Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that the Old Testament is all about law and judgement whilst the New Testament is about grace, love and mercy. We rightly respond by showing that the Old is full of references to God’s love and compassion whilst Jesus and the apostles all talk about what it means to obey God and the reality of judgement for sin. Similarly we may be tempted to think of Isaiah dividing up neatly between warnings of judgement in chapter 1-39 and promises of hope and restoration in chapters 40-66. However, there are many, repeated promises of hope in the first half of the prophecy and here towards the end, the readers are again challenged about sin, idolatry and hypocrisy.
Read Isaiah 57-59
Idolators may be tempted to look and see the struggle of the righteous and become complacent, thinking they have won but they have not, they are under God’s judgement, whilst when the righteous die, they are rescued from suffering and enter peace with God (ch 57).
Meanwhile, it seems that the people put on an outer appearance of religious zeal, they turn up to worship and offer sacrifices, they even fast. However, they have a mechanistic understanding of these rituals, expecting to be able to get God to answer their prayers through their religious actions and so are surprised and complain when this does not happen. God says this is because they have missed what true fasting is about. Real fasting means that their hearts have been changed so that because they have met with God, their lives and actions change. Not only is there an abstinence from things including food and temptations but there is a positive and proactive concern to feed the hungry and house the homeless (ch 58).
It may seem at times that righteousness and justice seem far off as the wicked get their way. However, Isaiah encourages a fresh look. God cannot be thwarted and he will bring about true and lasting justice. As well as bringing forgiveness to the repentant, God will judge the unrepentant wicked (ch59).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to demand even more of people than the Old Testament. He goes deeper, surface, external responses and lip service won’t cut it. It’s not just what we do or even what we say but rather our thoughts, motives and heart response that matter. That’s what I think we are seeing at this stage in Isaiah too, a call for a deeper heart response. It’s no surprise that this challenge to true repentance and true fasting comes at this stage after the promises of comfort, atonement and God’s Spirit because without Christ, the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, such a heat change is impossible but with Christ and the Gospel all things are possible.
““Is not this the fast that I choose:”
Take time to read back over the verses that follow.
- What will this “fast” look like in your community?
- How does the Holy Spirit need to work in your heart to make this possible?
Lord God work in my heart to give me a hunger and thirst for you and a compassion for the needy.