In today’s world, when we hear about anyone fasting, they are usually protesting something or threatening with a ‘hunger strike’ to put pressure on higher authorities to get them to change some policy or give some benefit. Fasting is a political device in our culture. But in the Biblical context, fasting carries a different meaning. It is not a way of pushing your agenda, but it is a means of opening yourself to the work of God, expressing profound grief over sin and pointing to one’s ultimate dependence on God for all forms of provision.
Fasting is the act of abstaining from food for spiritual reasons in order to have an openness to God in humility. It involves prayer, grief, and seeking guidance. But fasting was abused, too, causing it to carry the image of hypocrisy and mere religious display. Jesus talked about that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), and another famous passage is today’s passage, Isaiah 58.
We have seen that there is a major shift in Isaiah’s prophecy from judgment to comfort at chapter 40, and it culminates in chapter 53 with the revelation that the Suffering Servant is the same person as the one high and lifted up in Isaiah 6. Then at chapter 56 there is another shift to see how this Servant-Messiah has changed our future. Isaiah looks into the future and then back at the situation with God’s people on the ground, and he is disappointed with the sin he sees. In the previous two chapters, Isaiah showed us that everyone was welcome in the Messiah’s kingdom (56:1-8), but that no one was worthy of it because of sin (56:9-57:13). It was only through repentance of our sin that we could enter into the Servant-Messiah’s kingdom, a kingdom of healing and peace (57:14-21).
But now Isaiah looks at the religiosity of Judah’s people, and he rebukes it (chap. 58), and he uses fasting as an example of what he is talking about.
Key Truth: Isaiah wrote Isaiah 58 to teach Israel that true spiritual living is not about religious activity, but is about serving God and others, and it brings blessing and restoration.
Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about true spiritual living.
Key Verse: Isaiah 58:6-9
Pray and Read: Isaiah 58
1. True spirituality is not about religious activity (Isaiah 58:1-5)
2. True spirituality is about serving others (Isaiah 58:6-10)
3. True spirituality brings blessing and restoration (Isaiah 58:11-14)
Exposition: Note well,
1. TRUE SPIRITUALITY IS NOT ABOUT RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY (Isaiah 58:1-5)
a. Since there is no peace for the wicked (57:21), Isaiah cries out to his listeners to grasp the reality of sin (58:1) because God shows mercy on the one who turns from his evil ways (55:7).
b. APPLICATION: Christians have a duty to rescue their brothers and sisters who are stumbling (Matthew 18:15). It is called church discipline, a historically important Biblical doctrine of Baptist churches.
c. Previously he spoke to idolaters (57:3-13). Now Isaiah turns to describing a superficial religiosity, a false worship of the Lord (58:1-3) which disguises the hypocrisy of a people whose personal lives (v.3-5) and society (v. 6-7) are corrupt. This worship is insulting (58:2). They are looking for when and what God will do for them.
d. 58:2 “They seem eager” – These folks went to religious service and consulted their shepherds. They appeared religious. But is religious activity a good measure? No. They cannot understand why their religious activity is not producing results.
e. ILLUSTRATION: An area in southwest Michigan with the highest percentage of membership in one conservative Protestant denomination has one of the highest rates of spouse abuse in the US!
f. APPLICATION: Friend, don’t ever mistake ‘religious’ for true spirituality.
g. 53:3ff – Their worship is selfish, more interested in what God can do for them and how he can serve their needs rather than really giving him praise and honor for who He is. These employers “drive on their toilers” (58:3). These employers regarded a fast day like any other work day. The service of God was not going to interfere with the service they felt they were due themselves. The force of the verb indicates that these workers demanded from their workers all they could get (58:3).
h. Fasting: OT fasts usually lasted from sunrise to sunset. They were of a religious character and were for showing grief (1 Samuel 31:13), showing seriousness when appealing to God (Ezra 8:23), honoring the seriousness of the Day of Atonement or other important days (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:17ff; Numbers 29:7; Zechariah 7:3; 8:19), or indicating repentance (Jonah 3:5-10). Because of the link to the end of chapter 57, Isaiah is focused on true repentance.
