Isaiah 58:3
Why have we fasted, say they, and you see not? why have we afflicted our soul, and you take no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exact all your labors.
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(3) Wherefore have we fasted . . .—The words remind us of those of a much later prophet (Malachi 3:14), but the complaints of the unconscious hypocrites who are amazed that their service is not accepted as sincere are in every age the same. Only one fast, that of the Day of Atonement, was prescribed by the Law. In practice, however, they were often held in times of calamity (comp. Isaiah 32:12; Joel 1:13; 2Chronicles 20:3),and we may legitimately think of them as having been more or less frequent under Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:1-2). Now, as though that had been a meritorious work, the people ask what good had come of it? After the exile fasts were instituted, commemorative of the siege of Jerusalem, its capture, its destruction, and the murder of Gedaliah (Zechariah 7:3; Zechariah 8:19), and those who maintain the later date of the book naturally suppose that these are the fasts referred to.

In the day of your fast ye find pleasure . . .—Better, ye carry on your business. Fasts were not governed, like the Sabbath, by a fixed law, and the people consequently lost sight of the true end of fasting—prayer, meditation, penitence.

Exact all your labours.—The words are rendered by some critics more vividly, though with the same meaning, ye oppress all your labourers. (Comp. James 5:4.)

Isaiah 58:3. Wherefore have we fasted, &c. — They complain of hard usage from God; that although they prayed, and fasted, and observed the rest of his ordinances, all which are comprehended under the title of fasting, all their labour was lost, and God neither delivered nor regarded them. Wherefore have we afflicted our soul — Defrauded our appetites with fasting, of which this phrase is used, Leviticus 16:29; Leviticus 23:27; Leviticus 23:29. Behold, in the day of your fast — In those solemn days of fasting which I have appointed; or, in those times when I have called you, by the course of my providence, and counsels of my prophets, unto fasting, and weeping, and mourning, Isaiah 22:12; ye find pleasure, and exact, &c. — Or, as the words may be more significantly rendered, You find wherewithal to please yourselves, and are rigorous in grieving, or burdening, others: that is, You gratify your own passions, especially your covetousness, and you oppress the poor, and so are defective in the duties of justice and charity. By labours may be meant money gotten by labour, and lent to others, either for their need or the lender’s advantage. For labour is often put for the fruit of labour, as Deuteronomy 28:33; Isaiah 45:14. But the Hebrew here, עצביכם, is literally, your griefs, namely, the things which cause griefs, which are grievous and burdensome to others, as either, 1st, Hard service required of servants above their strength, or beyond the time limited by God for their service, of which see Jeremiah 34:13-16 : or, 2d, Debts, which they required, either with usury or with rigour and cruelty, when the general law of charity, or God’s particular law, enjoined the release, or, at least, the forbearance of them. See Nehemiah 5:1-2.58:3-12 A fast is a day to afflict the soul; if it does not express true sorrow for sin, and does not promote the putting away of sin, it is not a fast. These professors had shown sorrow on stated or occasioned fasts. But they indulged pride, covetousness, and malignant passions. To be liberal and merciful is more acceptable to God than mere fasting, which, without them, is vain and hypocritical. Many who seem humble in God's house, are hard at home, and harass their families. But no man's faith justifies, which does not work by love. Yet persons, families, neighbourhoods, churches, or nations, show repentance and sorrow for sin, by keeping a fast sincerely, and, from right motives, repenting, and doing good works. The heavy yoke of sin and oppression must be removed. As sin and sorrow dry the bones and weaken the strongest human constitution; so the duties of kindness and charity strengthen and refresh both body and mind. Those who do justly and love mercy, shall have the comfort, even in this world. Good works will bring the blessing of God, provided they are done from love to God and man, and wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit.Wherefore have we fasted - They had fasted much, evidently with the expectation of delivering themselves from impending calamities, and securing the divine favor. They are here introduced as saying that they had been disappointed. God had not interposed as they had expected. Chagrined and mortified, they now complain that he had not noticed their very conscientious and faithful regard for the duties of religion.

And thou seest not? - All had been in vain. Calamities still impended; judgments threatened; and there were no tokens of the divine approbation. Hypocrites depend on their fastings and prayers as laying God under obligation to save them. If he does not interpose, they complain and murmur. When fasting is the result of a humble and broken heart, it is acceptable; when it is instituted as a means of purchasing the divine favor, and as laying God under obligation, it can be followed by no happy result to the soul.

Have we afflicted our soul - By fasting. Twenty-one manuscripts (six ancient), says Lowth, have this in the plural number - 'our souls' and so the Septuagint, Chaldee, and the Vulgate. The sense is not materially affected, however. It is evident here that they regarded their numerous fastings as laying the foundation of a claim on the favor of God, and that they were disposed to complain when that claim was not acknowledged. Fasting, like other religious duties, is proper; but in that, as in all other services of religion, there is danger of supposing that we bring God under obligations, and that we are laying the foundation of a claim to his favor.

