Isaiah 58 • True Observance


There are many rituals and practices that are unique to religion in general and Christianity in particular: the Sabbath, prayer, fasting, sacrifices, offerings, etc. One of the universal human behaviors is based on thinking that following the outward rituals peculiar to these practices is, in and of itself, enough. God—Who sees and judges not just appearances but a man’s thoughts and heart—teaches that such motions are NOT enough. In observing others’ behavior while they’re engaged in these practices, we might take the stance, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” However, God’s point of view is, “It can do all that but if it doesn’t have the heart of a duck, it’s a phony.” Does attending church make one a Christian without their having to act, believe, and live a changed life from the heart?


It’s important to note the historical context of chapter 58. Based on v.12 it’s most likely that Isaiah is speaking to those of the northern kingdom of Israel who are in exile. This is important to keep in mind in order to properly interpret the contextual meaning, and for a special observation of this teaching provided at the end of this study.

Read verses 1-2

Q: Given that this is referencing people in exile, what is the meaning of this behavior? Is this indicating that these people are now in a right relationship and attitude with God?

A: They are earnestly—and most likely even sincerely—incessantly appealing to God to know when His judgment will come to an end. It’s very good that they’ve learned some of the right lessons from what has happened to them, but they still have a way to go to complete the work which God began.

Application: Even after we acknowledge and submit to God’s sovereignty, what is still left for us to do to be completely reconciled to Him? We must put His ways into practice and allow them to change forever our behavior going forward. Do you know someone that earnestly believes in God and may even desire to be close to Him, yet they continue to live as they did before?

Read verses 3-5

Q: What does God identify as the basic troubling issue?

A: He is displeased with people who fast as an outward sign but whose heart and life betrays a false sincerity.

Q: What are the specific behaviors in v.3-4 God points to as evidence of their hypocrisy?

  1. “ find your desire...” (v.3)
  2. “ hard all your workers...” (v.3)
  3. “ for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist.” (v.4)
  4. “ do not make your voice heard on high.” (v.4)

It boils down to acting out of self-interest and with no regard for others.

Q: What is God describing in v.5?

A: They make a great show of their actions to be noticed by men rather than from a contrite heart to be noticed by God.

Read Luke 18:9-14

Q: What is Jesus’ point?

A: It’s the difference between someone who exalts their self before men rather than humbling their self before God.


Read verses 6-12

Q: What is the overall teaching being conveyed?

A: God is providing the example of someone that fasts properly before Him.

Q: What appears to be the first step in the process?

A: We must be loving our neighbors as our self.

  1. “...break every yoke...” (v.6)
  2. “…divide your bread with the hungry…” (v.7)
  3. “…bring the homeless poor into the house…” (v.7)
  4. When you see the naked, to cover him…” (v.7)
  5. “...remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing finger and speaking wickedness...” (v.9)
  6. “...give yourself to the hungry...” (v.10)
  7. “...satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” (v.10)

Q, What appears to be the next step in v.8-9?

A: Having shown God our love for our neighbor, He will both answer us and prepare the way before us.

  1. “...your light will break out...” (v.8)
  2. “...your recovery will speedily spring forth...” (v.8)
  3. “...your righteousness will go before you...” (v.8)
  4. “...The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (v.8)
  5. “ will call, and the Lord will answer...” (v.9)
  6. “ will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” (v.9)

Q: What follows next in v.10-11?

A: Then our life will be replenished—transformed—as from a desert to a garden or darkness to light. (See Rom. 12:1-2)

  1. “...your light will rise in darkness...” (v.10)
  2. “...your gloom will become midday...” (v.10)
  3. “...the Lord will continually guide you...” (v.11)
  4. “...satisfy our desire in scorched places...” (v.11)
  5. “...give strength to your bones...” (v.11)
  6. “...a watered garden...” (v.11)
  7. “...a spring of water...” (v.11)

Q: What will be the final result according to v.12?

A: We will become a rebuilder and repairer—an active participant in His kingdom, not a passive one.

  1. “ will rebuild...”
  2. “ will raise up...”
  3. “...called the repairer of the breach...”
  4. “...restorer of the streets...”

Point: Note the overall pattern:

  1. Love our neighbor as our self.
  2. Our way is prepared by the Lord.
  3. Our life is replenished and transformed.
  4. We in turn become a repairer, a restorer.

Application: If your service—your observance of God’s things such as fasting—is not producing these results in your life, what does that indicate? What do you need to do?


Read verses 13-14

Q: What is the proper way to treat the sabbath?

A: To deny one’s self and genuinely and sincerely seek Him. It’s the contrast of “your own pleasure” and “your own ways” to “turn your foot” and “call the sabbath a delight”.

Q: According to v.14, to whom is the heritage of God’s promises through Jacob assured?

A: Those who act from the heart, not culture or outward ritual.

Application: Do we fashion our church experience to suit ourselves or do we come denying self in order to seek and honor Him alone?

Point: In both the examples of fasting and observing the sabbath, the subtle message is, “Your Redeemer is not hiding; He’s here right now. But your self-centeredness prevents you from experiencing Him.”


Q: If the people are trying to show compliance with Old Testament Law, what is missing? Why is the discussion here limited to just fasting and the sabbath?

A: What is missing is compliance with the sacrifices and all the service connected to the temple. This goes back to the opening observation that the context of this chapter is speaking of a people in exile. There is no temple for them. Therefore they can’t obey the WHOLE Law but only the those things available to exiles such as fasting and the sabbath.

Q: But aren’t the sacrifices the centerpiece of the Law? Why does God not even mention the fact that they’re unable to make the sacrifices?

A: As God has repeatedly taught through His Word and prophets, it’s not sacrifices He desires but a right and contrite heart. If He were a strict stickler for the rules, He would openly laugh at their pathetic attempts to keep part of the Law; but instead He proves that the condition of the heart is the most important thing by demanding they be sincere in the few things they’re able to keep. It places the sacrifices in the right perspective as well as all observances.

Overall Application