Isaiah 58:1-14 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).

1. What paradoxical situation is presented in Isaiah 58:1-2 (printed below?)

Shout aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their transgressions; declare to the house of Jacob their sins. (2) Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, like a nation that practices righteousness and has not forsaken the commandments of their God. They ask me for righteous judgments; they delight in drawing near to God. (Isaiah 58:1-2)

Isaiah 58 confronts us with a paradoxical situation: the people of Israel are gathered together for worship, but the prophet of the Lord is commanded to rebuke them in the strongest terms (verse 1). Verse 2 reveals the condition that is displeasing to the Lord and meets with His stern rebuke: there is the outward appearance of godliness, even accompanied by a deep display of interest in spiritual things, but all of this is divorced from a life of obedience.

2. What question do the bewildered people of Israel ask? See Isaiah 58:3a (printed below)

They ask, Why have we fasted, but you have not taken notice of it? Why have we afflicted our soul, but you do not acknowledge it? (Isaiah 58:3a)

In verse 3 these bewildered worshipers raise the question, Why is it that the Lord does not acknowledge our fasting (or our worship?) Perhaps in the face of the economic and military crisis they faced, there had gone out the call for a national day of fasting (similar to what is described in Judges 2:24-26). The nation has responded to the call for a national day of prayer and fasting, and have done so with earnestness: “we have afflicted our soul”” (verse 3). But there has been no response from God: no relief, no healing of their land, no dispersing of the enemy Now the people wonder, Why not?

3. What answer does the Lord give to His people? See Isaiah 58:3b-5 (printed below)

Look, on the day of your fast you conduct your business and you exploit all of your laborers. (4) Look, as you fast you are contending and quarreling with one another, and even striking each other maliciously with your fists. At present you are not fasting in a way that will cause your voice to be heard on high. (5) Is this the kind of fast that I desire—a day for a man to afflict his soul; a day for a man to bow his head like a reed and to spread out sackcloth and ashes for a bed? Will you call this a fast, a day that is acceptable to Jehovah? (Isaiah 58:3b-5)

In verses 3b-5 the Lord explains why He has not responded favorably to the people’s fasting. Even as they engaged in sincere religious worship they were disregarding the commandments of God; they were doing as they pleased rather than what God commanded, one example being the unrighteous way in which they treated those who labored for them (versed 3b). Even as they sincerely engaged in acts of religious worship, they were at odds with one another. They were in conflict with one another; they were at enmity with one another and harbored bitterness towards one another; they bore grudges against one another and refused to be reconciled (verse 4a). The Lord makes clear that He does not consider the mere offering of the formalities of religious observance—no matter how sincerely they may be offered—as acceptable worship, if they are not accompanied by obedience in all areas of life (verse 5).

4. According to verses 6-7 (printed below), what kind of fasting (i.e.; what kind of religion) is acceptable to God and pleasing to Him?

Is not this the kind of fast I desire, namely, to cut loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set free the oppressed and break every yoke of bondage? (7) Is it not to share your food with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house? Is it not to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to turn away from helping your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

According to verse 6, true religion involves the practice of justice in our dealings with men. The picture presented in verse 6 is that of a man (or a class or race of people) being set free from the injustice that has held them captive. They had been enslaved by a system that oppressed them by denying them equal opportunities in the society. But the picture now portrays them as being released from the bondage by the practice of social justice. According to verse 7, true religion involves the practice of mercy towards our fellow man.

5. What are some of the benefits and blessings the Lord confers upon those who practice true religion? See Isaiah 58:8-9 (printed below)

If you do these things then your light will break forth like the day, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of Jehovah will be your rearguard. (9) Then you will call and Jehovah will answer; you will cry for help, and he will answer, Here I am! If you do away with the yoke of oppression, if you stop threateningly pointing the finger and uttering malicious threats (Isaiah 58:8-9)

Isaiah 58:8 lists the national and community blessings to be derived from true religion: “your light will break forth like the day”—the favor of the Lord will shine upon the nation (or the community), lifting it to a position of honor and prominence; “your healing will quickly appear”—just as wounded flesh is restored to health, so will that nation or community be restored to wholeness, that is to say, it will experience the life and blessing of moral and spiritual soundness; “your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of Jehovah will be your rearguard”–the nation or community will benefit from the invincible strength of righteousness and the guardian presence of the Lord (note Deuteronomy 11:8a,25). Verse 9 presents one of the personal benefits to be derived from the practice of true religion: “you will call and Jehovah will answer”—there will be communion and fellowship with Christ and with God His Father (note John 14:23).