Isaiah 58 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 58
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.

(1) Cry aloud . . .—Literally, with the throat, i.e., with no faint whisper as from stammering lips, but with full strength of voice. The work of the preacher of repentance is not to be done slightly or by speaking smooth things (comp. Ezekiel 13:10-15). The “trumpet” of the next clause emphasises the thought yet further.

Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
(2) Yet they seek me daily . . .—The “seeking” is that of those who come, like the elders in Ezekiel 20:1, to “enquire” of Jehovah, and looking for an oracle from Him. The words point to the incongruous union, possible in the reign of Manasseh, but hardly possible after the exile, of this formal recognition of Jehovah with an apostate life. Every phrase rings in the tone of an incisive irony,, describing each element of a true devotion which the people did not possess.

Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
(3) Wherefore have we fasted . . .—The words remind us of those of a much later prophet (Malachi 3:14), but the complaints of the unconscious hypocrites who are amazed that their service is not accepted as sincere are in every age the same. Only one fast, that of the Day of Atonement, was prescribed by the Law. In practice, however, they were often held in times of calamity (comp. Isaiah 32:12; Joel 1:13; 2 Chronicles 20:3),and we may legitimately think of them as having been more or less frequent under Hezekiah (Isaiah 37:1-2). Now, as though that had been a meritorious work, the people ask what good had come of it? After the exile fasts were instituted, commemorative of the siege of Jerusalem, its capture, its destruction, and the murder of Gedaliah (Zechariah 7:3; Zechariah 8:19), and those who maintain the later date of the book naturally suppose that these are the fasts referred to.

In the day of your fast ye find pleasure . . .—Better, ye carry on your business. Fasts were not governed, like the Sabbath, by a fixed law, and the people consequently lost sight of the true end of fasting—prayer, meditation, penitence.

Exact all your labours.—The words are rendered by some critics more vividly, though with the same meaning, ye oppress all your labourers. (Comp. James 5:4.)

Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
(4) Behold, ye fast for strife and debate.—The words possibly point to the psychological fact that an unspiritual fasting irritates the nerves and embitters the temper. Extremes meet, and the disputes of fasting controversialists are often as fierce as those of drunken disputants. (Comp. the conspiracy of Acts 23:21.)

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
(5) A day for a man to afflict his soul.—The phrase comes from Leviticus 16:29, and describes the soul-sorrow which was the true ideal of fasting. In contrast with this we have the picture, reminding us of Matthew 6:16, of the mechanical prostrations, which are as the waving of a bulrush in the breeze. The image suggests a new aspect of our Lord’s statement, that the Baptist was not as “a reed shaken by the wind” (Matthew 11:7), scil., that his fasting was not outward and ceremonial, like that of the Pharisees.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
(6) To loose the bands of wickedness.—The words do not exclude abstinence from food as an act of discipline and victory over self-indulgence, but declare its insufficiency by itself. So in the practice of the ancient Church fasting and almsgiving were closely connected, as indeed they are in Matthew 6:1; Matthew 6:16. The history of the emancipation of the slaves and of their subsequent return to bondage presents a curious illustration of the prophet’s words (Jeremiah 34:8-22). The truth which he proclaimed was recognised in the hour of danger and forgotten in that of safety. Comp. Joel 2:13.

To undo the heavy burdens.—Literally, the thongs of the yoke, the leather straps which fastened the yoke on the head of the oxen as they ploughed. Again we trace an echo of the thought and almost of the phraseology in our Lord’s teaching (Matthew 11:29-30; Matthew 23:4). The Pharisees who fasted laid heavy burdens on men’s shoulders. He, who was thought not to fast, relieved them of their two-fold yoke of evil selfishness and ceremonial formalism.

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
(7) To deal thy bread.—Literally, to break bread, as in the familiar phrase of the New Testament (Matthew 26:26; Acts 20:11; Acts 27:34). The bread of the Jews seems to have been made always in the thin oval cakes, which were naturally broken rather than cut.

The poor that are cast out.—The words include all forms of homelessness—tenants evicted by their landlords, debtors by their creditors, slaves fleeing from their masters’ cruelty, the persecuted for righteousness’ sake, perhaps even political refugees. Note the parallelism with Matthew 25:35-36.

From thine own flesh.—Usage, as in Genesis 29:14; Nehemiah 5:5, leads us to refer the words primarily to suffering Israelites, but those who have learnt that “God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth” (Acts 17:26) will extend its range to every form of suffering humanity.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.
(8) Then shall thy light . . .—The dawning of a new day, as in 2 Samuel 23:4; the growth as of new and healthy flesh after long illness; “righteousness,” i.e., the sentence of acquittal in the eyes of all the world, as leading the van of a triumphant march, the “glory of Jehovah” following in the rear as a protection; all these images are heaped together to paint the fulness of blessing that follows on that true renunciation of the old evil selfishness of which fasting is but a symbol and a part.

Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
(9) Then shalt thou call.—The words point to the secret of the prayer which is answered in contrast to the formal worship that found no acceptance (Isaiah 58:2; Isaiah 58:4).

The putting forth of the finger.—The gesture (Cheyne compares the “infamis digitus” of Persius ii. 33) has in well-nigh all nations been a natural symbol of scorn. It is in action what the words “Raca” and “Thou fool” are in the language of Matthew 5:22.

And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:
(10) Draw out thy soul.—The words have been interpreted as meaning (1) giving up sensuous desires for the sake of others; (2) ministering of thy substance; (3) extending thy sympathy. On the whole, (3) seems preferable.

Then shall thy light rise.—We note the recurrence of the imagery of Isaiah 9:2.

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
(11) In drought.—Literally, droughts, either with the force of intensity or as meaning “dry places.”

And make fat.—Better, shall strengthen, or make supple.

Like a watered garden.—Comp. Psalm 1:3, Isaiah 44:3-4, Jeremiah 31:12, in the last of which we have the self-same phrase.

And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
(12) Shall build the old waste places.—The prophet contemplates primarily the restoration of the public and private buildings of Jerusalem, but the words have obviously a wider spiritual application.

The foundations of many generationsi.e., those that had been lying in ruins, with no superstructure, for even a longer period than the seventy years of exile.

Thou shalt be called . . .—This was to be the special work, and was to constitute the enduring fame, of the new Israel.

Paths to dwell ini.e., the streets of the city shall be once more flanked with houses on either side, and not merely roads from one point to another.

If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
(13) If thou turn away thy foot.—The teaching of Isaiah 56:4-7, as to the Sabbath is resumed. The form of the phrase implies the idea that the Sabbath is as holy ground, on which no profane foot must tread (Exodus 3:5).

Thy pleasure.—Better, thy business.

Nor speaking thine own words.—Literally, speak words, as in Hosea 10:4, for idle unprofitable talk (Proverbs 10:19, Ecclesiastes 5:3).

Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
(14) I will cause thee to ride upon the high, places of the earth.—Better, of the land: i.e., of Canaan, the idea being that of a victorious march to occupy all commanding positions, and thus connecting itself with the full enjoyment of the heritage of Israel in the next clause.

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