TODAY’S READING: ISAIAH 57-59
“Is such the fast that I choose…Is not this the fast that I choose…” – Isaiah 58:5, 6
God is speaking in Isaiah 58. God asks, “Is this how I want you to fast?” Then God asks, “Is not this how I want you to fast?” For there are two ways to fast, one of which is truly pleasing God.
Verse 1 indicates that God is speaking to Jacob, which typically represents God’s people who are lacking the Spirit. In verse 2, we read that the house of Jacob seeks God daily and delights to know his ways. They ask God for righteous judgments and want to draw near to him.
In verse 3, the house of Jacob says, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
The house of Jacob is abstaining from food, fasting, to draw close to God. In ancient near-eastern cultures, to fast was to abase, or to afflict, one’s self. The motive behind this fast was to show how the house of Jacob had humbled itself. Psalm 35:13 says, “I afflicted myself with fasting; I prayed with head bowed on my chest.”
But, despite their fasting, the house of Jacob knows that God is not acknowledging their self-abasement. They wonder why God does not see and take knowledge of how they are denying their physical body of food in a show of humility.
In verse 4, God answers, “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.”
Whoa. Wait a minute.
The house of Jacob is asking God why he doesn’t see how they have humbled themselves through fasting. And, God answers that they only fast to quarrel and fight? Why did God say that?
The first time the Hebrew word for fast is used is in Judges 20:26-27, which says, “Then all the people of Israel, the whole army, went up and came to Bethel and wept. They sat there before the Lord and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. And the people of Israel inquired of the Lord.”
So, Israel went to Bethel, which means the house of God, and wept, which is to say they cried out to the God. When they went before the Lord, they fasted as sought him for an answer.
But, what was the question Israel wanted answered by their fasting?
In Judges 20:27, Israel asked, “Shall we go out once more to battle against our brothers, the people of Benjamin, or shall we cease?”
Israel fasted to know if they should go to war against one of their own tribes, their own brothers. Therefore, in Isaiah 58:4, God said, “Behold you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.”
Indeed, in Isaiah 58:3, God said the house of Jacob fasted to seek their own pleasure. Therefore, fasting was not truly about humbling one’s self but about seeking one’s own pleasure, satisfying one’s own pride by having done something for God.
In Isaiah 58:4-5, God says, “Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?”
In other words, is denying yourself food really what God has asked for? Is this really the way to show your humility?
In Luke 18:10, Jesus says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” They went to the temple, just like Israel went to Bethel, the house of God, in Judges.
In verses 11-12, Jesus continued, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Jesus shows that for this Pharisee to fast is to make a show of humility. And, the Pharisee’s fast was symbolic of how he stood by himself and against everyone else. In this sense, the Pharisee’s fast about seeking his own pleasure, to quarrel and to fight, just like God said in Isaiah 58.
In Isaiah 58:5, God also asked if this type of fast was really a day acceptable to the Lord?
A day acceptable to the Lord.
That’s an interesting statement. One that starts to bring to mind Jesus and what he was sent to do.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
In Luke, Jesus announced this at the start of his ministry. But, what Jesus said he came to do is somewhat reminiscent of the fast the God chooses in Isaiah 58.
If it is not the mere abstaining from food, then what is the fast God chooses?
Isaiah 58:6-7 says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
The house of Jacob fasted by denying itself food, but it was a seeking of one’s own pleasure. God says the fast that he wants from you is to deny yourself the means by which you get your pleasure – binding others by wickedness, putting others under a yoke, and oppressing others – and actively doing things – feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked – that relieve the very burdens put on others to fulfill our own pleasures.
The fast that God desires in Isaiah 58:6-7 is exactly the same as what Jesus says those who know him, those who inherit the kingdom will do.
In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus said, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, i was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”
Do you see the similarities to what Jesus says those that inherit the kingdom will do and the the fast that God chooses?
- “I was in prison and you came to me” vs. “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free
- “I was hungry and you gave me food” vs. “is it not to share your bread with the hungry”
- “I was a stranger and you welcome me” vs. “bring the homeless poor into your house”
- “I was naked and you clothed me” vs. “when you see the naked, to cover him”
Do you see what Jesus is saying?
Those that inherit the kingdom are those that serve Jesus. Those that serve Jesus are those that do the fast that Jesus chooses.
The fast that Jesus chooses is not abstaining from food.
The fast that Jesus chooses is freeing the burdened, oppressed, and imprisoned, feeding the hungry with our own bread, bringing the homeless into our own home, and clothing the naked with our clothes.
So, the real question becomes, am I doing the fast that Jesus chooses?