i. In Jesus’ day about 700 years later, zealous Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday (Luke 18:12). Jesus condemned them for dirtying their faces to show they were fasting (Matthew 6:5-6, 16-18). Jesus himself fasted 40 days just before the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 4:1-3), and we see NT examples of fasting (Luke 2:37; Acts 13:2; 14:23).
j. Isaiah’s point is that fasting to show your piety is not worth much to God. He is interested in a righteous lifestyle. Spirituality is shown by the loving quality of our personal relationships (58:4) and by our commitment to social justice and to helping the poor and oppressed (58:6-7), not by fasting.
k. ILLUSTRATION: A little over a week ago our church had to purchase a basic item of security for the home of a woman in our church who qualifies Biblically as a widow. The landlord, who makes it well-known that he is a deacon at a Baptist church in our own association, would not provide her with basic security. The Bible is clear about how the Lord feels about this kind of hypocrisy.
l. APPLICATION: God defends the widow and the orphan. James 1:26-27
m. 58:4 – Quarreling and strife: This is what your religious activity results in. Religious activity for image’s sake always results in quarreling and strife and literally, the fist of wickedness, in other words, intimidation and manipulation.
n. ILLUSTRATION: I recently heard about a congregation where in a business meeting someone stood up and complained that too many people were joining their church and the baptisms were too frequent and needed to stop.
o. APPLICATION: There are churches whose people miss the point. It is not about the religious activity they can create (which usually amounts to the production of a poor talent show). The real drama unfolds in little huddles before and after the service in the backbiting, divisive talk, and the armchair quarterbacking. This focus on image is an indicator that there is something hidden, something they don’t want you to see. It always results in quarreling and strife. Someone supposes that they themselves run the church because they a lot or their family started the church or from the force of their personality. Nobody runs the church. We all serve at the pleasure of the King.
p. 58:5 – Mock repentance is not acceptable to the Lord. If someone thinks so, he is grossly mistaken.
q. APPLICATION: Humbling yourself is pretty useless if it is just for the purpose of appearing humble. It is not enough to dress up your mourning for your sins without any real sorrow for them (57:19; 58:5; 15:3; 35:35-36). The President of the Southern Baptist Convention has called for a Day of Fasting and Prayer across our convention in the month of January. If you are interested in having a day of prayer here at the church, I want to hear from you.
2. TRUE SPIRITUALITY IS ABOUT SERVING OTHERS (Isaiah 58:6-10)
a. Israel needs a spiritual reformation, to do away with the ‘yoke of oppression,’ and God will answer His people’s prayers and sustain them (v. 8-12).
b. The Lord is interested in our opposing slavery (58:6, 9b) and misery (58:7, 10), to welcome the hungry, the homeless, and the destitute (58:7).
c. 58:6 – to loosen the bonds of wickedness (that one has placed on someone else). Under OT law, slavery for debt or other reasons was restricted. Slaves of Jewish descent were to be set free every three years. To loosen the bands of the yoke bar, (unjust oppression), and to send the crushed ones free and the yoke bar they will snap.
d. ILLUSTRATION: There used to be something called Southern hospitality. That is a Christian tradition of treating people the way you would like to be treated.
e. APPLICATION: This setting-free ranges from evangelism, telling others about Jesus, to social action, freeing people from their financial oppression, from the scourge of human trafficking, and freeing people from spiritual oppression through the valid ministry of deliverance from demonic forces.
f. 58:7 – We are to feed and clothe the hungry and not to turn away from our own flesh (both family and to act humanely toward others in need.)
g. ILLUSTRATION: Just before Christmas our family encountered a woman locally who had her power cut off for a $32 overdue light bill. She called the Department of Social Services to see if she could get some help with the bill because her 13 year old son was home with a double ear infection. The DSS worker said, No, they couldn’t help, but they would send a case worker out to see if her power was indeed turned off, and if so, they would take her son into state custody.
h. ILLUSTRATION: The Liberian woman with twin babies.
