Norman W. Turner Posted: Friday, January 9 2004 10:03 pm
Post subject: Isaiah 58: Background and Commentary
User Location: Toronto
Ritualism and Social Justice
The Jewish use of rituals to obey the Law(1) and to worship God began during the Babylonian Captivity (587-536 BCE). These rituals came to be associated with the Pharisaic sect within Judaism. When the Jewish exiles were freed, those who returned took back with them this practice of ritual observance. Isaiah 58 is an attack against ritualism, and was probably first uttered in Jerusalem a few decades later, during the building of the Second Temple (520-515 BCE).
By emphasizing ritual observance of the Law, the Pharisees hypocritically followed an outward form of worship without the inward disposition of heart that God required. The Law, however, required an authentic love of family, neighbour and the disadvantaged. This love should have revealed itself as social justice to all, especially the needy.
The Judea to which the exiles returned was in a desolate state, in need of rejuvenation. However, the Lord would not answer pleas for help that were solely ritualistic. True righteousness under the Law demanded care of the oppressed. Unfortunately, Isaiah’s warning fell on deaf ears. Ritualistic, Pharisaic Judaism continued to flourish, and by the time Jesus arrived, it was the dominant form of religious worship. The Judaism we have today is descended from this same Pharisaism.
Jesus’ attack on the religious establishment of his day repeated prophetic warnings, including those of Isaiah 58. These warnings are still in effect today. Our blessings from God are conditional upon our blessings to the downtrodden. Finally, the Sabbath remains as Isaiah described it – a day devoted not to personal or business pursuits, but a day devoted to the Lord. This commandment has not been rescinded.
Footnote: (1) known variously as The Torah, The Jewish Old Testament, The Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
Isaiah 58 - Ritualism and Social Justice (Commentary) The Prophet and his Audience
It is now supposed that Isaiah 58 was spoken by an unknown prophet, called Trito- or Third Isaiah. The prophesy was probably uttered in Jerusalem during the return of the first wave of Babylonian exiles. The time, possibly, was between 520 and 515 BCE, during the rebuilding of the Temple. God had promised to deliver the righteous, but life was harsher than expected.
Reason for the Message
Isaiah spoke God’s word to a people, who seemed very religious on the surface, but found no satisfaction in their religion. They worshipped in order to pressure a response from God, but it availed them nought. Their worship had outer form without inner conviction. God said that only just treatment of their fellows validated worship, and would bring a positive answer to prayer.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. "Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins."
The Lord is instructing Isaiah to break all decorum, to cry out without reserve so that everyone will hear. Show the Jews their sins. This was a message for a sick Judaism.
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."
These people were diligent. The tragedy was that even though they were serious seekers, they were seriously misguided. They took pleasure in the activity of worship and acted like a people who were just, and who followed the Torah. They even asked for the justice of the Torah. They thought they were sincere in doing this. And, in terms of their own self-understanding, they were sincere. Jesus refers to this very delusion in Matthew 15: 7-8, showing that Isaiah’s warning remained unheeded. (Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying . . .)
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.
They ask the Lord why he does not pay attention to their fasting. They have denied themselves, but until now God has not responded. However, the fact that they make their employees work, while they are petitioning God, betrays a lack of humility and a mean spirit. Such a spirit would not belie a genuine fast. Jesus refers to such hypocrisy in Matthew 23: 4. ( For they bind heavy burdens . . . )
A genuine fast is characterised by an open, transparent need and vulnerability before God. One cannot be totally disarmed before God, yet armed against one’s fellow man. That would constitute a two-faced situation. A truly open heart must be open to all. The Lord rightly concluded that the Judean fast was contrived. Whether they realized it or not, it was a manipulative, essentially dishonest, tactic.
Here, it seems that the Judeans necessarily conceived of God on human terms. Yet God is not a being like humans are. We cannot hide our true motivations and heart disposition from God as we do from our fellows. One may deceive others. One may deceive him/herself. One can not deceive God. No obfuscation exists that can outwit God.
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.
The Lord knows that they fast for ulterior motives, to gain an upper hand, to achieve an advantage. They seek win their point, to gain unethical ends. God will not respond to such seeking. The fast is manipulative
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?
