Feel the Weight: Isaiah 58 Revisited

Isaiah 58 – Feel the Weight

Gewichten1I want to return to Isaiah 58:1-14 because I want to make sure the weight of what is being said in this passage is felt. I previously wrote a post entitled, Forget Fasting and the Sabbath! Just do Justice? (which can be read HERE), where I wrestled with the call to ‘social justice’ verses ‘religious practice.’ I concluded that Isaiah was calling for true worship, which results in formal and informal religious acts including caring for others in a pattern after the character of God. Furthermore, real devotion to God works itself out in real behavior changes. But there is much more to this passage than this rather contemporary debate over social justice. This passage calls believers to action in distinction from hypocritical attitudes and actions and gives believers a perspective on the popular complaint I hear, ‘God just doesn’t feel near to me.’

God’s main complaint against Israel in Isaiah 58 is that they are fulfilling their religious obligations, even delighting to draw near to God, for their own selfish desires. This type of devotion leads only to oppression, sin, and wickedness. This is similar to what Isaiah has already written in Isaiah 1:10-20. Israel fulfills the commands of God yet their heart is far from him. They look and sound the part of a follower of God, but their actions in life outside of ritual betray their true heart attitudes. Israel is serving God to get ahead in life, not to revere God and join in his purposes in the world. Instead, God calls for repentance in Isaiah 1:18 and a life that reflects its confession through genuine care for others in Isaiah 58:6-7.

This passage is so weighty because it calls us to care for others. All of us could do more. No excuses. There is plenty of poverty, hunger, oppression, hurt, and disease in our world to be relieved. At a practical level this passage asks believers: If you confess to believe in God, why don’t you do more? We have to wrestle with this question. It is not enough for us to enjoy Sunday morning worship, eat a big lunch with friends, enjoy a Bible study, and give no thought to those around us. As Isaiah 58:7 says ‘should we hide ourselves from our own flesh?’ In other words those people you see that are dying from hunger, poverty, and oppression, they are human to and you should have compassion on them if you claim to follow God.

Furthermore, the very thing that many people in the church claim to hate is hypocrites. I have seen more than one member of our church leave claiming they have seen hypocrisy in the membership. These exiting members claim to have seen other members in the church confess one thing and do another. Basically, God through Isaiah is calling Israel hypocrites. They delight to draw near to God, they pretend to be righteous, and ask for God’s righteous judgments, but they don’t practice righteousness (Isaiah 58:2). God is saying through Isaiah, ‘Make your actions match your confession!’ This passage asks the hard question: Are you the hypocrite you hate? Does your life match your confession? If you love to sing the praises of God on Sunday morning, do you love to do his work in the world the rest of the week? If you claim to follow God your behavior should match your confession.

Now here is the rub. No one’s life will fully match their confession. That is what is so important about the Gospel. If you claim to follow Christ then Jesus’ righteousness has become your own. Jesus came and lived the perfect life that we should have lived, Jesus came and died the death we deserved, and now we get his righteousness in exchange for our sin. Now here is the good news. If you have committed your life to Christ, God sees you as perfectly righteous in Christ, which provides the freedom to attempt to grow in righteous living. The point in the passage is that there should be fruit that matches your confession. Devotion to God must result in growing concern and compassion others. Has yours?

Secondly, this passage deals with the question, ‘Why does God not take notice of my religious actions? Why doesn’t God hear me? Why does he feel so distant though I feel like I have tried to draw close? (Isaiah 58:3). And the answer is that we have sought our own pleasure in worship and religious practices rather than God (Isaiah 58:3, Isaiah 58:13). Now there is a little bit of a knife edge in this passage also. Seeking the Lord is pleasurable, it is meant to be so, it is good for us to seek the Lord. Take a look at the first question and answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. We are meant to enjoy our pursuit of God. In fact the more we pursue God well the more fulfilled and joyful we will be in life. David in Psalm 84:10 says, ‘Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere, I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ So how do we put this together? Here is the Point: the pleasure of following God must be matched with a life striving after righteousness and the obedience He requires and desires. Seeking the Lord cannot just be an experience, but it must lead to real change, real transformation in the way we do life with everyone. This is where so many of the current worship movements around the world go wrong. Following God is more than a fulfilling experience in worship, that is part of it, but that has to result in life change; being conformed into the image of Christ. In Isaiah 58 that means concern for the poor and honorable Sabbath observance. If you are feeling distant from God, Isaiah maybe suggesting you have been out for your own ends instead of God’s. Try putting your confession into practice and see if the blessings God promises in Isaiah 58 come to fruition.

The blessings in Isaiah 58:8-12 are wonderful. God promises to raise true worshippers out of darkness into light. Their righteousness will shine forth in the world and comparably God’s glory will follow them. God will guide true worshippers, and satisfy their desires even in the desert. He will make them strong, and water them like a garden until they spring forth water. He will rebuild ruins, and provide future generations, and repair many things in our world. Notice all the Exodus language in these promises. God promises to be near, powerful, providing, and guiding similar to ways he has in the past if we will focus on him and do his work for His sake and not our own. What we will find if we heed the words of this passage is that as we loose our life we will really find it.

Isaiah 58 calls us to compassionate and worshipful action. It asks believers to check their heart and see if their actions betray their confession. Furthermore, it asks us to consider why God may feel distant though we draw near. If your Christian walk has felt like it is in a slump, though you delight and draw near to God, heed the words of Isaiah 58 and see if God doesn’t raise you up to ride on the heights of the earth (Isaiah 58:14) as you seek Him and practice righteousness.





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