True Fasting

58: 1-14

   DIG: In what ways did God’s people seem to do the right thing? How did they spoil it? How did their view of fasting differ from the LORD’s? If their fasting were sincere, what would be different about their relationships with others? Their concern for the poor? What did ADONAI bless instead? What separated the two time periods? Why the change when the faithful remnant came back to the Land?

   REFLECT: Do you ever find yourself just going through the motions with your faith? How can you know that you are in such a rut? What can you do about it? When should God’s people fast today? Who should observe the Sabbath today (see my commentary on Exodus Dn – Remember the Sabbath by Keeping It Holy)? How do you get through the dry places in your spiritual journey?

    In this section Isaiah gives two near-historical prophecies. Before the Babylonian Captivity (58:1-8), the prophet warned the Jews that their abuse of fasting had exposed their wicked hearts and spiritual adultery. After the Babylonian Captivity (58:9-14), he directs their attention to the true fast of the Sabbath rest.

    With a heavy irony, Isaiah declared publicly that although the Israelites thought their behavior should win them special favor with the LORD, its real purpose was to gain ground in the merciless struggle for power, position and possessions. Why did ADONAI establish the outward forms of Temple worship? As ends in themselves? No, but as symbols of an attitude of submission, surrender and trust that would reveal itself in changed behavior. Without that attitude, however, those outward forms of worship did not please God, but disgusted Him.

    We can see a slow gradual decay in the religious fabric of the nation from the ministry of Isaiah down to the ministry of Jeremiah. While it is true that many of the contemporaries of Isaiah brought sacrifices that were unacceptable to the LORD because of an unseen condition of the heart (see Aj – Stop Bringing Meaningless Offerings), nonetheless, they still brought sacrifices ordained by ADONAI. However, over a hundred years later, the nation had descended into the pit of more extreme forms of idolatry even in the Temple itself (Ezekiel 8). In reality, they were playing God and making stuff up. It  got bad that Jeremiah couldn't find a single righteous person in all of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:1-9).

    First, Isaiah depicts the false fast of those Jews living in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Captivity. The prophet is commanded to shout aloud a message that is always unpopular; that is, to point out the sins of people who think they are very religious. Sin is a fatal disease if not treated and the LORD wanted the Israelites to know that unless something changed, it would lead to spiritual death and eternal separation from Him.

    Therefore, Isaiah declared: Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet or shofar (58:1a). Isaiah begins his commission by declaring a specific sin in the southern kingdom of Judah. Shout out loud in Hebrew means to cry or call out loud with the throat; to cry or to call out loud at the top of one’s lungs with a loud and clear voice. The shofar, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn, was the primary means used to gain attention in ancient Israel (18:3, 27:3). It’s piercing blast was a sign to stop everything and pay attention. And that which they were to pay attention to was to Judah’s sins.

    Declare to My people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins (58:1b). Their self-serving religion had become nothing short of rebellion. The sad commentary on their spiritual condition was that Jeremiah would search all over Jerusalem and could not find one honest person who would seek after justice and truth (see my commentary on Jeremiah 5:1-9). That call to acknowledge their sin looked back to 57:18-19, where the LORD said that He would comfort, guide and restore them back to a relationship with Him if they would only turn from their wicked ways, and looks forward to 59:1-13, where they acknowledge their national wickedness.

    Who were those rebels? They were people who sought after God! They were meticulous in following the forms of worship; yet their lives bore no resemblance to those of believers. The clearest example of this contradiction would be the Pharisees during the life of the Messiah, who even tithed the spices in their cupboards, and yet had no qualms about throwing a widow who could not pay her debts out onto the street (Matthew 23:23; Luke 20:47), or ignoring the fifth commandment (see my commentary on Exodus Do – Honor Your Father and Your Mother) by refusing to help their parents by declaring their property Corban, that is, a gift devoted to God (Mark 7:9-13).

    For day after day they seek Me out (in public worship); they seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and have not forsaken the commands of their God (58:2a). Me is in the emphatic position and could be translated, Me they seek. Of all things, they seek Me! Basically, they were hypocrites, and this sin called for the most dramatic action (Matthew 21:12-13). They seem like they want a relationship with ADONAI, it is as if they want to know His ways. But they really didn’t. Actions always speak louder than words.

    They ask Me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them (58:2b). He points out what hypocrites they were. Israel was acting as if they had not forsaken the commandments of the LORD. They kept the letter of the Torah and loved the ritual of Temple worship. But like the Oral Law (see my commentary on The Life of Christ Ei – The Oral Law) that their descendants would invent after coming back from the Babylonian Captivity, those religious rulers of Jeremiah’s day also made up fasts that were supposedly ordained by ADONAI. And just as Rabbi Saul said that he was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:14), those Jews during the ministry of Jeremiah were extremely zealous for their fasts. But they had no substance, and like the Oral Law, they elevated the importance of fasting to a position that God never intended.

