Exegesis of Isaiah 58:1-10

Wed, 10/01/2008

By Elizabeth Sweet

With the opening words in Isaiah 58, the prophetic purpose is proclaimed. The prophetic mission was not to foresee future events or even to provide guidelines or a behavioral roadmap for the people to follow.

The primary role of prophets was to call God’s people to repentance, to demand their return to obedience and to remind the people what it means to live lives in keeping with the covenant. The opening command from God to Isaiah in 58:1 is, therefore, the most basic job description of a prophet: Shout out, do not hold back, raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house
of Jacob their sins.

The “rebellion” and “sins” that Isaiah is to announce to the people of Judah — and to their Persian rulers — are surprising ones. Yahweh is not displeased here by some egregious BAD behavior. Rather it is what the Judeans obviously consider their very GOOD behavior that has gained them a spot on God’s bad list.

The re-established temple worship in Jerusalem had become a single-minded focus of the people. Public practices of piety, involving structured worship and extensive, repeated ritualized fasting, defined their religious life. The Hebrew people were caught worshiping worship. Not only are these worshipers convinced that acts of praise and worship evidence extreme faithfulness; they are more than a bit peeved that despite all these ritualized, public displays of devotion, God has not seen fit to answer their prayers.

As described by Haggai, the political and economic environment was anything but rosy. The legal courts were filled with corrupt officials. Taxes were staggeringly high and unfairly crippling those who were already struggling. Extensive indebtedness had forced many to lose their land and indenture themselves to work off their debts. Religious groups were also bitterly fragmented, with various factions fighting for supremacy in the religious courts and priority within the temple culture. Despite all the public prayers, all the elaborate fasts and all the religious rituals that made up popular religion, the people felt God had turned a deaf ear to their pleas and problems. The louder they shouted to the Lord, it seemed, the fainter God’s favor.

In Isaiah 58 Isaiah pins down and proclaims the nature of their problem: these very actions, the shape and form of their so-called “faith,” reveal how far from true righteousness they have wandered.

Look at all our humble fasting, the people grouse. Yet Yahweh still does “not notice” us.

THE HEBREW PEOPLE WERE CAUGHT WORSHIPPING WORSHIP

But Isaiah points out, “Look how you serve your own interests on your fast day” (v.3). Your fastidious attention to fasting causes you to “oppress all your workers.”

Instead of being a humble practice that brings spiritual growth, fasting had become a very public, even showy drama played out before peers. A bowed head (“like a bulrush”), lying about in “sackcloth and ashes” were little more than props used in these public exhibitions. Such “competitive fasting” has led to nothing but “quarreling and fighting.” Isaiah’s rhetorical question asks if such self-serving, self-centered, strife-inducing behavior is really what they believe makes “a day acceptable to the
Lord?” (v.5).

The prophet then challenges the people with a new definition of a “fast,” a new understanding of what kind of rituals and activities God requires of God’s people. At the heart of all Yahweh’s demands is nothing less than establishing genuine justice and merciful compassion for all. This directive is not just for the Judeans; it is for their Persian rulers as well. Justice and mercy do not know political boundaries for they are part of the divine fabric of the universe.

In verses 6-7 the activities listed sound much like those required on “Jubilee” years — the year in which debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and confiscated land returned to its previous owners. It is a matter of heated debate whether or not such “Jubilees” were ever actually practiced. But what is clear is that the notion of a “Jubilee Year” was held up as a kind of divinely mandated “do-over” for all people.

Here is Isaiah 58 the prophet is taking the radical position that Jubilee behavior is what Yahweh demands as a permanent state of being in those who would seek God’s righteousness: “loose the bonds of injustice,” “let the oppressed go free,” “share your bread with the hungry,” “bring the homeless poor into your house.”

One especially telling requirement voiced by the prophet is that they are “not to hide yourself from your own kin.” In the aftermath of economic hardships, when extended family members may have lost everything—home, lands, livelihood, even freedom--cutting ties with those who were no longer able to care for themselves had become commonplace. In no uncertain terms, Isaiah condemns this “save yourself first” mentality that kept the thriving firmly behind doors closed to those who were barely surviving, flailing and failing without compassionate intercession or intervention.

In fact, these acts of compassionate justice are true “worship.” Sitting in the temple solemnly fasting is not worship when it is accomplished at the expense of, or with disregard for, the needs of others. The worship the Lord requires is the active incarnation of God’s justice in the world. DO first, then pray, is the prophet’s
mandate. DOING is the worship God demands.

In performing the concrete acts articulated here--feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, freeing the enslaved, acknowledging kinships, God’s righteousness is made manifest in the whole community, not just in gated parts. This is why the prophet can so confidently promise that “if” the people DO these acts, “then” the Lord will answer their prayers.

If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday (v.10).

The unanswered prayers of the people had been for restoration, for peace, for prosperity, and for the rise of a newly empowered nation of God’s chosen people. But all those prayers are only answerable when justice and righteousness are already made present by a people’s own actions and attitudes. Faithfulness to God’s mandate of compassionate justice and God’s dream of a Jubilee world IS what brings about God’s righteousness and transforms this world.

Here (vv.8,10) and in many later passages Isaiah uses “light” as a symbol of final consummation, of the fulfillment of all God’s promises for the Earth. This “light” will grow brighter, and this “light” will illumine the “gloom” in which people have been living, as they continue to perform these true acts of “worship” and praise.