Hebrew reads, “Have I so defined the day for seeking me? Should a man perform a degrading ritual – bowing his head, spreading sackcloth and ashes beneath him and mourning his worthlessness? Is this truly seeking the Lord! Does the Lord delight in such self-humiliation?”
The implication is that the Jews are involved in self-deprecation for manipulative purposes. Jesus condemns this type of public degradation in Matthew 6:16. (Moreover when ye fast, be not . . . )
6 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?
Hebrew reads, “Is this not the way to approach me? The fast I have decided upon? To correct wrongs, to loosen the bindings of yokes, to free those who are crushed, and to tear off every harness? ”
God is here reformulating the way to approach him. It is through unselfishness towards one’s neighbour that this is accomplished. It is essentially this same verse that Jesus quotes in Luke 4:18-19 to announce the beginning of his ministry and the purpose for which he has come! In Matthew 23:4-39 Jesus initiates a comprehensive attack on Pharisaic exploitation, hypocrisy and unrighteousness.
From a physical point of view, fasting, by limiting food and drink, is a denial of self in order to hear or receive something from God. As well, it is a symbolic denial of self-interest and personal agenda. Perhaps the dynamic may be explained as follows. Authentic self-denial (blocking our own interests) removes our own personal preferences from competing with the interests of others. The fast becomes operative as we extend our reach beyond the normal desires of our own hearts and our personal interests. It is a journey into new territory, a zone beyond traditional comfort. Here, away from our habitual mindsets, we stretch ourselves, opening further into the realm of God’s power and becoming increasingly exposed to his rule in the Kingdom of God.
7 Is 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?
Hebrew reads, “ Is it not to share your food with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your own home? When you see the naked to cover him, and not conceal yourself from your own relations?”
Jesus confirms this in Matthew 25: 35-45 when he equates succour to the needy (the least of these my brethren) with succour to himself. The needy are not to be turned away (Matthew 5: 42).
8 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 rereward.
Hebrew reads, “Then shall thy life burst forth like the dawn, thy restoration shall hasten forward, thy vindication and deliverance shall precede you, and the honour and dignity of the Lord shall gather in behind you.”
This is the symbolism of the Exodus.
9 Then 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;
Hebrew reads,, “Then you shall call out and the Lord shall respond; he shall cry out, Here I am. If you shall remove from among you the yoke of oppression, pointing the finger, and your preoccupation with wickedness;”
The Lord honours justice. The response, Here I am in the Old Testament denotes the availability of a servant.
10 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:
They are to grant to the hungry and afflicted (who are not always in plain sight) the same things they wish for themselves. Then the perplexities of life, the occasions where they did not know which way to turn, will be met with divine guidance. And they will have divine provision in time of need.
11 And 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.
Hebrew reads, “And the Lord shall guide you continuously, and fill your needs to excess, and brace your limbs: and you will be like a watered garden, and like a water spring, whose water never fails.”
12 And 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.
Hebrew reads, “And your progeny will rebuild ancient ruins: and you shall establish the foundation of many generations; and you shall be called the repairer of the gap, the restorer of paths to inhabit.”
13 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:
Hebrew reads, “If you turn back for the Sabbath from accomplishing your good pleasure on my sacred day, and call the Sabbath a delight, sacred to the Lord, glorified; and you shall honour him, not following your own path, nor following your own longings, nor deliberating your own matters:”
Numbers 15: 32-36 shows us that abuse of the Sabbath (gathering wood) was a capital offence for which Moses ordered stoning.
14 Then 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.
Hebrew reads, “Then you shall take exquisite delight in the Lord; and I will enable you to mount up and ride the height of the whole earth, and eat the inheritance of your father, Jacob: for the mouth of Jehovah has declared it.”
Micha 1:3 tells us that God descends from heaven and walks on the high places. Therefore the obedient will walk with God. The heritage of Jacob includes: 1) the land of Israel, 2) future generations of offspring, 3) protection from enemies, and 4) eternal life.
§ The ancient rabbis taught that iniquity lay in the bones. Bones were made fat by purging the sin that weakened them. (Text 7-1: Talmud on the Rewards for Charity)
1) Jewish Encyclopedia. Right and Righteousness. Internet. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=294&letter=R&search=right
2) BELIEVE Religious Information Source. Pharisees. Internet. http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/pharisee.htm