Ostensibly, the observances of fasts appear to be the topic broached by the Prophet Isaiah, but God had a bone to pick with the Israelites’ underlying intentions in this sacred practice and their gratuitous lifestyle. The Lord’s indignation is demonstrated from his descriptive charge; He required Isaiah to trumpet forcefully His accusations against His people for everyone to hear (Is 58:1). It is pertinent to note that Yahweh was addressing the deeply religious people in this instant; they were the ones who worshipped the Lord daily, delighted to know His ways, did not forsook the practice of his laws, acted righteously, and were delighted to be near Him (Is 58:2). But it is obvious that they were ritualizing their pieties and impervious to the spirit of His laws. Their underlying motivation to derive answers for their selfish prayers through fasting, and their petulant attitude obviously did not sit well with our Creator. No mention was made what the content of their prayers were, no doubt highly personal and unjustifiably skewed (Is 58:3-5).
Yahweh’s subsequent incisive reply was an indictment against their self-serving interests, which was an affront to His very special unconditional care for the poor (Is 58: 6-7, 10; cf., Prov 19:17). Any sincere and true fellowship with God is meaningless without an unpretentious social conscience and seeking to establish equitable justice for the poor, including the alien (c.f., Matt 25:34-40; James 1:27). This perspective impacts against everything in humanity that strives toward individualized justice and possessiveness. Its practical outworking is plain enough: to seek justice for those unjustly burdened or persecuted, to share food with the hungry, to house the homeless, to cloth the naked, as if they were like your own flesh and blood. Startlingly, God challenged them to change the focus of a proper fast unto Him towards a greater need, the poor.
Not unlike the Jews of Isaiah’s days, our self-centredness, driven frequently whether by our fears or pride or both, elicits a behavioural outcome that appears spiritual; where social justice just becomes another ‘to do’ list above our other devotional rituals towards personal religiosity. This fast unto the Lord appears to be an unequivocally life-long commitment to attend to the poor, the imago Dei (Is 58:10; ‘give yourself…). It is certainly not just a contribution once in a while to alleviate our conscience in our giving or service! In upbraiding His people through Isaiah, God intentionally modeled Himself through the incarnation of His Son much later, as He focused His work principally among the poor and disadvantaged, and closely identified His own condition with them: “For your sake He became poor… He did not come to be served but to serve… He became a stranger and an alien… despised and forsaken of men… a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief… He was not esteemed… oppressed and afflicted… rejected… betrayed… mocked… bruised… unjustly judged… alone and forsaken… and was crucified like a common criminal…”
The skewed system of justice in our present world is still very much in the hands of the powerful and the wealthy, and wherever we turn, whether in an advanced or third world country, the poor and the disenfranchised continue to be victimized and exploited. If delighting in the Lord for who He is, is our principal aim, then seeing the poor through the eyes of our Father in heaven, serving them selflessly and finding justice for them, is honouring God (Prov 14:31), and He says His faithful presence will remain our ever-present witness (Is 58:8-12).