Isaiah 58:1-14.

Time Out!

American Journal of Biblical Theology     Vol. 7 Issue 12.     May 21, 2006
Copyright 2006, J.W. Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Isaiah 58:11                             
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Exhaustion.  There are few who are not quite familiar with the term.  As we find ourselves at the beginning of the 21st century we are surrounded with technology that was undreamed of only a few years ago.  We have gadgets and machines that perform virtually all of the mundane tasks that were commonly the most burdensome a century ago.  For example, fasting was an important part of ancient custom simply because the preparation of meals took from one-quarter to one-half of the workday.  By a century ago that number settled down to about one-quarter.  Today, with fast food restaurants, microwave ovens, and numerous other kitchen gadgets and food preparation methodologies, food preparation time has been drastically reduced.  Almost every act of labor has been touched by technology, resulting in faster and more efficient production.  With so much time saved through the application of modern technology, the most vexing problem of modern society should be the determination of how to spend all this leisure time that technology has created.

Quite the opposite is true.  As technology has allowed people to do more things more quickly, people have chosen to do more things.  As production levels increase, the stress to maintain that production increases.  If we can make 10,000 products per day, why not 12,000?  The 40-hour work week is only a memory for salaried workers who often work 60 hours per week or more for the same compensation that is provided at 40.  We try to fit into our frenetic schedules all those activities that we deem necessary like one would place pieces into a jigsaw puzzle.  Never in the history of man have so many people been found taking drugs to help them cope with the pace of today's culture.  The pace of today's culture affects more people physically than ever before, dramatically increasing the incidences of almost every stress-related illness known. 

Can things get worse?  Can the pace get faster?  The answer to that question is an obvious, "yes" since the factors that promote this frenzy still rule the day.  Technology continues to create more products that increase efficiency and productivity.  The drive to increase production still continues.  For those caught up in this upward spiral of activity, there is one simple future:  the years will pass, opportunities for experiencing the really important things in life will be bypassed, and death's door will be found far too soon.

This is not the "abundant life" that God promises to those who place their faith and trust in Him (John 10:10).  That abundant life is offered, but we push it out of the way in our drive to accomplish the tasks of this age while largely ignoring God's Word and the voice of the Holy Spirit as He whispers through the deafening blast of each day's activity.

As we participate in the activities of each day, are we really accomplishing what is best for us, relationally, physically, and spiritually?  That is, are we nullifying the opportunity to develop relationships with those we love as we work to "provide" for them?  Are we damaging the "temple of the Holy Spirit" by our lifestyle?  Are we damaging or even nullifying our relationship to God by filling our time with works that are not profitable for our spiritual life or for the kingdom of God?

Isaiah 58:1.

Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.

The pace of life in ancient Israel and Judah had become frenetic in many of the ways that ours has, but for different reasons.  The religious traditions that surrounded the Mosaic Law had placed so many requirements on people that many, in an effort to obtain righteousness, were immersed in its authority as it dictated many of the actions of each day.  At the same time the people had forgotten the purpose of the law, ignoring its author, the LORD.  Instead of living a life of faith that results in godly living, they ignored faith and tried to live by a law that describes godly living.  This godless approach to righteousness enabled them to follow after the sensual pagan gods of the Canaanites.  They ended up adding the ungodly pagan practices to their daily regimen, creating conflicts of purpose and allegiance that were complex and spiritually debilitating.

God called upon Isaiah to lift up his voice "like a trumpet" and expose the sin of the people.  He was to "spare not," to make use of every resource to expose every sin without compromise.  The metaphor of the trumpet is used to represent something that is loud and clear.  Isaiah's call to the people is to be both loud and clear so that all will hear God's message: a message that would show the people the nature of their transgressions and sins: their errors of "missing the intended mark," and their volitional sins of choice.  Under the traditional Mosaic system of sacrifice, the former sins were atoned for by applying various types of sacrifices.  There was no sacrifice for the latter form of sin.  The people had committed both.

The sin of Israel and Judah was their choice to follow after the secular and pagan culture rather than to place their faith and trust in God.  They claimed that God is their LORD, but they did not live out what they testified.  Their days were not characterized by prayer and seeking God.  Instead, God was placed out-of-sight and out-of-mind while the "more important" activities of every day were exercised.

Not much has changed.  Certainly we can easily argue that the secular and pagan people of the world today live like this.  However, Isaiah's prophesy is not intended for the lost.  His prophesy is intended for those who claim the name of the LORD.  This message is for those who claim to place their trust in the LORD but have placed Him out-of-sight and out-of-mind for most, if not all, of the day.  This message is for most Christians today.  If this is true, is it any wonder that many Christians do not experience the joy, peace, and love that characterizes the "abundant life" that Jesus promises?  It is time for someone to shout loudly and clearly to the church today.  The church needs to be lifted out of its immersion in this pagan society.

