Isaiah 58: The Acceptable Feast
The origin of the religious ceremony of fasting is unknown. The earliest known records speak of the custom as already in common use. Accad was the home of Heber and Abram. The ancient documents handed down to us from that people make frequent mention of the usage of fasting. It is also an important practice of the Brahman and Buddhist, as prescribed in the Vedas. The Muslims observe religiously a strict fast in the ninth month (Ramadan). The custom, however, is not mentioned in the Egyptian monuments.
In the majority of cases in which fasting is mentioned in the Old Testament, it is one of the signs that accompany mourning. It is associated with mourning for the dead (I Sam. 31:13); with private and personal distresses (I Sam. 1:17); with sympathetic sorrow for the misfortunes of friends (1 Sam. 20:34); and with the expression of penitence for one's own offenses (I Kings 21:28), and for those of the people (I Sam. 7:6). "Persons fasting often displayed other signs of mourning, such as wearing sackcloth, rending their garments and plucking out the hair of the head, sprinkling the head with earth and ashes, weeping, lying prostrate on the ground, neglect of washing and anointing the person, and walking barefoot (2 Sam. 1:11; 13:16, 20, etc.). Moses fasted forty days and forty nights when in the mount with the Lord. (Exod. 34:28) Daniel fasted three weeks before receiving a vision from the Lord. (Dan. 10:2) And the Lord fasted in the wilderness when undergoing temptations. (Matt. 4:2)
"Fasting is a natural outward evidence of inward self-abasement before God, and of humble acquiescence in the Divine chastisements; it is an instinctive mode of manifesting sorrow for sin, and of enhancing and intensifying that sorrow." People feast when they are happy. The feast of the Passover was instituted in commemoration of the deliverance from Egypt and was an occasion for rejoicing. (A, 7093) On the other hand, it is natural to abstain from food when overcome with sorrow. Hence, during the Exile, four fast-days were appointed in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth months, to commemorate the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent calamities. (Zech. 7:5-6; 8:19-20) Again these fasts were turned into days of feasting after the return. But in the days of the Exile, it appears from Isaiah 58 that the fasts had become a mere formality. Instead of drawing closer to each other in their sorrow, the Jews made it a day of pleasure, and also of oppressing their laborers (verse 3), hence the necessity for the condemnation of the house of Jacob, and the call for repentance and newness of life. In exile the people also forgot the commandment to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. What more natural, when away from home, away from the temple, and surrounded by idolators! They are asked to "call the Sabbath a delight," to "delight themselves in the Lord." The two things are identical. Neglect to keep the Sabbath day implies little or no joy in the Lord.
Notice the promise to those who repent that they shall return and rebuild the waste places of Jerusalem. (Verse 12)
"To fast signifies to mourn, because they fasted when they mourned." (E. 375) "It also signifies affliction, such as exists in the combats of temptations" (E. 730) and "mourning on account of the failure of truth and good." (E. 1189) Feasting—the enjoyment of the Divine blessings—comes with deliverance from evil. But mourning—the lack of heavenly life—comes with trial and all testing of character, so long as the trial lasts. In this chapter, a sharp contrast is drawn between the form and the reality. Often, signs of mourning are put on when there is no living sorrow in the heart. The sad countenance and the disfigured face are frequently in evidence as a mere pretense to enlist the sympathy of other people, or as a screen to more despicable feelings. (Matt. 6:16-18) This empty form is not only manifested in case of mourning the loss of friends, but in expressing sorrow for all kinds of misfortunes. It is evident in grumbling over one's lot in life. The inside of such voluntary abstinence from the enjoyment of whatever blessings one has is selfishness, and hatred of the Lord. All losses and misfortunes are but the occasion of making evident the weaker tendencies in the soul, which produces "mourning on account of the failure of good and truth." The sorrow or trial of fast is empty and valueless unless it leads to the suppression of these unheavenly qualities. "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness," to shun the evils revealed in these trials as sins against the Lord?
"Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him?" This is one of the strong passages in the Old Testament enjoining charity upon the Jews. It still stands true to its letter. Even indiscriminate charity, when prompted by mercy, has its good side. It "initiates into the internal of charity and mercy, which is clearly to discriminate who and what they are to whom good should be done, and how it is to be done." (A. 9209) Dealing bread to the hungry in a personal sense means nourishing and supporting the craving to do good, to help all in distress. Bringing the poor into the house in the same sense means finding a home in the heart for those humble states that are so receptive of teaching from the Lord, and without which we rebel against the acceptance of the truth. (E. 386)
When evils are shunned as sins, and charity exercised, truths come in abundance, and the Lord is with people to answer their petitions, to grant light, and to build up the church or heavenly character in them. (P.P.) This follows upon the due recognition of the conjunction of the Lord with humanity (the Sabbath). The state of peace and rest in the Lord is the highest aim of human life.