Isaiah 58:3-5

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Delivered 16 September 2021


The Fast God Desires

3 "Why have we fasted, and You do not see and why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?" [God then answers.] "Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your own interest, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, your fasting ends in dispute and strife and hitting with a fist of violence. Your fasting as you do this day will not make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast like this I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Or, is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to ADONAI?" (BR) 

NOTE: For detailed textual analysis see my exegetical notes here.


The verbal phrase "afflicted our souls" first occurs in the Torah instruction for Yom Kippur [Lev 16:29-31; 23:27; Num 29:6]. Interpretation in Isaiah's time understood the instruction to "afflict souls" to mean "fasting," which is abstaining from food for a religious or spiritual purpose. Noteworthy is that the Hebrew verb "fast" and its derivative noun "fasting," do not occur in the books of Moses at all. It may be that the Yom Kippur instruction does not use the term for "fast," because it stresses a more serious expectation. By "afflicting the soul" God intended self-examination in order to admit one's shortcomings and sins that needed atonement. If one spent the day in this rigorous introspection of recalling behavior over the past twelve months, then delighting in food would seem inappropriate.

The question of the complainers reflects a kind of Proto-Phariseeism. They had reduced the observance of Yom Kippur to a "form of godliness" that included fasting in verse 3 and in verse 5, bowing the head, and sitting on sackcloth on top of ashes, a kind of fastidious humility. They were like the hypocrites of Yeshua's day who performed religious acts to be seen. But, the false piety wasn't enough. They expected God to reward this behavior. They complained, "You owe us God!"

God's rebuke points out the injustice of the complainers. Why should He listen to them when they pursued their own interests and pleasure while taking advantage of their employees. The oppression of workers could have been requiring employees to work on the Sabbath or withholding wages that were owed. God then reveals that this unspiritual fasting had even made the complainers grumpy and irritable and irritated nerves actually led to physical assaults.

In verse 5 God presents four rhetorical questions to contrast His will with the conduct of the complainers. The first two questions confirm that God's will for Yom Kippur was for Israelites to "afflict their souls." The second two questions reveal the legalistic corruption of observance in Isaiah's time.

The instruction to afflict one's soul is counter-cultural, especially in modern times. We are basically good, so the psychologists tell us. Evil behavior is blamed on racial inequities and terrorism is redefined as "activism." Scripture is realistic about the nature of sin and its consequences. God says, "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezek 18:4 ESV).

In the Bible people are called to confess and repent of their sins. Peter admitted to Yeshua, "I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8). Paul described himself before he met Yeshua on the Damascus Road as the worst of sinners (1Tim 1:15). Yeshua made it clear that the Pharisaic self-assurance of meriting God's grace through fasting is a false hope (Luke 18:13). Mercy from God requires confession of sin. Indeed everywhere in Scripture forgiveness is contingent on repentance.

Then God goes on in the rest of this chapter to illustrate His point. If they had performed a "God-fast," that is, taking a lot of time for prayer and self-examination they would have realized they needed to repent of how they treated their employees, their family members and the poor in the community. They would realize that if they would commit to doing justice according to Torah standards God would answer their prayers and direct their paths.

Another outcome of the "God-fast" is that self-denial should result in transfer of the denied benefit, or its equivalent in money, to others in need, which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick and those in prison. I think Yeshua said something about that as a basis for his future judgment. There are many different ways of making your self-denial work for the good of others. For example, take the cost of eating a meal in a restaurant, the meal or meals you've fasted, and donate the money to HaTikva to bless the poor in Israel.

Isaiah reminds us that Yom Kippur is about accountability. It's vitally important to our spiritual well-being to admit our failings, whether ethical or social, and then remedy our behavior to strengthen our relationship with God and our neighbor. Selah, think on this.

Barukh Hashem

Copyright 2021 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.