Day into a day of work instead of a day of worship, apparently ignorant of how it required three centuries of Christian fidelity to God's law of worship on Sundays to win, under Constantine, the right of assembly on that day, at any other hour, than before daylight! We are very sure that future generations will pay dearly for this lack of responsibility on the part of our own.

Bishop Andrews once commented on the proper observance of the sabbath day, and applied it to the Lord's Day, which he erroneously called, "the Christian Sabbath." The application, however, we believe to be appropriate.

"To keep the sabbath in an idle manner is the sabbath of oxen and asses; to keep the sabbath in joviality (pleasure, sports, etc) is the sabbath of the golden calf; and to keep it in immorality, drunkenness, and licentiousness is the sabbath of Satan, the devil's holiday."[14]

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 58". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.