Isaiah 58:2.

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.

Again, Isaiah is presenting his prophesy to those who claim the name of the LORD.  This is a very religious people.  Their activity is, by their own design, intended to seek God. Calling themselves the "Children of God," they look back at their history as they proudly declare that theirs is the nation that is righteous.  Unlike their pagan neighbors they look to their rites and sacrifices, the observance of their celebrations and to their Mosaic Law, and see among these the fruit of their righteousness.  They pray with grand words, and make a great spectacle of their worship of God.  They wear their religion like a badge of pride.  This is an apt description of religious zealotry, but is religion the answer to righteousness?  Does God look upon their rites and sacrifices and their robes and sackcloth as the foundation of their righteousness?

Security in the LORD is found only when one places their faith and trust in Him.  Security is not found in religion, nor in religious piety or practice.  Religion is a work that man can perform, and no work leads to salvation.  The ancient Jews were willing to characterize the work of their lives in their attempt for righteousness.  However, such work only results in exhaustion, not peace.  Joy is not found when the Holy Spirit is not part of the heart.  This is evident in the true fruit of their labor.

Isaiah 58:3.

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.

The idea behind fasting is simple:  much of the daily routine was devoted to the preparation and consumption of food.  The Mosaic Law called for only one day of fasting: the day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, on the 10th day of the 7th month.  This fast was accomplished by the abstinence of both food and drink for one day: a time measured from sunrise to sunset.  This allowed the entire day to be devoted to prayer while the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in the center of the Tabernacle/Temple to offer the sacrifice of atonement of the people's transgressions.  Fasting was intended to be motivated by the mourning that accompanies the realization of one's responsibilities for their own sin.  Two other ceremonial fasts were established in early Judaism, the "Seventeenth Day of Tammuz" to remember the 586 BC siege of Jerusalem, and the "Ninth Day of Av," to commemorate the destruction of the Jewish temples (586 BC, 70AD.)  These ceremonial fasts set the pattern for a culture of fasting in response to times of great sorrow.  For example, King David fasted in grief as Bathsheba's son lay dying (2 Sam. 12:16).1 

The foundation and purpose of fasting was clearly established to allow people to bring their personal focus upon God.  However, by the time Isaiah writes, Israel had removed God from its religion.  Fasting was a legalistic enterprise that focused attention on the one fasting rather than on the One for whom fasting was intended.  Fasting became a badge of righteousness rather than a cause for expressing sorrow or repentance.  Fasting became so shallow and ritualized that the First-Century orthodoxy fasted on regular Mondays and Tuesdays.  (Note orthodox fasting did not preclude eating, drinking, and working during hours of darkness.)  For this reason Christians were encouraged to fast, but to do so on Wednesdays and Fridays so that their true fasting would not be confused with orthodox hypocrisy (from the Didache).2

This important religious practice had lost its purpose and its power.  When they fasted they realized no spiritual fruit at all.  They came to declare fasting as a great affliction as they denied themselves (for 12 hours!).  The only reward they found in fasting was found by massaging their own pride and ego as they made a great deal about how they suffered so.  Those who fast would put on a countenance of suffering, as they try to draw attention to their own piety.

Isaiah 58:4.

Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.

God does not reward rites and rituals with any form of His approval.  The original point of fasting was for the purpose of prayer.  Fasting had become a religious rite that the continued to perform while their heart was immersed in wickedness.  Isaiah points out that rather than taking time out (fasting) for prayer, they are far more willing to take time out to engage in ungodly behaviors such as fighting with those whom they disagree (strife), verbally and physically persecuting those who expose or reject their hypocrisy (debate), even to the point of murder (smite with the fist of wickedness.) 

Is it any wonder their religion has no power?  It may be easy to point fingers at the apostate nations of Israel and Judah, but when we look at our own lives, though we may not have a culture of fasting, do we take time out for prayer?  Would we rather spend our "spare" time seeking God, or seeking the 18th hole?  One does not need to set aside eating, drinking and working from sunrise to sunset in order to be righteous.  One only needs to turn from the frenetic pace of the day and calmly turn to God in prayer.  It is far easier to hear the leading of the Holy Spirit when one is quietly focused on the LORD than when one is immersed in the noise and distraction of daily routines, whether they be secular (as is the state for modern Christianity) or religious (as it was for ancient Israel.)

Isaiah 58:5.

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?

