In this 58th chapter of Isaiah true fasting and Sabbath-keeping are contrasted with false observance of them. It is a question of the motive. Were these acts of worship genuine and from the heart or merely for outward human consumption? Fasting is a form of self-deprivation voluntarily undertaken to underline the sincerity of the heart. It was intended that God would observe such a sacrifice, and so favour and answer the prayer made in conjunction with it. Daniel’s fasting (10:2–3) elicited an immediate response, the angel sent to him revealing that from the first day that he set his heart to understand and “to chasten” himself before his God, his “words were heard” (v12). Also we read that in the face of bad news from Judah, Nehemiah “sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven” (Neh 1:4). For his sincerity his prayer also was answered. Of Anna, the prophetess, we read that she “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). But Yahweh questioned the motive, the intent of the exiles who returned. “When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me?” (Zech 7:5).

Yahweh never commanded His people to fast. On the Day of Atonement they were to “afflict their souls” (Lev 16:29,31; 23:29), but fasting is not specified. There is no essential virtue in rendering to God what He has never commanded – and then expecting a favourable response! There was always the danger that such visible forms of worship could be undertaken to impress men, or be a mere theatrical display, with God far from mind. As such it was hypocrisy. Jesus condemned fasting in which the effects were accentuated to impress one’s piety on others! Rather he counselled anointing of the head and the washing of the face to minimise the evidence of fasting.

Isaiah 58 views fasting among men from God’s standpoint. He knew the motives of the worshippers and so it is a revelation. He redefines fasting and informs us of the kind of fasting He has “chosen”.

58:1–2 Worship which is only external, exposed and Denounced

58:1 “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet [shofar], and shew my people their transgression [Heb rasha, rebellion], and the house of Jacob their sins [Heb chata, missing the mark, short comings]”.

The trumpet was blown in Israel for various reasons, one of which was to draw God’s attention to the good deeds of the nation (Num 10:10). But here the prophet is called upon to lift up his voice, to cry aloud using all the power of his lungs as if blowing a trumpet, to draw attention to the evil of Judah’s solemn days. It was the prophet’s duty to warn, which often reaped persecution. However, after discharging his responsibility any failure to heed devolved on the heads of the people themselves (Ezek 3:17–19; Acts18:5,6).

58:2 “Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.”

Here is a list of all the external acts of worship which on the surface describe lives devoted to God and evident piety. However, God does not judge by the outward appearance but by the heart. He can judge motives for He searches the hearts, the minds of men. A worshipper may mislead his fellows but he cannot ‘fool’ God. If he is given to this he is self-deceived.

In this verse we read of daily, regular devotion, of apparent pleasure in understanding God’s way. Also there were the hallmarks of right-doing, the punctilious performance of the ordinances laid down, prayers that God may reveal to them His way and delight in the outworking of their religion by which they drew near to God – or so they imagined.

From the way in which this verse is written it is clear that their religion was a sham. All the outward show was there but it lacked sincerity. When it says, “as a nation that did righteousness and forsook not the ordinance of their God”, it is obvious that this is not how God saw it. It was an outward show, hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is one of the sins Jesus condemned often and severely. It is one of the grossest sins, not being amenable to confession like the actions of rank sinners (Matt 21:31–32).

We are not told when this prophecy was given but like the previous chapter it also probably describes the degradation of worship in Manasseh’s reign. It is notable too, that in Isaiah chapter one there is a long list of acts of worship, sacrifices, observances and prayers which Yahweh found repugnant. “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? … I will not hear: your hands are full of blood” (v11–15). Acceptable worship must be accompanied with a compassionate regard for one’s fellow servants.

57:3–4 Judah’s question and God’s answer: the worthlessness of inconsistent worship

Notice the construction of verses 3 and 4. In the first half of verse 3 questions are asked by Judah, and in the last half and also in verse 4 we have God’s reply.

58:3 “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not [lb ‘why aren’t you impressed’]? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure [rsv mg, ‘pursue your own business’], and exact all your labours [rsv ‘oppress all your workers’, mlb ‘employees’].”

The nation had expected a favourable response to their fasting. As they saw it, their self-deprivation went unobserved – “… and thou seest not?” Notice how the Living Bible catches the sense, ‘Why aren’t you impressed?’

They had “afflicted their souls” as was required on the Day of Atonement. What was entailed is hard to define other than fasting. It would appear that they were to do some introspection, to consider their ways, repent and confess their sins. This done they were perplexed because God took no cognizance! But there were reasons for this which Yahweh is about to point out. It should be noted, the lessons are timeless, applicable not just to the prophet’s generation.

“Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure [rsv mrg, ‘pursue your own business’], and exact all your labours” [rsv ‘oppress all your workers’]. The problem was that their fasting was not genuine. It was accompanied by the pursuit of other interests, their own business! Simultaneously with these outward acts of worship there was oppression of their ‘employees’ [mlb]! This was incongruous, unacceptable in the eyes of God. In this there is a salient lesson for us all. We must be consistent and true in all departments of our lives. Jesus made the profession of love for God dependent on how neighbours, and fellow-servants are treated! When asked which commandment was the greatest he gave two which were interdependent, to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It was easy to profess the first, but when the second was made the test of it, a new dimension was added!

58:4 “Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness [lb ‘Look, what good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarrelling’?]: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high [rsv ‘Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high’].”

These words are a further exposé. Worship that is accompanied with wickedness is an abomination in the sight of Yahweh. This had already been dramatically pointed out (1:11–15). In Proverbs 15:8 we read, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to Yahweh: but the prayer of the upright is his delight.” The prayer of an upright man involves no material sacrifice but is a delight to God, but the costly sacrifice of a wicked man repels Him. The heart is what is important to God: He knows all and sees all. The Lord summed up the issue when he said, “true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit [sincerity] and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit [intelligent Being]: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23–24).

From verse 4 it is evident that there was physical violence and quarrelling taking place at the same time as worship. It was as if God could not see, as if He did not know exactly what was going on. He requires consistency. As Paul put it, “Now the end of the commandment is charity [love] out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Tim 1:5).

How could they expect a response from God when there were such glaring anomalies in their lives? “Fasting that was a calculated prompt directed at the Lord, a day of self-pleasing to the disadvantage of others, and provocations of the worst elements of the human spirit brings no spiritual result, because it does not go beyond the formal act; it has no currency in heaven” (JA Motyer).

58:5–7 God’s question and answer. The fast He has not chosen (purely negative) is contrasted with the fast He has chosen (positive acts of love)

The Counterfeit Fast

58:5 “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head like as bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to Yahweh?”

In this verse the worshippers in Judah are challenged.

Four searching questions are asked by the One they purported to worship. They are ‘stopped in their tracks’ and made to look inward and ask questions of themselves. Micah, Isaiah’s contemporary prophet, had spelled out plainly what it was that God desired: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Yahweh require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”(6:8).

The things that made up true worship in Judah’s eyes were negative; they were an outward performance, with men, not God, foremost in mind. There was self-deprivation, affliction, fasting, praying and mourning, and the wearing of sackcloth. These actions were unaccompanied by acts of mercy. In the remaining verses God explains what is acceptable to Him. In assessing men and their worship God cannot but take into account how they deal with their fellows, their parents, spouses, children, fellow-servants. There must be consistency. Where there is hypocrisy, worship is unacceptable, even obnoxious.

The true fast

57:6–7 “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?

(1) to loose the bands of wickedness [cp Acts 8:23],

(2) to undo the heavy burdens [Matt 23:4],

(3) and to let the oppressed go free,

(4) and that ye break every yoke?

(5) Is it not do deal thy bread to the hungry,

(6) and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?

(7) when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him;

(8) and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh [LB, ‘and don’t hide from relatives that need your help’]?”

In these two verses God defines the kind of ‘sacrifice’ that is acceptable to Him. Eight different actions are commended to us and this is followed in verses 8 and 9 with the blessings that will flow from God as a consequence. This sets the pattern for the rest of this chapter. Obligations are followed by blessings more than once.

What is notable about these acts of ‘worship’ or ‘fasting’? They all involve how we treat our fellows. They exemplify the words found in Hosea 6:6 where Yahweh says, “For I desired mercy [Heb chesed, steadfast love], and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” These words are taken up by the Lord when rebuking the self-righteous Pharisees: “Gut if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt 12:7; 9:13).

These words present us with a serious challenge. Generally the prophet is telling us that if we are true worshippers we will not ignore the plight of the destitute, but will extend help and compassion where we are able.

True worship entails

  • relief from unjust exactions
  • the alleviation of grievous burdens (cp Matt 23:4; Neh 5:1–11)
  • freeing those who are oppressed, broken by life, who cannot help themselves (cp Isa 42:3);
  • not just loosing the yoke’s harness, but breaking it, whether it be injustice (as to their slaves or workers), inhumanity or inequality.

The last four requirements (5 to 8) apply to individuals in immediate need, the providing of food to the hungry; hospitality, the opening of one’s home and giving shelter to those cast out; clothing the naked; and looking to the needs of relatives, for whom there is a special obligation (1 Tim 5:8).

These are the ingredients of true religion, being harmonious with James’ definition, “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (1:27) ; and also in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, in which the Lord lists the good deeds done by those “on his right hand” (Matt 25:34–36).

Clearly the true fast involves helping others. This may involve us rethinking the way we react to those in need. We cannot ignore them, or leave it to others or to a committee. It is personal, and because it is challenging, Isaiah was called upon to lift up his voice like a trumpet – none could plead ignorance.