    They were merely observing the outward forms of their religion (Luke 18:12), but dared to question the LORD’s actions towards them. They sat in judgment of ADONAI and His methods. Complaining, they said: Why have we fasted if You have not seen it (58:3a)?. They had kept the letter of the Torah and had been very conscientious in their Temple worship. They loved the ritual of it all, and  had even fasted “religiously.” But they noticed that it wasn't doing them any good. It wasn’t fair! God needed to honor their sacrifices. In other words, their manipulation wasn’t working! So they started to grumble.

    Why have we humbled ourselves, and You have not noticed (58:3b)? They criticized the LORD for not blessing them, and it was as if they were saying, “Can you not see, look how religious we are!” They dutifully went up to the Temple and made their sacrifices. But the veneer of godliness was, and is, nauseating to ADONAI. The only reason they wanted an answer to their fasting was for their own personal gain. Without realizing it, they were playing God.

    Fasting had become the center piece of their religion. The only problem was that the LORD never gave them fasting days. The First Covenant commanded only one fast - the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31, 23:27 and 32). Only after the fall of Jerusalem were additional fast days added (Zechariah 7:3 and 5, 8:19). But He did give them feast days (Leviticus 23:1-44). Fasting is supposed to be an outward expression of the soul, but they had turned it into something that only ministered to their ego and pride. They probably boasted of the fact that they fasted, and made a private matter public. About seven hundred years later Yeshua would say: When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).

    ADONAI’s evaluation of their self-serving motives was confirmed in His response: Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers (58:3c). In spite of their outward observance of religion they indulged in their own wicked ways. How could they? Because they had no real relationship with the LORD. And the hearers of this prophecy by Isaiah were probably offended by this accusation. A lot of people still do this today.

    Then God gave a practical example of the bad fruit their counterfeit religion produced. He said: Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife and in striking each other with wicked fists (58:4a). Every fast day ended in a fight. Fasting was intended to bring people closer to ADONAI, but unfortunately for them it brought out the worst – not surprising really, when a godless family was forced to spend a hungry day together! However, they kept expecting spiritual favors from unspiritual behavior. So the LORD let them in on some spiritual reality: You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high (58:4b). They didn’t realize that all their pious acts were for nothing because of their wicked hearts and evil actions. As far as ADONAI was concerned, their mistreatment of others revealed so much about them that it blotted out all of their phony fasting.

    Therefore, the prophet explained why the LORD could not accept their counterfeit fasting. They thought it gained them special favor with God, but He asked them: Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day on the Sabbath for a man to humble himself. They had only been focusing on their external behavior rather than internal change, so ADONAI asked them if the Sabbath was really only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? The very act of their fasting was exposed as meaningless as a reed nodding in the wind. Is this what you call a day of fasting acceptable to the LORD (58:5)? If they were fasting for the wrong reasons, ADONAI didn’t want their fasting at all (Revelation 3:16). King David said it like this: You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17).

    In 58:6-7 there is a change from the infinitive absolute that answers the question, to the second person verbs of command. It is difficult to see the dramatic effect this has in the English, but its forcefulness in the Hebrew needs to be recognized. The LORD was not merely offering suggestions here. The Ten Commandments were not the Ten Suggestions, and neither were these.

    What kind of fast did God want to see? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and unite the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke (58:6)? ADONAI’s nature is to give Himself away to those who can never repay Him; there is no clearer evidence of His presence in a person’s life than the duplication of that same behavior. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t there in Jeremiah’s day. It’s as if the LORD was saying, “Do you really want to fast? Instead of going around with distorted faces, stop your sinning. Stop your gossiping. The kind of fast I am looking for is to fast from doing evil, to fast from oppressing the poor.” Later, James would say it this way: Get rid of all the moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent . . . do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:21-22).

    Continuing with the kind of fast ADONAI wanted to see, Isaiah said: 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 him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood (58:7)? They were turning their backs on the poor. But more than that, the Israelites were to consider themselves members of one family who at one time had been slaves in Egypt. As a result, they were not to neglect each other. Those who know the compassion of God in their own lives will be unable to deny it to others. However, they even refused to show kindness and love to their own flesh and blood. They didn’t have a heart for the LORD because they didn’t have a heart for others. It was the same concept in the Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

    Had they really exercised pure worship instead of mundane ritual, then 58:8 would have spoken of their healing. Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you (Exodus 13:21-22, 14:19-20), and the Shechinah glory of the LORD will be your rear guard (58:8). They would have been declared righteous. They would have experienced God’s glory, and ADONAI would have answered them on every call. Those would have been the results of true worship. These were the results Israel was looking for. But because the motivation behind the rituals of the Temple and fasting was improper, they didn't experience the results of true worship. If they would only abandon their sin and return to Him, they could have been forgiven.

