The passage of Hebrew Scripture which is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Isaiah 58:1–12, comes from the third section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book was written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE).
The section begins with a familiar prophetic announcement: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). In the following chapters, the unnamed prophet demonstrates what justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles. The extensive worship of idols (57:1–13) will bring God’s wrath on the people; “there is no peace, says my God, for the wicked” (57:13). Rather, “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy” chooses “to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (57:15).
Because God indicates that “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry” (57:16), the prophet conveys what the Lord sees as the fast that is required; not a fast when “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (58:3), not a fast when “you quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist” (58:4). The sad reality is that the lives of the people demonstrate their rebellion and sin (58:1). Caring actions, actions of compassion, acts which adhere to God’s justice and righteousness, are what is required.
So the prophet declares that God chooses a fast “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin” (58:6–7).
The words of this post-exilic prophet resonate with the actions of “the righteous” in the well-known parable of Jesus, as they gave food, water, a welcome, clothing, and care to those sick or imprisoned (Matt 25:31–46). “I was hungry and you gave me food”, says the Son of Man; “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt 25:35–36). It is because of these caring acts that the invitation is extended to these righteous ones: “come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt 25:34).
Throughout Hebrew scripture, these acts of the righteous—deeds of justice—are consistently affirmed as what God requires. The Psalmist praises “the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry … [who] sets the prisoners free, [who] opens the eyes of the blind, [who] lifts up those who are bowed down [and] loves the righteous, [who] watches over the strangers [and] upholds the orphan and the widow” (Ps 146:5, 7–9).
The people of God are regularly enjoined to emulate these actions in their lives. The Law is clear that “you must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes … justice, and only justice, you shall pursue” (Deut 16:19–20), while Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people” (Isa 10:1–2).
Regarding feeding the hungry, the sages advise, “if your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink” (Prov 25:21), and “if you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard” (Prov 21:23). The law relating to gleaning (Lev 19:9–10) indicates that provision for the poor was integral to the way that society was to function in ancient Israel.
Housing those in need of shelter was expected in Israel. Strangers from other nations who came to Israel, with no homes to live in, were to be welcomed (Deut 10:19) and regarded “as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself” (Lev 19:34). The law concerning “any of your kin [who] fall into difficulty” instructs that “you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens” (Lev 25:35), and the people are to allot land “as an inheritance … for the aliens who reside amongst you”, for “they shall be to you as citizens of Israel” (Ezek 47:22)
Nakedness was a sign of shame in ancient Israelite society, first articulated in the second creation story (Gen 3:7–11) and then in the story of Noah’s drunken state (Gen 9:20–23) and David’s frenzied dancing before the ark of the Lord (2 Sam 6:16, 20–22). Job comments disapprovingly of those who, amongst other sinful actions, “cause the poor to go about naked without clothing” (Job 24:2–10). Many prophets rail against nakedness as a symbol of Israel’s sinfulness (Isa 20:3; 47:3; 57:8; Ezek 16:36–38; 23:18; Nah 3:5) and indicate the importance of “covering one’s nakedness” (Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:9–10).
The story is told of how “certain chiefs of the Ephraimites”, in obedience to the words of the prophet Obed (2 Chron 28:9–11), covered nakedness of the captured southerners, “and with the booty they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them”, and then returned them as freed men to Jericho (2 Chron 28:15).
So the “fast that [God] chooses” which the prophet describes is a thread of justice and equity running through the story of Israel, and on into the Jesus movement. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and clothing the naked were all practical ways to signal that the society was founded on the justice and righteousness that God required through the covenant. This is what provides “a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord” (58:5).
Yet the prophet decries the state of the nation, as they return from Exile, and laments that “there is no justice … justice is far from us … we wait for justice, but there is none … justice is turned back … the Lord saw it, and it displeased him” (59:8–15); he declares that, as a consequence, God “put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle” (59:17)—a description that underlines the later exhortations to the followers of Jesus to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10–17).
Because the Lord “loves justice” (61:8), the prophet has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God” (61:1–2)—words which are appropriated by Jesus when he visits his hometown and reads from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:18–19); “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, Jesus declares (Luke 4:21).
Adhering to this way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires, means that he will give Israel a new name; as the prophet declares, “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4).
To secure this promised future, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).
The book of Isaiah ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23). This vision is taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). It is a hopefully positive way to end the whole book, as well as the oracles of the anonymous post-exilic prophet whose words are collected in the latter part of this long book of Isaiah.
Within that envisaged new creation, “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” (65:19). There will be houses for shelter and vineyards for sustenance, and a just and equitable distribution of resources (65:21–22), with blissful peace marking all relationships (65:25) and a wonderful inclusiveness of the peoples of “all nations and tongues” (66:18–21). The prosperity of the people (66:12–13) reflects the absence of inequity and the diligent practice of justice—a fine fulfilment of the prophecy about “the true fast” that we will read, and hear, this coming Sunday.