ISAIAH, Part 9

 

How to NOT get your prayers answered

Isaiah 58:1—9

Isaiah 58 begins the final section of Isaiah’s book. In chapters 49-57, the prophet presented us with the spiritual agent of our salvation; now he will show us the spiritual conditions of our salvation.

The prophets were not only predictors of the future, they were preachers of righteousness. They were not only “seers,” they were “doers of the Word.” That’s not always an easy thing to do, and faithful servants of God are hard to find for that reason. Isaiah was faithful because he wasn’t timid; he wasn’t afraid to “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.” Isaiah was being asked by God to preach a stern message of rebuke and reproof to his people. His message was meant to correct the people’s false way of thinking in how to receive the favor and even salvation of the Lord.

Isaiah’s message was not meant to be deep, theological treatise, but rather an intensely practical one:

Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. (verse 1)

1. Their sinful condition, verses 2—5

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. (verse 2)

Back in chapter 1, Isaiah dealt with the empty ritualism of the people and here he picks up that theme again. What must have made Isaiah’s task particularly difficult was that he was not preaching to completely godless people. In fact, this message was addressed to people who looked faithful; they appeared to be faithful to the teachings of their Scriptures. They were utterly meticulous in following the forms of worship. They may have actually enjoyed attending worship services. Yet their lives did not reflect the spirit of God’s Law in any way.

The people to whom this message was addressed had drifted into a formal observance of faith, but at heart it was a practical ungodliness. Reading these verses puts us in mind of what Samuel said to King Saul:

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)

People like King Saul and Isaiah’s listeners were the kind of people who, like many Christians, think they can “live like the Devil” all week long, assuming their weekly attendance at church and their periodic religious feasts were enough to atone for their gluttony and insincerity.

Verse 3 drips with arrogance and reveals the people’s true motives in their rigid adherence to the Law:

Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (verse 3a)

Although Isaiah focuses on fasting, this petulant attitude probably extended to all their observances. What makes the fasting issue particularly interesting is that the people seemed to have made regular days of fasting part of their religious observances, but God never gave the people of Israel “fast days.” In fact, God gave His people “feast days.” It is true that from time to time the people were to fast in connection with their sins, and in particular with the Day of Atonement, but the people had made fasting a form of worship which ministered more to themselves than it did to God. So of course, their fasting did nothing to move God.

In effect, these people were cheating God. Instead of giving God what HE required of them, they gave God what THEY wanted to give Him, because it was easy and convenient. And they had deluded themselves into believing they were “OK.”

What the people failed to realize, and what Isaiah was desperately trying to convince them of, is that true religion is a personal relationship with God. For the Christian it is no different; true faith is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And that intimate relationship we have with Christ is precious, personal, and private. Of course, we witness for Him, we share our faith with others, but just like in a marriage, we don’t brag about our intimate time with our Savior. Yet this is what Isaiah’s people were doing; bragging about what they were doing, fasting, for God.

In fact, they fasted and they observed these fast days and so-called holy days, but they’re hearts were miles away from God, as evidenced by their behavior. They fasted, but turned right around and took advantage of people, they argued, they fought, and they generally treated other people badly. What more proof is needed to show that these people, in spite of outward appearances, were nowhere near God.

God’s response to their so-called demonstrations of worship is stern:

You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. (verse 4b)

Proper fasting, done for the right reasons, can produce all kinds of good things in a persons life or in the life of a congregation. But when fasting is done as a duty, for the wrong reasons, it produces bad things, like irritability and anger and jealousy. Prayers offered against that kind of backdrop would never reach God’s ears.

God must be approached HIS way, never OURS. The Bible proves this time and time and time again, yet even to this day, Christians think they make up their own rules; they can invent “new and improved” ways to approach God, but it doesn’t work like that. When we make up ways to worship God so as to make it convenient for us or easy for us, and if those ways are contrary to Scripture, God cannot and will not be moved no matter how many tears we may shed or songs we may sing.

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. (Proverbs 14:12, KJV)

The only way to approach God is His way, and there is no mystery about it; you find the right way in the Bible.