Fasting was a common rite among the ancient near-eastern cultures.  This was not a new practice when God instituted its use on the Day of Atonement.  The fast was established as a "time-out," a time when one could turn from the cares of normal daily activities and seek the LORD in a spirit of repentance and praise.  It was not intended to be an affliction on the people as the Jews had come to ascribe.  Again, even the hypocrisy of their afflicted state is exposed when we realize they only fasted during daylight hours.  Though the mournfulness that accompanies true repentance is a part of the product of the true purpose for fasting, it is not intended to bring attention to the worshipper, but rather to God.  It is not appropriate that one who is fasting would, instead of turning to God in prayer, turn to the public with his "head in a bulrush," an idiom for the physical expression of great sadness.   Though we come to God in repentance, He has forgiven the sin of those who have placed their faith in Him, so there is no need for great sadness, and there is particularly no need to express that sadness before people.  Some would stick their head in the bulrushes so far that they would dress up in sackcloth (black mourning clothes) and sit in cold ashes, tossing the ashes up in the air, covering themselves as an expression of profound mourning.  This great show was not intended to come to the LORD in sincerity, but rather to demonstrate their self-professed righteousness to the public.

For them, personal faith in God had been replaced by a religion.  Judaism had become an exclusive club with a God-theme.  Is it possible that there are church fellowships today that are more characterized as a Christian club than a body of faithful believers?  Churches can become a social club with a God-theme when they go through the rites of the practice of their worship without the power of the Holy Spirit.  To these, "going to church" is an affliction, like fasting was an affliction to the ancient Jews.  These find any excuse to stay home during worship times, and they watch their timepieces during the services because their heart is not there, but outside the walls of the facility.  We should not be too quick to criticize the hypocritical practices of the ancient Jews when we may be doing some of these same things ourselves.

Isaiah 58:6-7.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

What would happen if we chose to actually implement spiritual fasting in our lives.  True, spiritual fasting involves taking a time-out from our daily regimen so that we can focus specifically on prayer, read and meditate on scripture, and seek the LORD's will and purpose in our lives.  Isaiah points out some of the products of the practice of true fasting:

1.  Loose the bands of wickedness.  Immersed in a pagan and secular world, Christians are constantly touched by its wickedness.  Without a concerted effort to make consistently godly choices, one can be easily swept up by the world-view of this secular world.  Without a time-out we can become insensitive to the Holy Spirit, and begin accepting falsehood as truth, and begin accepting ungodly opinions as normative.  When we take some quality time to listen to the LORD and study His word, the wickedness of this world loses its brutal hold.

2.  Undo the heavy burdens, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke. Much of the stress we experience in this world comes from the way we embrace burden.  We think that we must fix everything.  We hold on to anger and bitterness that pulls us down.  We hold grudges against others that weigh us down.  These are all burdens that we do not have to carry.  Quality time with the LORD will reveal where we are angry, bitter, or holding grudges and through prayer it is possible to turn those over the the LORD when we recognize that these are ungodly attitudes that need to be set down. 

It is common knowledge that if one places a frog in hot water, it will jump out.  However, if one places the frog in cold water that is slowly raised in temperature, the frog will not notice, and will die when the water is too hot for the frog to handle.  It is easy for us to fall into this same situation as we are exposed to an ungodly world.  Little by little we accept its secular views until there is little that separates us from evil.  

3.  Deal thy bread to the hungry.  Another part of immersion in the secular is to forget the call upon every Christian to share God's love with others.  We can be so caught up in taking care of ourselves that we neglect those around us who need help.  The more secular we become, the more finite becomes the type of person we are willing to associate with.  We find that we must step out of our "comfort zone" in order to minister to others when that zone has become constrictively small.  Disassociation with others can lead to prejudice, and prejudice to bigotry.  Our world becomes defined by our own backyard, and we look down on anything that is different.  When we take time out for the LORD, our selfishness and sin can be exposed, and our prejudices can be turned over to the LORD.  God has called all Christians to love all people, and this clear truth can be heard when we take time to listen.  Instead of turning our backs on those who are a little different, and those who are in need, one can look for opportunities to share God's love.  When this is done, the walls of ignorance that separate us from those God has called us to minister will fall.

Isaiah 58:8-9.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. 9Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

Isaiah then goes on to note what happens when our prideful self-will is replaced with obedience to the LORD.  The darkness of the sins and burdens is replaced with the light of God's love as it both shines on the one who is faithful and shines through him/her.  This is true righteousness.  Righteousness is not found in a obedience to a law or religious rite.  It is found by submitting to the LORD in faith.  The prayers of the unrighteous are certainly heard by an omniscient God, but their self-centeredness is not in agreement with His will.  Sin separates us from God, and repentance restores that relationship.  When we take a time-out to sincerely seek the LORD, we will find Him close by. 

Isaiah 58:10-12.

