Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14
This pericope was likely teamed with the gospel reading because of its emphasis on the Sabbath. However, there is a lot more going on here that is worthy of attention.
The setting of this pericope is especially important. “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66) is a prophet addressing the people of Israel upon their return to Jerusalem after nearly 50 years of being in exile. As they begin to establish their new life in the homeland, the prophet speaks to them about God’s promises for renewal. Alongside this word is the reminder of God’s command to live justly. This particular pericope proclaims that the Lord will fulfill his promises as the people fulfill their call to act justly and to honor the Sabbath.
To act justly is to remove the yoke that oppresses others and to refrain from contempt (“pointing fingers”) and slander (“speaking of evil”). In addition, to act justly is to give of oneself to the hungry and oppressed. Numerous English translations do not capture the word nephesh from the Hebrew. The text does not say to give food to the hungry, but to give one’s whole being. Nephesh is repeated a second time for emphasis in reference to satisfying the oppressed. In return, one’s light will rise out of the darkness and one’s whole being (nephesh) will be satisfied, continually nourished (“you shall be like a watered garden”), and have a future (“you shall raise up the foundations of many generations”).
The intriguing thing here is that while the beginning of Isaiah 58 (verses 1-5) is addressed to the community as a whole, “you” in this pericope (beginning with verse 6) is singular. In other words, each individual member has responsibilities to uphold for the sake of the community and each individual will receive the Lord’s promises. While we preachers have a tendency to misinterpret the text by addressing individuals when it, in fact, addresses the community as a whole, this pericope gives license to address individuals (of course, with regard to the whole).
Individuals are also called to act a certain way with regard to worshipping God. In return, there will be, for one thing, delight in the Lord. Keeping the Sabbath and acting justly toward the neighbor are intricately connected. For, as verse 13 highlights (and the double emphasis is not to be missed), to trample and dishonor the Sabbath is to pursue and serve one’s own interests or affairs.
For those who are concerned with the conditional statements in Isaiah 58 (note the “if…then” structure), it must be noted that both the commands and the promises in this pericope are to be viewed in light of what God has done and will do. God has acted first by caring for the people of Israel while in exile and by carrying them back home. Even more, just before this pericope (verse 9a), God says, “Here I am.” As the Lutheran Study Bible notes, “this phrase is generally the response that humans give when called by God or a superior.” Now that God is saying this (and for the third time in Isaiah — see also 52:6 and 65:1), it is “a sign of great compassion” as God becomes “totally available and vulnerable to God’s people.” Communication between God and God’s people is truly dialogical. The emphatic pronouncement that injustice has no place in the lives of a renewed and restored people of God goes hand-in-hand with God’s great acts of mercy to renew and rebuild God’s people.
The content of this text is far from uncommon. So what makes this pericope different? It makes all the difference when viewed through the eyes of those who have been displaced and forced out of their homes. Yes, we could all probably say that, metaphorically speaking, we have been in exile. But this text is speaking of a return from a literal exile which continues to be the actual experience of many of our brothers and sisters in the world.
For this Sunday, I encourage preachers not to hide behind the metaphorical exiles of our lives. If you are like me and have not been in forced exile, go out into your community and find those refugees, for example, who were forced out of their homes and ask them what this text says to them. Third Isaiah is all about bringing into the fold those who have been cast out and providing a hopeful vision for what can and will be. Imagine what can happen if we hear these words through the eyes of those who have been cast out or cut off.
Minimally, I invite you to expand your horizons by reading commentaries written from a perspective and set of experiences other than your own. Because these perspectives are less easy to find (this fact, in and of itself, is telling), let me provide a couple of perspectives (and resources) that do not favor the dominant scholarship.
First, a postcolonial perspective might yield a concern that although the people of Israel have returned home, the “former masters have continued to influence often negatively their post-liberationist social, political, and cultural realities.”1 In the words of Kwesi Dickson, former professor of the University of Ghana, “It is worth remembering that though the prophet is addressing the whole community he is singling out the influential in society, those who see themselves as having the right to exercise power over others.”2
The concern of “Third Isaiah” is that the people were “blind to the fact that every person mattered before God . . . Thus to quarrel and to fight, and to hit with wicked fist, was as much as to deny that God cared for all equally.” While I have generally heard it said (and have said this myself) that we cannot help but respond to God’s acts of mercy with love for the neighbor, Dickson illuminated for me that “to act in love is to do what calls for a response from God.” In other words, God cannot help but respond to acts of love toward our neighbor.
Secondly, Timothy Koch writes, “All Isaiahs, no matter how scathing or consoling they are about past and/or present situations, are nonetheless seized with a vision of a future that defies conventional wisdom, that rejects the most finely tuned social agendas, and that opens into new, uncharted and certainly dramatic territory.”3
Viewing the text through perspectives other than one’s own (especially when these other perspectives have a more immediate connection to the horizon of the original text) is both an act of justice toward the neighbor and a worshipful act. Indeed, doing so moves us beyond serving our own interests. May the prophets you encounter in these different perspectives guide your prophetic preaching on this text.
1See the paper written by Israel Kamudzandu,
2Kwesi A. Dickson, “He is God Because He Cares: Isaiah 58:1-12,” International Review of Mission, 77 no. 306 (April, 1988): 229-237.
3Timothy Koch, “Isaiah,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest, et. al. (London, SCM Press, 2006), 371-385.