i. 58:8 – The word Then here is significant because Isaiah looks to the glorious change wrought by the Lord by what? By true repentance. Then their light will break forth (9:2; 60:1, 3), healing signifies healing of a wound. Righteousness and the glory of the Lord are parallel. Jeremiah says that the righteousness of the people is the Lord Himself (Jeremiah 23:6; 33:16; Isaiah 54:17).
j. 58:9-10: Then here continues the results of repentance. Notice how the pointing finger (a gesture of contempt, even among the Arabs of a curse) and the speaking vanity (lies) (Zechariah 10:2) are related to the yoke of oppression and are related to strife and contention (58:4). Verse 10: “If you will spend yourself in behalf of the hungry” captures the idea well. The next phrase can be translated to say that we should give ourselves on behalf of the needy, or that we should give our own bread to them. It is not just providing materially, but there must be true love involved and not a condescending attitude or to get rid of things you don’t want anymore.
k. ILLUSTRATION: There is an African proverb from the Yombe people, “Dia lobula,” which means give your neighbor the bread already in your mouth. This attitude of “Well, it’s a little worn and all, but they ought to be glad to get it.”
l. ILLUSTRATION: On the mission field it is criminal how much is spent on shipping broken computers and broken washing machines and threadbare clothes and worn shoes which were good for nothing. Some of those donors had the attitude, ‘well, maybe somebody over there can fix it.’ We saw warehouses full of broken equipment good for nothing.
m. APPLICATION: We should not give the poor only what we do not want ourselves. Don’t send or give the poor something you were going to throw out! So how do you decide whether to give it or take it to the dump? A good rule of thumb is – Would you wear it in public? Would you use it for your family? Would you eat it? If not, then don’t give it. It’s true that some are so destitute that they will eat anything.
n. ILLUSTRATION: Liberia had no garbage disposal when we were there. In the city people took their garbage to the city cemetery and left it. Where we lived, we dug a trash hole, and we would see little boys going through our trash, saving the cans, eating the food out of our trash hole. They would run when we went out toward them, so we started leaving food out for them near the trash hole and burning the things that would harm them.
3. TRUE SPIRITUALITY BRINGS BLESSING AND RESTORATION (Isaiah 58:11-14)
a. In verses 11-14 there is a gradation. Verse 11: The Lord will lead his people he will satisfy their soul in scorched places. Here is the superabundant free grace of God (57:18). It brings the joy of dependence on Him. Then will come the rejuvenation of strength. He will brace up or invigorate their bones. Then Israel will be like a well-watered garden, a picture of blessing and richness in an arid Middle East (30:25; 33:21; 35:6-7; 41:17; 43:20; 44:4; 48:21; 49:10). Then the people would themselves become like a spring of water that will never fail. This grace comes from God.
b. 58:12 – Salvation is like the building of the broken walls of Jerusalem (Amos 9:11ff). The idea of the descendants rebuilding strengthens an 8th Century B.C. date for Isaiah. The rebuilding of the breaches is the ministry of intercession, both in prayer and in practical ways.
c. 58:13-14 – there are three ways the Sabbath is to be honored. (1) Not doing your own ways, (2) doing what pleases yourself, (3) speaking idle and vain talk. Isaiah stresses the Sabbath as a heart of true devotion to God for all nations. They can live on the heights in the inheritance of Jacob, but there must be repentance.
d. If God’s people will honor Him they will discover the joy and blessing to be found in the Lord (v. 13-14). Do you see the context and similarity of the end of chapter 57? Isaiah is saying that blessing and restoration, peace and healing come with true righteousness.
e. Sabbath – This term is here again, both for the decent and holy practice of observing the necessary rest that we all need, but also beyond that, to refer back to chapter 56, the Sabbath is a picture of the rest of salvation for all nations, a rest of belief and faith in Christ Jesus.
f. Blessing – Those who seek the Lord sincerely will find blessing and restoration (58:8, 11, 13-14). They will contribute to the rebuilding of their nation (58:12).
g. ILLUSTRATION: How much do you think this text inspired Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem? (Nehemiah 5:1-19).
h. APPLICATION: We should be encouraged to take an active part in the reconstruction of our countries and not simply rely the government or the agencies to do it for us.