Isaiah 58:5
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?
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(5) A day for a man to afflict his soul.—The phrase comes from Leviticus 16:29, and describes the soul-sorrow which was the true ideal of fasting. In contrast with this we have the picture, reminding us of Matthew 6:16, of the mechanical prostrations, which are as the waving of a bulrush in the breeze. The image suggests a new aspect of our Lord’s statement, that the Baptist was not as “a reed shaken by the wind” (Matthew 11:7), scil., that his fasting was not outward and ceremonial, like that of the Pharisees.

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.Is it such a fast that I have chosen? - Is this such a mode of fasting as I have appointed and as Iapprove?

A day for a man to afflict his soul? - Margin, 'To afflict his soul for a day.' The reading in the text is the more correct; and the idea is, that the pain and inconvenience experienced by the abstinence from food was not the end in view in fasting. This seems to have been the mistake which they made, that they supposed there was something meritorious in the very pain incurred by such abstinence. Is there not danger of this now? Do we not often feel that there is something meritorious in the very inconveniences which we suffer in our acts of self denial? The important idea in the passage before us is, that the pain and inconvenience which we may endure by the most rigid fasting are not meritorious in the sight of God. They are not that at which he aims by the appointment of fasting. He aims at justice, truth, benevolence, holiness Isaiah 58:6-7; and he esteems the act of fasting to be of value only as it will be the means of leading us to reflect on our faults, and to amend our lives.

Is it to bow down his head - A bulrush is the large reed that grows in marshy places. It is, says Johnson, without knots or joints. In the midst of water it grows luxuriantly, yet the stalk is not solid or compact like wood, and, being unsupported by joints, it easily bends over under its own weight. it thus becomes the emblem of a man bowed down with grief. Here it refers to the sanctimoniousness of a hypocrite when fasting - a man without real feeling who puts on an air of affected solemnity, and 'appears to others to fast.' Against that the Saviour warned his disciples, and directed them, when they fasted, to do it in their ordinary dress, and to maintain an aspect of cheerfulness Matthew 6:17-18. The hypocrites in the time of Isaiah seemed to have supposed that the object was gained if they assumed this affected seriousness. How much danger is there of this now! How often do even Christians assume, on all the more solemn occasions of religious observance, a forced sanctimoniousness of manner; a demure and dejected air; nay, an appearance of melancholy - which is often understood by the worm to be misanthropy, and which easily slides into misanthropy! Against this we should guard. Nothing more injures the cause of religion than sanctimoniousness, gloom, reserve, coldness, and the conduct and deportment which, whether right or wrong, will be construed by those around us as misanthropy. Be it not forgotten that the seriousness which religion produces is always consistent with cheerfulness, and is always accompanied by benevolence; and the moment we feel that our religious acts consist in merely bowing down the head like a bulrush, that moment we may be sure we shall do injury to all with whom we come in contact.

And to spread sackcloth and ashes under him - On the meaning of the word 'sackcloth,' see the notes at Isaiah 3:24. It was commonly worn around the loins in times of fasting and of any public or private calamity. It was also customary to sit on sackcloth, or to spread it under one either to lie on, or to kneel on in times of prayer, as an expression of humiliation. Thus in Esther 4:3, it is said. 'and many lay on sackcloth and ashes:' or, as it is in the margin, 'sackcloth and ashes were laid under many;' (compare 1 Kings 21:27). A passage in Josephus strongly confirms this, in which he describes the deep concern of the Jews for the danger of Herod Agrippa, after having been stricken suddenly with a violent disorder in the theater of Caesarea. 'Upon the news of his danger, immediately the multitude, with their wives and children, "sitting upon sackcloth according to their country rites," prayed for the king; all places were filled with wailing and lamentation; while the king, who lay in an upper room, beholding the people below thus falling prostrate on the ground, could not himself refrain from tears' (Antiq. xix. 8. 2). We wear crape - but for a somewhat different object. With us it is a mere sign of grief; but the wearing of sackcloth or sitting on it was not a mere sign of grief, but was regarded as tending to produce humiliation and mortification. Ashes also were a symbol of grief and sorrow. The wearing of sackcloth was usually accompanied with ashes Daniel 9:3; Esther 4:1, Esther 4:3. Penitents, or those in affliction, either sat down on the ground in dust and ashes Job 2:8; Job 42:6; Jonah 3:6; or they put ashes on their head 2 Samuel 13:19; Lamentations 3:16; or they mingled ashes with their food Psalm 102:9. The Greeks and the Romans had also the same custom of strewing themselves with ashes in mourning. Thus Homer (Iliad, xviii. 22), speaking of Achilles bewailing the death of Patroclus, says:

Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread

The scorching ashes o'er his graceful head,

His purple garments, and his golden hairs;

Those he deforms, and these he tears.

Laertes (Odys. xxiv. 315), shows his grief in the same manner:

Deep from his soul he sighed, and sorrowing spread

A cloud of ashes on his hoary head.

So Virgil (AEn. x. 844), speaking of the father of Lausus, who was brought to him wounded, says:

Canitiem immundo deformat pulvere.


5. for a man to afflict his soul—The pain felt by abstinence is not the end to be sought, as if it were meritorious; it is of value only in so far as it leads us to amend our ways (Isa 58:6, 7).

bow … head … sackcloth—to affect the outward tokens, so as to "appear to men to fast" (Mt 6:17, 18; 1Ki 21:27; Es 4:3).

That I have chosen; approve of, accept, or delight in, by a metonymy, because we delight in what we freely choose.

A day for a man to afflict his soul; or, to afflict his soul for a day. It is an hypallage, and so it may be understood either for a man to take a certain time to afflict his soul in, and that either from even to even, Leviticus 23:32, or from morning to evening, Judges 20:26 2 Samuel 3:35; or else to afflict his soul for a little time. To afflict, or keep himself low, or chastise the body for want of food, viz. outwardly, without any inward sorrow, or compunction for sin, working a true humiliation in the sight of God.

His soul, put here synecdochically for the body or person, as is usual in Scripture, Genesis 46:18,22,25 Le 5:2,4 7:20,21,27 22:11.

To bow down his head as a bulrush: here the prophet sets down those external gestures and postures in particular which they did join with their hypocritical fasts, as he had mentioned it before in general.

To bow down; bowing is the posture of mourners, Psalm 35:14; and here it is either, as if through weakness of body their heads did hang down; or counterfeitly, to represent the posture of true penitents, moving sometimes their heads this way, and that way, as the word signifieth, not unlike the balance of a clock, as the bulrush moved by the wind boweth itself down, waving to and fro, in a kind of circular or semicircular motion; the contrary motion of lifting up the head being an indication of pride, Isaiah 3:16. It is the guise of hypocrites to put on affected countenances, Mt 6 16.

To spread sackcloth and ashes under him. The Jews, to express their sorrow, made use of sackcloth and ashes two ways.

1. Sometimes by putting on sackcloth upon their bodies, as 1 Kings 21:27 Psalm 69:11, and casting ashes upon their heads, 2 Samuel 13:19. And,

2. Sometimes by spreading sackcloth under them, and lying down upon ashes, Esther 4:3 Job 2:8. The intent of

sackcloth was to afflict the body by its unpleasing harshness, and of

ashes to represent their own vileness, as being but dust and ashes; their putting of them on might note their uneasiness under sin, and laying on them their self-abhorrency, shaming themselves for it.

Quest. Are such rites now convenient on a day of humiliation to help us in our afflicting of ourselves?

Answ. Gospel services neither require them nor need them, respecting more the inward afflicting of the soul with godly sorrow and deep contrition; yet may they carry this instruction along with them, that our ornaments, our best and gaudy apparel, ought to be laid aside, as not suiting either the ground and cause, or the end and design, of days of humiliation.

