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Isaiah 58:1-12

Isaiah 58:1-12

Background to the Book of Isaiah
Historical Situation:The last eleven chapters of the book of Isaiah, after a period of neglect by scholars, are now the focus of renewed interest. B.Duhm in 1892 first focused attention of Old Testament commentators on Isa 56-66 when he proposed that these chapters were written by a different hand and at a different time from the material in Isaiah 40-55. Duhm believed that the author of Isa 56-66 had two emphases which were very important: Sabbath worship and fasting.

Isa 56-66 contains radical proposals for an inclusive community based on faithfulness rather than on blood line. The composition of the community described in Isa 56-66 has changed from that previously accepted in the Hebrew Scriptures. We note two important differences: foreigners and eunuchs are included in the worshipping community; and the nation of Israel no longer can regard itself automatically as the ' chosen people'. Instead, inclusion as part of God's chosen people is dependent on a person's faithfulness and response to Yahweh rather than on biological descent.

Isa 56-66 has been used as the basis for a number of discussions on the genesis of certain groups within Judaism: for example, Pharisees, Samaritans, a Levitical Prophetic group and others. One notable scholar who explores the issue of diverse groups/parties within post-exilic Judah is Hanson. However, a secondary issue evolved in which Hanson uses Isa 56-66 to prove a conflict between two parties, one of which is epitomised in chapters 56-66. This proclamation may confront the exclusive theology expounded in Ezek 40-48 and Nehemiah. Whether this is the precise historical setting of the reader or not, Isa 56-66 is constructed to defend an inclusive group against the actions of those who want a 'pure' Israelite community. This does not necessarily imply that there is a cohesive unity in Isa 56-66, but that the author has used different genres from various periods and allowed them to stand side by side. We take seriously the final literary form, without denying that the material may have come from many different sources and historical situations.
The creation of the book probably took place around the time of Ezra/Nehemiah (400 BCE).

Literary Comments: The whole book of Isaiah has been divided up into three main sections which appear to reflect preaching from different historical periods. Chapters 1-39 are often referred to as the prophecies from Isaiah of Jerusalem and cover the periods shown in the table in last week's background Section. Chapters 40-55 speak to the exiles, offering forgiveness and a strong encouragement to move back to Jerusalem. It contains some of the most beautiful language and a comprehensive theology of God as creator and redeemer. The remaining chapters 56-66 speak to a later post-exilic situation addressing quite different concerns to those expressed in Isa 40-55.

A literary Structure which is quite helpful is that first proposed by N.K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Litery Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

56:1-8 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners
      56:9-57:13 - Indictment of wicked leaders
            57:14-21 - Salvation for the people
                      58:1-4 - Indictment of corrupt worship
                           58:1-15a - Lament/confession over sins
                               59:15b-20 - Theophany judge/redemption
                                                                        60-62 - Fully redeemed people
                               63:1-6 - Theophany judge/redemption
                         63:7-64:12 - Lament/confession over sins
                    65:1-16 - Indictment of corrupt worship
             65:17-25 - Salvation for the people
        66:1-6 - Indictment of wicked leaders
66:7-24 - Proclamation of salvation for foreigners

Isaiah 60-62 is poetry which proclaims the glory of God will rest on Jerusalem. The language is rich in symbols and metaphors and in places reminds one of the language used in Isaiah 40-55. Some scholars suggest that these chapters could have been the work of disciples who returned with the first of the returnees from Babylon to Jerusalem in 538 BCE.

The poetry contains fit person speech by God, direct address to the people and third person description all mixed together. If one reads closely the changes challenge us to see how the subject matter is highlighted by these changes in speech.

Context of Isaiah 58:1-12
The message of universal aceptance in Isa 56:1-8 leads into condemnation of the leaders who have lead the people astray and in Isa 57 detailed deeds of the people who have gone completely off the tracks in their moral and religious behaviour. The accusation is that they didn't remember God and God will not hear them when they cry out for help. In the last verses of Isa 57 there is hope offered for the contrite of heart but not for those who continue in their wickedness. Isa 58:10-12 set up a number of conditions which if the people accept and do, will lead to their renewed realtionship with God. This call to repentance is continued in the final verses of Isa 58 with a first person response by God (v.14b). Isa 59 reverts to a further condemnation and stating of the people's sins: no justice, no honesty in the law, lies abound, and the verses continue with graphic description using the symbolism of spiders and vipers (Isa 59:1-8). The consequence of this is the total lack of justice and other consequences spelled out in vv.9-15. God sees it and decides to act, Isa 59:15b-19. The chapter finishes with a positive statement by the Lord renewing the covenant with those who turn (repent) from their wickedness. The next three chapters spell out a glorious picture of a renewed Jerusalem in all it glory and the nations in total subordination to it.

