Exposition of the Text
The pericope of Isaiah 58:1-14 is an exhortation-laden oracle denouncing Israel’s lack of spiritual perspicuity and their penchant to acquiesce to pagan cultic rituals as a method to coerce God into action. Through the prophet Isaiah, God declared that a complete dénouement to such behavior was a precursor to the renewal of a covenant relationship with their Creator. If Israel was to experience the benefits and blessings of the covenant, a cessation of a form of godliness was in order. True godliness, according to Isaiah 58, must evince a concern for the poor and downtrodden, a rejection of selfish motives, and a delight in the original intent of the Sabbath. Isaiah 58 evinces the need for the people of God to reevaluate their relationship with both God and their fellow man. Additionally, it reiterates an ongoing message in Isaiah’s prophetic discourse; God desires obedience rather than sacrifice.
Matthew 22:37-40 states the entirety of the Law and the Prophets hinges on loving God and loving others. The Isaiah 58:1-14 pericope reveals that attempts to manipulate God through selfishly motivated acts of piety, while having the appearance of probity, are repulsive to God. As noted by John Walton, the Israelite’s attempts at godliness were “selfish and oppressive. Instead of their religion making them a blessing to those around them, as God intended it made them a curse.” As such, their devotion was nothing more than a verisimilitude preventing God from pouring out his justice and mercy on them. Ironically, it was God’s blessings which Israel hoped to acquire through means of their cultic expressions. In order for Israel to experience the covenant blessings and thus enjoy Sabbath rest, a paradigm shift was required.
God’s Declaration of His Displeasure with Israel’s Worship (58:1-5)
The people of Judah, at least in their estimation, participated in a number of spiritual activities that seemingly portrayed a willingness to draw close to God. In actuality, their efforts were simply a facade masking an underlying attitude of idolatry and rebelliousness. Isaiah 58 commences with a decree from God for the prophet Isaiah to “raise his voice like a shofar (trumpet)” in order to reveal the rebellious nature of God’s people. Hans Kosmala notes the “shofar is mentioned here not only as a figure to describe the force of the outcry, it has a special function also as the instrument which announces the nearness of God and the appropriate time for the people to consider their sins and do repentance.” While the specific fast which the people were engaged in is not noted by Isaiah, the mention of the shofar, repentance, and fasting arguably point to the Day of Atonement, a religious holiday specifically devoted to inward reflection and repentance.
It is evident that the people were diligently fasting with the expectation that “God would intervene in their lives and resolve the problems they were facing.” Of particular importance are the verb phrases “to come near” and to “bring near”. J. Alec Motyer comments that these phrases are “characteristic verbs of the Levitical system in which sacrifices were brought near and thereby worshippers enjoyed the nearness of God. This was indeed model religion.” Given the attention to religious detail, the subsequent lack of response from God resulted in an attitude of dismay with the people questioning if God would indeed fulfill the covenant promises. The reason God did not respond to their entreaties is His people were obeying the letter of the law while neglecting the spirit of God’s commands, namely serving others before self.
God denounced their motivations as well as the exploitation of their fellow man. Rather than utilizing their time of fasting as a time of inward reflection to come to an attitude of repentance, the people were seeking to coerce God into action on their behalf, an attitude that was no different from the surrounding pagan culture. As noted by John Goldingay, “fasting is supposed to be an act of self-denial, so it should be a genuine one.” It is evident that the people treated their time of fasting as a religious ritual devoid of humility. Moreover, “these hypocritical worshippers regarded the day of fast as an ordinary day of work…these employers demanded from their workers all they could get,” an attitude which evinces selfishness. A result of this selfish lack of concern for their workers was an “edgy, irritable community.”
Isaiah notes that the silence from heaven was in directly relation to the people’s lack of humility, acts of spirituality rooted in selfishness and the overt mistreatment of their fellow man. Furthermore, God condemned their donning of sackcloth and ashes as mere symbolic gestures that thoroughly miss their original intent. Oswalt saliently comments they were “focusing on the external behavior rather than the change of attitude and behavior that the form is supposed to represent.”8 Such efforts were wholly displeasing to God.
God Outlines His Standard for Evincing True Worship (58:6-12)
Immediately following the peroration on the reasons for God’s silence and rejection of their rebellious nature, most notably their penchant for solemnity devoid of passion, Isaiah provides an outline of how to live a truly pious life, a life pleasing to God. It is again vital to note it was not the act of fasting itself which God was displeased. Conversely, it was the accompanying lack of social consciousness evinced by the mistreatment of others. Keil and Delitzsch rightly assert the fasting which is pleasant to Jehovah consists in something very different from this, namely, in releasing the oppressed, and in kindness to the helpless, not in abstinence from eating as such, but in sympathetic acts of that self-denying love, which gives up bread or any other possession for the sake of doing good to the needy.
