In this passage God identifies His audience as those who are busy worshipping Him and studying about Him; people who are right-living, law-abiding, God-honoring; those who ask Him what is the right thing to do and love having Him on their side. Given their apparent orientation to Him, we would anticipate the message would be one of warmth and commendation. It was not. Instead it was a condemnation of their motives. Here is a more complete version of what God had Isaiah say to His people:
Shout! A full-throated shout! Hold nothing back—a trumpet blast shout! Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives; confront them with their sins! They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying about Me. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people, law abiding, God honoring. They ask me, “What’s the right thing to do? And love having me on their side.” (Isaiah 58:1-3 MSG)
So…what’s wrong with the lives of His people? Why is God in such a lather toward such apparently good people? Here’s why:
The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but you swing a mean fist. The kind of fasting you do won’t get your prayers off the ground. Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after: a day to show off humility? To put on a pious long face and parade around solemnly in black? Do you call that fasting, a fast day that I, God, would like? (Isaiah 58:3-5 MSG)
Through Isaiah we can learn something huge about God; production and profitability are not the bottom line of His heart. For those who have managed businesses whose viability is secured by production rates and profitability, this is like a left-right combo. I am tempted to dodge these blows by fast forwarding to the New Testament where I can find a bit more grace. However, as I wait and listen with my new heart and my mind that is being renewed in the Spirit of grace, I hear more than just a wholesale condemnation of production and profitability. Let’s see what God is really after:
This is the kind of fast day that I am after; to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is; sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. (Isaiah 58:6-8 MSG)
In my attempt to hear God’s voice in an Old Testament prophet’s pronouncements, I do not hear it with a heart that is condemned, one that cowers beneath the weight of God’s disfavor, concluding that in order to have my prayers heard, I must sell the business or take a vow of poverty in order to please Him. (I have tried this form of piety and God seemed unimpressed.)
What I hear as a son and a friend of God is that, in our heart, if there is either a hidden or a declared primary motive that is economic in nature, we have totally missed it. As I read this passage with a new, grace-filtered heart, I hear no condemnation regarding production or profits. The complexity of this topic, I believe is, at least in part, due to our propensity to see things in a good–versus-bad frame of reference when, in reality, it is a good–versus-best framework. Let me try and explain.
As we seek the things above, we find an Eternal King who reigns over an invisible yet eternal government—a kingdom ever expanding. It will not be birthed in an institution. At some point it may find expression there, but His kingdom can only be birthed within the human heart. His Kingdom’s government is the central point of every matter, whether we see it yet or not. In world news, at this moment, the greatest crisis looming over us (the media informs us) is “economic” in nature. This is a fact and it must be addressed, but if we are praying and fasting primarily out of fear in order to preserve a more perfect union with the economic security it has historically provided, we have traded away “the best” for something that is “merely good.” I believe God is trying to deter us from investing in things that are temporal and merely good. He is inviting us to invest our hearts where moth and rust have no inflationary effect. He says:
Do this and if you do the lights will come on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer when you call out for help, “Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9-11 MSG)
If you get rid of unfair practices, quit playing the victim, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, your lives will begin to glow in the darkness; your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—firm muscles, strong bones. You will be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make communities livable again. (Isaiah 58:9-12 MSG)
As a Christian, having overseen a for-profit entity, I am deeply troubled about our economic future and a host of other local, national, and global matters, any of which could be our undoing. I am a lover of freedom and a believer in free markets. These, to me, are good things. At the same time, I have no illusion that conservative (nor any other) ideology will usher in the kingdom of God. The Christ-in-me aspect of my identity requires that I give my ultimate allegiance to an eternal King and His ever expanding, eternal Kingdom. When there is a conflict (and they are inevitable) I must sacrifice what I perceive as my good conservative values to embrace His best eternal Kingdom ones.
My ultimate hope is not in a political party, an ideology, or philosophy, however good I may deem them. My only hope is that the kingdom of God is expanding to become my primary and superior good, displacing any allegiances I have to earthly kingdoms. I honor America the Beautiful. I wholeheartedly salute the Stars and Stripes. I am humbled by the sacrifices people have made that have established and sustained the freedoms I enjoy and desire for my progeny. At the same time I am a citizen of another realm with its own government and agenda that will one day eclipse the good our great nation has produced. So…
I dream of a day when citizens of God’s Kingdom have earned the right, by way of their wisdom and compassion, to be the moderators of public discourse and introduce a new level of civility into the body politic. I dream of a day when, because of our good works and stewardship, God will see fit to entrust us with more kingdom wisdom and resources. The world will then look upon the Church and say, “These people bring life into even the worst places; they bring much to the table. They fix and repair things, making our communities livable again.” I believe this is on God’s heart and why He taught us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven… For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.