Insights Into Isaiah: Wherefore We Have Fasted


Terry B: Welcome once again to our continuing discussion of the scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-saints. Today we’ll be discussing once again the writings of Isaiah Chapter 58 and 59 and fasting.

I’m Terry Ball from the Department of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. And joining me are three of my fine colleagues from the Department of Ancient Scripture. We have with us today, professor Victor Ludlow. Welcome, Vic.

Victor: Thank you. Good to be here.

Terry B: Glad to have you with us. And also, professor Terry Szink, welcome Terry.

Terry S: Good to be here.

Terry B: And we’re delighted once more to have with us, professor Ray Huntington. Welcome, Ray.

Ray: Thank you, Terry.

Terry B: Alright, Chapter 58– I suspect that this is probably, well in my estimation, because I love Isaiah so much, is the finest discourse on proper fasting I think in all the scriptures. I think if you ever have to give a talk in sacred meeting and you don’t talk about Isaiah 58, you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity to teach great Doctrine and truth.

Victor: Well, there’s no chapter anywhere on the standard works with so much material, on so many verses devoted to that topic of fasting.

Terry B: That’s true. I think Isaiah uses a very logical approach as he tries to teach them about the fast. First, he explains what they’re doing wrong, then he tells him, what you need to start doing right, then he tells them, here’s what you can expect. I like that, I think it’s the way the heavenly Father worked with this and the way parents ought to work and whenever we have to discipline people.

Ray: It’s sort of cause and effect, isn’t it? And Isaiah is really good with cause and effect. If you do this, this is what will happen. I think he’s a master of cause and effect.

Terry B: So, verses 1 through 5 – is the cause. Here’s what you’re doing wrong. The terminology here is a little bit awkward I think in our King James version. Why don’t I read those first five verses and then maybe we could have you brethren kind of explain what some of the terms mean and help explain what’s wrong with the way that they’re fasting. “Cry aloud.” This is the verse  1 of 58. “Spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” In other words, the Lord’s saying, Isaiah, tell these people what they’re doing wrong, and here we go. “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. Wherefore have we fast fasted, say they and thou seest us not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge. Behold, in the day of your fast, ye find pleasure and exact all your labors. 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 spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, an acceptable day of the Lord.”

Victor: Verse 2 there, this imagery, they’re going about their things as though they’re still righteous and noble.

Terry B: There’s some sarcasm there, isn’t there?

Victor: Oh yeah. A little biting there. And they’re afflicting their souls; they’re angry, they’re sad. I mean, you’ll look at it and I think, oh, they’re going through such terrible tribulation in their fasting.

Ray: Is this kind of like the Pharisees in Jesus’s day who disheveled their hair and put powder on their face to appear to others as fasting.

Terry B: And they’re really angry at God because this doesn’t seem to be working. Look at all we’re doing for you, we’re just absolutely miserable. How come you’re not acknowledging what we’re doing and blessing us. That’s the first part of verse 3 anyway, that’s what they seem to be asking. From what I gathered, is this what you gather that God has given them the answer, starting with the word, ‘Behold’ there in verse 3?

Terry S: Halfway through that.

Terry B: What does this phrase mean, “In the day of your fast, ye find pleasure and exact all your labors?” Obviously, it’s wrong but what does he mean here, that they’re doing on a fast day?

Ray: I get the sense that they’re making it miserable for everyone else around them. That’s one thing I think.

Terry B: You mean, they’re fasting, and they’ve gotten cranky?

Ray: Absolutely. They’re making life miserable for everyone else.

Victor: Often fast days were considered Sabbaths, but if on a Sabbath you find pleasure, if you’re out doing leisure pleasure, recreational things and extract all your labors. If you’re going to work anyway, you’re not really honoring a Sabbath. I think that’s implied there too.

Terry B: The footnote for verse 3 has something interesting too, that I think adds an insight in regard to exactly all your labors. It’s inflicting travail on others. So, your mother comes to you and says, take out the garbage, and you say I can’t, mother I’m fasting. The attitude that I’ve dedicated this time to the Lord and I don’t want to be bothered. You’re, going to have to wait on me, hand and foot, kind of a thing.

Ray: What do you think in verse 4, it means to fast for strife and debate? That’s an odd statement to me.

Victor: Well, people sometimes are short-tempered, and they justify it because they’re fasting. We had one son, it wasn’t quite that bad. He always wondered how come we called it fast Sunday because for him it was the slowest day of the month and he just didn’t think he was going to survive.

Terry B: He was collecting offerings if he wanted a fast offering so that he could go home. There seems to be an attitude here that God is approaching. He seems to be saying, I know you’re going through the motions of fasting…

Terry S: But you’re not doing it with the right intent.

Victor: In other words, it’s hypocrisy.

Terry B: You’re drawing attention to yourself one way, on your hand and foot. You’re getting cranky.

Victor: He’s excusing the negative behavior.

Terry S: That’s exactly how Christ referred to them, he calls them hypocrites, those who fast this type of fast.

Ray: Well, I like the Lord’s statement in verse 5, “is it such a fast that I have chosen.” Is this the kind of fast that I want you to have? And the answer is absolutely not. Everything you’re doing is unacceptable to me. And then he sorts of describes what it is, a day for a man to afflict his soul as if to bow down his head as a bulrush. That’s interesting imagery. What do you think that means – to bow down his head like a bulrush?

