Bible Commentary: Isaiah 58-59

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Isaiah 58-59

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Proper Fasting and Honoring God's Sabbath

Chapter 58 begins with a command from God that Isaiah—indeed, all of God's messengers—cry out a warning of His people's need to repent of their sins. The proclamation of this message of repentance is compared to the blowing of a trumpet, which is loud and clear—and often a signal of impending calamity (verse 1; compare Ezekiel 33).

Verse 2 of Isaiah 58 is more understandable in the New International Version: "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" (emphasis added). Yet it was all a pretense. All of their rituals and displays of religion were just that—rituals and displays. Their heart was not one of truly and sincerely serving God.

Starting in verse 3, God gives the example of fasting. While supposedly honoring God through self-denial of food and drink, the same people were dealing wrongfully with others and even using fasting itself for selfish advantage—as a show of their own righteousness and to criticize and deal heavy-handedly with those who didn't fast as they did (verses 3-4). Worse still, they viewed their fasting as a way to force God to hear and help them (verse 4). God would not—and will not now or ever—accept such fasting (see Luke 18:9-14).

Fasting is supposed to help us draw close to God—to make us more mindful of the need of His constant provision for us. It is to be an exercise of genuine humility—not one of exalting ourselves over others with penance and self-righteous displays of our supposed piety. Indeed, fasting should involve not only our relationship to God, but also our relationship with our fellow man. We are to seek an attitude of giving, service and esteeming others highly, with the goal of ceasing from malicious talk and finger pointing (Isaiah 58:9; compare James 3:8-10). God says this is especially true with our "own flesh" (Isaiah 58:7; compare 1 Timothy 5:8)—which may indicate our close relatives but could mean our community or nation or even the entire human race, since we are all one family. Overall, this passage emphasizes that fasting should indicate our willingness for self-sacrifice for others, not self-exaltation.

Because of religious hypocrisy among God's people, both physical and spiritual Israel, a time of darkness and drought is coming, as can be discerned from Isaiah 58:10-11 (God here warns of such a time, telling His people the attitude they need to have to be preserved through it). Indeed, from other prophecies about coming droughts and national calamities, it is clear that many of His people will be forced to "fast" in the future—that is, they will suffer hunger and thirst because there will be very little to eat and drink. They will be forced into humility—but this will be a genuine humility. Then they will cry out to God, and He will answer (as in verse 9). He will rescue His people—giving them drink and nourishment, signifying both physical and spiritual sustenance. Indeed, the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon them and its fruit will flow out from them—they themselves being like springs of water. (Here and in other passages, God is, in a sense, basically telling us to draw close to Him in fasting with genuine humility now—so that we are not forced to do so in the difficult times ahead.)

The prophecy of verse 12 about rebuilding the waste places is primarily for the last days. Yet, while literal, it also indicates a ministry of spiritual reconciliation and restoration.

Continuing on, it is interesting that in a last-days context we should find a command to properly observe God's Sabbath (verses 13-14). This is yet another blow to those who argue that the Sabbath is abolished in Christ. Indeed, we can see here another instance of the religious hypocrisy that this section of the book of Isaiah is denouncing. And as with the other matters Isaiah brings out, this denunciation was not only for the people of his day. In fact, it is primarily for our time now. In the modern nations of Israel today, there is a great deal of religious observance supposedly done in God's honor. But they don't observe the only day of the week God actually commanded people to keep—the seventh-day Sabbath. Furthermore, even many who do keep the Sabbath—Jews and various seventh-day observing Christian organizations—often fail to properly observe it. They either overly ritualize it into a burden or look for loopholes to get around keeping it as God intended it to be kept. (We might note that even fewer give proper attention to God's annual Sabbaths, listed in Leviticus 23 and commanded in various other passages).

We examine the scriptures commonly used to argue against Christian observance of the Sabbath, as well as God's plain instructions throughout Scripture about keeping it, in our booklet Sunset to Sunset—God's Sabbath Rest. For the same type of information on the annual Sabbaths, see our booklet God's Holy Day Plan—Hope for All Mankind. Both of these free booklets can be downloaded or requested as a hardcopy. 

According to verse 13 of Isaiah 58, we aren't to be doing our own pleasure on God's Holy Day—or, perhaps better stated, doing as we please. In giving the Sabbath command, God said we are to rest and cease from our work—be it your occupation or occupational concerns (with the exception of God's ministry, compare Matthew 12:5), personal business, housework (besides minor meal preparation and light tidying such as making the bed) or any exhausting activity (except in emergencies). But there is more to it than resting from work. Indeed, while God gives us the Sabbath as a time that can be used to get extra physical rest, this doesn't mean sleep the day away or while it away on "doing nothing" or on personal pursuits. Rather than emphasizing what one should not do on the Sabbath, often there needs to be more focus on what to do, such as "honor Him" (verse 13) and doing good, as Jesus Christ emphasized and exemplified during His earthly ministry.

