In this chapter, God uses two main themes, the Sabbath and fasting, to bring His people closer to Him. These ideas were not new to them. Indeed, they were familiar with them and would have had knowledge on properly carrying out each.
Theme 1: The Sabbath
The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, or Saturday, and was a day that was ordained by God for rest. In the list of ten commandments from Exodus 20, the Sabbath is the second: ““Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.” Exodus 20:8-11
When the Lord commanded that His people observe the Sabbath, it was a very serious commandment and punishable by death if not followed (Exodus 31:14). The Sabbath held great importance in the old law and has its origins in the creation story, when God rested on the seventh day after creating our reality (Genesis 2:2).
Theme 2: Fasting
Traditionally, and in most every biblical context, fasting means going without food. It is associated with repentance and suffering in some applications: “”Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “Turn to Me with all your heart, With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”” Joel 2:12
Fasting makes many appearances in the New Testament. In this example from Acts 10:30-31, it is indicative of spiritual distress as Cornelius seeks answers: “So Cornelius said, “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing, and said, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God.” Also, Jesus warned against “false fasting:” ““Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Matthew 6:16-18. So we see that fasting has its use and its place.
Fundamentally, fasting is an aid that helps us to come closer to God in our thoughts and eventually our actions as well. If I am constantly hungry, it can be a persistent reminder of how God provides for me. Also, denying myself even the basest of human needs establishes the humble and self-sacrificial mindset of true religion before God. Fasting in a modern sense also exists, and it is not restricted to food. It can be a very rewarding, yet personal, practice to deny yourself food, television, reading – anything valuable yet temporarily expendable in the effort to grow closer to God in thought and prayer.
As we move into Isaiah 58, we see that God sets up a conversation where Israel is asking Him why He has forsaken them; after all they are fasting and observing the ordinances of God…? But God reveals to them that they are not properly honoring Him with their fasting. Instead they are using their fasting to be seen, to make a display, and not with the properly contrite heart and resulting attitude that God requires.
Therefore God is counseling them on how to properly fast and how to observe the Sabbath. He does so with a series of three if/then statements:
1. Verses 7-9
If: You care for the poor, the needy (your own fellow Israelites)…
Then: The light of God’s blessings will shine on them, healing them and dispelling the darkness of corruption. Their righteousness will also increase.
2. Verses 10-12
If: You assist the hungry and satisfy their needs…
Then: The light of righteousness will bloom, banishing the darkness of godlessness as if it were noon. The Lord will provide guidance, strength and fortitude. They will be restorers of the practices of worshipping God and will be recognized for it.
3. Verses 13-14
If: You properly honor the Sabbath, giving God His rightful honor and not engaging in self-seeking…
Then: God will increase their delight in Him and will bless them.
Instead of the false fasting they have been engaging in, God wants them to fast from their wickedness. If they fast in this way, God will bless them: “Then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Isaiah 58:14
Let us take a few moments today to learn these same lessons that Israel endeavored to learn so long ago.
Let us not honor and obey God only in name and appearance. Let us prepare our hearts as a beautiful presentation of sacrifice, love and honor. Almighty God is worthy of our praise and deliberation.