    This is the same for us today as it was in Jeremiah’s day. We are still just as tempted to use religious behavior as a way of manipulating the LORD for our selfish ends as our Israelite forebears were. It is interesting that Isaiah points to fasting, because that continues to be a practice of believers today who seek a more disciplined life. Other activities, however, have replaced Israelite religious activities, such as church or messianic synagogue attendance, daily devotions, prayer, tithing and so on. These are all susceptible to the same danger.

    The risk for us, is that we might engage in merely outward religious behavior in order to bring blessings from God, who we feel is not inclined to give us blessings unless we manipulate Him in some way. Insofar as these attitudes, either consciously or unconsciously, govern our behavior, then our religion is nothing more than idolatry. By contrast, to the extent that our religious life is characterized by selfless service, freely given with no return expected, to that extent it is mirroring the life of ADONAI. And for those who are in the flow of God’s life, His blessing is a natural and abundant by-product. In this kind of behavior we show that we know the LORD and are not in a relationship with Him for what we can get out of it, but because we love Him.236

    In the second near historical prophecy, Isaiah then gives a description of the true fast of Sabbath rest practiced by those Jews returning from the Babylonian Captivity. God desperately wanted to hear the prayers of His people so He could bless them, but their hearts weren’t open to receive it because of their spiritual adultery. Divine discipline was in order. Therefore, in 587 BC the LORD allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and take the best and the brightest back to Babylon for seventy years. It was an extremely difficult and painful period of time for the nation. They would later remember: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion (Psalm 137:1). Many times in life it seems like we have to undergo our own “Babylon Captivity” to really learn our lesson, and that was true of the Israelites.

    The faithful remnant who returned to the Land after the decree of Cyrus (see Ia – The Deliverance of Cyrus the Great) were noticeably different than the generation that preceded them there. It is not that they were perfect, but they were teachable. Their hearts had changed. They repented, sought after the LORD and their spiritual adultery ended.

    Then you will call, and ADONAI will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here am I (58:9a). ADONAI is emphatic, ADONAI Himself will answer! Here am I is the response of a waiting, obedient servant (Genesis 22:1 and 11, Second Samuel 3:4). Answered prayer is not like sending a care box, it is like a home visit by the doctor. Then God emphasizes the rewards for repentance in both its negative and positive aspects. The negative aspect was to do away with the yoke [of oppression], stop doing evil, or pointing the finger of scorn against the poor and the weak with malicious talk, and if they spent themselves in behalf of, or literally grant your soul to, the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then there would be external evidence of an internal transformation (58:9b-10a). The positive aspect was a change of heart. They had to turn from their sin and bring their hearts back toward God. If they truly repented and sought after Him, three specific results would follow:

    The first result was divine reflection. Then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday (58:10b). The first blessing is clarity in life’s darkness. In those situations where we don’t know what to do, or which way to go when troubles close in around us. Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139:12). ADONAI promises that even the gloom of His people will be as light. Why? John says: God is light, in Him there is no darkness at all (First John 1:5) and we reflect the Lord’s glory (Second Corinthians 3:18). As children of God, we reflect our Father’s likeness to the world. We walk in His light when we help others, not when we put our lamp under a bowl (Matthew 5:14-16).

    The second result was divine guidance and provision. He says: The LORD will guide you always (58:11a). Our experience may well continue into the darkness, and we step hesitatingly into it as best we know how. But the reality is that God the Holy Spirit guides us. He will not let your foot slip – He who watches over you will not slumber (Psalm 212:3).

    You’ve been there. You’ve escaped the sandy foundations of the valley and ascended His grand outcropping of granite. You’ve turned your back on the noise and sought His voice. You’ve stepped away from the masses and followed the Master as He led you up the winding path to the summit . . . gently your Guide invites you to sit on the rock above the tree line and look out with Him at the ancient peaks that will never erode. “What is necessary is still what is sure,” He confides. “Just remember that you’ll go no where tomorrow that I haven’t already been.” The truth is still triumph . . . the victory is yours. The sacred summit. A place of permanence in a world of transition (from The Applause of Heaven, Nashville: W Publishing Group, 1990).

