Isaiah 58:1-12 is a very powerful passage, and its words stand on their own. What is it that God wants his people to do?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them (Isaiah 58:7)
The prophet, however, was not making an abstract point about religion and charity. He was speaking to the “house of Jacob” (v. 1), heirs of the promises to the patriarchs and members of God’s covenant people. As God had revealed it to them, the core of their hope and the purpose of their religious practices was simply this: to live in peace and well-being on the land the Lord had given them by living in covenant faithfulness with the God of Israel. Judah’s religion and its national existence were inseparably bound together.
At the time the prophet wrote, however, Judah’s glory had faded. The whole country existed in a state of decay and misery. Much of it was in ruins, its walls broken down and its buildings in disrepair (v. 12). The remains of their previous grandeur must have mocked them, reminding them of what used to be.
The answer, the people thought, was in getting God to do something, to keep his promises, so to speak. So, they turned to God and sought him out (v. 2). They fasted. Practicing ritual self-denial, they didn’t eat for a period (v. 3). They humbled themselves by bowing their heads, dressing in the clothes of ritual mourning and anointing themselves with ashes (v. 5). These actions were a physical prayer, a cry to God for help (v. 9). It was a fine instinct, misapplied.
The prophet denounced the fast because it lacked foundation. The same people who covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes exploited their workers (v. 3) and engaged in violent fights with each other (v. 4).
The law specifically required God’s people to treat their workers well by paying their wages on time.
Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight. Leviticus 19:13
The repeated mention of yokes, chains and oppression (vv. 6, 9, 10) probably refers to the practice of holding debtors in bondage, a practice which some wealthy people exploited for their own benefit. The powerful could intentionally maneuver the poor into positions of disadvantage, bribe judges to get their way or find reasons not to release debtors in the Sabbath year. The prophet Amos similarly chastised wealthy Israelites for how they treated the poor.
Additionally, some people appear to have been neglecting the care even of their own family members (v. 7).
This is not what God intended, and certainly not what God had commanded. Rather, the Lord said:
If there is a poor person among you, one of your brothers within any of your gates in the land the LORD your God is giving you, you must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Instead, you are to open your hand to him and freely loan him enough for whatever need he has. Deuteronomy 15:17
Even freed slaves were not to be sent away empty handed. The book of Deuteronomy makes Israel’s prosperity in the land dependent on its treatment of the needy in its midst.
When the prophet tells those in sackcloth and ashes to share their food with the hungry, to provide the wanderer with shelter and to clothe the naked, he’s essentially telling them the same thing that John the Baptist would later say to the “brood of vipers” that came out to the Jordan to be baptized: bear fruit worthy of repentance. The prophets were not asking God’s people to do something exceptional; they were just asking them to follow the basic requirements of God’s law.
And at its best, the church has extended that care to those outside. The Roman emperor Julian lamented that his attempts to stamp out Christianity were failing because “The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.” Some 1400 years later, John Wesley commented on Matthew 25:40, saying:
What encouragement is here to assist the household of faith? But let us likewise remember to do good to all men.
Indeed. The religion of the people of God may not consist solely of providing food, shelter and clothing to those in need, but it certainly does not neglect such acts. From the days of Moses, those who have been the beneficiaries of God’s grace and power have been expected to show kindness to their brothers and sisters in the covenant community. In Christ, we see even more clearly that God’s kindness flows to all the world, and so should ours.