I have long been intrigued with Isaiah 58. It’s a very interesting passage because it seems to view the worship of God in a way that is very different from what is often considered the norm in the western Church. In the first verse we see God commanding the prophet to “cry aloud; do not hold back” (ESV) in declaring the sins of the people. Then the Lord goes on to describe them as people who “seek me daily” and “delight to know my ways”. They ask for “righteous judgments and delight to draw near to their God”. To put this in our terms you might say these are people who have a daily quiet time; reading the word and praying. They desire to worship and attend church regularly. These things are considered synonymous with someone who has their act together as a Christian; someone who faithfully loves the Lord.
Yet in this case these seemingly faithful followers of the Lord are complaining because he is ignoring them and their religious practices, specifically fasting. Why is God ignoring these people who seek him and desire to know him? As the prophet said in Is 29:13 and as Jesus described the Pharisees in Matt 15:8-9 “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”. While they were faithful to practice spiritual aspects of their faith, they were neglecting, or even ignoring, the practical outworking of the word of God in their lives.
While daily quiet time, prayer, and even fasting are essential to the Christian life, when they are done in a vacuum and do not penetrate into our daily lives they are displeasing to God. According to this passage that is sin and results in God’s judgment. Jesus summed up all of the law and prophets in this “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Matt 22:37-40. This is exactly the problem for these people; their one-sided religious practices revealed that they did not sacrificially love others and thus did not love God.
The people fasted to seek their own pleasure and beyond neglecting the needy actually oppressed them further (vs.3). They would declare a fast day in order to win God’s favor and blessing, but would not allow their workers to participate. Instead, they were forced to make up for the lack of productivity resulting from the masters fast. Further, they would visibly humble themselves, which Jesus warned against in Matt 6:16-18 “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others”. This is not normative of a heart that has been transformed by the gospel of grace, but illustrates legalistic religion being practiced to somehow please God and earn the praise of men!
In reply to the people’s question of why the Lord had not responded to their fasting the Lord explains the type of worship he will respond to. In vs. 6-14 he gives several if/then statements that make it very clear what moves his heart. In vs. 6 God says he responds to worship that will “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke”. This refers to God’s people actively working to see that those who are marginalized or oppressed are freed from those bonds and treated fairly.
In vs. 7 he goes on to say worship that pleases him is to “share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house” and to care for your fellow man by clothing the naked. He also says “not to hide yourself from your own flesh”. When the people turned a blind eye to their fellow Israelites who were oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked they were hiding themselves from their own flesh, or people. They didn’t want to deal with them so they avoided them. When we see the oppressed, hungry, homeless, and naked who are members of the global body of Christ and ignore them, turn a blind eye, or rationalize how their condition is their own fault are we not doing the same thing?
So God is looking for worshipers who have their eyes and hearts open to the hurting. People who will free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. Are these aspects of our faith things that we normally think of as equally important to a daily quiet time or going to church? Romans 12:1 says “present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. These acts of sacrificial love for others are indeed acts or worship!
Having shown the people the type of worship he desires the Lord proceeds to give them a glorious promise. If they will worship him in this way then God will bless them abundantly. He promises that their light will break forth like the dawn. We are the light of the world and when we love others sacrificially God will cause that light to shine in such a way that the world will not only see it, but they will respond. Like with the early church in Acts 2 and 4 when they worshiped God in this way “great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33) and they had “favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day” (Acts 2:47).
Lovingly and sacrificially caring for the hurting not only results in the poor and needy coming to Christ but our middleclass neighbors as well. When our neighbor the moral businessman, who though not a Christian is honest, faithful to his wife and loves his family, looks at us often he sees no discernable difference between our lives and his apart from the fact that we go to church. He simply believes that we need to go to church, but he is able to live like us without religion. On the other hand when that same neighbor sees us forgoing the things of this world, sacrificially caring for the hurting, and generously investing in the Kingdom of God he will ask why. When we explain we are motivated to live this way, because of the gospel of the grace of God our “light will burst forth like the dawn” (vs. 8) and our “righteousness will go before us” (vs. 8). God will move and our neighbors, friends, and families will be saved.
Further, the Lord says if his people will worship him in this way he will answer when they call. God does not respond to those who practice dead religion, but when those whose hearts have been transformed by grace sacrificially love others God is moved to respond to them. He no longer closes his ear to their cries, but answers their prayers. Are your prayers not being answered? Is it because you are practicing self-centered religion; seeking your own pleasure?
Next the Lord reiterates this teaching. In vs. 9b-10 he says that if his people will “take away the yoke” that is work to remove oppression and will stop the “pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness” or being judgmental and “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted”, then he will indeed bless. To pour ourselves out on behalf of the hungry means to deny self and faithfully love them as we love ourselves.
Again, the Lord promises that if we will worship him in this way he will guide us and satisfy our needs and desires. He will strengthen us and we will be like a refreshing spring of water to the lost world around us. We will be the “repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in” (vs. 12). That is to say we will be agents of transformation and restoration to the fallen world.
Finally, in the last if/then series the Lord promises that if his people will honor the Sabbath by not seeking to gratify self then he will cause us to delight in him. Our true worship, as described in this passage, will result in satisfaction and resting in the Lord. This transition to the Sabbath is interesting because up to this point one could get the impression that God is only interested in mercy ministry, yet here he specifically says to honor the Sabbath. We see a balance here where God is showing the fullness of what it means to worship him. Just as it is wrong to focus on the physical (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) and neglect the spiritual (church attendance, daily quiet time, prayer) it is equally wrong to focus on the spiritual to the neglect of the physical.
The focus on one over the other is an indication of a deficiency in our Christian faith. This is demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus. In Matt 23:23 Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were extremely faithful in their religious practice of tithing to the point of giving 10% even of their spices. Yet they neglected the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”. It would be as if you were so committed to tithing that when you found a dollar on the street you were faithful to give a dime, yet when you walked by a hungry man you refused to give him the remaining $0.90. What good is your commitment to tithe if you have no mercy for the hungry?
His solution was not to stop tithing and start helping the poor, but to do the former without neglecting the latter. In other words true followers of Christ would worship God in word and deed. They would spend time in God’s word; reading, praying, and fasting. They would gather together to worship and learn from the preaching of God’s word. However, those things would not be done in a vacuum. The word of God would penetrate their hearts and be obediently applied to their lives. It would result in righteous action not passive complacency.
How can we live this way when our hearts and our culture are sinfully self-centered? The answer is the same for us as it was for Israel. In chapter 59 God said that his “hand was not shortened, that it cannot save” (vs. 1) and he promised the people that a redeemer would come to Zion (vs. 20). That redeemer is Jesus Christ and he came to free us from the bondage of self-love and sinful complacency by denying self and laying down his life for us while we were self-centered sinners. He came to give us a new heart that loves God fully and thus loves others sacrificially. He saved us that we might worship God fully by fulfilling the good works that he prepared for us (Eph 2:10).