The Sabbath is a day we must treat with reverence—as holy time. And that doesn't just mean the period during which we attend worship services in accordance with God's command (Leviticus 23:3). For the entire seventh day, we must—as Isaiah 58:13 explains—stop pursuing our "own ways" (the things we normally do), seeking our "own pleasure" (just doing what we want) and speaking our "own words" (everyday things we talk about that don't involve God). This involves actually regulating the way we think on this day, since "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). We must focus our minds on God throughout His Sabbath.

This doesn't preclude doing any enjoyable things on the Sabbath since we are to find "delight" in it. But whatever we do, God must be an intrinsic part of it. The Sabbath is not a personal holiday. It is a day to meet with, and spend time with, our Creator. It is a day for Christ-centered family togetherness and spiritual fellowship. Again, God's Sabbath is not to be a rigid burden. Indeed, as surprising as it may seem, Adam and Eve's wedding night was on the Sabbath. The Sabbath should be regarded as a joyous blessing, a rest from ordinary daily pursuits providing spiritual and mental rejuvenation.

Yet we must be careful in our use of the waking hours we have on this weekly Holy Day. The problem comes when people start making allowances for this and that and this and that—until the Sabbath is gone and very little time has been devoted to God. The Sabbath should be a time of extra prayer, extra Bible study, extra meditation on God's teachings, and extra discussion with family and fellow believers about God and His truth. In its note on Isaiah 58:13-14, The Expositor's Bible Commentary quotes from another commentator: "These verses describe the strictness and the gladness of the sabbath-keeping God desires…. The sabbath should express first of all our love of God (though both the foregoing passage and the sabbath practice of Jesus insist that it must overflow to man). It will mean self-forgetfulness…and the self-discipline of rising above the trivial."

Other scriptures explain a little more about Sabbath observance (e.g., Mark 3:4; Luke 13:15-16; 14:1-6). God does not dictate precise terms, yet the attitude of an individual is revealed in the care He takes in striving to serve and please God by obeying the instructions He has provided. Of course, all that God commands us is for our good. Indeed, the Sabbath is for our benefit. Only when we develop a lifestyle of observing it as God instructs will He grant us the wonderful blessings of Isaiah 58:

"Your Iniquities Have Separated You From Your God" 

Chapter 59 is a continuation of a catalog of Israel's national and individual sins (in addition to those already described in chapters 57-58). It is sin that cuts people off from God and leaves them groping in confusion and darkness (59:1-2). When Paul cited a string of statements from the Psalms regarding the wickedness of man (Romans 3:10-18), he also included a passage from Isaiah, taken from 59:7-8.

The New Bible Commentary: Revised states in its note on verse 15: "Perhaps the most revealing touch [of how bad things are] is the victimizing of the decent man, the only one out of step. It is a worse breakdown than that of Am[os] 5:13 [see verses 12-15]; i.e., not only public justice has warped, but public opinion with it."

In the midst of this evil, God finds no one to intercede and "wonders" at it (see verse 16). "The Lord's concern is even sharper than our versions suggest. Wondered should be 'was appalled,' as at 63:5" (New Bible Commentary, note on verse 16). So God Himself will intervene, symbolically putting on the spiritual armor Paul elaborates on in Ephesians 6:10-17 (Isaiah 59:16-17). We will see a description of this taking place in Isaiah 63:1-6, which foretells the righteous war Jesus Christ will make at His return (see Revelation 19:11). Paul says Israel will eventually be saved (Romans 11:26), citing Isaiah 59:20 to support his statement.

"At v. 19 they [the Israelites] are introduced as making an ample confession of their sins, and deploring their wretched state in consequence of them. On this act of humiliation a promise is given that God, in His mercy and zeal for His people, will rescue them from this miserable condition; that the Redeemer will come like a mighty Hero to deliver them; He will destroy His enemies, convert both Jews [i.e., Israelites] and Gentiles to himself, and give them a new covenant, and a law which shall never be abolished" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, note on chap. 59).

In verse 21, the New King James Version and some other modern translations refer to God's Spirit as a "who." But the word should be "that," as it is in the earlier King James Version and in the New Revised Standard Version. To learn more on this subject, download or request our free booklet Who Is God?