Monday, October 7, 2013

Isaiah and Fasting

            Isaiah 58:1-14 is a familiar passage to many in that it is an often utilized passage of Scripture by pastors who want to convey to their congregation the power of fasting. Since the text communicates much more than the implications of fasting, I will exegete this passage with the purpose of uncovering the multiple nuances of the aforementioned text. To do this I will first provide a summary of the entire passage with the purpose of providing an overview that will prepare the reader to understand the specific details outlined in the text. This will be followed by an exposition of those specific points. The goal here is to glean a detailed understanding of what Isaiah intended to communicate. I will end with a summary of the theological contribution the passage made and briefly discuss two key application principles.

            In this passage Isaiah is rebuking the people for being selfish and oppressive. They apparently did not heed the warning that God first offered because previously Isaiah warned the people to maintain justice and do what was right, for God’s salvation was close at hand and His righteousness would soon be revealed (Isaiah 56:1).[1] “Instead of their religion making them a blessing to those around them, as God intended, it made them a curse.”[2] The Isaiah 56:1 passage makes it clear that God wanted them to maintain justice and do what was right, or more specifically, what God commanded. As an alternative, they preceded to fast thinking that this would somehow absolve them of the requirement to obey God. However, God takes issue with them, through Isaiah, because of their rebellious response. Isaiah 58:1-14 records God’s response.

God’s Rebellious People (Is. 58:1-3)
            God’s response was to first point out to God’s people what they were doing, which was rebelling against Him (v.1-3). Apparently, they were so enamored by their attempts at religious piety that they failed to consider that they were “manipulating God to act in their favor” through their fast. God responds to their attempts at piety by pointing out the error of their ways. “Verses 4-12 expand on this theme. God does want to bless His people (58:8-8, 10b-12), but that blessing cannot be obtained by cultic manipulation.”[3] To the contrary, it is God’s intention to offer his blessings to “those with unbroken covenants with Him.”[4] To do this means they would have to stop their rebellion and their oppression of the poor, a point that Isaiah specifically makes in the text.
            Isaiah starts off chapter 58 with a call or cry for repentance. “The prophet mentions his task, the proclamation which starts in v. 3b. The imperative   (to call, cry) may introduce a word of salvation,… or a word of doom.”[5] In this case, given the context, the prophet is offering a word of doom. The idea of crying illustrates the prophet’s mandate from God to express the call to repent with dramatic intensity. Consequently, he was to not hold back when crying out. This is precisely why the cry is accompanied by a trumpet call, which was “intended to arouse the hearers to action.”[6]
This was not the first time that Isaiah illustrates for the reader God’s call to repentance. “The prophet has already exposed the empty ritualism of the people in chapter 1. [However] here he concentrates on the religious activity of fasting.”[7] Isaiah rebukes the Children of Israel denouncing them for using fasting to indulge in sin.
His denouncement extended beyond the onetime misuse of fasting. In verse 2 Isaiah uses the word “daily” to show that “the text is not talking about just one day of prayer and repentance. In what follows there are days in which people fast, and so this line probably presupposes a series of fast-days.”[8] Hence, what one discovers is that the avoidance of dealing with sin, was more of a lifestyle than a one time happening.

God Rejects their Fast Days (Is. 58:4-5)
Following His indictment of their sin, Isaiah then moves to expand on this indictment by citing their propensity towards living contrary to self-denial which was the purpose of fasting. The indictment starts with Isaiah pointing out “the people’s hypocrisy. Clearly their fast was not spiritually motivated.”[9] This is shown by their fighting with one another. The text says, “Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists (Is. 58:4a). The reason could have been because fasting does produce an irritability of sorts as a result of the doing away with food. Yet, the primary reason here probably was because of their desire to live how they wanted to, which in turn made their fasting worthless.
Having set the scene, the rest of the chapter is a lesson on proper worship. “The criteria for such worship turn on what God chooses, not what the people like to do, but what God requires of any human being.”[10] What God requires is alluded to in verse 5, which is humility. Their pride drove them to do whatever that wanted. This is because pride is centered on self, whereas a spirit of humility centers on God. Pride tears down ones relationship with God and destroys ones faith. It can masquerade itself in religious showmanship as it did in the people Isaiah was addressing. Consequently, Isaiah asks them a rhetorical question stating, “Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?  Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” The question is answered in the ensuing verses. What God desires for a fast-day “was intended to be spent gathering for prayer and worship, which ought not to have left time for thinking about or practicing either business or pleasure.”[11] They rejected God’s command of self-denial which should accompany fasting, opting instead for fleshly pursuits that resulted in God rejecting their prayers.

God’s Chosen Fast (Is. 58:6-12)
Their propensity toward pleasure seeking is also seen in there oppression of the poor which was diametrically opposed to God’s purposes of doing away with injustice and letting the oppressed go free (Is. 58:6). “Apparently they made the fast easier by idleness and made up for lost time by getting their laborers to work all the harder”, which furthered the injustice[12] They had rejected the idea that fasting was supposed to lead one to submit themselves to God and His purposes. Moreover, His purposes were for them to minister to the needs of others and not to be focused on their own needs. “The question of vv. 6-7, following immediately after those of v.5, serve to point out the people’s separation of religious observance and social righteousness, a theme the eighth century prophets never tired of expounding.”[13]
Following verse 7 Isaiah begins to share with the people the results of the kind of fast that God chooses starting in verse 8. The verse starts off by saying, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn.” The term light is significant here in terms of the meaning of what God desires to do with His people, which is to bless them. “’Light’ … suggests fullness of divine blessing.”[14] However, this was not their present predicament, which is reflected in the statement made by Isaiah later on which states, “So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.  We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows” (Is. 59:9). Yet, it was God’s desire to bring about the opposite results as is shown in Isaiah 60:1 which states, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.” A return to the proper mode of fasting would achieve the latter result.
In verses 9b-12, “Isaiah develops the same theme again but with some variation.”[15] Here Isaiah exhorts the people to do away with their oppression and infighting, and God would respond to them as they did away with the things that were displeasing to Him.[16]
In verse 10 the themes of vv. 7-8 is again reiterated with the phrase “your light will rise.” If they would obey Yahweh, they would reap the spiritual benefits that he promised. “With that said, there are some substantial differences in vv. 9b-12. … There are no more references to fasting; the proportions of the component parts are quite different; and the verse I verse 12 a specific promise is introduced which has no parallel in the previous section.”[17] Thus, the main emphasis is not fasting, but the humbling of the soul.
In verses 9b-12 other similar themes are addressed. For instance, “Oppression is emphasized by repetition and there is also a reference to character assassinations.”[18] These themes continue to resignate within the text in order to drive home the primary point, which is the doing away with pride, and embracing godly humility and self-denial.


[1] Oswalt, John S.  The New Application Commentary: Isaiah Grand Rapids, Zondervan. 2003 p. 624
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. p. 625
[4] Ibid.
[5] Scholarly p. 122
[6] Ibid.
[7] Gaebelein, Frank The Expositors Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel Volume 6 Grand Rapids Zondervan 1986 p. 322

[8] Scholarly p.122
[9] Gaebelein, Frank p. 322-323
[10] Comment p. 843
[11] Scholary exposition
[12] Gaebelein, Frank p. 323
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Explanation p. 844
[17] P. 217
[18] Gaebelein, Frank p. 323