Isaiah 58 is perhaps the most famous passage on fasting in all of Scripture. Often called “the fasting chapter,” it is a devastating indictment upon the religiosity of man and all its vain, self-righteous rituals. In Isaiah 58, God clearly articulates the ultimate purpose of fasting, and in the process, the ultimate goal of redeemed humanity as well. Not surprisingly, the two purposes are one and the same.
The chapter opens by declaring its context: God is criticizing the empty, ritualistic religion of Israel at the time (vs. 1). Then, verse 2 comes along with a message that should make any church-goer shudder with familiarity: “Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask me of righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Did you catch that? God declares that the people of Israel “Seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness.” Israel has all the outward appearance of piety, but no actual righteousness. They love the idea of God, not obeying Him.
Verses 3-4 lay out examples of how the people of Israel are fasting merely to control God and others, as they still seek their own desires and oppress their workers. God declares that the only fruit coming out of their fasts is conflict: “Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist.”
After sarcastically rebuking Israel’s false motives for fasting (and the regrettable fruit), in verse 5, God declares, in a famous passage, His “chosen fast” beginning in verse 6. Heed well the Master’s words:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
What is the true result of a God-pleasing fast? Personal piety? Outward signs of humility? Merit and recognition from God and others? No. The true result of a God-pleasing fast is JUSTICE, EQUITY, AND FREEDOM, both physically and spiritually, amongst mankind. God wants to see people rescued from snares of the devil. He wants to see the oppressed set free. He wants to see wordly burdens lifted from the poor. He wants the hungry fed, the homeless sheltered, the naked clothed, and the needs of our brothers and sisters provided for.
It has become clear to me throughout my study of the Psalms in the past two years that God’s mission and concern is primarily that of JUSTICE. As Psalm 11:6 says, “The LORD loves justice.” He loves it. He delights in it. And He becomes very angry when justice is perverted in ANY way. He rightfully and justly pours out His wrath upon those who perpetuate injustice. Nearly all of the pleas for God’s wrath in the Psalms are pleas for God to bring JUSTICE into a situation. “God, wake up! If You love justice like you say You do, why are You not angry about this? Hold court! Convict the guilty and acquit the innocent. Let the oppressors be rightfully punished and the oppressed rightfully set free!”
So what does all this have to do with fasting? I wrote in an earlier article in this series about how fasting breaks spiritual bondages. It breaks bondages in us by killing off our desire for worldly pleasure. It also breaks the spiritual bondages of others through intercessory prayer that takes on extra power in a life of fasting. Fasting sets us free for a lifestyle of pursuing justice for the mistreated. As the rest of Isaiah 58 makes clear, seeking the LORD through fasting is a pivotal key to personal and societal flourishing.
The ultimate purpose of your life is laid out by Jesus’ standing orders to the church in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The purpose of your life is to make disciples – to teach them to obey what Jesus taught (which included a lifestyle of fasting and spiritual discipline). The Gospel itself – the truth that a transformed, righteous, joyous life is possible through the trinitarian God of the universe – is the only vehicle for achieving authentic justice in the world – justice that heals, restores, and unites. Without it, humanity remains lost and dead in sin, depending on ideas and systems that are not rooted in God’s eternal Word.
Will you continue to neglect this vital, life-changing discipline? Listen to God’s promises in Isaiah 58:8-11 to those who heed His call to godly fasting:
“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.”
The promises go on and on from there, and I invite you to read them and read all of Isaiah 58 for yourself as you embark on this journey of fasting. Brothers and sisters, let us encourage and spur each other on to good works so that we may fulfill God’s mission together, in our lifetime! Amen.