Posted in Bible, reflections

Fasting, justice, and Sabbath rest: reflections on Isaiah 58:6-14

manaclesLet’s play a word association game. When you hear the word “fasting,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Since I can’t read your mind, I’ll have to be content to let you know what images came to me. I envisioned a desert monk, someone like John the Baptist, austere, skinny, and prophetic. Another image is Ash Wednesday, a sober time when we give up something for Lent.

I must confess that upon hearing the word “fasting,” the first thing that popped into my thoughts was definitely not “justice.” Yet the prophet Isaiah insisted that the two concepts are intertwined. If fasting is abstaining, then there are practices from which we must refrain. Isaiah explains:

Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? (Isaiah 58:6-7, CEB)

Isaiah calls us to “fast” (abstain) from any enterprise that enslaves people, “untying the ropes of a yoke” (v.6).  For example, millions around the world are enslaved to cigarette smoking. If we are involved in the production of tobacco, are we not implicated in that bondage? Likewise, to “set free the mistreated,” using Isaiah’s colorful phrase, will mean abstaining from our own involvement, however indirect, in the mistreatment of others. Perhaps this will mean that we think twice about spending our dollars at businesses that could pay their workers a livable wage but stubbornly refuse to do so.

At the end of the chapter, Isaiah speaks of keeping the Sabbath (58:13-14). When God first spoke of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), he clearly underscored the principle of rest. This is a fast from all work. When serving as a missionary in Haiti, often we had no power from the local municipality. Our solution was to install a large generator that could give light to all the buildings on campus. I was assigned to maintain the generator, changing the oil and the filters as needed. Most importantly, however, was the instruction regarding how many hours uninterrupted the generator could run. It was important not to run it for too long without having several hours idle or else the generator would wear out.

If we understand that about a machine, why do we miss the lesson when it comes to ourselves? God made us and understands that sometimes we must fast from work in order to rest. Recreation – what as children we called “play” – is not just for children. We literally must be “re-created” by finding time free from toil, to unstring the tightly strung bow, to kick back and do nothing useful. Yet in our 24/7 world, even the people of God grossly neglect the Sabbath principle. Have we sacrificed our health on the altar of corporate profits?

Holiness is not just personal; holiness is social. Profession of saving and sanctifying faith can be easily undermined by our wicked practices. Fasting from food is not sufficient if at the same time we refuse to abstain from practices that undercut our witness.

But if we feed the poor and clothe the naked (v. 7, 10), then Isaiah affirms that what we say with our words will be seconded by our actions. And guess what? People will notice!

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the LORD’s glory will be our rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, ‘I am here (8-9a).

When reading Isaiah 58, I’m forced to reflect on my own life first of all. Renewal always begins with the person in the mirror. Will you join me in this prayer?

“Help me, LORD, in this sin-sick world, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me where my words and actions do not match up, that what I do might open doors for sharing the love of Christ with others and not impede the advance of Your Kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray, AMEN.”


Image credit: Cornell Library Guides







Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

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