Hypocritical Religiosity versus Genuine Love for God and Neighbor


Hypocritical Religiosity versus Genuine Love for God and Neighbor

Isaiah 58

Isn’t this the fast I choose: To break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? (Isa 58:6)

Main Idea: God exposes hypocritical fasting, calling his people to a genuine fast of loving the poor and delighting in him.

  1. Exposing Hypocrisy and Oppression (58:1-5)
    1. Hypocrisy of Jacob exposed (58:1)
    2. A nation that seemed to seek God (58:2)
    3. Fasting while sinning (58:3-5)
  2. The True Fast: Mercy Ministry (58:6-12)
    1. The true fast: denying self to serve others (58:6)
    2. Breaking the chains of oppression (58:6)
    3. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless (58:7)
    4. The true sacrifice: spend yourself, not merely your money (58:10).
    5. The lavish rewards of serving the needy (58:8-12)
  3. The True Sabbath: Holy Delight (58:13-14)
    1. The self-denial of the true Sabbath (58:13)
    2. The delight of the Sabbath: God himself (58:13-14)

Exposing Hypocrisy and Oppression

Isaiah 58:1-5

Jesus summarized all the laws of God in two: love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37,39). A magnificent harmony exists between these two. They are not independent but fit together beautifully. Love is a heart issue, having to do with the magnetic attractions of the heart. Hypocrisy is the enemy of love, both toward God and toward neighbor.

As he did in Isaiah 1:10-20, the prophet exposes the hypocrisy of a people riding a machine of religion while living corrupt lives that crushed the poor and needy. Christians today face the same charge: outward observance of church attendance and Bible studies with little genuine sacrifice for the poor and needy. Religion that does not result in care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan is defiled in God’s sight (Jas 1:27). So God calls his prophet to raise his voice like a trumpet to declare to his people their sins. They were a people who sought God day after day and showed “delight” in knowing his ways, but the grammar of Isaiah 58:2 implies it was all a façade.

It gets even clearer in verse 3, when this people’s arrogance toward God comes oozing to the surface. They arrogantly demand to know why God has not responded to their fasting and prayer. How did they know that God had not seen or noticed? Probably they were expecting some earthly blessing: a bumper crop, a military victory, a flow of gold into the royal coffers. They were purely mercenary in their religion. But even worse, they were blind to their own wickedness. On the day of their fasts they dealt wickedly with one another and with their workers. Their self-denial made them irritable; their fasts always ended in contention, even in brawls (v. 4). And they oppressed their workers with extra labor and harsh commands (v. 3). God tells them plainly that such “fasts” would never result in their voices being heard “on high” (v. 4).

The True Fast: Mercy Ministry

Isaiah 58:6-12

God graciously teaches his sinful people what kind of religion he will honor (v. 6). This passage is one of the most important in the Bible for understanding mercy ministry: how vital it is to God, what it entails, how it must come from a heart of love for God and neighbor, how costly it must be, and how richly God will reward it. What God demands is more soul-searching than we can imagine: “Offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one” (v. 10; emphasis added). The Hebrew behind this demand implies a long-term, deep-heart commitment to the poor and needy. NIV says, “If you spend yourselves in behalf of” the poor and needy. It’s not enough to give bread or money occasionally in a coldhearted manner. You are to give yourself first, and then you are ready to give materially. Jesus “spent himself” on behalf of his people who were infinitely poor and needy. To “spend yourself” means to allow your heart to be knit with the afflictions of others. Fasting is a symbolic affliction, a voluntary refraining from food, which you can choose to end anytime you want. But the hungry have no choice and cannot stop the involuntary fasting they are doing through their poverty.

So God calls on his people in every generation to learn how to have their souls afflicted with the sufferings of others. The Lord said, “You always have the poor with you” (Matt 26:11; see Deut 15:11). He calls on us to break the chains of wickedness and untie the ropes of the yoke of oppression (Isa 58:6). This involves seeking out societal injustice wherever it is and using powerful means to end it: break the chains, tear off the yoke! He calls on us to share our bread with the hungry and our homes with the homeless. Because the poor man is human, he is my own flesh and blood (v. 7). I must not turn away. I must spend myself on him.

God promises lavish blessings on any who by faith in him and out of love for others live this kind of life. He promises that our “light will appear like the dawn” (v. 8), and our “light will shine in the darkness, and [our] night will be like noonday” (v. 10). This is glory language: we will shine with the glory of God in this present age, and our deeds will shine with glory for all eternity. We will live a protected life of joy and peace, with our prayers regularly answered from on high. As soon as we call on him, the Lord will answer, “Here I am,” as though he were our servant, and not we his (v. 9). The rebuilding of ancient ruins is a clear allusion to the rebuilding of Jerusalem by the exiles, but it is also a metaphor for the building of a work for the glory of God that will last eternally—even the building of the heavenly temple of God with living stones rescued from the wreckage of Satan’s devastation (Matt 16:18; 1 Pet 2:5).

