The Acceptable Fast of the Lord
(A Study of Isaiah 58)
by Al Maxey
The ancient Jews were a "religious" people. They placed a lot of emphasis on ritual, ceremony & tradition. However, the externals of religious practice had become the totality of their experience; they had lost sight of the spiritual side of their relationship with God.
Outwardly, they appeared to be a people devoted to God. Their love of ceremony made them visibly appear to be righteous (Is. 58:2). The problem was: they loved the ritual, but not God or one another! They loved the system/religion. "They act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and are so delighted to hear the reading of My laws---just as though they would obey them---just as though they don't despise the commandments of their God! How anxious they are to worship correctly; oh, how they love the Temple services!" (Is. 58:2, The Living Bible). "Such empty externalism reappears in every age and culture!" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 322).
"Never was a louder cry against the hypocrisy, nor a more cutting reproof of the wickedness, of a people professing a national established religion, having all the forms of godliness without a particle of its power" (Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 216).
Isaiah 58 deals primarily with just one area of religious practice: Fasting (although vs. 13-14 deal with Sabbath observance). It can be broken down into several key areas: The "religious" fast versus the "spiritual" fast, and the results of each. In the former we get a good look at what was really occurring behind the externals of the ritual; we also see the perspective of the religious participants. In the latter we see what God really expects of His people.....both then and now!
THE "RELIGIOUS" FAST
The Jews undoubtedly observed the fast "correctly" with regard to the many external requirements. The form was correct. But notice what else was going on:
#1 --- "In the days of your fasts ye find your pleasures" (vs. 3c). The fast (as well as the Sabbath -- vs. 13) had become a day of idleness and the pursuit of pleasure, rather than a time to draw closer to God.
#2 --- ".....and you drive hard all your workers" (vs. 3d). Since work was suspended on these days, these people made their employees work all the harder to make up for the "lost day!"
#3 --- "Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists" (vs. 4a). "Fasting undertaken as a duty can produce an edgy, irritable community" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, p. 323).
#4 --- "Do not hide yourself from your own flesh" (vs. 7d). They were "evading a duty to your kinsfolk" (NEB)....."turning your back on your own" (NAB)....."hiding from relatives who need your help" (LB). They were turning away from the needs of their brethren; their "family." The Jews were "one united whole.....they formed one family, owing to one another mutual love" (Keil & Delitzsch, A Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 7, Part 2, p. 389). This they were not doing!
#5 --- "Remove the yoke from your midst" (vs. 9c). They were oppressing one another, and placing yokes of bondage (both physical & spiritual) upon one another. "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). See also: Matt. 23:4; Gal. 5:1.
#6 --- "Remove from your midst.....the pointing of the finger and the speaking of what is hurtful" (vs. 9d). They were to refrain from "speaking words in anger out of thy mouth (or: "idle words")" (vs. 13). "Stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors" (vs. 9d, LB). "The utterance of things which are injurious to one's neighbor" (Keil & Delitzsch, p. 391). This is "a reference to character assassination" (Expositor's, p. 323).
God looked beyond the "correctness of the externals" and saw the "corruptness of the internals!" The form may have been right, but their hearts were all wrong! The Jews themselves, however, could not see beyond the fact that they had engaged in a fast; "we humbled ourselves" (vs. 3ab). They bowed their heads and reclined on sackcloth and ashes (vs. 5). But they had only fasted and humbled themselves externally.....the heart was untouched! In vs. 5 God makes it clear to them that this was not the kind of fast HE had in mind, and that if THEY thought it was acceptable, they were sadly mistaken. Because of their externally correct -- internally corrupt observance, they experienced the following:
#1 --- "'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and You have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You have not noticed?'" (vs. 3ab). God answers the question for them in vs. 4b -- "You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high." The Living Bible renders it this way: "This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with Me!"
#2 --- They were spiritually ill and wounded. Vs. 8 speaks of "healing and recovery."
#3 --- They were in spiritual darkness and gloom -- Vs. 10cd; vs. 8a.
#4 --- They had turned away from the spiritual guidance of the Lord -- Vs. 11a.
#5 --- Their needs were not being satisfied; they were like a scorched, parched garden -- Vs. 11bde.
#6 --- They were spiritually weak -- Vs. 11c.
