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2. The relationship of righteousness and ritual chs. 58-59
The structure of this section is similar to that of the previous section of the book (chs. 56-57). First, Isaiah depicted true religion (ch. 58); second, the people’s failure (Isaiah 59:1-15 a); and third, God’s action for His people (Isaiah 59:15-21).
What God wants ch. 58
Again Isaiah presented the folly of simply going through a system of worship without changing one’s attitudes and conduct, especially in relationships (Isaiah 1:10-20; cf. Zechariah 1; Matthew 5-7). In chapter 1, God threatened His people with destruction if they did not change. Here He promised them blessing if they did change. The difference is due to His provision of the Servant. God appealed to redeemed people to change.
". . . the religion which is exposed here rests on Canaanite rather than Yahwistic principles. The essence of Canaanite religion was to put the gods under pressure to perform their functions (hence, for example, what we would call orgiastic rites designed to stimulate Baal to acts of fertility). . . . The essence of Israelite religion, however, is response. Not doing things to influence the Lord but doing them to obey him; not works looking for reward but faith acting in obedience." [Note: Motyer, p. 478.]
The transgressions and sins that the Lord called Isaiah to proclaim to His people were so serious that the prophet needed to grab their attention with loud announcements. The name "the house of Jacob" calls attention to the Jacob-like quality of the nation that God would expose, namely: the people’s attempts to manipulate God.
False worship 58:1-5
Many of the Israelites were relying on their practice of the Mosaic rites to satisfy God. The true meaning of the rites had not affected their lives. God intended the system of worship He prescribed to illustrate the importance of a heart relationship with Himself that should affect interpersonal relationships. This pericope exposes the superficial attitude of many of God’s people with strong irony.
Even though the Israelites sinned, they sought the Lord constantly and inquired concerning His ways. They claimed to be a righteous people who had observed the Mosaic Law carefully. They asked God for justice, and they delighted in the thought that He was near them.
They could not understand why God had not blessed them-because they had fasted and humbled themselves (cf. Malachi 3:13-15). The only fast that the Mosaic Law commanded was on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:26-32). But the Israelites also fasted voluntarily, even in Isaiah’s day. [Note: On the practice of fasting, see Kent D. Berghuis, "A Biblical Perspective on Fasting," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:629 (January-March 2001):86-103.] The reason God had not blessed them was that when they fasted, they did not demonstrate the attitudes and activities that fasting represented. They did not really sacrifice their own desires, and they continued to treat other people inconsiderately. They pursued their personal interests and worked when they fasted, and they insisted that their employees keep on working. They were practicing religious ritual to try to manipulate God into blessing them.
"But repentance is not for the purpose of getting God to do anything; it is an expression of the conviction that my ways are wrong and God’s ways are right, whether he does anything for me or not." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 497.]
The spiritually insensitive Israelites did not consciously fast so they could be contentious and strive and beat each other up, but these were the results of their fasts. Fasting made them grouchy and belligerent, and they took these sinful feelings out on their neighbors. It would have been better for their neighbors if they had not fasted at all. These religious hypocrites were really fasting for reasons other than mourning over their sinfulness.
This was not the type of fasting God approved (cf. Isaiah 1:11; Psalms 51:16-17; Luke 18:9-14). It consisted only in His people bowing their heads, not their hearts. Bowing the head like a reed expresses formal worship, like a reed automatically bending in response to wind. The people sat in sackcloth and ashes, but they did not really mourn over their disobedience to the Lord. They thought their outward fasting, bowing, dressing, and adorning were more important than their attitudes and behavior, though they probably did not realize it and certainly did not admit it (cf. James 1:27; James 4:8).
"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." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 66.]
The type of fasting that pleases God is: giving up wickedness, oppression, enslavement, and binding of other people-not just food. Isaiah did not mean, of course, that God had no concern about His people going without food (cf. Leviticus 16:31). The prophet was going to the opposite extreme to make a point (cf. Isaiah 1:10-20; Amos 5:25-27; Micah 6:6-8; Luke 14:26).
"If they want to deprive themselves, let them do it for the sake of the oppressed, the needy, and the helpless, not for the sake of their own religiosity. God’s nature is to give himself away to those who can never repay him. There is no clearer evidence of the presence of God in a person’s life than a replication of that same behavior." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 503.]
