Isaiah 58:3–14comment (0)
May 18, 2006
By Cecil Taylor
Related Scripture: Isaiah 58:3–14
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Dean, School of Christian Studies, University of Mobile
Isaiah 58:3–14; Micah 6:8
Worthless Worship (Isa. 58:3–5)
Whether God spoke to Isaiah or simply uttered a general command is not clear. “Cry loudly” is literally “cry with the throat,” i.e. shout at the top of one’s voice. The second part of Isaiah 58:1 gave the aim of the message, i.e. the “rebellion” and “sin” of Judah (“house of Jacob”).
They sought the Lord in worship “day day” (the Hebrew doubling means “every day”); they delighted to know His “ways;” they asked Him for “righteous judgments” and acted as if they took pleasure in His presence. All these things they ought to have done. But the problem was that they were merely acting. In truth, they had not done righteousness and had not honored His judgments.
It seemed the Lord was indifferent to their worship: “We fasted but you paid us no attention and humbled ourselves but you did not seem to notice!” Because He had not given what they asked, they thought He had not seen and did not know what they had done in worship. Truth be known, God had seen and did know their actions, but He had not looked on those deeds with favor or known them in the sense of accepting them. Their deeds of worship and devotion did not flow from passionate devotion to Him but were only heartless rituals done mindlessly by rote.
In Isaiah 58:4–5, the Lord explained why He had not accepted their worship. Instead of focusing on God in meditation and being kind to others on fast days, the people of Judah took time for their own pleasure, i.e. relaxing pursuits, while they mercilessly “drove hard” all their workers. Their fasts did not fit their minds for prayer. Instead the fasters became irritable and upset, a mental attitude that led to them “striking with a wicked fist” (literally), perhaps fighting among themselves or, more probably, abusing their workers. Fasting as they practiced it would not get their prayers a hearing “on high,” i.e. by God. In a series of rhetorical questions, the Lord said the worshipers had not worshiped Him properly. The people had contented themselves with rituals indicating humility and repentance, but these rituals amounted to naked nothing because there was no inward humility and true repentance. If anyone thought God liked this kind of worship, he was grossly mistaken.
Acceptable Worship (Isa. 58:6–14, Mic. 6:8)
In a series of questions that demand “yes” answers, Isaiah described the fast the Lord wanted. All the questions in Isaiah 58:6 may refer to the release of unjustly held slaves, but they apply to all oppressed. Release would reflect a heart that delights in the Lord. True fasting is the kind of self-denial that leads to active seeking of the welfare of others. Sharing food, clothing and shelter with the needy from a right heart God also approves.
When God’s people do the right thing, God’s light will break forth, replacing the night in which they otherwise walk. “Healing” will spring forth like a young plant. “Righteousness” and “the glory of the Lord” are parallel expressions, the significance of the first determined by the second. The Lord Himself will move before and behind them, surrounding them with His divine presence.
In Isaiah 58:9, the Lord answered the people’s complaint from Isaiah 58:2–3. The true worshiper must give himself along with his substance because “the gift without the giver is bare.” Those who do this stand under God’s blessing. In Isaiah 58:11, the prophet states the nature of the blessing — the Lord will always lead them, He will satisfy their souls in the dry places of life and He will renew their strength. Also He will make them a blessing, i.e. a watered garden and a never-failing spring. The focus of Isaiah 58:12 is the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the exile group.
It is not that religious observance is unimportant. Isaiah concluded his sermon by calling for ritual observance of the Sabbath. As a dead ritual, it means nothing. As a delight of the heart, it is worship God accepts and for which He blesses worshipers. Isaiah’s contemporary Micah made the same point about sacrifice.