Isaiah further explicates the actions which God desired from those would honestly seek Him, attitudes and methods of social interaction that evince true worship. The first hallmark of worship noted in this pericope is the notion of “breaking the yoke” and “setting free the oppressed,” language which hearkens back to the Israelites own experience of oppression at the hands of the Egyptians. “God demanded that people clean up their own affairs, their own neighborhood. That was true liberation and the kind of fast that God approved.” It was inexcusable in the eyes of God for His people to hold others in bondage, whether physically or their means of usury, especially since God had delivered their ancestors from similar bondage.
Isaiah further elaborates on the nature of true worship with the mention of “sharing your bread with the poor” and “clothing the naked.” Richard Patterson asserts that the treatment of the poor is an “integral part of the covenant stipulations of the Old Testament wherein Israel in pure treaty formulae is represented as the vassal to her sovereign God.” One of the stipulations provided for in the Old Testament law was for the people to meet the needs of those within their family unit thus strengthening family bonds. Unfortunately, “such close social ties had been broken by exilic and post-exilic conditions. It was easier to deny kinship and turn away from those who needed aid.”
With a clear framework of actions that demonstrate an attitude of true worship, Isaiah then endeavors to outline the blessings inherent with righteous behavior. The first blessing is the concept of being a light to the nations. Keil and Delitzsch comment that the “love of God is called light in contrast with His wrath; and a quiet cheerful life in God’s love is so called, in contrast with a wild troubled life spent in God’s wrath.” Arguably, the concept of Israel being a light to the nations is not a concept applied solely on a corporate national level. H.G. M. Williamson saliently notes the emphasis of Isaiah’s message is “not so much on Zion’s light shining amidst the darkness of the nations, but of an individual shining amidst the darkness of oppression and exploitation within the community itself.” The second promise of blessing is the idea of healing. Rather than depicting the idea of immediate healing from all physical infirmities, the primary word utilized in this passage to depict healing, (הכורא’aruwkah), means to “set to rights, to restore or put into the right condition.” Other scholars such as John Calvin, attribute the health presented by Isaiah as indicative of prosperity and physical safety in that the “wounds inflicted by the hand of God on account of their sins had brought the people so low that they wasted away like a sick man under a terrible disease.”16 Regardless of the nature of the healing, whether overtly physical or a return to covenant relationship with God, an inherent blessing of righteousness is the idea of restoration.
Isaiah concludes his overview of the blessings of righteous behavior with a discussion of two additional key elements, protection and the abiding presence of God. Oswalt comments the foundational idea presented by Isaiah is the “grace of God enabling men and women to live out His righteous demands…the righteousness and the glory that the Lord gives to His people will be proof against anything the world can hurl at them.” The mention of the glory of the Lord being as a “rear guard” is yet another reference to the exodus from Egypt. Just as God provided protection for the people of Israel as they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, so to will He provide the same level of protection provided the people approach Him with an attitude of righteousness.
Only if the people heeded God’s call to righteousness, in particular the call to social justice would He to answer their pleas for assistance. Watts rightly notes that “God’s promise to meet and respond to prayer is further conditioned on removing from your midst things that are displeasing to him.” Specifically, Isaiah notes three social issues that were a necessary precursor to God responding to their cries for justice and mercy. These issues include the yoke of bondage, malicious gossip, and meeting the needs of the poor. Isaiah in the initial section of this pericope presented these aspects of righteous behavior as items that the people were deficient. Isaiah revisits them in order to emphasize the conditional nature of the aforementioned blessings.
In verse 10, Isaiah presents yet another contrast between light and darkness. If the people adhere to the commands in Isaiah’s peroration, God promises their light would rise in the darkness and their night would be as the noonday. Keil and Delitzsch provide salient commentary on the meaning of darkness in Isaiah 58:10 (אפלה – ‘aphelah). They state that “the darkness caused by the utter absence of light” is אפלה connoting a contrast between the darkness inherent with evil and the light associated with the glory of the Lord’s presence. Additionally, as with the debate on the nature of the healing depicted in Isaiah 58:8, scholars such as John Calvin note that by “darkness he (Isaiah) denotes adversity, and by light prosperity.” Ultimately, the idea subsumed within this passage is the setting aside of the aforementioned social encumbrances as a precursor to God acting on their behalf.
Isaiah concludes his discussion of the result of righteous behavior with yet another promise of God’s guidance and the provision of both spiritual and physical sustenance. The promise of strengthening “your frame” stands in stark contrast to numerous references throughout the Old Testament that depict terror forcing men to tremble and quiver as well as other references such as Psalm 31:11 which depict man wasting away as a result of sin. Those who experience God’s presence and in turn, respond to that presence with behavior that evinces self-denial and righteousness will fill themselves refreshed as a “well-watered garden” or like a “spring that never fails.” Furthermore, God states in Isaiah 58:11 that He would sustain them thus hearkening back to the penchant for the rulers to seek assistance from the surrounding pagan nations. A result of obedience is the rebuilding of that which was formerly destroyed. The poetic nature of Isaiah 58:12 arguably prohibits an exact definition of what would be rebuilt with many scholars vacillating between a physical and spiritual reconstruction with some promoting a combination of the two positions. Perhaps Calvin provides the most salient commentary with his statement that “here the Prophet includes both statements; namely, that the people would resemble a ruined building, and next, that they would be perfectly restored.” As with the other poetic depictions of God’s promises in this passage, the intent of the author’s message is that if the people seek God with the proper attitude, He will respond and restore the nation to covenant relationship with Him.
