A Meditation on Isaiah 58: The Right and Wrong Kinds of Fasting

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“Thou art Dust and unto Dust Thou Shalt Return”

The Wrong Kind of Fasting (vv. 1-5)

Yahweh, the Lord, instructs the prophet Isaiah to declare to his people their sin of separating religion from morality (vv. 1-2). First, Isaiah describes the wrong kind of fasting. Outwardly, the people were fasting, giving the appearance that they were devout, religious (vv. 3a, 5). But inwardly, they were not right with God, because their morality, the way they lived their lives, treating others unjustly, contradicted their religion. As the prophet says,

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (vv. 3b-4, NIV).

Human Exploitation

It is morally wrong, according to Isaiah, for employers to exploit their employees, that is, treating human beings as merely a means to the employers’ ends; using humans, reducing their value to a function of a tool or instrument, only to advance the employers’ purposes; treating employees as things, objects, not persons.

Another aspect of the exploitation of workers is not paying them for their labor and even arguing and entering to fights with them. The laborer has basic human needs, especially the need to care for his or her family. As the Torah, the revealed Law of God to the Jewish people, says,

“14 Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. 15 Pay them their wages … , because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15, NIV).

Exposing Hypocrisy

Isaiah is exposing the people’s double lives, their hypocrisy, living one way before God and another before others. The people’s morality negated the value of their religious practices, so that God did not answer their prayers (cf. vv. 3, 4b). Thus, it is entirely possible, according to the “spirit” of Isaiah, for a religious community to be orthodox theologically; to have places of worship which are, architecturally, awe-inspiring; to practice correctly all the ceremonies of public worship; to be beautiful liturgically, having the finest vestments and gold-plated sacred vessels; but not be pleasing to God; because the form, that is, the outward display of worship, does not correspond with the content, that is, what is in the worshiper’s heart.

The Right Kind of Fasting (vv. 6-12)

Second, the prophet proceeds to describe the right kind of fasting, which is not only directed to oneself but also to others. In other words, fasting or religion pertains to both internal and external acts of devotion to God. Externally, fasting pertains to social justice, that is, opposing injustice and caring for the bodily needs of the economically disadvantaged. In the words of the prophet,

“6 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (vv. 6-7, NIV).

Social Justice

Isaiah is teaching that religion must be profane, which comes from two Latin words: pro, meaning “outside,” and fanus, meaning “temple.” In other words, religion should be taken outside the confines of a building, whether it be a temple or church building, and related to issues of social justice, the right relationships between human beings (v. 6). Issues of social justice are finite reflections of God’s very nature, for he himself is just and delights in just dealings between humans. As Scripture says, “the Lord is righteous, he loves justice” (Psalm 11:7, NIV).

Corporal Works of Mercy

Isaiah is also teaching that religion pertains to corporal works of mercy, which means meeting the body’s needs of human beings (v. 7). Isaiah mentions three of the corporal works of mercy: giving food to the hungry, providing shelter to the homeless and giving clothes to those who need them. Similarly, Jesus identifies himself with the economically distressed, saying,

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:35-36, NIV).

It is, then, for the prophet Isaiah, neither a “liberal” nor a “conservative” issue to help people in need. Rather, it is a human issue and a biblical mandate.

The Blessing for Practicing the Right Kind of Religion

After Isaiah rebukes his people, the prophet emphasizes that God wants to bless them for their right relationships with him and with others. For example, Isaiah writes,

“9b If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. 12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (vv. 9b-12, NIV).

Similarly, the prophet Micah, a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, declares,

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).

Micah summarizes the fundamental religious requirements of human beings. He refers to human beings’ relationships with each other in the phrase “To act justly and to love mercy” and, of course, their relationship with God in the words “to walk humbly with your God.” Because God is just and merciful and human beings are made in his image, they, too, are meant to reflect that image in being just and merciful. Micah’s lesson is the same as Isaiah’s, which is that right religion, one that is acceptable to God, cannot be divorced from morality.

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