Commentary on Isaiah 58:9b-14
Isaiah 56-66 addresses the community returning from the Babylonian exile to the dysfunctional and disappointing Persian-ruled territory of Yehud (Judah) in the years following 539 BCE.
Jerusalem remained mostly a pile of rubble until the time of Nehemiah (circa 445 BCE), a hundred years after the return. Stark social, economic, and religious divisions characterized the hardscrabble community surrounding the still-ruined capital. The soaring promises of Isaiah 40-55 (see 54:9-17), directed to the exilic community on the cusp of return to the land, have met with the difficult realities of rebuilding a shattered society.
Among the many problems in Yehud were widespread economic predation and enslavement of the vulnerable by the wealthy elite (see Nehemiah 5:1-7), a deep-seated fear of foreigners and cultural change that fueled an obsession with ethnic and linguistic purity (see also Nehemiah 13:23-29), and conflicts over religious observances such as the Sabbath (see 13:15-22). The priestly elite at the temple embezzled tithes set aside to feed Levites (13:10-14), and the religious and political elite stole considerable funds given by Emperor Cyrus intended for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple, using them to sustain a lavish lifestyle (see Haggai 1:1-4).
Meanwhile, the elites blamed foreign meddling for the delay in rebuilding the temple, even though those “foreigners” were devoted worshippers of YHWH who had lived in Israel for generations and were eager to help (Ezra 4:1-5). Those who had returned from the Babylonian exile considered themselves the only true Jews, whereas the agriculturalist “people of the land” were an impure group reminiscent of the Canaanites (Ezra 10:1-44). While the return to the land of Judah had seemed like an amazing opportunity to renew life in the land, it quickly returned to the old corrupt, hierarchical order.
In Isaiah 56-66 (often called “Third Isaiah”), an anonymous prophet steeped in the tradition of Isaiah of Jerusalem offers a series of sharp rebukes to proponents of cultural, ethnic, and economic exclusion and generates an alternative vision of the beloved community. Third Isaiah opens with divine exhortations to pursue justice and righteousness (Isaiah 56:1; see 5:7), to infuse spirituality and religious observance with community-minded ethics (56:2; see also 5:18-19), and to include within the community of YHWH both foreigners and persons whose sex or gender does not fit the binary categories of male and female (56:3-8; see also 2:2-4). This anonymous prophet also references the ancient law of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) in a call to liberate all those oppressed and begin the work of rebuilding a new, just society (Isaiah 61:1-4).
The concerns of Isaiah 56-66 respond to the specific problems of Yehud in the early Persian period (circa 530-450 BCE). The anonymous prophet of Isaiah 56-66 would have conflicted with the nationalistic, hierarchical, and ethnocentric messages of the elite.
Isaiah 58 is a series of linked oracles that challenge the social sins of Yehud. Though the people are attentive to religious matters (58:1-2), they expect that their acts of public contrition will yield predictable material benefits from YHWH. As a result, they become frustrated when YHWH appears unimpressed with their elaborate rituals (verse 3). God responds by pointing out that fasting is meaningless if it is accompanied by economic and social oppression (verses 4-5). Yet God asserts that the enactment of radical political, economic, and social liberation for all people would reap tremendous material and spiritual blessings, and God would dwell in the midst of the community (58:6-9a). The prophet does not seem to reject ritual in general, but merely the instrumental use of rituals to manipulate God, as if with a bribe (see Micah 6:1-8). Likewise, the prophet addresses the religious practice of Sabbath (Isaiah 58:13-14), which was intended to provide rest to the vulnerable (Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:27) but has been used for people’s “own interests” and their “own affairs” (see Amos 8:4-6).
In verses 9b-14, the prophet presents a series of conditional (if-then) statements that map out how the people of Yehud might recover their spiritual and communal wholeness — for the two are inextricably linked. Feeding the hungry and tending to the needs of those oppressed is a non-negotiable starting point for communal healing (see Isaiah 61:1-4; Matthew 25:31-46). In verse 9b, the prophet demands that the people “remove the yoke,” which refers to the common ancient Near Eastern symbol for economic and political burdens imposed by overlords (see 14:25; Jeremiah 28).
One striking example of pointing fingers and speaking evil in the service of oppression (Isaiah 58:9b) can be found in 1 Kings 21, in which the elite conspire to defraud an innocent commoner of his prime piece of land. The elites of Israel often find it frustrating that YHWH has divided the agricultural land equally so that all people may have access to life-sustaining economic productivity in perpetuity (see Leviticus 25:13; Joshua 13:7). They continually seek to impose “the yoke” and so enrich themselves (Micah 2:1-2) — yet this is precisely why God toppled the Pharaonic power structure and freed the Hebrew slaves (Leviticus 26:13), and why God toppled the Judahite power structure in 587 BCE (Jeremiah 7:1-15). God wants the pious elite of Yehud to take note and break the yoke themselves this time (Isaiah 58:6, 9).
If they do break the yoke, God promises communal healing and blessing that will feel like bright sunshine breaking through gloom (verse 10) and cool water quenching brutal thirst (verse 11). The prophet here describes the measurable, provable cause-and-effect relationship that exists between communal liberation and communal healing. So long as some members of the community are oppressed, everyone is living in an unhealthy and soul-harming environment –even the elite. As the Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote, famously quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Communal transformation creates the potential for true blessing for all to emerge. The prophet envisions this communal renewal as a physical reconstruction of the ancient city of Jerusalem, which will be built as a place that the people together might truly “live in” (Isaiah 58:12). Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as he is in the midst of his rebuilding project, Nehemiah discovers the need to liberate his neighbors who have fallen prey to rapacious economic practices of the elite (Nehemiah 5).
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus inaugurates his own ministry with a reading from Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus faced a situation quite similar to the anonymous prophet of Isaiah 56-66: a foreign power structure imposed a yoke of hierarchical economic and social exploitation that leveraged the cravenness of certain local religious and political elites who were callous enough to sell out their own people. Extreme inequality and socio-political alienation are often conjoined forces, and today is no exception. The vulnerable are crying out for help (Exodus 22:21-23), even in the midst of the wealthiest and most powerful society that has ever existed — and a particularly religious one, as well. Perhaps we need prophets who are bold enough to envision a world of communal renewal that births spiritual and social blessing that knows no bounds (Isaiah 58:11; 2:1-4; Genesis 12:1-3).