Wilt thou call this a fast? i.e. canst thou upon a rational account as a mere man call it so? canst thou think, suppose, or believe it to be so? it being such a one as has nothing in it but the lifeless skeleton and dumb signs of a fast, nothing of deep humiliation appearing in it, or real reformation proceeding from it. Not that the prophet blames them for these external rites in this outward way of afflicting themselves; for, this he commands, Leviticus 23:27,31,32, and appoints certain rites to be used, Leviticus 16:1921. And these particular rites were frequent in their solemn humiliations, 1 Kings 21:27 Esther 4:3 Daniel 9:3; used also by the heathen, Jonah 3:5,6. See Matthew 11:21. But that which he condemns is their hypocrisy in separating true humiliation from them, for bodily exercise profiteth little, 1 Timothy 4:8.

An acceptable day to the Lord; a day that God will approve of, as before. Heb. a day of acceptance, or that will turn to a good account on your behalf.

Is it such a fast that I have chosen?.... That is, can this be thought to be a fast approved of by me, and acceptable to me, before described, and is as follows:

a day for a man to afflict his soul? only to appoint a certain day, and keep that, by abstaining from bodily food, and so for a short time afflict himself; or only after this manner to afflict himself, and not humble himself for his sins, and abstain from them, and do the duties of justice and charity incumbent on him:

is it to bow down his head as a bulrush; when it is moved with the wind, or bruised, or withered; as if he was greatly depressed and humbled, and very penitent and sorrowful. The Syriac version renders it, "as a hook"; like a fish hook, which is very much bent; so Jarchi interprets the word:

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? which were ceremonies used in times of mourning and fasting; sometimes sackcloth was put on their loins, and ashes on their heads; and sometimes these were strewed under them, and they laid down upon their sackcloth, which, being coarse, was uneasy to them, and rolled themselves in ashes, as expressive of their meanness and vileness:

wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? does this deserve the name of a fast? or can it be imagined that such a day so spent, can be agreeable to God? that such persons and services will be accepted of by him? or that hereby sin is atoned for, and God is well pleased, and will show his favour and good will, and have respect to such worshippers of him? no, surely.

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.

Verse 5. - Is it such a fast that I have chosen, etc.? Do you suppose that such can be the fast commanded by me in the Law - a fast which is expressly called "a day for a man to afflict his soul"? Is afflicting one's soul simply bowing down one's head as a bulrush, and making one's couch on sackcloth and ashes? Surely it is much more than this. (On the employment of "sackcloth and ashes" in fasting, see Esther 4:3; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6.) Isaiah 58:5Whilst the people on the fast-day are carrying on their worldly, selfish, everyday business, the fasting is perverted from a means of divine worship and absorption in the spiritual character of the day to the most thoroughly selfish purposes: it is supposed to be of some worth and to merit some reward. This work-holy delusion, behind which self-righteousness and unrighteousness were concealed, is met thus by Jehovah through His prophet: "Can such things as these pass for a fast that I have pleasure in, as a day for a man to afflict his soul? To bow down his head like a bulrush, and spread sackcloth and ashes under him - dost thou call this a fast and an acceptable day for Jehovah? Is not this a fast that I have pleasure in: To loose coils of wickedness, to untie the bands of the yoke, and for sending away the oppressed as free, and that ye break every kind of yoke? Is it not this, to break thy bread to the hungry, and to take the poor and houseless to thy home; when thou seest a naked man that thou clothest him, and dost not deny thyself before thine own flesh?" The true worship, which consists in works of merciful love to one's brethren, and its great promises are here placed in contrast with the false worship just described. הכזה points backwards: is such a fast as this a fast after Jehovah's mind, a day on which it can be said in truth that a man afflicts his soul (Leviticus 16:29)? The ה of הלכף is resumed in הלזה; the second ל is the object to תּקרא expressed as a dative. The first ל answers to our preposition "to" with the infinitive, which stands here at the beginning like a casus absol. (to hang down; for which the inf. abs. הכפוף might also be used), and as in most other cases passes over into the finite (et quod saccum et cinerem substernit, viz., sibi: Ges. 132, Anm. 2). To hang down the head and sit in sackcloth and ashes - this does not in itself deserve the name of fasting and of a day of gracious reception (Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah 61:2) on the part of Jehovah (ליהוה for a subjective genitive).

