A Jewish cantor (worship leader) and his wife who lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls. They discovered the calls came from a leader of an American hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. Knowing his identity, they could have turned him in to the police. But they decided on a more radical approach. When they learned that he was crippled, they showed up at his door with dinner! He was utterly flabbergasted. His hatred melted before their love. The couple kept visiting him, and the friendship grew.
He even thought of becoming Jewish!
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry . . . ?” (Isa. 58:6, 7, NRSV). Ironically, the couple in Lincoln kept such a fast by sharing their feast with a hungry oppressor, thereby setting him free from his own bonds of unjust prejudice!
Let’s learn more about this important spiritual principle as depicted by the prophet Isaiah.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, March 13.
Suppose you took food and stood on the street in a big city and announced to the hungry and homeless there: “You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” (NIV). But how can they buy if they have no money?
However, if you add the words, as Isaiah did: “without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1, NRSV), the point becomes clearer. Isaiah appeals to people to accept forgiveness (Isa. 55:7) freely. Yet, the word “buy” emphasizes that what God offers people to meet their needs and desires is valuable; so, receiving it requires a transaction (transfer of something of worth). God freely offers forgiveness within the framework of a restored covenant relation with His people, but not because it was free for Him: He bought it at the terrible, blood-drenched price of His own Servant. Though free, it came at an astonishing cost to Himself.
How does Isaiah’s approach to salvation compare with that of the New Testament? (Eph. 2:8, 9.)
Isaiah encapsulates the gospel in the Old Testament, and it is the same as the gospel in the New Testament. There was no “old-covenant” salvation by works, to be superseded by “new-covenant” salvation by grace. Ever since God’s promise of a Deliverer to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), there has been only one way to salvation: by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8); “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23, NRSV). From the ancient Gilgamesh, who did heroic exploits in a vain search for eternal life, to modern actors who believe in reincarnation, people have tried all kinds of different routes to salvation, but all are fruitless. This is why they need to know about Jesus and what He has accomplished for them at the cross.
There’s no question that the God who created a universe in which even some of the simplest things contain mysteries that our minds cannot begin to fathom is a God whose ways are beyond what we can ever begin to fully grasp. This knowledge of His infinite superiority should, therefore, make it easier for us to humbly receive His help. (See Isa. 57:15.)
Of all the great mysteries of the universe, no doubt the greatest one of all is the plan of salvation, a mystery we can only barely begin to understand. (See Eph. 6:19.) That the Creator of the universe would stoop to clothe Himself in humanity, live a life of toil and suffering, only then to die in our behalf, a sacrifice for sin, all in order that He could pardon us and show mercy to us is a truth that will thrill the hearts of God’s created beings for all the ages of eternity.
“The theme of redemption is one that angels desire to look into; it will be the science and the song of the redeemed throughout the ceaseless ages of eternity. Is it not worthy of careful thought and study now? . . .
“The subject is inexhaustible. The study of the incarnation of Christ, His atoning sacrifice, and mediatorial work will employ the mind of the diligent student as long as time shall last; and looking to heaven with its unnumbered years, he will exclaim, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness.’ ”—Ellen G. White, My Life Today, p. 360.
This must be the fast of the Day of Atonement, the only fast commanded by God (Lev. 16:29, 31; Lev. 23:27–32). This is confirmed in Isaiah 58:3 by the parallel expression “humble ourselves” (NRSV), which follows the terminology of Leviticus. Humbling or afflicting oneself referred to various forms of self-denial, including fasting (compare Ps. 35:13; Dan. 10:2, 3, 12).
The Day of Atonement setting explains God’s command to “Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (Isa. 58:1, NRSV). This kind of ram’s horn trumpet, called a shofar, was to be blown as a memorial or reminder 10 days before the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:24). Furthermore, every fiftieth year, on the Day of Atonement, it was to announce the beginning of the jubilee year of freedom (Lev. 25:9, 10; compare Isa. 27:13).
It seems the people were expecting the Lord to congratulate them for their “piety.” Of course, they had it all backward. Practicing self-denial on the Day of Atonement was to express their gratitude and loyalty to Him on the day the high priest went before God to cleanse the sanctuary and thereby cleanse them from sins for which they had already been forgiven (Leviticus 16, compare Leviticus 4). Their acts should have been done in thankfulness and gratitude to the God who saved them in the day of judgment, not in order to get God’s approval for their “piety” and “devotion.” After all, it was the sins of the people that had defiled God’s sanctuary. It had to be cleansed with blood that was shed because of what they had done.
Ten days after trumpet blasts have reminded God’s people that the Lord is acclaimed as their King on the very Day of Atonement when their humility through self-denial is to affirm their loyalty to Him as King, the prophet lifts up his voice like a trumpet to declare that they are rebelling against Him (Isa. 58:1).
Anyone can be religious; anyone can go through religious rituals, even the right rituals, at the right time, with all the right formulas. But that alone is not what the Lord wants. Look at the life of Jesus. However faithful He was to the religious rituals of His time, the Gospel writers focused so much more on His acts of mercy, healing, feeding, and forgiveness to those in need than on His faithfulness to ritual.
The Lord seeks a church, a people, who will preach truth to the world. But what will better attract people to the truth as it is in Jesus: strict adherence to dietary laws or a willingness to help the hungry? Strict rest on the Sabbath or a willingness to spend your own time and energy helping those who are in need?
The yearly Day of Atonement was a sabbath day. This special ceremonial sabbath was like the weekly Sabbath in that all work of any kind was prohibited (Lev. 23:27–32). Therefore, as recognized by early Seventhday Adventists, the rule that the Day of Atonement period of rest lasted from evening to evening (Lev. 23:32) informs us that the same must be true of the weekly Sabbath. Similarly, although the primary context of Isaiah 58:13, 14 is the ceremonial Day of Atonement Sabbath, its message also applies to the weekly Sabbath.
Isaiah 58 deals with three main themes: self-denial, social kindness, and the Sabbath.
What are the connections between them?
First, all three involve concentration upon God, His priorities, and recognition of our dependence upon Him. Second, by doing all three, humans pursue holiness by emulating God (see Lev. 19:2), who, in the form of Christ, humbled Himself (Phil. 2:8), who demonstrates selfsacrificing kindness (John 3:16), and who ceased from labor on the Sabbath at the end of the Creation week (Gen. 2:2, 3; Exod. 20:11).
Further Thought: “No one can practice real benevolence without selfdenial. Only by a life of simplicity, self-denial, and close economy, is it possible for us to accomplish the work appointed us as Christ’s representatives.
Pride and worldly ambition must be put out of our hearts. In all our work, the principle of unselfishness revealed in Christ’s life is to be carried out. Upon the walls of our homes, the pictures, the furnishings, we are to read, ‘Bring the poor that are cast out to thy house.’ On our wardrobes we are to see written, as with the finger of God, ‘Clothe the naked.’ In the dining room, on the table laden with abundant food, we should see traced, ‘Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?’ Isaiah 58:7.”—Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, p. 206.
Summary: In Isaiah 55 and 58, the prophet appeals to his people to give up their thoughts and ways and return to God, whose ideal for their happiness is so much higher than their own. He mercifully pardons and then insists that the pardoned be merciful, in harmony with the spirit of the Day of Atonement and the Sabbath, because the gift of God’s forgiveness, if it is truly received, transforms the heart.