Isaiah 58 – Part 2

We continue our series in Isaiah 58-59, with guest writer Rev. Christine Redwood.

Heavy Speech

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.” Isaiah 58:1

Isaiah 58:1 opens with a series of commands from God to the prophet.  These orders function to stress the importance of this speech.[1] Then comes a classic example of Hebrew poetry, the use of parallelism. In this case synonymous parallelism is used. The second line repeats the first line using different words and this serves to ‘intensify, or refine the thought’.[2] If you read the psalms or the prophets you’ll see this technique a lot! The prophet is commanded to proclaim with his voice, and the next line emphasizes this with another instruction to shout like a trumpet. The prophet is thus charged to speak as powerfully as possible.[3] This is an important message.

Playful Speech

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager (delight) 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 (delight) for God to come near them. Isaiah 58:2

In verse 2 the word ‘delight’ (or ‘seem eager’ in the NIV) is used twice giving the impression that this is a people which loves God. Yet given verse 1 and its pronouncement of judgment for the people’s sins this verse seems strange. Irony is at play here. God’s people think they are good! In a later twist the word ‘delight’ is used again in verse 3 (“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please (delight) and exploit all your workers”). God condemns the people for actually delighting in themselves and their ritual acts rather than in God.[4] Ouch! This sense of irony is further deepened by the phrase ‘as if they were a nation that does right’. The use of the ‘as/like’ has the effect of putting into question whether Israel is really a righteous nation seeking God.

We are also introduced to some big ideas not just for these two chapters but arguably the whole of Isaiah. The words ‘justice/judgement’ and ‘righteousness’ are key words. In the third part of Isaiah these words have deepened to mean both God’s work in liberating his people and the call for his people to shape their lives around God, copying him in righteousness and justice.[5]

Questioning Speech

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Isaiah 58:3

There is a shift in voice in verse 3 with the people now addressing God through questions.  This seems to be a direct quotation from the people and further confirms they think they should be right with God. Have you ever found yourself asking God: ‘Why have we prayed, and you do not answer? Why we do all these things; read the Bible, come to church, serve others, and it doesn’t even feel like you’re here? Why are you so distant from us?’ This is what the people of Israel are asking. God answers by describing how he is aware that his people are seeking him but goes on to give his answer as to why his people do not find him.

Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “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? 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 them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:4-7

Notice how second person pronouns (‘you’) are used. This has the effect of making it into a direct address to the listeners by ‘making some demand on them’.[6] In this case it is an accusation. This is confrontational language. It puts the first person speaker, God, at odds with the common plural ‘we’, used to stand for the people united in the brief quotation of direct speech we saw in verse 3.  God is separate and, at this point in the speech, against the ‘we’. He answers their questions by asking a series of his own questions. These questions expect an affirmative answer.[7] God’s people should know that worship involves not just ritual acts but caring for others and working for justice. This is not new information that God is giving here. It is assumed knowledge. God spits out these questions to build up the intensity creating a sharp attack against the people.[8]

We also see how God again likes to play with language. There is a wordplay with the word ‘fast’. It is first used in verses 3-5 in the traditional sense, and then in verse 6 the nuance changes to the deeper and more central meaning of fasting.[9] Fasting is an act the people perform which they believe shows their righteousness and humility before God. Yet he accuses them of injustice and wickedness even on their fasting days. He redefines what fasting is; it is to deny the self by doing without so that others might have the necessities to live.[10] The prophet holds a mirror up to the people by describing their current state of fasting and how lacking it is, then articulates true fasting as ‘an alternative that makes life possible’.[11]

True fasting and humility requires action that is evident in every aspect of their (and our) lives. A series of actions are given in verses 6-7 which the people are to take; the people are to loosen, set free, send away, break bread for the hungry, and bring the homeless into their homes. This is a vision of what it means to worship God, it is to live a just and merciful life. The people of Israel are failing to live this way. Their worship is making God want to turn away and not answer them!

To think about

In what ways can we delight in ritual acts of worship rather than God?

What would God think about the way we worship today?

Does this notion of fasting still apply to us? How might it be expressed in your life? 

[1] Curtis W. Fitzgerald, “A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-66” (Dallas Theological Seminary, 2003), 159.

[2] D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Cracking Old Testament Codes : A Guide to Interpreting Literary Genres of the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 225.

[3] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 495.

[4] Gregory J. Polan, In the Ways of Justice toward Salvation : A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-59 (New York: Peter Lang, 1986), 193.

[5] Andrew Sloane, “Justice and the Atonement in the Book of Isaiah ” TRINJ  (2013): 5.

[6] Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style : The Uses of Language in Persuasion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 281.

[7] Polan, In the Ways of Justice toward Salvation : A Rhetorical Analysis of Isaiah 56-59, 206.

[8] Ibid., 200.

[9] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, 1st ed. ed. (Louisville, Ky. ; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 477.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, 1st ed., 2 vols., Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 189.

[11] Finally Comes the Poet : Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 84.

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