Insights/Message of Isaiah 58:1-12
Literary: The section set in the Lectionary reading is part of a distinct unit which is separated from the preceding chapter by the words, 'says my God' (Isa 57:21) and concludes in Isa 58:14 with the words, 'this is what Yahweh has spoken'. Indeed it is difficult breaking off a small section of the Old Testament reading from its contex,t because often the message can be distorted which would be the case if we didn't take into account the final verse of Isa 58. The use of the name 'Jacob is quite rare and occurs in v.1 & 14 like an inclusio or bracket. Blenkinsopp does not think that v.2 is irony but in the context of their trangressions I would dispute this observation (Blenkinsopp:176). The people question God saying why does it not work when we pray, fast and sacrifice (v.3a). The answer is quite simple in vv.3b-5 which derides their manner of fasting and instead the Lord spells out in vv.6-9 what sort of fast is required. It is one in which justice and mercy prevail and then the Lord will hear the call of the people. The required behaviour is expanded in vv.9b-14 which spells out with a conditional 'if' followed by a positive consequence. Vv.9b-10a are the condition followed by the consequence in v.10b-12. V.13 is the condition followed by the positive consequence in v.14. Vv.13-14 are meant to be read as the conclusion to the initial declaration in 58:1 which is why when we come to message/theology we will be using the whole chapter (Oswalt: 502). The same structure that was used in Isa 56:1-57:21 is paralleled here, that is, true religion in Isa 58:1-14, the people's failure in Isa 59:1-15a, and God's action on the people's behalf in Isa 59:15b-21 (Oswalt: 493). If we accept this obseervation is does indicate a very tight editing of the final eleven chapters of the Book of Isaiah. Fasting has a long history in the Old Testament, it was invoked as preparation for a vision, as personal mourning as in the case of David over the death of his child, in order to try influence the deity, or on occasions to prevent some impending disaster (Blenkinsopp: 183). It was only after the fall of Jerusalem and the rise of the priestly influence did fast days become part of the regular liturgical calendar.

Message / Theology: The false religion spoken of in vv.1-5 is one in which people think they are doing the right things by fasting, praying and making sacrifices but it is only superficial and as many prophets preach there has to be right action. In fact instead of their behaviour finding pleasure with God it is done with different motivations and is used to gain power and possessions (Oswalt: 495). As v.5 ends with the question, 'what is acceptable to the Lord?' we find it answered in vv.6-9. If people want to fast let them do so in order to share the bread with the hungry rather than trying to keep God on our side or for self satisfation (Watts: 277). The writer has used rhetorical questions by God to tell the people what is required and is a very clever piece of literary writing which makes the requiements stand out. Vv.8-9a show that it is the sharing which will bring the satisfation they were seeking not empty practices. While v.6 didn't begin with the conditional 'if', it is implied in the consequence of v.9 - 'then'. When the people share then they will be able to call on the Lord. Vv.9b-10a have further conditions followed by consequences in vv.10b-12. Other unacceptable acts are named such as oppression and speaking wicked things as well as feeding the hungry (v.10a). The conseqences are not only personal as they were in v.8 and v.11, but also include restoration in v.12. It is reminder to the people that any restoration if it is to survive needs to be built on the twin supports of spirituality and morality (Hanson: 207). Vv.13-14 are also an 'if'/ 'then' stanza but also redress the balance between the religious ceremony and the ethical. I don't think the prophets were ever wanting to deny one in favour of the other, rather it is a matter of balance and vv.13-14 do this (Oswalt: 508). The prophets are not averse to exaggeration in order to make a point as indeed was Jesus. So the people are reminded to honour the Sabbath as a time when the focus was on God and remember the goodness and ways in which God had been present in their lives. "Then" is the finale of the chapter in which the people will be present with God as co-workers (v.14a) and the assurance that once God's word is spoken it always prevails (v.14b, Isa 40:5). We note that the unconditional promises of Isa 40-55 are now set within a conditional framework (Blenkinsopp: 182).

For those people who have had the privilege of going and staying on Iona in the Abbey this concept of worship and behaviour is lived out each day. After the morning worship everyone has some task to do to help the Abbey function. This idea is so familiar from the stories about Jesus: worship has to be lived out in action in the world, it is not a self satisfying feeling of going to church on Sunday and that is enough. Furthermore, the offer of God's love is always there but people have to turn to receive it. This parallels the concept of Christian grace which is always available if people turn to receive it and the consequences as in Isa 58 is life eternal as partners with God. As Hanson says, "One cannot read these fourteen verses without the sense of having been addressd by God, without having heard a divine word that is at once severe in its attack on the perversity of self-preoccupation and assuring in it invitation to return to authentic personhood" (Hanson: 207)

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Mth 5:13-20, does not have any particular Old Testament allusions.

Resources/Worship for Isaiah 58:1-12
Ps 112 is a very good choice to go with the Old Testament reading and could be read antiphonally as a response to the sermon

The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book of Isaiah.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Emmerson,Grace I. Isaiah 56-66. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Tucker, Gene. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: 


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