God Outlines the Benefits of Delighting in the Sabbath (58:13-14)
Watts rightly asserts the “keeping the Sabbath became in this period a major means of showing one’s loyalty to Yahweh and His will.” As with the discussion on fasting, Isaiah notes that it was not the people’s diligence in observing the Sabbath that was in question, but rather the proper focus. As noted by Oswalt, “one should engage in these ceremonies, whatever they may be, for the sole purpose of bringing oneself adoringly to the feet of God, where once again one may express joyous surrender to Him.” The people were not experiencing joy in their adherence to the Sabbath because the were focused on satisfying their own pleasures rather than focusing on the true nature of the Sabbath, resting in the knowledge that it is in God alone that we can find peace and sustenance. This pericope concludes with a return to the opening stanzas of Isaiah’s discourse, the need to perform acts of righteousness out of selflessness rather than as a means to motivate or coerce God into action. True worship, the renunciation of idolatry, is rewarded with God’s presence and protection.
Isaiah 58:1-14 is a stark reminder of the perniciousness of religiosity. The people of Judah were well versed in the intricacies of religious practice; however, they overlooked the connection between the need for righteous behavior and God’s covenant promises. As noted by Watts, “the kind of worship God will choose and honor is not ostentatious self-abnegation in fasting with much beating of breasts, but acts which overcome the problems.” The issues raised in this passage reveal the need for repentance, a recurring theme of the prophets.
Constant abuses of the poor by those of higher social strata, the virulent influence of gossip and infighting as well as idolatrous behavior are recurring problems among the people of God. Christ frequently addressed these same concerns in his discourses in the New Testament. His interactions with the Pharisees concerning their devotion to religious practices while being ambivalent to the needs of the indigent reveal the consistent lack of focus that permeates many believers understanding of worship.
James 1:27 defines the nature of true religion: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Isaiah 58 is frighteningly clear that religious devotion devoid of concern for our fellow man will result in God’s displeasure and silence. Only by abdicating the throne of our hearts to God, will we truly find Sabbath rest or enjoy the blessings of a covenant relationship with our Creator.
The current spiritual milieu is vastly similar to that of Isaiah’s day. Far too often, we attribute spiritual or financial success to our own ability or level of spiritual acumen, rather that realizing that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” Furthermore, our self-centric culture seeks to take advantage of others in our pursuit of the so-called “American Dream.” We seek to pacify God with expressions of religiosity acting as if merely “checking the box” surely will evoke a response from the Almighty to meet our every whim. Such an approach could not be farther from the truth. A vital aspect of a personal relationship with God is obedience.
When we ignore those in need, we are disobeying a basic command seen throughout scripture, that of meeting the needs of those less fortunate. When we place money in the offering plate, yet are unwilling to “get our hands dirty,” we are no better than those depicted in Isaiah 58. God takes no pleasure in offerings given out of selfish motives. Isaiah 1 clearly notes that God abhors such an approach. John Oswalt rightly avers, “We cannot live this kind of covenant life in our own strength. It is only as God empowers us with his grace that we are able to lay aside our self-serving attitudes and give ourselves away in love to God and others.” By serving others, we ultimately serve God. That is the example Christ set for us through his selfless sacrifice on the cross. This a point reiterated by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12 in his description of the mercies of God or οἰκτιρμός (oiktirmos), a term which can be literally translated to mean a “heart of compassion.” True worship finds its foundation in such an approach to life, an approach that is “holy and pleasing to God.”
Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume VIII: Isaiah 34-66. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
Goldingay, John. New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.
Grogan, Geoffrey. “Commentary on Isaiah” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah through Ezekiel. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Keil, C.F. and Franz Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament: Isaiah. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
Kosmala, Hans. Studies, Essays and Reviews: Old Testament. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1978.
Motyer, J. Alec. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999.
Oswalt, John. NIV Application Commentary: Isaiah. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
__________. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.
Patterson, Richard. “The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and the Extra-Biblical Literature.” Bibliotheca Sacra (1973): 223-234.
Smith, Gary. The New American Commentary: Isaiah 40-66. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2009.
Watts, John. Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66. Waco: Word Books, 1987.
Williamson, H. G. M. “Promises, Promises! Some Exegetical Reflections on Isaiah 58.” Word & World (1999): 153-160.
Young, Edward. The Book of Isaiah: Volume 3. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.