Isaiah 58 is perhaps the most famous passage on fasting in all of Scripture. Often called “the fasting chapter,” it is a devastating indictment upon the religiosity of humankind and all its vain, self-righteous rituals. In Isaiah 58, God clearly articulates the ultimate purpose of fasting, and in the process, the ultimate goal of redeemed humanity as well. Not surprisingly, the two purposes are one and the same.
The chapter opens by declaring its context: God is criticizing the empty, ritualistic religion of Israel at the time (vs. 1). Then, verse 2 comes along with a message that should make any church-goer shudder with familiarity: “Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask me of righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Did you catch that? God declares that the people of Israel “Seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness.” Israel has all the outward appearance of piety, but no actual righteousness. They love the idea of God, not obeying Him.
Verses 3-4 lay out examples of how the people of Israel are fasting merely to control God and others, as they still seek their own desires and oppress their workers. God declares that the only fruit coming out of their fasts is conflict: “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.”
After sarcastically rebuking Israel’s false motives for fasting (and the regrettable fruit), in verse 5, God declares, in a famous passage, His “chosen fast” beginning in verse 6. Heed well the Master’s words:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to set the oppressed 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?”
What is the true result of a God-pleasing fast? Personal piety? Outward signs of humility? Merit and recognition from God and others? No. The true result of a God-pleasing fast is justice, equity and freedom, both physically and spiritually, amongst humankind. God wants to see people rescued from snares of the devil. God wants to see the oppressed set free. He wants to see worldy burdens lifted from the poor. The Lord wants the hungry fed, the homeless sheltered, the naked clothed, and the needs of our brothers and sisters provided for.
It has become clear to me throughout my study of the Psalms in the past two years that God’s mission and concern is primarily that of justice. As Psalm 11:7 says, “The LORD loves justice.” He loves it. He delights in it. And He gets really, really ticked off when justice is perverted in ANY way. He rightfully and justly (there it is again) pours out His wrath upon those who disregard justice by keeping for themselves what is far more desperately needed by others. Nearly all of the pleas for God’s wrath in the Psalms are pleas for God to bring justice into a situation. “God, wake up! If You love justice like you say You do, why are You not angry about this? Hold court! Convict the guilty and acquit the innocent. Let the oppressors be rightfully punished and the oppressed rightfully set free!”
So what does all this have to do with fasting? Fasting breaks spiritual bondages.1 It breaks bondages in us by killing off our desire for worldly pleasure. It also breaks the spiritual bondages of others through intercessory prayer that takes on extra power in a life of fasting.
Do you see now the link between fasting and the plans God has had for you since before you were born? Will you continue to neglect this vital, life-changing, life-saving discipline? Listen to God’s promises in Isaiah 58:8-11 to those who heed His call to godly fasting:
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
The promises go on and on from there, and I invite you to read them and read all of Isaiah 58 for yourself as you embark on this journey of fasting. Brothers and sisters, let us encourage and spur each other on to good works so that we may fulfill God’s mission together, in our lifetime! Amen.
This article was previously published on thepsalmsprojectband.com on January 14, 2013.