Fasting and the Sabbath – Isaiah 58

Read the Passage: Isaiah 58

Counterfeit Religion (58:1–5)

The first half of the book of Isaiah is largely focused upon messages of rebuke and judgment (cf. Isa. 1–39), while the second part of this oracle contains messages of hope and salvation (cf. Isa. 40–66). Even so, as he writes about the future glory of God’s people, Isaiah continues to remind his readers about their need for repentance. Indeed, the nation of Israel would only experience the new heavens and new earth, which Isaiah writes about in Isa. 58–66, if they were redeemed. In the opening of Isaiah 58 God instructed His prophet, saying, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet. Tell my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1). The issues that Isaiah confronts here is not that God’s people were neglecting religious practices; rather, it was that they were merely going through the motions of external obedience (cf. Isa. 1:11).

In Isa. 58:2 God speaks in jest about the veneer of religion among the Israelites, which included their charade of seeking God, delighting in His ways, doing righteousness, and approaching Him. However, since these acts were done with pretense, God took no notice of them—other than His offense. Consequently, the people complained that God did not regard their fasting, which ironically was true. Notice, however, that since the people’s religion was self-centered, it did not occur to them that the problem with their rituals was not God, but themselves. In Isa. 58:3–5 God points out that the people were fasting for personal pleasure, without repentance, and for self-glory. In this passage the Lord teaches that these are not the elements of proper worship, nor is this “the fast that I have chosen” (Isa. 58:5). In fact, God implies the people should be ashamed of viewing their fasting as acceptable.

Authentic Fasting (58:6–12)

In contrast to the counterfeit religion exhibited by God’s people that was detailed in Isa. 58:1–5, in Isa. 58:6–12, God describes what authentic religion actually looks like, especially in regard to fasting. Fasting denies one’s fleshly appetites. Since the flesh wars against the Spirit (Gal. 5:17), proper fasting results in an increase in the fruit of the Spirit, including self-control. Indeed, God declares in Isa. 58:6–7 that proper fasting will lead to: (1) loosing bonds of wickedness, (2) undoing heavy burdens, (3) freeing of the oppressed, (4) ministering to the needs of others, (5) feeding the hungry, (6) sheltering the poor, (7) clothing the naked, (8) and caring for oneself. In Isa. 58:8–9a Isaiah indicates these things are not a way to earn favor with God; rather, they are the result of having a relationship with God. Thus, he who does these things will experience answered prayer (cf. Isa. 58:9).

In Isa. 58:9b–12 Isaiah highlights several indicators of being in a right relationship with God. To elaborate, after reiterating a number of markers of authentic fasting, in Isa. 58:10b–11 God notes that: (1) His people will shine as lights in the darkness, (2) He will guide them continually, (3) He will satisfy their souls, and (4) He will strengthen their bones. Therefore, the follower of God, writes Isaiah, will be like a well-watered garden or an unfailing spring of water. Furthermore, in Isa. 58:12 Isaiah writes of the recovery of certain “old waste places,” and notes that God’s people will inevitably “raise up the foundations for many generations.” This addresses the multi-generational effects of righteousness upon a family or a nation (cf. Exod. 20:4–6). Indeed, God notes that righteous people will have a reputation for their good works, which may even extend beyond their own lifetime.

True Sabbath-Keeping (58:13–14)

In Isa. 58:13–14 God changes the immediate topic of discussion from fasting to Sabbath-keeping. Yet, the point under consideration is the same, as both fasting and keeping the Sabbath are external forms of religion that can either be distorted or be enjoyed. As God addressed proper fasting in Isa. 58:6–12, so here in Isa. 58:13–14 God describes how to properly keep the Sabbath, which includes: (1) not engaging in one’s own pleasures, (2) being delighted in the Sabbath itself, (3) honoring God and the Sabbath day, (4) not speaking one’s own words, and (5) delighting in God’s Being. When the Sabbath is kept properly God will cause man “to ride on the high hills of earth” and to be fed “with the heritage of Jacob” (Isa. 58:14). The larger idea here is that when religion is merely external, it becomes self-glorifying; yet when framed properly, religion glorifies God.

Application Questions:

  1. Before you became a Christian, were you religious? How can followers of Christ avoid falling into a self-centered, works-based model of sanctification?
  2. If someone claims to be a Christian yet has no desire to be with the people of God, what might this indicate?
  3. Is fasting a practice in which Christians should engage (cf. Lev. 16:29–31; Matt. 6:16)? If so, what are the parameters for proper fasting?
  4. In what ways have you benefited from the spiritual faithfulness of other believers in the past (i.e., family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, etc.)?
  5. Do you find yourself prone to a self-exalting, works-based view of sanctification? How can we keep Christ as the central figure of our worship?