Thursday, December 15, 2016

Comfort My People: The Prophecies Of Isaiah, Day 166

Comfort My People:
The Prophecies Of Isaiah
Day 166

We concluded yesterday with the Lord promising healing for His people. Now He indicates the healing of other nations as well, "'Peace, peace, to those far and near,' says the Lord. 'And I will heal them.'" (Isaiah 57:19b) When the Apostle Paul spoke of the grace of God in calling the Gentiles into His family, he said, "He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near." (Ephesians 2:17) Christ came to save those who were far away (the Gentiles who did not know the Lord) and to save those who were near (the people of Israel who knew the Lord and His laws).

But in both groups there were those whose hearts rejected the Lord and scorned His offer of mercy. Having refused the peace of God, they are unable to find peace within themselves. "But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. 'There is no peace,' says my God,' for the wicked.'" (Isaiah 57:20-21)

We now move into Chapter 58 which has to do with genuine fasting. In Isaiah's day the people were still observing this religious ritual but the hearts of many were not in it. Fasting was required on the yearly Day Of Atonement as an expression of repentance and of grief over sin. It was to be used periodically when a person repented of a sin and voluntarily humbled himself before God. It was useful for entering a long session of prayer with the Lord, getting one's mind off worldly things and concentrating only on being in the presence of God. Fasting was a tool to be used in times of personal and national emergency. When Queen Esther planned to break Persian law by going into the presence of the king without being called (a crime punishable by death), she and her handmaidens fasted before she went to the king to appeal for the lives of the Jews. In times when the nation was being threatened by armies, the godly kings prescribed a national fast and time of prayer. But Isaiah is going to tell us that the fasts many of the people were observing were not acceptable in the eyes of God because they were simply putting on a front. Their hearts were not right with God. Their minds were not fixed on Him. They were observing a ritual they did not believe in and even resented.

The Lord gives Isaiah instructions to speak to the people in regard to their hypocrisy. "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to My people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek Me out; they seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask Me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them." (Isaiah 58:2) To a foreigner passing through, the people must have appeared devoted to their God. They faithfully observed the rituals of their religion. They still brought the required sacrifices, observed the fasts, and whispered the same prayers as always. A stranger would likely say, "My goodness, these are a righteous people! Look how much they love their God!" But God isn't fooled. He knows their hearts are far from Him. Observing rituals was a method they hoped to use for leverage with God when they needed something. They were treating the Lord like a genie in a bottle who existed only to grant their requests. They wanted to stop by and ask for favors when needed, but go their own way the rest of the time. 

"'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and You have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You have not noticed?'" (Isaiah 58:3a) They hoped to use their fasts as a bargaining tool. Fasting has its place, but it's not to be used to say to God, "Okay, now here's what I want You to do and I'm going to observe a fast to You in return." God doesn't need us to fast for Him. He doesn't need anything from us at all! Fasting, if used properly, is to fulfill a need that we have. It's a shunning of human pride and an acknowledge of the holiness and sovereign power of Almighty God. It's to be used along with repentance of any known sins or wrong attitudes. It's for the purpose of humbling ourselves and admitting our need of the Lord in every situation.

No repentance was involved in the type of fasts the Lord is criticizing in our passage today. Wrong attitudes prevailed during these observances. "Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high." (Isaiah 58:3b-5) The fast meant nothing more to them than than going without a few meals during the day while continuing to cheat and mistreat their workers. Verse 3b seems to suggest that, when fasting on the Sabbath, they were sinning by forcing their employees to work rather than allowing them the day of rest commanded by God. Because those observing the fasts did not get their hearts right with God, their hearts weren't right with their fellow man either. You may have heard the slang term of being "hangry", when a person becomes so hungry it makes him mean and ornery, and apparently this is the effect the insincere fasting had on the people. Grievances with family members and neighbors reached fever pitch while their bellies grumbled and by day's end they were brawling with each other. Now how is God supposed to honor this type of fasting by answering their prayers? How can He reward bad behavior? As any good parent knows, rewarding bad behavior does nothing but reinforce bad behavior, and God is too good of a Father to reward sin.

The Lord looks around on the hypocrisy of their fasting, observes the mistreatment of their laborers, hears the ugly words the people are saying to each other, sees the men rolling about and punching each other in the face, and He asks, "Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?"

Not everyone who fasts insincerely is involved in the mistreatment of workers or in the unseemly brawling, but God also sees those who fast in more dignified hypocrisy. They are like the Pharisees of Jesus' day. "Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one's head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?" (Isaiah 58:5) The Lord says they are using it only for appearances. as if He cannot see all the way to the heart. This is why Jesus said, "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18) Those who fasted only to be admired by their neighbors would receive only the reward of others thinking well of them, but God wasn't going to add any reward to that. He had been left out altogether. 

In tomorrow's study the Lord will describe the fast that is acceptable to Him and it involves much more than skipping a few meals. In fact, He doesn't even mention food, but rather concentrates on proper attitudes of the heart and the right kind of living and kindness toward our fellow man. The Lord cares far more about how I treat others than whether I skipped breakfast this morning. He's more concerned with whether my heart is right with Him. 

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