Our Lord is relentless in loving his people and calling his people back to himself. Isaiah 58 is going to observe a problem that the people of Israel have that is common to many. These people put forward by their actions that they love God and are religious but their hearts lack a passion for the Lord. They look like they love the Lord but their actions do not reveal anything more than simple ritualistic worship practices.
False Devotion (58:1-5)
The message begins for Isaiah to declare loudly to the people their sins. He is to cry out to them about their sins like a trumpet, warning them of their sinful condition before God. The warning is necessary because the most dangerous spiritual condition to be in is one where you think you are pleasing God, yet your life is nowhere near God.
In verse 2 the Lord notes that the people show outward evidence of desiring God’s will. By all appearances they delight in the Lord. They seek the Lord daily and seem to delight in the ways of the Lord. They are even fasting, according to verse 3. Keep in mind that in the days when Jesus walked the earth we read about another group of religious people, the Pharisees, who were doing the same thing with an outward show of devotion and love for God, even fasting and praying on the street corners. Jesus condemned them in his well known Sermon on the Mount. So the people are doing all of these religious acts. They are worshipping. They are fasting. They look like lovers of God. Therefore, they cannot understand why the Lord is not listening to them. God is not responding to their external acts (58:3). So they are asking why God is not seeing their fasts and not acknowledging the “humbling” of themselves.
God answers them in the middle of verse 3 and in verse 4, giving them the reasons that God does not accept their outward devotion and acts of godliness. In verse 3 he says that it is because you continue to pursue your own pleasures and not the pleasures of God. They are interested in their own business but not God’s business. They would oppress others so that they could look religious. They fight and stir up strife (58:4). They are not truly desiring God. Therefore God does not hear them or care about their works.
Verse 5 drives this truth even further. God asks if this is the kind of fast that he would want from his people. Is fasting just bowing the head? Does God just want a few external acts? I fear this idea has been taught all too frequently within Christianity. Just come to church and God is happy. Just make sure you take the Lord’s Supper and you have pleased God. Make sure you have performed the “five acts of worship” and you have sealed your duty to God. God says you are nothing but a reed nodding in the wind. You are just doing these acts but you do not care about the Lord. Your pleasure is not in God. Notice that the people were even spreading sackcloth and ashes. This was considered an extravagant expression of humility. Yet God did not care about this act either. Coming to worship, taking the Lord’s Supper, bowing your head, and being friendly — is this really what you think God wants? The Lord says that we do not belong to him if we have this kind of “mail it in” attitude. Just get here whenever you feel like, do some perfunctory acts, look like you are godly, and go home. God is pleased, right? Not at all! These acts of worship are supposed to move our hearts closer to God and impact our relationship with God. We pray, not as an act, but because we want to talk to our Father and Master. We sing, not as an act, but because we want to praise the Lord for all he has done. We partake of the Lord’s Supper, not as a weekly ritual, but we desire to remember the sacrifice of Jesus. We read the scriptures and listen to teaching, not as an act, but because we want to know more about our Lord. Activity alone is spiritually fruitless to God. If we just mailed in our singing without engaging our hearts to the Lord and participated in the Lord’s Supper without loving our God for what he gave to us, we have done nothing. Don’t forget what Isaiah was told to do. Loudly proclaim these sinful deeds. Looking like you love God is nothing to God. So what does God want from his people? The rest of the chapter is going to explain in three movements what to do and what will be the result.
This Is What God Wants (58:6-14)
Stop wickedness (58:6-9a).
The Lord declares that we loose the bonds of wickedness. God sees how we are dealing with people on Monday. Monday matters to God. God sees our business practices. God sees what we do on the job. God sees what we do in the home. We are not to just say that we are giving ourselves, but to truly give ourselves and of what we have to others. The New Testament parallel of this instruction would be Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus called for his people to be a neighbor. Do not ask who is our neighbor so that we can try to get out of doing what is right by other people. Rather, we are to be the neighbor to other people, doing good by them, behaving like Christians to everyone we interact with.
A few weeks ago we had a woman who attended for a few weeks and so many of your helped her by giving her things that she needed. This is exactly what the scriptures are speaking about us doing. We cannot say, “Be warmed and filled” and do nothing to help with that desire. So many of you did do this and I want us to see that God wants us to take these opportunities, not to avoid them or ignore them. Be the neighbor.
Notice the result in verses 8-9a. Now we will be able to rest on the promises of God. We will not be acting like practical atheists. God answers these actions because they are driven by a desire for God’s ways and God’s love. God will hear our cry and provide healing and righteousness. “The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” is a reminder of the days of the exodus when God lead them and protected them from behind as they traveled. Our light will break forth like the dawn because we are reflecting the light of Jesus to the world. This is what God wants from his people. God’s people following God’s ways.