Thou takest no knowledge - Thou dost not regard our numerous acts of self-denial.

Behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure - The prophet here proceeds to state the reasons why their fastings were not succeeded as they supposed they would be, by the divine favor. The first reason which he states is, that even when they were fasting, they were giving full indulgence to their depraved appetites and lusts. The Syriac has well rendered this, 'In the day of your fasting you indulge your lusts, and draw near to all your idols.' This also was evidently the case with the Jews in the time of the Saviour. They were Characterized repeatedly by him as 'an evil and adulterous generation,' and yet no generation perhaps was ever more punctual and strict in the external duties of fasting and other religious ceremonies.

And exact all your labors - This is the second reason why their fasting was attended with no more happy results. The margin renders this 'griefs,' or things wherewith ye grieve others.' Lowth renders it, 'All your demands of labor ye rigorously exact.' Castellio renders it, 'And all things which are due to you, you exact.' The word rendered here 'labors' denotes usually hard and painful labor; toil, travail, etc. The Septuagint renders it here, 'And goad (ὑπονύσσετε huponussete) all those who are under your control' (τοὺς ὑποχειρίους ὑμῶν tous hupocheirious humōn). The idea seems to be that they were at that time oppressive in exacting all that was due to them; they remitted nothing, they forgave nothing. Alas, how often is this still true! People may be most diligent in the external duties of religion; most abundant in fasting and in prayer, and at the same time most unyielding in demanding all that is due to them. Like Shylock - another Jew like those in the time of Isaiah - they may demand 'the pound of flesh,' at the same time that they may be most formal, punctual, precise, and bigoted in the performance of the external duties of religion. The sentiment taught here is, that if we desire to keep a fast that shall be acceptable to God, it must be such as shall cause us to unbind heavy burdens from the poor, and to lead us to relax the rigor of the claims which would be oppressive on those who are subject to us (see Isaiah 58:6).

3. Wherefore—the words of the Jews: "Why is it that, when we fast, Thou dost not notice it" (by delivering us)? They think to lay God under obligation to their fasting (Ps 73:13; Mal 3:14).

afflicted … soul—(Le 16:29).

Behold—God's reply.

pleasure—in antithesis to their boast of having "afflicted their soul"; it was only in outward show they really enjoyed themselves. Gesenius not so well translates, "business."

exact … labours—rather, "oppressive labors" [Maurer]. Horsley, with Vulgate, translates, "Exact the whole upon your debtors"; those who owe you labor (Ne 5:1-5, 8-10, &c.).

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? They complain of hard usage from God, that although they prayed, and fasted, and kept the rest of God’s ordinances, all which are synecdochically comprehended under the title of fasting, all their labour was lost, and God neither regarded nor delivered them.

Afflicted our soul; defrauded and pinched our appetites with fasting, of which this phrase is used, Leviticus 16:29 23:27,29.

In the day of your fast; in those solemn days of fasting which I have appointed; or, in those times when I have called you by the course of my providence, and counsels of my prophets, unto fasting, and weeping, and mourning, &c., Isaiah 22:12. Ye find pleasure; either,

1. You indulge yourselves in sensuality, as they did, Isaiah 22:13. But this doth not agree with that afflicting of their souls which they now professed, and which God acknowledgeth, Isaiah 58:5. Or rather,

2. You pursue and satisfy your own lusts; though you abstain from bodily food, you do not mortify your own sinful concupiscences; and when you are restrained from outwards acts, yet even then your thoughts and affections are set upon and working toward those things which gratify your fleshly inclinations and worldly interests.

Your labours; your money got by your labour, and lent to others, either for their need, or your own advantage; for labour is oft put for wealth, as Deu 28:33 Isaiah 45:14, &c. Heb. your griefs; not passively, those things which are grievous to you; but actively, such as are very grievous and burdensome to others; either hard service, above the strength of your servants, or beyond the time limited by God for their service, of which see an instance, Jeremiah 34:13-16; or debts, which you require either with usury, or at least with rigour and cruelty, when either the general law of charity, or God’s particular and positive law, commanded the release, or at least the forbearance, of them; of which see an instance, Nehemiah 5:1,2, &c. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not?.... Our fasting; takest no notice of it; expresses no approbation of it, and pleasure in it: this is put for all religious services, being what was frequently performed under the Old Testament, not only at certain times appointed by the Lord, but on other occasions, and of their own fixing; in which they put their confidence, and often boasted of, Luke 18:12, "wherefore have we afflicted our soul", by fasting, "and thou takest no knowledge?" of that, nor of us, and dost not save us from our enemies, and deliver us from our troubles, and bestow favours on us: they had a high opinion of their own performances, and thought that God must have likewise; and were displeased that he showed no more regard unto them:

