Isaiah 58
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 58. An Oracle on Fasting and the Observance of the Sabbath

(1) The prophet announces his commission to expose the sin of his people, especially the formal and perfunctory character of their religious service (Isaiah 58:1-2). (2) He then takes up the question of fasting, which is the immediate occasion of the discourse; in answer to the complaint that their fasts are disregarded by Jehovah (Isaiah 58:3 a), he asks his hearers if they suppose that the kind of fasting practised by them can possibly be acceptable to God (Isaiah 58:3 b–5). (3) In contrast to such unspiritual and hypocritical fasting as theirs, he indicates the nature of the fast required by Jehovah, which consists in justice to the oppressed and kindness to the destitute (Isaiah 58:6-7). (4) When they understand what true religion is and comply with its requirements, their salvation shall no longer tarry, their prayers shall be answered, their darkness turned to light, and the waste places of the land restored (Isaiah 58:8-12). (5) A similar promise is attached to the hallowing of the Sabbath-day (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Although only one statutory fast is known to the Law—that of the great Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29)—the practice was readily and spontaneously resorted to in ancient Israel as a means of propitiating the Deity (cf. e.g. Jdg 20:26; 1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:12; Jeremiah 36:9). During the Exile four regular fast-days came to be observed; and it is all but certain that these commemorated special incidents of the fall of Jerusalem (see the Commentaries on Zechariah 8:19). It is probable that such fasts as these, rather than the fast of the Day of Atonement (which may not have been instituted at this time), gave rise to the complaint dealt with in this prophecy. That the mind of the post-exilic community was exercised about these fasts appears from Zechariah 7:1 ff., a passage which presents an instructive parallel to that now before us. The question was put to the priests and prophets in Jerusalem whether the fast-days should not after seventy years’ observance be discontinued (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 7:5); and Zechariah replies that if the people will give heed to the divine admonitions through the “former prophets” and practise righteousness and mercy, the Messianic promises shall be fulfilled, and then the fasts shall be turned into days of rejoicing (Isaiah 8:19). The answer, in short, is practically identical with the teaching of this chapter. It is of course not impossible that the question of fasting might have been raised during the Exile and answered as it is answered here; but there is nothing in the chapter that can be appealed to in favour of this view.

Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.
1. Cry aloud] lit. Cry with the throat, with the full power of the voice.

shew my people their transgression &c.] The function of the true prophet as distinguished from the false; see Micah 3:8, a verse which seems to have been in the prophet’s mind.

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
2. The people indeed are zealous in the performance of their external religious duties, and imagine that this suffices to put them in a right relation to God. They are ostensibly as eager to know the divine will as if they were in reality, and not merely in profession, a people that practised righteousness. A somewhat strained interpretation has been put upon the verse by many modern commentators, who suppose that it refers to the people’s desire for a speedy manifestation of Jehovah’s righteousness in their favour. This feeling was no doubt in their minds, but it is not expressed here (see below).

they seek me] i.e. enquire of me,—the word used of consulting an oracle.

ordinances of justice] not “righteous judgements” on the enemies and oppressors of Israel, but ordinances of righteousness, i.e. directions as to how righteousness is to be achieved.

they take delight in approaching to God] R.V. they delight to draw near to God. Cf. ch. Isaiah 29:13; Psalm 73:28. To render “in the approach of God (to judgement)” is arbitrary, and unsuited to the verb “delight.”

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
3. The first half of the verse expresses the people’s sense of disappointment at the failure of their efforts to win the favour of Jehovah; the second half begins the prophet’s exposure of their hypocrisy. There is an incipient Pharisaism in their evident expectation that by external works of righteousness they would hasten the coming of the Messianic salvation. The prophet also maintains that salvation is conditioned by righteousness on the part of the people; but he insists that the righteousness which secures the fulfilment of the promises is ethical righteousness, not the mechanical observance of ceremonial forms.

have we afflicted our soul] see below on Isaiah 58:5.

you find pleasure] Rather business (see on ch. Isaiah 44:28), i.e. “you find opportunity to do a profitable stroke of business.” Cf. Isaiah 58:13.

and exact all your labours] Or, as R.V. marg., and oppress all your labourers. According to the law of Leviticus 16:29 a fast implied universal cessation of work, but these men while fasting themselves, extorted from their slaves and hired servants their full tale of work. On slavery in the post-exilic community see Nehemiah 5:5. The translation “labourers” is somewhat uncertain; the word does not occur elsewhere in this sense.

Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
4. ye fast for strife and contention (R.V.)] The fasting made them as irritable as Arabs in the month of Ramadan; it produced a quarrelsome temper which even led to open violence,—“smiting with godless fist.”

ye shall not fast &c.] Render: ye do not fast at present so as to make &c., i.e. “with your present mode of fasting, your prayers can never reach the ear of Jehovah.”

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Hamlet, Act iii. Scene iii. 97 f.

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
5. Should such be the fast that I choose? Can mere gestures and symbols of humiliation avail anything, along with such evidences of an unspiritual frame of mind?

to afflict his soul] Both here and in Isaiah 58:3 the phrase expresses what is of moral value in the act of fasting, the repression of sensual impulses through abstinence, &c. It is so used also in Psalm 35:13 (“I humbled my soul through fasting”), and in the laws about fasting it becomes almost a technical expression (Leviticus 16:29; Leviticus 16:31; Leviticus 23:27; Leviticus 23:32; Numbers 29:7). From it comes the noun ta‘anîth (humiliation), the common term for fasting in late Hebrew (found Ezra 9:5). How little the true end of fasting was attained in the case of those here addressed has been shewn in Isaiah 58:4.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
6, 7. Description of the true fast in which Jehovah delights. The duties enjoined fall under two heads: (1) abstinence from every form of oppression (Isaiah 58:6), and (2) the exercise of positive beneficence towards the destitute (Isaiah 58:7). In naming these things as the moral essence of fasting, the prophet may be guided by the principle so often inculcated by our Lord, that he who would obtain mercy from God must shew a merciful disposition towards his fellow-men (Matthew 5:7; Matthew 6:12; Matthew 18:35 &c.). Or the idea may be that the spirit of self-denial possesses no value before God unless it be carried into the sphere of social duty.

the bands (R.V. bonds) of wickedness] i.e. unjust and oppressive obligations.

to undo the heavy burdens] Lit. to untie the Bands of the yoke.

the oppressed is literally the “broken” (Deuteronomy 28:33; ch. Isaiah 42:3),—bankrupts, whose liberty had been forfeited to their creditors (cf. Nehemiah 5:5).

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
7. Comp. Ezekiel 18:7 f., 16 f.; Job 31:13 ff.

the poor that are cast out] the vagrant (homeless) poor. The word rendered “vagrant” is peculiar, but is supposed to come from a verb meaning “wander.” It occurs with an abstract sense, and along with the abstract noun corresponding to the word here rendered “poor,” in Lamentations 1:7; Lamentations 3:19.

hide not thyself (Deuteronomy 22:1; Deuteronomy 22:3-4) from thine own flesh] from thy fellow Israelites (as in Nehemiah 5:5).

8 ff. When these conditions are complied with, the glory of the latter days shall break on the regenerated community.

thy light] (ch. Isaiah 60:1; Isaiah 60:3), the emblem of salvation; cf. ch. Isaiah 9:2.

break forth as the dawn] “Break forth” is the verb used in ch. Isaiah 35:6; Genesis 7:11; Psalm 74:15, of the bursting of waters through a fissure in the earth’s surface; by a vivid metaphor the dawn was conceived as “splitting” the heavens and flooding the world with light. The same word occurs on the Moabite Stone (50:15) in the phrase “from the splitting of the dawn.”

thine health] thy healing (as R.V.), or thy recovery. The word (Heb. ’ǎrûkah, Arab, ’arîka) seems to mean literally the new flesh which is formed when a wound is healing (see Delitzsch’s Commentary on the verse); it is used three times by Jeremiah with the sense of recovered health or prosperity; in Nehemiah 4:7 (Isaiah 4:1 Heb.) and 2 Chronicles 24:13 the metaphor is applied to the repairing of damages (in the walls or the Temple). Since Isaiah 58:12 shews that the prophet has the restoration of ruins in his mind, the coincidence with Nehemiah 4:7 is certainly suggestive; but the figure here does not go beyond the general idea of recovered prosperity.

shall go before thee … shall be thy rereward] Comp. ch. Isaiah 52:12. It is difficult to say whether righteousness means in this case “right vindicated “by outward tokens of Jehovah’s favour, or ethical righteousness as described in Isaiah 58:6-7.

9 a. The immediate answer to prayer, in contrast to the complaint of Isaiah 58:3, is the evidence of harmony re-established between Jehovah and His worshippers; comp. ch. Isaiah 65:24, Isaiah 30:19.

