Isaiah 58 comprises the greatest biblical discourse on the law of the fast. In 12 verses the Lord shows the improper way to fast, the proper way to fast, and then He reveals a great number of blessings that belong to those who experience a proper fast.
The Lord teaches that our fasts are far more than abstaining from food and drink for two meals. In a true fast we share our substance with those who lack and we seek out those who have heavy burdens and then we assist them and lighten their loads. We endeavor to bless the lives of others, temporally and spiritually. As we live the true law of the fast, we will be blessed in marvelous ways, temporally, spiritually, and eternally. Blessings of health and light will be ours, and the Lord Himself will guide us in all things.
The words of Isaiah 58 are timeless — they pertain to the children of Israel who lived during Isaiah's day, to all subsequent generations of ancient Israel who read Isaiah's words and to those of our own day who desire to understand and live the true law of the fast.
Structure of Isaiah 58:1-12
The law of the fast as presented in Isaiah 58:1-12 opens with the Lord's command to Isaiah to declare repentance to the Lord's people. This command is followed by an announcement that the people have committed transgressions and sins. The Lord then declares that the people have sought righteousness but they lack the proper approach. A dialogue then follows — the people ask the Lord, "Why have we fasted, and yet you take no notice." The Lord responds by setting forth the true fast that He has chosen. The section concludes with a list of blessings that accompany the true fast.
Isaiah 58:1-12, then, is structured as follows: The proclamation — The Lord commands Isaiah to declare repentance; announcement of wickedness; Israel attempts righteousness but lacks proper approach; Israel responds to the Lord; the Lord responds to Israel — the improper way to fast; the Lord's true fast and the blessings of the true fast.
The proclamation — The Lord commands Isaiah to declare repentance:
Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, . . . (58:1a.)
The passage on fasting opens with the Lord instructing Isaiah to proclaim the sins of the Lord's people, the house of Jacob (58:1). He is to "cry aloud" (literally "cry with full throat"), meaning, "to cry with all his strength." His voice is to be like the ram's horn (translated, trumpet) — loud, clear and unmistakable.
Announcement of wickedness:
. . . and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.(58:1b.)
The Lord instructs Isaiah to show the people their transgression and their sins.
Israel attempts righteousness but lacks proper approach:
Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God. (58:2.)
Outwardly, they have the look of a righteous nation because they ask God in prayer regarding his righteous judgments ("ordinances of justice") and they "take delight in approaching to God" (58:2), but inwardly, their fast is offered improperly (see verses 3-7).
Israel responds to the Lord:
Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? (58:3a.)
Those of the house of Israel had fasted and afflicted their souls according to God's command, but they were perplexed as to why God had not seen them or taken note of their fast. But the true fast consists of much more than prayer and abstinence from food and drink; it is more than afflicting one's soul or self-abasement. In Isaiah 58:5, the Lord asks, "Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul?"
The Lord responds to Israel —The improper way to fast:
Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? (58:3b-5.)
Isaiah sets forth why Israel's fasting was improper and unacceptable to the Lord. While fasting, the Lord's people sought pleasure, rather than sacrificing time and means on behalf of those in need.
The Lord's true fast:
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7.
So what is the fast that the Lord has chosen? Four similar and corresponding expressions describe important consequences of fasting — fasting is to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. These expressions may refer to many aspects of living as mortals in this telestial world. Some people carry the burden of possessing physical disadvantages, diseases or have loved ones with severe emotional or mental sicknesses; others suffer due to having spiritually wayward children. Some are burdened with debt, or they mourn, or they are sorrowful because they live in such a wicked world. Perhaps most importantly, these expressions from Isaiah speak of the burden of sin, carried by all mortals who have ever lived, save Jesus Christ, until they fully and properly repent.
So what else constitutes the fast that the Lord has chosen? Just as Isaiah presents four similar and corresponding expressions to describe important consequences of fasting, he also provides four corresponding requirements of the one who fasts. These are to provide bread to the hungry, to bring the poor . . . to thy house, to see the naked and to cover him, and to hide not thyself from thine own flesh. These four requirements, together with the four corresponding expressions that pertain to bands of wickedness, comprise the fast that the Lord has chosen (58:6).
The blessings of the true fast:
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy [rear guard]. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. (58:8-12.)
Isaiah 58:8-12 comprises a list of the truly wonderful blessings that are promised to those who obey the Lord's law of the fast. Speaking in general terms, these blessings include spiritual light; physical health; increased righteousness; answers to prayer; continual guidance from the Lord; a plenitude of spiritual food and water, representing the full blessings of the Atonement, even when others lack; and a restoration of their lands of inheritance.
Donald W. Parry is a BYU associate professor of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.