Isaiah 58 (like much of Isaiah) is awesome. For example, here’s verse 2.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
That needs no interpretation.
At least (I’d say) if we think it needs interpretation, that may be because we are unwilling to let it just say what it says. I suspect it means what it says, which is, at any rate, that the “nation” in his day looked pretty “spiritual”; still it sounds like he’s setting them up for some blunt criticism.
The implications merit drawing out – it is possible to appear to be what we are not, even in such weighty matters as seeking God, or being a nation that “does what is right.” And Isaiah is willing to be somewhat insulting to his hearers by wording it not as a direct accusation, but an assumption, saying “as if they were a nation that does what is right,” rather than “you pretend but are not”.
Then he give us one of those fairly common prophetic rejections of contemporary culture-religion. In this case, their formal days of self-humbling, or of fasting before the LORD, are not cutting it.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
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?
Sounds like they’re pretty committed to their faith.
But when Isaiah gets explicit about their offenses, he tosses their religious observences aside as less than worthless, and focuses instead on economic issues. Imagine that.
You know, if you collect all the Bible passages that focus on homosexuality they would take up less space than this one chapter. And this is only one chapter out of the many that focus on economic and political-power (justice) issues.
Why, then, does the American Christian-Republican (dominionist) movement (and power-bloc) talk so very little about injustice in economic and political-power matters? I’m serious. What’s the answer? Why do they not talk about it?
Anyway, Isaiah does get specific. The trouble with this kind of specificity is that it’s somewhat less than specific. It requires a careful awareness of one’s own society, and of one’s own actions AND their extended consequences, in order to discern the next possible steps to take in response to Isaiah’s criticism.
It seems clear to me that he expects his hearers to already know just what he’s talking about, since they apparently have positions of relative power and influence in their society. That is, they are in position to know the details he’s complaining about, and Isaiah seems to assume that they DO know.
I can imagine an internal conversation in one of his hearers:
“Well, maybe he has interesting, or at least emotionally appealing points there. But we do have good reasons for what we do. After all, these patterns have taken generations to develop.
But hmm, what about xxxx. He no doubt wants to complain about that. Well, THAT’s not going to change. That’s part of our way of life. It’s not really as terrible as he makes out. No, Isaiah. Just shut up. You are way out of line.
The response is clear:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
But what always hits me hardest in this chapter is the enormity of the promised blessings.
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Wow. Do we ever need healings – of many kinds – in this country!
This sounds like a moral “trickle-up” strategy for renewed national health. If we as a nation will attend to the issues God is “fussing about” we will find amazing and wonderful things following in consequence. Unfortunately what God is fussing about and what religious leaders are fussing about are often unrelated theings. But blessings like those in these next verses are clearly desirable whatever the precise meaning of the symbols is.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Here are four potent r-words of blessing.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
It’s strange to realize, but the people who listened to Isaiah could see archeological ruins in their country that went back hundreds of years, some that were even as old to them as ruins from Isaiah’s day are to us. They were signs of ancient prosperity and freedom – prosperities and freedoms long since lost and forgotten.
Isaiah is offering a way to recover lost prosperities and freedoms. That is a very big thing. And the core of his requirement – so that we might hope for such renewals – is in matters of economics and of political power.
Then there is a short reference to religious law, regarding keeping a weekly holy day.
13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words …
We know that, by the way he behaved on the Sabbath in the synagogues and outside them, Jesus repeatedly offended the religious establishment. And remember, as a Rabbi and a frequent leader in synagogue service, he was a part of that same religious establishment.
He also had high regard for the book of Isaiah, from which he quoted fairly often. In the light of the way Jesus (and later Paul) talked about holy days and special religious observances – and in light of how Isaiah himself talked about such things earlier in this chapter and elsewhere throughout the book – I think we have to regard this injunction about Sabbath-honoring in a way that is not just about formal religious law-keeping.
Anyway, I apply verse 13 to myself something like this:
Your whole life is a gift from God, and finds meaning in your enjoying that fact, and in continuously giving it all back to God. Do not just drift; do not just waste time, energy, money, etc. doing whatever comes along or whatever “everyone else” is doing. Attend with respect and love to the presence and gifts of God in and around your life on a daily basis. Let there be meaning – recognize and enjoy the meaning – in all you say and do. Then you will find yourself becoming a participant in the awesome blessings promised in this context.
I believe that.