Stop oppression and evil speaking (58:9b-12).
Again God is calling for his people to give themselves. Do not oppress. Do not speak evil. The New Testament parallel is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Galatians 5:14).
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27 ESV)
There is a great need for us to open our hearts to people during this time when it is so easy to become isolated and uncaring. It is easy to be isolated to each other. We will just see each other once or twice a week and not share ourselves or our lives with each other. People are isolating themselves from others. We need open hearts to people. We must care about the souls of others, not speak evil of others or mock them. Instead, give ourselves to them.
The result of loving our neighbor as ourselves is described in verses 10b-12. Again we see our light shining in the darkness. This pictures us reflecting the glory of the Lord and salvation of our God to the world. Listen to the blessings God is offering in these verses. God will guide us, satisfy our souls, and give us strength. We will flourish like a watered garden before the Lord. Verse 11 describes us not only as a watered garden, but like a spring of water. We will not only be blessed by God but will become a blessing to the rest of the world. This is the wonderful picture of what it means to be light in the world. We are becoming a blessing to the world. This is what Jesus described in John 7:38.
Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38 ESV)
Out of our hearts will also flow the rivers of living water. We are like springs of water to the world such that we are pictured as builders of God’s kingdom (58:12). We are spreading the message of God and expanding its borders and constituents. God has enabled us to be an instrument useful to God. This is not a self-reliant, independent task. We are the light of the world because Jesus is the light of the world. We are springs of water because Jesus is the spring of living water. Turn from evil and we will be used as God’s blessing to others.
Stop living for your personal pleasures (58:13-14).
The final picture is a change of heart in worshiping and serving the Lord. He calls for the people to delight in the Lord’s day. God did not want ritual or habit. He calls for Israel to honor his Sabbath day. Delight in the day, not for personal pleasures, but for the joy of honoring God. It is important to note that Sunday is not the Christian Sabbath. The Sabbath was a day of rest when the people honored and worshiped the Lord by remembering how God saved them from Egyptian slavery. It became a day of worship as the Jews would go to the temple and the synagogues. While Sunday is not the Sabbath, the application of enjoying worshiping God cannot be missed. God wants people who want to be here. God wants us not worry about getting out of here as if we are punching a clock with God. God wants hearts who want to honor him and honor his Son by our songs, with the Lord’s Supper, through our prayers, and listening to the word of God. We are to want this time. We do not want to miss it. We do not want to be late for it. It is our delight and joy. There is nothing else that we would rather be doing. God did not expect his people to worship him with a “let’s get this over with” attitude. This is what Israel desires. They just want to get back to doing their own work and their own pleasures. God wants our delight to be in him. Delight in worship! Perhaps you started with God as duty and requirement. I encourage you to engage your heart in these activities and you will learn to love and enjoy these things.
Notice God says this in verse 14. “Then you shall delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth.” Then you will enjoy the covenant blessings and riches of God. Jesus made this point when he said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Learn to treasure these things and the heart will follow. When I first watched football on Sunday as a child, I did not think that it was the most wonderful thing ever. But I invested time into it and watched it again and again. As I watched, I began to appreciate what I was watching and then I began to enjoy it. The first time I read the scriptures, my first response was not that this was the greatest thing I ever read. But I invested time into reading them again. I read more and as I read more I began to appreciate what I was reading. Then as I would read more I would enjoy it more and more. Now I desire to read the word of God. When I first attended worship services on Sunday as a child, it was duty. My parents made me go. But I invested my heart and paid attention to what was happening. Over time I appreciated what was happening and grew to enjoy worship. Now there is nothing else I would rather do. I do not want to do anything else. I would love to come here more. I would love to study with you more. It is a joy. If you started with God as a duty and responsibility, I tell you these things so that you can see that you can have this joy and excitement for God, his word, and his worship. But you must invest yourself. You must give your heart. You must give your time. You must try. Otherwise, nothing will happen and you will despise these times. Now these acts of prayer, reading, Lord’s Supper, study, sermons, singing, and more draw our hearts closer to God. We are not bowing our heads like reeds nodding in the wind. We are submitting our contrite hearts to God as we engage him and encounter him through these things. Experiencing this joy will strengthen us to stop the wickedness and live as disciples of God every day. We will not be practical atheists, looking like Christians on Sunday but there is no other fruit. Now we will be neighbors to all, love them as ourselves, and delight in it as we love our Lord.