Bible Passage: Isaiah 58:1-9
The messages recorded in Isaiah were spoken during the reign of a number of different kings, beginning with Uzziah in 740BC and stretching to Hezekiah in 700BC. Early in this period the nation had been doing okay: there was decent trade with neighbours and it was a time of peace as the surrounding enemies had other concerns. However, as time went on there became an increasing threat of invasion from Assyria, and things were not right internally either as the new found wealth was unevenly distributed, corruption was rampant and religious observance became an outward facade that masked a reality that was far from God.
It is into this context that the rebuke of Isaiah 58 was spoken.
False Fasting (v1-5): At first glance it looks like the people are doing the right things. They are seeking God daily, delighting to know his ways and asking righteous judgements of him. These are all fantastic things to do, and should be encouraged. To top things off, they are fasting: forgoing food to seek God. In terms of their religious practice, it may appear that these people are exemplary, and yet something is lacking. Though the outward appearance was right, the internal reality was not. Their motive wasn’t truly seeking God at all but rather their own pleasure, and at the same time they were oppressing and mistreating the poor. Through Isaiah (and many other books in the Bible), God is crystal clear that religious observance means nothing if it doesn’t translate to love for others.
True Fasting (v6-7): These verses contrast the rebuke with a vision for what true fasting that is pleasing to God would look like. This is much more focussed on deeds of mercy than religious performance. It means fighting for justice and freedom, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and covering the naked. This is exactly what Jesus encouraged his followers to do (see Matt 25:44-45) and exactly what we saw the early church living out (Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:34).
Healing Fasting (v8-12): Caring for the poor is something that we should do because it honours God and is compassionate to our neighbours. In these verses we learn that it is also good for us. The passage speaks of healing, of light rising in darkness and of gloom becoming like noonday sun, and this is for those who have poured themselves out for the needy. There are a whole variety of reasons why a person may feel gloomy or downcast, and there are lots of things that might help, but caring for the poor is one of them and there is a promise of God here that living this way will have a positive effect on our own souls.
- This could be a good opportunity to encourage people to participate in any ministries or give to any offerings that you have that are specifically focussed on the poor.
- There is also a much more general application to prioritising the poor. It can be easy to make faith individualistic and focus more on our own spiritual practices than on doing good for others, but this is not what God has called us to.
- Some may identify with the darkness and gloom that this passage talks about. Be sure to speak with empathy and compassion as you highlight the promises in this passage to bring light into the darkness. You could offer prayer for those who feel this way.