Forget Fasting and the Sabbath! Just do Justice?

Isaiah chapter 58 is one of the most challenging chapters in the Bible for me. Every time I read this chapter it convicts me and causes me to consider all that I do as a Christian. Isaiah 58 gets at the heart of biblical religion and its fruit. I could write about this chapter for days, but today I want to consider one aspect by asking this question: Is Isaiah 58 a call to abandon ‘religious practices’ to do what is commonly called today by Christians ‘social justice’? At the outset of the discussion I want to note some of my thinking on this issue comes from John Oswalt’s wonderful two-volume commentary on The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-40, and The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, particularly his discussion of Isaiah 58.

Bartolome murillo-diego de alcala
Isaiah 58 opens with an accusation (Isaiah 58:1-5) against the people of Israel that they are a people who daily seek God, but for their own purposes (Isaiah 58:3, Isaiah58:13), and fail to do righteousness as prescribed by God. Particularly, Isaiah singles out fasting and the observance of the Sabbath.

Instead of a personal food fast God says he prefers a fast of loosing the bonds of wickedness and oppression, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, covering the naked, and caring for humanity (Isaiah 58:6-7). Is God abolishing religious fasting and exchanging it for a focus on ‘social justice’? A similar theme can be seen in Job 31:13-23, Isaiah 1:17, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Micah 6:8, and James 1:27. True religion is often related in the Bible to taking care of the poor and underprivileged.

Similarly, Israel’s Sabbath observance is questioned as selfish (Isaiah 58:13). Preformed for their own ends; profaning the Holy day. But Sabbath observance is not exchanged for another ‘social justice’ practice. Here there are two somewhat opposing ideas. Fasting seemingly exchanged for ‘social justice’ practices that God finds more pleasing than self-focused fasting, and Sabbath observance that is self-focused being called back to holy and honorable observance. The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate solutions to a similar problem should give a clue to the solution.

Religious observance of certain practices is not the problem. It is the attitude of the worshipper that is in question. Throughout the book of Isaiah Israel has been manipulating people, idols, and God trying to get ahead. In chapter 58, in distinction from many previous chapters, real worshippers of YHWH are being dealt with. Similar to Isaiah 1:10-20, Isaiah is speaking against religious practices done with faulty motives. Some of Israel is fulfilling its cultic obligations to the Lord, but their heart is far from God. They are seeking their own purposes in worship rather than the purposes of the God they are worshipping. Similar to the pagan cultures that surround Israel they are seeking to manipulate God to act on their behalf while real transformation of the worshiper is not happening. They fast and are angry and oppressive to others. They take the day off to worship God, but seek their own pleasures and talk idly. They are performing the religious actions of the covenant but missing the point.

Instead God desires true worship that will result in “genuine caring for others.”[1] A transformation of the heart through worship focused on God. The hyperbolic language of the chapter gets our attention to motivate us towards the correct ends. ‘Social justice’ and ‘social concern’ is a fruit of true religious practice, but it is meant to be in concert with and performance of religious practice itself. Oswalt mentions that “it is possible to be zealous for the form of God’s ways while missing completely the truths that those forms are meant to convey.”[2] In other words it is possible to become so wrapped up in the procedure of fasting and Sabbath observance (and the performance of social concerns I would add) that we miss the point; fasting: self-denial on behalf of another, Sabbath observance: a pause in the week to remember God and his creative order and rest.

In a return to the original question, Isaiah 58 is not calling us to abandon religious practice in exchange for acts of ‘social justice.’ Isaiah is calling for true worship which results in formal and informal religious acts that result in caring for others in a pattern after the character of God. Religious performance is meant to change the worshiper. The real question of the passage is similar to James 1:26-27, Is your Christianity worthless? Real devotion to and the seeking of God should result in real behavior changes; righteous actions in the real world. Has yours?

On a practical note, this passage always pushes me to find ways that I can give of myself to others. I think about the ways that I can deny myself and my needs so that others can be provided for and find life. There is a pattern of fasting in the Bible that is used as a way to focus on God and call for his help (that is another post for another time), but here we are called to give up of our time and resources as we respond to the reality of God in our life. Furthermore, I am guilty of spending much of my Sabbath on myself. Sure God gets and hour of my Sunday, but usually I am quick to turn to my desires for lunch and recreation on ‘my day off.’ I am challenged every time I read this passage.

I would like to end with a quote from John Oswalt. He says, “This is ultimately what biblical religion is all about: the presence of God. It is not first of all a system of ideas or a system of ethics. It is first of all the inbreaking of God into our lives, and that inbreaking will change all our ideas and all our behavior.”[3]

*If you would like to read more on the idea of social justice and the Christian I have written three other posts on the topic: HERE, HERE, and HERE.

*The image above was used in accordance with the licensing agreements of WikiCommons and in no way reflects the views of the artist that produced the image.

[1] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, The New Intermational Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 505.
[2] Ibid., 496.
[3] Ibid., 505.
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