The True Sabbath: Holy Delight

Isaiah 58:13-14

The final section of this chapter addresses the Sabbath observance, a vital part of the religion of the old covenant. The Sabbath has its origin in the pattern God established at creation: In six days he made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested from all his labors. The Sabbath observance was a shadow of our heavenly rest in Christ. Through Isaiah, God was commanding God’s people to obey the law of Moses, to “remember to dedicate the Sabbath day.” God commands them not to desecrate his “holy day” by doing whatever they wanted, going their own ways, speaking idle words, and seeking their own pleasure in worldly pursuits (v. 13). So verses 6-12 define a holy fast but verses 13-14 a holy feast. The essence of this feast was spiritual delight, finding supernatural pleasure in God himself. God says it plainly: “Delight in the Lord” (v. 14).

The tendency of Israel was either to disregard the day altogether (Num 15:32; Ezek 20:13) or to become enslaved to minutiae of man-made regulations that made the day a terrible burden (Mark 3:2-3). But God’s good intentions for the Sabbath are nowhere clearer in all of Scripture than in these two verses. In heaven we will come into our inheritance, which will be a full and perfect experience of God himself—delighting in his radiant glory. Once a week, God commands his people to set aside their earthly labors and feast on him by faith. In the old covenant Israel was to do this on the seventh day, looking back to creation (Exod 20:11). In the new covenant Christians do this on the first day, in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the resurrection of their own bodies and of the world itself. Isaiah 58:13-14 contains timeless words, teaching us to turn away from worldly labors and entertainments and to dedicate ourselves more fully to God, finding delight in him by the Word and the Spirit. It must not degenerate into legalism (Col 2:16), and it must be done with a sense that in Christ we have already come into our Sabbath rest (Heb 4:1-9). But if Christians will follow these words, setting the first day aside as sacred, determining to turn away from selfish pursuits and delighting in the Lord, he will “make [us] ride over the heights of the land” and enjoy what we inherited from Jacob: salvation in Christ.


This chapter speaks plainly to Christians about three vital issues: religious hypocrisy, mercy ministry, and the Sabbath rest. The third of these we have just addressed plainly. I would just add that it is wise for Christians to learn how they can clear out Sundays as days of spiritual focus. In our entertainment-crazed age, filled with Sunday sports and endless electronic recreations, the need to fast in order to feast may never have been greater in the history of the church. Ask the Lord to show you how to rearrange your priorities and schedule to “call the Sabbath a delight.”

Concerning religious hypocrisy, Christians need to realize that God looks beyond the “machinery of fasting” to see the heart behind it. And if our “fasting” actually makes us carnal, irritable, argumentative, and even violent, not to mention unjust to paid workers (vv. 3-4), it’s time to repent from our religion. By contrast, both Isaiah and James (Jas 1:27) command us to a religion that makes us love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors sacrificially. The demands of the poor and needy on the consciences of Christians are relentless, and Isaiah 58:6-12 sharpens their cries to an urgent level. The central challenge for us is not merely to give money to charities but to offer ourselves (v. 10) on behalf of the poor and needy.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How does Isaiah 58 challenge Christians toward a fulfillment of the two great commandments of loving God and loving people wholeheartedly?
  2. How could fasting help you in your walk with God?
  3. How do verses 1-4 help fasting to be a genuine expression of piety?
  4. God reveals his desire that his people make consistent sacrifices to alleviate the suffering of others. What are some specific ways that you can begin to change your life to obey the pattern of verses 6-12?
  5. Verse 6 commands us to break chains and ropes of wickedness that oppress people. What does this mean? How is such a ministry costly and dangerous?
  6. Verse 7 gets very specific about feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. What kind of challenges are involved in this that require Christian wisdom in addition to sacrificial love?
  7. How do the promises attached to sacrificial love for the poor (vv. 8,10) motivate you?
  8. Verse 10 carries with it the greatest single sacrifice a person could ever make for the poor—“offer yourself.” What is the difference between giving money to the poor and spending yourself for the poor?
  9. How do you observe the Christian Sabbath? As with any command given in Scripture, there are opposite dangers of legalism and license when it comes to Sundays. How can we make Sunday a more focused day of “delight in the Lord” without becoming legalistic?
  10. What would be some of the benefits for Christians cheerfully abstaining from worldly recreations on Sundays so they can set their hearts on Christ and on things above (Col 3:1-4)?