God wants people to be free. That is why He sent the Servant, and that is why He liberated the Israelites from Egypt and Babylon. He wants His people to set others free, too.
"To loose the chains of injustice/’fetters of wickedness’ points to the need to labour for the abolition of every way in which wrong social structures, or wrongdoers in society, destroy or diminish the due liberty of others. To untie the cords of the yoke refers to the need to eliminate every way in which people are treated like animals." [Note: Motyer, p. 481.]
True worship 58:6-14
Isaiah contrasted God’s conception of fasting with that of His people (cf. Matthew 6:16-18).
Likewise, helping the poor is more important than helping oneself. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked are more important to God than living well oneself. What is the point of fasting if we do not give what we would eat to others? Self-denial should be for others, not for oneself (cf. Matthew 25:35; Luke 3:11; Luke 10:31-32; Hebrews 13:2).
"No religious observance has value for Jehovah that is not supported by a godly, law-abiding life, and compassion towards those in need." [Note: Archer, p. 650.]
This type of reality would produce many good consequences. Light would dispel the Israelites’ darkness. They would recover their spiritual wholeness quickly. Their righteousness (God Himself) and their right conduct (cf. Isaiah 56:1) would precede them, and God’s glory would protect them. The piling up of blessings for repentance is clear in the "then . . . and" lists in Isaiah 58:8; Isaiah 58:10-12; Isaiah 58:14.
The Lord would hear their prayers, and they would enjoy His presence (cf. Isaiah 58:1-3). Making self the focus of life, in contrast, results in darkness (cf. Isaiah 5:20; Isaiah 8:20; Isaiah 47:5; Isaiah 60:2), disease (cf. Isaiah 1:5), defeat (cf. Isaiah 1:7), and separation (cf. Isaiah 1:4). For these blessings to come, God’s people needed to stop oppressing others, and to stop mocking and showing contempt for others with wicked speech (cf. Isaiah 57:4; Isaiah 66:5). Notice the "if . . . then" constructions in Isaiah 58:9-10; Isaiah 58:13-14. It is possible that "the pointing of the finger" may refer to being critical of others who are not as socially sensitive as oneself. [Note: Motyer, p. 482.]
Positively, God’s people needed to alleviate hunger in others (more than creating it in themselves by fasting), and to pour out their lives for others. Then they would have light, even in gloom, because God would be with them, and God is light (cf. 1 John 1:5).
God would also guide and sustain His people in their desert experiences. Strong bones contrast with bones that tremble or waste away because of fear, sorrow, or guilt. Physical health is often a byproduct of spiritual health (cf. James 5:15-16). Truly repentant people will also be a pleasant source of delight, encouragement, and nourishment to others (cf. Isaiah 1:30). They will refresh others, as well as themselves, because God, the source of life within them (cf. John 4:14; John 7:37-39), will manifest Himself through them.
True worshippers would also rebuild what their sin had previously torn down. This refers not only to the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem and Judah following the exile. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 276.] It also refers to the Promised Land in the Millennium and to the restoration of other types of "ruins" caused by sin.
The remaining two verses continue the explanation of true worship begun in Isaiah 58:6, but they also conclude this chapter by returning to consider proper response to a specific aspect of the Mosaic legislation, namely: Sabbath observance.
If the Israelites practiced the Mosaic legislation with the right attitude and applied it properly to their lives, God would be pleased. Isaiah was not saying the Mosaic legislation was wrong, only that the legislation as his audience was practicing it was not pleasing to God. They were obeying to further their own selfish purposes. They should have obeyed to further God’s purposes out of love for Him (cf. Matthew 6:10). For the Israelites, Sabbath observance was best suited to teach this lesson. The Sabbath day provided an opportunity for them to reorient themselves to spiritual reality once a week. It was not a fast but a feast day.
"The Lord is more interested in enjoyment of his blessings through obedience than in self-imposed deprivations." [Note: Motyer, p. 483.]
"Turn your foot" means walk away from.
Turning from a false approach to the Sabbath, and all the Law, would mean turning to the Lord with the proper attitude of delight. Then the Israelites would experience the exaltation of being His partners and would enjoy the inheritance promised to their all-too-human ancestor Jacob (cf. Isaiah 58:1). If they would give themselves to God and others rather than pursuing selfish goals, they would experience personal and national fulfillment and receive His rewards. This was a promise from the mouth of Yahweh.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 58". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
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