• Lori

Chapter 58: True (Gulp) Fasting

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

What do you think when you hear the word “fasting”? If you, like me, think no food, no Coke, and crankiness around 3:30 pm, Isaiah 58 may surprise you.

The children of Israel were very religious. They were committed, devoted, and eager to please (verse 2), yet God took issue with them. Why? They were trying to prod Him into performing.

They were taking their cues from the Canaanites. The essence of the Canaanites‘ religion was coercing their gods to respond. The Israelites had adopted the Canaanites‘ creed and the essence of their true religion—them responding to God—had been abandoned. The Israelites weren't acting to honor the Creator, but to influence Him. They were expending their energy for reward, not in obedience born of love. Their fasting was a calculated effort to elicit a heavenly response.

And it wasn’t working.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (verse 3)

Oh, the Lord had noticed all right. He had noticed they were doing what they pleased, not what pleased Him. He had noticed that their fasting brought out the worst in them rather than producing the joy and devotion fasting should bring. They were touchy and grumpy and brawling in the streets (verse 4).

His response was unexpected:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,

only a day for people to humble themselves?

What? Wasn’t it? Wasn‘t humbling themselves a good thing? Bowing one’s head and donning sackcloth and ashes were acts of humility.

Weren’t they?

Here’s what Jesus said:

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18 NIV)

Do what ordinary people do on an ordinary day, he said. Take a bath, comb your hair, splash on some oil of joy (Isaiah 61:3)! Fasting people should be cheerful! Don’t walk around with your sad face on. Don’t ask your friends to lunch and then sit there without eating. Guard against outward shows of piety; fasting is between you and God.

It seems the people of God were doing exactly what the Son of God would tell them not to do. So what were they supposed to do?

Isaiah said there is another type of fasting: the fast that God has chosen.

True fasting is defined by motive: “To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” (verse 6)

And action: “Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (verse 7)

And restraint: do away with criticism and gossip. (verse 9)

In other words, true fasting is abstaining from unrighteousness, selfishness, and self-absorption.

Some friends and I have been discussing “marketplace ministry” lately. In other words, how do we take our devotion to Jesus out of the church and into the world? How do we show the love of God to those in need? How do we reveal Jesus without drawing attention to ourselves? How do we honor God’s call to truly fast?

I think this is it. Isaiah 58. Fasting selfishness and revealing righteousness. It certainly has to be more effective than handing out tracts and inviting people to church.

But a true fast will take a very personal, very determined, very sacrificial commitment.

The words Isaiah chose for “sharing your food” (verse 7) actually meant serving it to the hungry. Providing shelter actually meant opening the doors to their houses. I’m not sure how we do this in a muddled, messed up society like ours, but there's got to be a way. In wisdom, aren’t there things I can do?

“…there is no genuine relation with God that is not at the same time a relation with the brother.” James D. Smart History and Theology in Second Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 35, 40-66, January 1, 1965; Westminster Press.

Are there opportunities at the food pantry to serve soup? Is there cleaning, laundry, and the like to be done at a homeless shelter? I’m not fond of this idea—the thought of cleaning makes me cringe almost as much as the thought of missing a meal. But there have to be practical applications of this chapter. I don’t think changing times have changed God’s desire to see His people truly fast.

I hope there aren’t naked people walking around my city, but just in case, what's in my closet? Am I willing to give some of it away? Not just the cobweb-covered stuff from the back, but the stuff I actually wear, stuff I actually like. Maybe even a favorite if I balk at the idea of giving it away. It’s scary how quickly selfishness sneaks in and I don’t even notice it.

Chains of injustice aren't loosed just by voting for better laws, but by serving the cause of justice in everyday life. In the words of my frienemy Motyer, it’s possible to be “socially sensitive yet domestically shortsighted.” (Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 481, InterVarsity Press.)

If I were an employer, would I take advantage of my employees? If I were an employee, would I give my employer a good day’s work? Would I go beyond obedience into joy, giving my employees a bonus, or giving my boss an over-the-top effort? The words “when you see” in verse 7 indicate that my actions should be immediate, not simply an addition to my “to do” list.

Not only can I experience the blessing of seeing society benefit, I can also experience God’s promises to me for observing the fast He has chosen. Isaiah says each day will be a new day, with new ideas. My healing will not only come but come quickly. Righteousness will be my guide and God’s favor will surround me. My prayers will be answered and I will have the undivided attention of the Lord. (verses 8-9)

If I spend myself on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, my bad days will become good days. Sad situations will become blessings. God has promised me guidance and divine supply at just the right time. He will give me inward strength and vibrant life. (verse 10-11)

Society will be changed, and I’ll be known as Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings (verse 12). Cool!

As Isaiah continues with God‘s message, he revisits the matter of the Sabbath: finding our rest in God—not doing things for brownie points, but honoring Him for what He provides. Listening for His voice rather than making sure I‘m up-to-date on Facebook (OMG—did I really say that?) or trying to cram in another hour of work.

Then, Isaiah says, “you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.” (verse 14) Finding joy—not just any kind of joy, but the joy of the Lord, and living with confidence—not in myself, but in the Lord’s pleasure—are available if I will fast. Yet only if I do it in devoted obedience and sincere love, not as a calculated effort to elicit a heavenly response.

This chapter wasn't much fun to read over and over, but it’s one I should read again and again. I don’t think its purpose is to elicit guilt but to stir conviction. The difference? Guilt will cause me to shut down. Conviction will cause me to stand up.

I pray about this almost daily now. Will today be the day that I act?