    And in the dry places He will satisfy your soul and make your bones strong (58:11b NKJV). We all hit dry places in our spiritual journey. But the Good News is that ADONAI will be there to meet us, and to satisfy our souls. He will strengthen us spiritually. The Jews in Dachau, Auschwitz and Treblinka could not be protected physically. But God was in those Nazi concentration camps with them, strengthening their souls. We do not have to be a spiritual thornbush in the desert, all of our energy consumed with mere survival, but will have the fruits and flowers to give from the overflow of their abundance. The idea of making bones strong is in contrast to all those places in the Bible where terror makes the bones tremble (Job 4:14; Psalm 6:2; Jeremiah 23:9; Habakkuk 3:16). This is the truth that all doctors know, when the spirit is healthy the body has a better chance of being healthy also.

    You will be like a well-watered garden (Jeremiah 31:12), like a spring whose waters never fail (58:11c). Yeshua referred to the Holy Spirit when He said: If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. By this He meant the Holy Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive (John 7:37-39). In the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit would come and go. After his affair with Bathsheba, King David would plead with God, saying: Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me (Psalm 51:11). But today, as a result of conversion, we have the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us into all truth. He is like a fountain that will not stop gushing out of us.

    A third result was divine restoration. ADONAI promises that we do not have to live in the mess that we have made of our lives. It is true that we are deeply sinful, and our sin destroys everything that it touches. Nevertheless, God is stronger than our sin. He is able to give us the power to restore and renew that which was destroyed. Isaiah said that one day your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations when they return from the Babylonian Captivity; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets and Dwellings (58:12). Haggai, Zechariah, Zerubbabel, Joshua, Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi led the way , but they were just the tip of the ice-burg. If it was the people’s sin that destroyed the City, it will be their righteousness, through the grace of God that will rebuild it. The LORD always allows us the dignity of being involved in putting back together what we have broken. We cannot do it apart from Him, but He will not do it apart from us.237

    Sabbath observance was one barometer of one’s faithfulness to the Torah (see my commentary on Exodus Dn – Remember the Sabbath by Keeping It Holy). If a man, for example, followed the Sabbath commands and thereby acknowledged the importance of worshiping ADONAI, and showed that he depended upon the LORD to bless him materially for that time he took off from work by putting God first and not seeking to do as he pleased, then he would have joy, not only in a spiritual sense (ride on the heights), but also in a material sense (feast on the inheritance).

    The Sabbath is the feast with a blessing (58:13-14a), which is antithetical to the fast without a blessing (28:2-5). ADONAI said: If you keep your feet from breaking, literally turn back your foot from, the equivalent in today’s vernacular would be to watch your step. So we could translate this, “If you watch your step on the Sabbath,” and keep from doing as you please on My holy day . . . (58:13a). The Sabbath is viewed as holy ground that should not be desecrated. The phrase doing as you please means doing business on the Sabbath. There was a lot of business going on during the worship service. Their place of business was officially closed, but business was still conducted verbally.

    If you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then the blessings of the next verse would be theirs (58:13b). The phrase speaking idle words is also seen in Hosea 10:4, where the prophet says: They make many promises and take false oaths to God. He is speaking of using words that are empty and have no meaning to anyone. Three things were spelled out negatively concerning Sabbath observance; do not desecrate the Sabbath, do not do business on the Sabbath, and do not speak idle words on the Sabbath.

    Opposed to the phony feasts, they should have a positive attitude toward the Sabbath. In the concept of the prophets, keeping the Sabbath was symbolic of keeping the whole Torah (Ezekiel 20:10-17, 22:8 and 26). They would only experience the results of true worship by Sabbath observance. That is what it was designed for. Then ADONAI said: You will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the Land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob (58:14a). The phrase to ride on the heights of the Land is a figure of speech used by the prophets in reference to reaching spiritual heights in one’s relationship to God. This is a wonderful promise to the people of Judah. But Judah did not even attempt to pursue it. In the next section we will see how Judah retained her separation from the LORD and deals with the sin that caused that separation.

    Shabbat observance was one barometer of faithfulness to the Torah. By following the rules for the Sabbath a man, for example, acknowledged the importance of worshiping God and showed that he depended upon ADONAI to bless him materially for that time he took off from work. By putting the LORD first and not seeking to do as he pleased, he would have joy, not only in a spiritual sense (ride on the heights), but also in a material sense (feast on the inheritance). The holy Sabbath was ADONAI's answer to the so-called fasting feasts made up by wicked men.

    All this was certain because the mouth of the LORD had spoken it (58:14b). Here is a golden key to understanding the Bible: those who give themselves away find themselves; and those who surrender the throne receive a crown of righteousness.

 

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