Isaiah 58:6 and Isaiah 58:7 affirm that the fasting which is pleasant to Jehovah consists in something very different from this, namely, in releasing the oppressed, and in kindness to the helpless; not in abstinence form eating as such, but in sympathetic acts of that self-denying love, which gives up bread or any other possession for the sake of doing good to the needy.

(Note: The ancient church connected fasting with almsgiving by law. Dressel, Patr. Ap. p. 493.)

There is a bitter irony in these words, just as when the ancients said, "not eating is a natural fast, but abstaining form sin is a spiritual fast." During the siege of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans a general emancipation of the slaves of Israelitish descent (who were to be set free, according to the law, every three years) was resolved upon and carried out; but as soon as the Chaldeans were gone, the masters fetched their liberated slaves back into servitude again (Jeremiah 34:8-22). And as Isaiah 58:6 shows, they carried the same selfish and despotic disposition with them into captivity. The זה which points forwards is expanded into infin. absolutes, which are carried on quite regularly in the finite tense. Mōtâh, which is repeated palindromically, signifies in both cases a yoke, lit., vectis, the cross wood which formed the most important part of the yoke, and which was fastened to the animal's head, and so connected with the plough by means of a cord or strap (Sir. 30:13; 33:27).

(Note: I have already observed at Isaiah 47:6, in vindication of what was stated at Isaiah 10:27, that the yoke was not in the form of a collar. I brought the subject under the notice of Prof. Schegg, who wrote to me immediately after his return from his journey to Palestine to the following effect: "I saw many oxen ploughing in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and the neighbourhood of Ephesus; and in every case the yoke was a cross piece of wood laid upon the neck of the animal, and fastened to the pole of the plough by a cord which passed under the neck of the animal.")

It is to this that אגדּות, knots, refers. We cannot connect it with mutteh, a state of perverted right (Ezekiel 9:9), as Hitzig does. רצוּצים are persons unjustly and forcibly oppressed even with cruelty; רצץ is a stronger synonym to עשׂק (e.g., Amos 4:1). In Isaiah 58:7 we have the same spirit of general humanity as in Job 31:13-23; Ezekiel 18:7-8 (compare what James describes in James 1:27 as "pure religion and undefiled"). לחם (פרשׂ) פרץ is the usual phrase for κλᾶν (κλάζειν) ἄρτον. מרוּדים is the adjective to עניּים, and apparently therefore must be derived from מרד: miserable men who have shown themselves refractory towards despotic rulers. But the participle mârūd cannot be found elsewhere; and the recommendation to receive political fugitives has a modern look. The parallels in Lamentations 1:7 and Lamentations 3:19 are conclusive evidence, that the word is intended as a derivative of רוּד, to wander about, and it is so rendered in the lxx, Targ., and Jerome (vagos). But מרוד, pl. מרוּדים, is no adjective; and there is nothing to recommend the opinion, that by "wanderers" we are to understand Israelitish men. Ewald supposes that מרוּדים may be taken as a part. hoph. for מוּרדים, hunted away, like הממותים in 2 Kings 11:2 (Keri המּמתים); but it cannot be shown that the language allowed of this shifting of a vowel-sound. We prefer to assume that מרוּדים (persecuted) is regarded as part. pass., even if only per metaplasmum, from מרד, a secondary form of רוּד (cf., מכס, מלץ, מצח, makuna). Isaiah 58:7 is still the virtual subject to אבחרהוּ צום. The apodosis to the hypothetical כּי commences with a perf. consec., which then passes into the pausal future תתעלּם. In hsilgnE:egaugnaL\&מבשׂרך (from thine own flesh) it is presupposed that all men form one united whole as being of the same flesh and blood, and that they form one family, owing to one another mutual love.

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