#7 --- Their lives and relationships were in ruin; without foundation; crumbling around them -- Vs. 12.
THE "SPIRITUAL" FAST
In vs. 6, after examining the fast in which the Jews were engaging, God redefines the concept of "fasting." "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen?," says God. The Lord then presents a list of several things to His people which He considers to be true signs of "the spiritual fast."
#1 --- "Unbind the chains of injustice" (vs. 6b). The acceptable fast of the Lord is to set free those whom we have held captive to our acts of injustice upon them. "Release those whom we have unjustly oppressed, and free them from the oppression that makes their lives bitter to them" (Matthew Henry's Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 338). An ancient Rabbi once observed, "not eating is a natural fast, but abstaining from sin is a spiritual fast."
#2 --- "Undo the bands of the yoke.....and break every yoke" (vs. 6ce). "Remove the yoke from your midst" (vs. 9c). "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.....For you were called to freedom, brethren" (Gal. 5:1, 13). The Jews were placing heavy burdens (both physical & spiritual) upon one another. The acceptable fast of the Lord is to free one another from those burdens.
#3 --- "Set free those who have been crushed (bruised, broken, shattered)" (vs. 6d). This was the self-proclaimed ministry of Jesus (Luke 4:18). We must either: (a) stop afflicting others in such a way as to crush them, or (b) stop those who are so afflicting and shattering the lives of others. "Satisfy the needs of the soul that is afflicted" (vs. 10b).
#4 --- In vs. 6 the Septuagint (LXX) includes the phrase, "Tear up every unjust account," or "tear up every accounting (record) of injustices done." Paul wrote, "Love.....keeps no record of wrongs" (I Cor. 13:5).
#5 --- "Share your food with the hungry" (vs. 7a). "Give bread to the hungry from thy heart" (vs. 10a). "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me" (Matt. 25:34-36).
#6 --- "Bring the homeless poor (or: homeless & afflicted) into your house" (vs. 7b). The NAB reads, "Sheltering the oppressed and the homeless."
#7 --- "When you see the naked, cover him" (vs. 7c).
#8 --- You are family! Meet the needs of your brethren! "Do not hide yourself from your own flesh" (vs. 7d).
#9 --- The acceptable fast of the Lord is to cease from strife and self-centeredness (vs. 4a, 9d, 13).
When one observes the spiritual fast of the Lord God, he will experience the following:
#1 --- "Your light shall break forth like the dawn" (vs. 8a). "Your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday" (vs. 10cd). When you commit yourself to the Lord and to doing His will, "He will bring forth your righteousness as the light" (Ps 37:6). "But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day" (Prov. 4:18). "You are the light of the world. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:14, 16). You will become a beacon to those in darkness.
#2 --- "Your recovery (healing) shall spring up speedily" (vs. 8b). Some ancient Greek & Latin versions read, "And the scar of thy wounds shall be speedily removed."
#3 --- Righteousness shall go before us, and the glory of God will stand guard behind us (vs. 8cd). Much like the full armor of God (Eph. 6:10f), we are surrounded and protected and vindicated.
#4 --- "Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say, 'Here I am'" (vs. 9ab). The result of fasting acceptably is that God will both hear and respond.
#5 --- "The Lord will continually guide you" (vs. 11a).
#6 --- "The Lord will satisfy your needs" (vs. 11b).
#7 --- "The Lord will renew your strength" (vs. 11c).
#8 --- "You will be like a well-watered garden; like a spring whose waters never fail" (vs. 11d). God will cause you to be fertile and productive; a fruit-bearing vineyard.
#9 --- "You shall be called Rebuilder of broken walls, Restorer of houses in ruins" (vs. 12). They will rebuild on the "age-old foundations" (vs. 12). The Lord continually commands His people to "Build up! Build up!" (Is. 57:14; 62:10). Those who offer the acceptable fast of the Lord are builders, not wreckers, of the Body of Christ. See: Rom. 14:19-20; Eph. 4:16.
#10 --- "You shall find your joy (delight) in the Lord" (vs. 14a). There is great joy and happiness in living acceptably before God.
#11 --- "He shall bring thee up to the good places of the land, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father" (vs. 14bc). There is an inheritance awaiting those who offer unto their God the "acceptable fast."