behold, in the day of your fast you find pleasure; this, and what follows in the two next verses, are an answer to their questions, and give reasons why the Lord took no more notice of their fasting, or of their services; because they were not done aright, they found their own pleasure in them; not that they indulged to bodily recreations and carnal delights, but they gratified the inward desires of the flesh, malice, envy, and the like; and they pleased themselves with their own duties, and fancied they procured the favour of God by them:

and exact all your labours; of their servants, or their money of their debtors; they grieved and afflicted their debtors, by demanding their debts of them, as Jarchi interprets it; and that in a very rigorous manner, requiring whole and immediate payment; or, as it is usual with establishments, they require an exact conformity to their manner of service, worship, and discipline.

{c} Why have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? why have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find {d} pleasure, and exact all your labours.

(c) He sets forth the malice and disdain of the hypocrites, who grudge against God, if their works are not accepted.

(d) Thus he convinces the hypocrites by the second table and by their duty toward their neighbour, that they have neither faith nor religion.

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.Verse 3. - Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? The fasting' spoken of is probably that of the great Day of Atonement. the only fasting commanded in the Law (Leviticus 16:29, 31). Other fasts were from time to time appointed by civil or ecclesiastical authority (1 Kings 21:9, 12:2 Chronicles 20:3; Joel 1:14; Joel 2:12, 15); but they were rare, and do not seem to be here intended. Still, the lesson is general, and would apply to all occasions of fasting. The Jews of the time expected, it would seem, some special definite result, in the way of victory or relief, to follow from their observance of the Atonement fast. As it did not follow, they regarded themselves as ill used, and accordingly made complaint. Their feelings approached to those of the Vedic worshippers, who regarded their religious observances as "not merely pleasing. the god who was the object of them, but as laying him under a binding obligation, and almost compelling him to grant the requests of the worshipper" ('Religions of the Ancient World,' pp. 143, 144). Afflicted our soul These are the exact words of Leviticus 16:29, 31, by which the fast of the great Day of Atonement was instituted. And thou takest no knowledge; rather, no notice. In the day of your fast ye find pleasure. Delitzsch and Mr. Cheyne render, "ye carry on business," which accords better with the clause which follows. The great Day of Atonement was, like the sabbath, a day on which no work was to be done (Leviticus 16:29). The Jews, while priding themselves on their observance of the day, did not really observe it in this particular. And exact all your labours; i.e. "require of your servants and subordinates all the services that they have to render on other days." Days of religious observance, even under the Law, were always intended to be days of kindly forbearance towards the poor, of the remission of burdens, or even of the actual giving of relief. This general law of His action is most especially the law of His conduct towards Israel, in which such grievous effects of its well-deserved punishment are apparent, and effects so different from those intended, that the compassion of God feels impelled to put an end to the punishment for the good of all that are susceptible of salvation. "And because of the iniquity of its selfishness, I was wroth, and smote it; hiding myself, and being angry: then it went on, turning away in the way of its own heart. I have seen its ways, and will heal it; and will lead it, and afford consolations to it, and to its mourning ones." The fundamental and chief sin of Israel is here called בּצע, lit., a cut of slice ( equals gain, Isaiah 56:11); then, like πλεονεξία, which is "idolatry" according to Colossians 3:5, or like φιλαργυρία, which is "the root of all evil" according to 1 Timothy 6:10, greedy desire for worldly possession, self-seeking, or worldliness generally. The future ואכּהוּ, standing as it does by the side of the perfect here, indicates that which is also past; and ואקצף stands in the place of a second gerund: abscondendo (viz., pânai, my face, Isaiah 54:8) et stomachando. When Jehovah had thus wrathfully hidden His gracious countenance from Israel, and withdrawn His gracious presence out of the midst of Israel (Hosea 5:6, מהם חל), it went away from Him (שׁובב with שׁובב, like עולל with עולל), going its own ways like the world of nations that had been left to themselves. But Jehovah had not seen these wanderings without pity. The futures which follow are promising, not by virtue of any syntactic necessity, but by virtue of an inward necessity. He will heal His wounded (Isaiah 1:4-6) and languishing people, and lead in the right way those that are going astray, and afford them consolation as a recompense for their long sufferings (נחוּמים is derived from the piel נחם, and not, as in Hosea 11:8, from the hiphal hinnâchēm, in the sense of "feelings of sympathy"), especially (Vav epexeget.; Ges. 155, 1) its mourning ones (Isaiah 61:2-3; Isaiah 66:10), i.e., those who punishment has brought to repentance, and rendered desirous of salvation.
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