And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: 11And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. 12And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.

The primary motive of the self-righteous ancient Jew that is described in the earlier verses is to gain the attention and respect of others.  They strove to wear the religious garb, speak the religious language, and follow the religious practices.  However, because their actions were solely for show, the LORD would not honor their actions.  Isaiah points out, however, when one demonstrates true righteousness, the fruit of that love of others is spontaneous, and does not take place without notice, and not without blessing.  Many have had the opportunity to experience traveling to a foreign country, or to a distant location, to take part in a missionary effort.  These may include rebuilding storm-ravaged homes, or feeding those who have just experienced disaster.  It may be bringing food or medical aid to war- or economically-torn areas.  Without fail, the result of these efforts upon the giver is two-fold.  First, the experience destroys the walls of ignorance that separates us, and second, the giver ends up experiencing as much blessing as those to whom the ministry was given.  Those engaged in mission may come home exhausted, but they also come home strengthened and encouraged spiritually.  Many who return from a true mission experience want to turn around and go back.

Isaiah describes this result, and also points out that the minister will be called "the repairer of the breach," an idiom for one that brings others closer to God.  All the attention that the unrighteous faster was attempting to attain only exposed his own hypocrisy as people see through his self-centeredness and the wickedness of his true nature.  However, no such wickedness is seen in the life of the sincere minister of the LORD, and his works are seen as bringing the love of God to others.  Where the first one desires the attention and notoriety, the second has no such desire.  However, the works of both are seen.  The first is seen as a hypocrite, the second as a minister of the LORD.  The first finds his religion a burden, and the second finds his faith a joy.  The first finds exhaustion, and the second finds renewed strength.  The first is the fasting of man, the second is the fasting that God intended:  taking time out to seek His will.

Isaiah 58:13-14.

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: 14Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

Up to this point in this chapter, Isaiah has been referring to works of righteousness.  Though the example used is that of fasting, its meaning goes beyond that one religious act as he is referring to all of the works that we do.  As this chapter closes, Isaiah also brings attention to the practice of worship.  Just as the secularization of the body of Christ has affected its works, it has also affected its worship.  Having spent over thirty years "leading worship" the one issue that I have found universal is that real worship rarely happens.  When people come to the worship "service" they are usually not interested in their true worship of the LORD.  Instead, they are distracted by every secular sin that they bring with them, whether it be anger and bitterness toward one another, displeasure with the songs selected, displeasure with the sermon, or the pastor's inattention to the clock.  We look at each other rather than at the LORD.  We evaluate the music, evaluate the sermon, rather than evaluate our own need for repentance.    Instead of searching our own hearts, we attempt to criticize that of others.  Some approach worship in a manner similar to the ancient Jews, who made loud and boisterous prayers as they attempted to bring attention to their own righteousness.  Some seem to forget that Jesus is the LORD of the church and choose to usurp that position for themselves, demanding that others accede to their demands.

When we approach worship in this same selfish way the result of the experience is not exactly what God intended.  However, when we turn aside our own selfish desires and approach worship in true love of the LORD, God promises that this Sabbath will be a delight.  Like fasting, the concept of the Sabbath is to take a break, a time-out from our daily routine so that we can focus on the Lord.  Note that Isaiah describes true worship as not of our own ways, and own pleasure, and not of the speaking of our own words.  Worship is all about honoring God, not ourselves or each other. 

Some who have had the opportunity to experience a situation where true worship was experienced refer to it as a "mountain top" experience.   It is God's will that all worship be such an experience.  It is only when we let our own unrepented sin stand between us and the LORD is our worship experience compromised.

As Isaiah was exposing the secularization of the Jewish religion, he also exposes to us the secularization of modern Christianity.  The ancient Jews failed to experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their religious experience, and many Christians today profess the same.  Some denominations have come to the point that the preaching of the gospel has been replaced by the preaching of secular philosophy.  The church has come to embrace the same ungodly practices of the secular world in which it is immersed as its membership has exchanged true worship of the LORD with a social experience. 

It may be time for the church to take a close look at Isaiah's prophesy, as he accurately described the secular nature of the Jews.  It is time for every individual to take time out and examine their own heart, whether it be a time of fasting, or a time of worship.  Upon examination, has your love of the LORD been usurped by your love of this life?  Has worship of the LORD been replaced with religious practice?  God promises abundant blessings for those who will return to the original form of fasting and Sabbath: to take time out and sincerely seek the heart of God.

1.  Ziglar, Toby. (Winter, 1999) First-Century Fasting.  Biblical Illustrator (25:2).  Pg. 73

2.  Yechiel, Eckstein, Rabbi. (1984).  What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism.  Waco TX: Word Books.  pg. 143-145.