2. God’s cure

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? (verse 5a)

God’s cure is to, using Isaiah’s example of fasting, do the right thing for the right reason(s). The true and only reason to fast is not so you can appear humble, but to accomplish a definite purpose: to pray, to meditate, and to repent of sin. One scholar made the very interesting observation that true fasting is not necessarily an enjoyable experience:

A person who enjoys confessing his sins is not coming before God with an honest confession, but rather is giving a performance before men, or perhaps merely before himself, that intended to demonstrate righteousness.

Part of God’s cure for the spiritual malaise of His people included:

  1. “To loose the chains of injustice,” verse 6. This is not a call to some kind of general social action. The “injustice” the prophet is referring to here is the injustice they themselves were causing during the “fast.” What Isaiah was telling the people was simply this: If you are going to fast, don’t walk around looking humble and pious, stop your sinning! Stop taking advantage of other people. Stop gossiping. God’s cry to His people was, and remains, a very simple and direct one. If you call yourself a Christian, live like one; demonstrate your faith in Him by your conduct. When we do that, we will not only treat others exceedingly well, but our own chains of spiritual bondage will be broken.

  2. “Untie the cords of the yoke,” verse 6. Many believers are carrying around burdens that are far too heavy for them. A true believer will help carry another’s burdens. A Christian that spends time in God’s presence will be sensitive to the needs of others; in the practical world, that means he will cut them some slack; exercise patience. In the spiritual realm, it means they will pray for the one in need, exercising spiritual discernment so as to ease their burdens, whatever they may be.

  3. “Break every yoke,” verse 6. This is all part of “setting the oppressed” free. How does a Christian do that for another? One who is “oppressed” is one who set upon by outside pressures. This oppression can take many forms. Some people are oppressed by their work, or their family situation, or by their health. A true believer is one who will do what they can for one who finds themselves “oppressed.” A true believer sees one who is oppressed but can’t merely walk on by them. This is what happens when one spends time in God’s presence: their eyes are open to the needs around them.

  4. Care for the poor, verse 7. The people of Isaiah’s time had figuratively and literally turned their backs on the poor. They refused to show kindness to their own flesh and blood. Their faith had become a cold, formal exercise. Because the people had no heart for others, they had no heart for God. The Christian who can’t show compassion to the genuinely destitute can’t have God dwelling within him (1 John 3:17).

3. The guaranteed result, verses 8, 9

Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. (verse 8)

There was no way for God to manifest His blessing and glory to people who practised their religion in such a lazy fashion. The word “then” is emphatic. If the people would re-dedicate their lives to the Lord and start taking their faith seriously, “then” certain things would start happening. These promises are strung together like a beautiful necklace of precious gems.

  1. Your light will break forth like the dawn. “Break forth” indicates speed and suddenness. If the people would focus on obedience to God and His Word in the exercise of their faith, their health, wealth, and access to God in prayer would be restored in an instant. Obedience to God’s will is like spraying window cleaner on a dirty window; once that window is cleaned, the light can shine in…or shine out…and the world becomes clearer.

  2. Your healing will quickly appear. Good health is always viewed in the Old Testament as a sign of God’s blessing. When His children obey, God is quick to bless and show favor.

  3. Your righteousness will go before you. When Christians live in obedience to God, our faith will be evident to all without uttering a word. Righteousness will go before us, and the glory of the Lord will follow us. Obedience has so many rewards; the obedient are literally surrounded by the presence of God.

  4. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I (verse 9). There’s that emphatic word again: “then.” When the Lord sees our love for Him manifested in our obedience to Him, He will never fail to answer when we call. Truly, the two greatest needs of mankind are met: the need for a response and for recognition. Those needs can only be fully met by God and then only when we demonstrate our obedience to Him. There is nothing more isolating that unwanted silence and aloneness. And only God can remove them.

Our obedience to God and His Word can never be overstated. No obedience, no fellowship. No obedience, no answered prayers. No obedience, no presence of God. When sin is cleared from the heart, then the way is clear for the Lord to show us favor:

If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me… (Psalm 66:18)

The only way for a child of God to receive from God “whatsoever we ask,” it will be:

…because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
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