9 b should be joined to Isaiah 58:10. The conditions of acceptance with God are recapitulated in terms differing slightly from those of Isaiah 58:6-7.

the putting forth of the finger] a gesture of contempt (Proverbs 6:13) towards the oppressed mentioned in Isaiah 58:6-7. Compare (with Gesenius) the infamis digitus (Pers. 11. 33).

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:
10. draw out thy soul to the hungry] A very peculiar expression. The most natural sense would be “let thy desire go out” &c.; but most commentators rightly feel that the object (“the hungry”) demands some more specific definition of duty than this. Hence they take “thy soul” to mean “that in which thy soul delights” (see R.V. marg.), i.e. “thy sustenance” (Cheyne), which is hardly an improvement, and is moreover a rendering not easily to be justified. The Peshitto reads “bread” instead of “soul”; the LXX. has both words (τὸν ἄρτον ἐκ ψυχῆς σου). Since the word “soul” immediately follows (in the original) it is not improbable that there is an error in the text, and that what the prophet wrote was “thy bread.” Render therefore and bestow thy bread on the hungry. This sense of the verb is guaranteed by a very similar use in Psalm 144:13 (E.V. “afford”).

then shall thy light rise &c.] See Isaiah 58:8.

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
11. the Lord shall guide thee] Cf. ch. Isaiah 57:18 “I will lead him,”—the same verb in Hebr.

satisfy thy soul (cf. Isaiah 58:10) in drought] R.V. “dry places”.

make fat thy bones] So the LXX. The verb (which does not elsewhere occur in this form) may mean “make strong” (thy bones). But it is best to accept an old emendation of Secker and Lowth, and read renew thy strength (see ch. Isaiah 40:29; Isaiah 40:31).

like a watered (well-watered, cf. Isaiah 16:9) garden] Jeremiah 31:12.

whose waters fail not] Lit. deceive not. From this root comes the technical word ’akzâb, the “deceitful brook” (Jeremiah 15:18; Micah 1:14, R.V.). Comp. John 4:14.

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
12. Comp. ch. Isaiah 61:4, Isaiah 49:8. The importance attached to the restoration of the ruined places shews that what the prophet has in view is chiefly the recovery of temporal and political prosperity. It may also throw some light on the date of the prophecy. The description of the ruins as “ancient” suggests a period considerably later than the Exile (which only lasted half a century), although the argument is not one that can be rigorously pressed.

they that shall be of thee] Strictly “some of thee.” Weir and Cheyne emend the text and read “thy children” (בניך for ממך). König on the other hand (Syntax, p. 37) suggests a change of the verb (reading ונבנו): “and the wastes shall be built by thee.”

the old waste places] Better, the ancient ruins (Isaiah 44:26).

the foundations of many generations] might mean places which had been founded many generations back, but the correspondence with ch. Isaiah 61:4 seems to shew that foundations which have lain waste for many generations are referred to.

The repairer of the breach &c.] The restoration of the walls and highways will be an achievement by which the community is remembered.

paths to dwell in] Cf. Job 24:13.

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
13, 14. A promise attached to the strict and cheerful observation of the Sabbath. See on ch. Isaiah 56:2.

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath] treating it as “holy ground” (ἄβατος). The metaphor is translated into literal terms in the following clause.

from doing thy pleasure] so as not to do thy business (as Isaiah 58:3).

call the sabbath a delight] Great stress is laid on heartiness in the observance of this command; for a contrast see Amos 8:5. The next clause must be translated as in R.V. and [sc. call] the holy of the LORD honourable, and shalt honour it. “The holy of Jehovah” is a remarkable designation for the Sabbath, and all the expressions of the clause are peculiar.

not doing thine own ways] so as not to do after thy wont (Cheyne). For pleasure render, as before, business.

nor speaking thine own words] Lit. a word, i.e. “idle words”; cf. Hosea 10:4.

Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
14. Then shalt thou delight thyself] Better: Then shalt thou have thy delight; Job 22:26. The same verb as in ch. Isaiah 57:4.

and I will cause thee to ride over the heights of the earth] Apparently a quotation from Deuteronomy 32:13. The meaning is “I will carry thee triumphantly over all obstacles” (cf. Deuteronomy 32:11).

and feed thee with] and make thee to eat, i.e. enjoy; cf. ch. Isaiah 1:19.

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