Read: Isaiah 55 and 58
Background Considerations Many see Isaiah 56-66 as another inspired addition to the book of Isaiah from an even later time than the Babylonian exile. Whereas chapters 1-39 assume primarily an eighth-century setting in Judah under the domination of Assyria, and chapters 40-55 a sixth-century context in Babylon during the exile imposed by the Babylonians, some would argue that chapters 56-66 come from the land of Palestine and address waning enthusiasm and apathy. Thus, a shift from nearly unbridled joy to a mix of strong speeches and encouragement. In what ways might this idea affect our understanding of these chapters?
Salvation, seeking the Lord, social justice and the Sabbath occupy the chapters we study in this lesson. A good Bible dictionary on these terms as they appear in the Old Testament would prove helpful.
We also return especially in Isaiah 58 to the two major concerns of the prophets – social justice for our fellow human beings and appropriate worship of God. Isaiah 58 memorably captures both in creative ways: upside-down reflections on fasting and pleasure-laden comments about the Sabbath. The chapter also exhibits an intriguing literary pattern: the wrong way of doing X, then the correct way and its results. Both fasting and Sabbath-keeping come to us in this way. A number of twists on word usage also occur.
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read quickly through Isaiah 56-66 this week.
- Isaiah 55 – A striking irony opens this chapter as the audience is asked to buy something without cost. This is odd on the surface of things, but also in a context in which the prophet is calling the people to a renewed covenant, an analogy of obligation and loyalty. What does the prophet want to convey about grace? And what do the metaphors of food and drink stand for in the context of these verses? Verses 6-9 are quoted often as an invitation to come to and learn to know God. How do forgiveness and exalted thoughts figure in here? And why does this kind of experience typically in the Bible lead to joyful proclamation and witness about it?
- Isaiah 58:1-12 – Religious fasting provides the content of these verses. While the idea of fasting does appear in the Old Testament, particularly in connection with the Day of Atonement, it is by no means a common theme. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Eating and drinking are part of God’s good creation and the notions of asceticism and staying away from food are primarily the product of a later, mostly Greek-inspired dualism between the evil physical needs and the good spiritual pursuits. Asceticism is strong in the early Christian church, but not the Old Testament. So, the references here to fasting stand out. Contrition and submission are indeed parts of Old Testament faith and show up often. In any case, the fasting pictured here, which seems to be in keeping with our general understanding of the practice, is not assessed well. What makes it a problem in this chapter? Why is it wrong? What makes it so? More importantly, how does the prophet redefine fasting? How does it transmute from abstaining from food to feeding others? How does it change from dressing down to sackcloth and ashes to clothing others who have no clothes? And what results from this kind of fasting?
- Isaiah 58:13-14 – The Sabbath is richly developed in the Old Testament (a memorial of God’s creation in Exodus 20:8-11; a reminder of God’s redemption in Deuteronomy 5:12-15; a sign of God’s sanctifying changes in Exodus 31:16-17; an important part of the ideal future of Isaiah 66). Unfortunately, for too many the Sabbath is not a delight. The idea of not doing one’s own pleasure (the better translation is one’s own business affairs) on the Sabbath has turned the Sabbath into a day of drudgery. Not so for the prophet. A day of delight and joy, the Sabbath takes us to the heights of the earth. What does all this have to say about how we enjoy the Sabbath? Would a book like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath help? From a Jewish perspective, Heschel reminds us of the rabbinic metaphors for the Sabbath of bride and queen. And how should one behave at a wedding or at the arrival of the queen?
Contributions to the study of Isaiah How does the treatment of fasting contribute to the prophet’s understanding of social justice, especially for those unable to care for themselves, the marginalized in any society?
Lessons for Life Does Isaiah 58 have anything to say about how we mesh the devotional and ethical sides of life?