Terry B: Have you ever seen bulrushes? You can see, particularly they have a very salacious wall, they have a hollow with the cell wall that’s really brittle, and if they get a little bruising then they’ll just all fall over, you can see them all flopped over. So, apparently there must be some group flopping over going on here, they’re all bowing down as bulrushes and they’re just being miserable.  We wouldn’t really call this fasting. These folks are just going hungry. And there’s a difference between fasting and going hungry.

Ray: Then going through the motions.

Victor: So, in verse 6, he shifts beautifully. “Now is not this the fast that I’ve chosen?” And then he gives them the to-do list and this is what you should be doing.

Terry B: Verses 6 and 7. Go ahead and read those for us.

Victor: “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens and to let the oppressed go free, that ye break every yoke. Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry and that thou bringest the poor that are cast out to thy house. When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; then that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh or family.” So, first of all, it’s to lift some kind of a burden or as he says here, to break every yoke. When you think of fasting, a true fast, we should have a purpose.

Terry B:  That’s the point.  There ought to be a purpose to your fast.

Victor:  And Isaiah’s motto would be, is there some burden or yolk, something that’s weighing people down. Now it could be somebody else that is burdened with ignorance or hunger or something.  It could be a person burdened with sin or ignorance or frustration and a church calling. Well, what can be done to lift that burden and make that the purpose of your fast? Now you’ve got a spiritual focus rather than just, oh, I’m toughing it out and don’t bother me, kind of an attitude. You’re seeing a higher spiritual purpose.

Terry S: One of the things that you can see when we look at these purposes, is they’re fasting, and they focus is all on themselves. Oh, I’m hungry, I have to suffer through this, and then he says, look, I want you to turn that focus on others, help others, help the poor, feed the naked or clothe the naked. Feed them too. But he wants them to turn their focus on others and not on themselves.

Terry B: There are two things he’s pointed out here. The one, a proper fast constitutes doing something for those less fortunate, the naked, the hungry. Another is to make sure there’s a purpose to it, and what the purpose is, he mentions here is to break the bands of wickedness. He almost seems to be saying that if you’re fasting properly, your ability to live a righteous life is increased. So, what’s the connection? How does fasting increase your ability to live a righteous life?

Ray: If you look at verse 6, Terry, just look at the words that he uses; to lose, to undo, too wet and to break. Those words all have something in common and I think spiritually to enliven yourself, to break yourself free from something, to become more spiritual, to feel the spirit, to have greater power to do things that you normally couldn’t do.

Terry B: Fasting certainly is the key to spirituality. I think of what President McKay said when he defines spirituality? I think he’s the first to use this phrase, as a consciousness of victory over self.

What he seemed to be saying is that a spiritual person is one who has conquered the physical appetites, desires and so forth and their thoughts and actions and feelings are directed by the will, desires of the spirit. And I can see a connection between fasting and that.  When you’re fasting, it’s almost like lifting spiritual weights. You’re strengthening the spiritual man so that it can control the desires of the natural man.

Victor: And I found with my students, particularly freshmen students in my Book of Mormon classes as we’ve talked about fasting like with the sons of Mosiah. And we started a discussion about what purposes should we find in the fast. They usually think of things like, well, it’s to show self-discipline. It’s to take the money that you would’ve spent, and contribute it to the poor and the needy, and they don’t realize all of these other kinds of purposes as far as helping others and strengthening yourself or loosening guilt and burdens that you have. And I think those are really the ultimate higher purposes for which the Heavenly Father wants us to, at least once a month, focus on some of those things.

Ray: Who is it that loses the bands of wickedness and undoes the heavy burdens and lets the oppressed go free and breaks every yoke. Who is the acting agent?  Is it us? I don’t think so.

Terry B: I don’t think so, I think God’s involved in. I think it’s a joint effort.

Ray: But then I think in return he says, I’ll do this and this and this for you, but I expect you, in verse 7 – to deal your bread to the hungry. Pay your fast offerings and remember the poor and the needy and those even amongst your own families that need help.

Terry B: A proper fast is not just going hungry. Fasting for a purpose and caring for others. That’s the point. Search Isaiah - 8 Promises Made for True Fasting in The Book of IsaiahAnd then starting in verse 8, this is some of the most beautiful language, poetic language describing the blessings that come from fasting properly. I think a lot of times we don’t realize what blessings are promised to its proper fasting. Let me read these verses. Starting at verse 8, “If you fast property,” he says in verse 8, “then shall thy light break forth as the morning, thine health shall spring forth, speedily, thy righteousness shall go before thee. The glory of the Lord shall be thy reward. 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 yolk, and the putting forth the finger and the 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.” Powerful imagery, which supposedly means in verse 8, if you fast properly, your light will break forth as the morning. Any ideas what that imagery is intended to teach?

Victor: I would assume it’s the spiritual light he’s talking about here that will come. If you tie back to bands of wickedness and these other kinds of burdens of ignorance and all the people would have if the light breaks forth then you begin to see, you begin to understand, you begin to feel worthy to have the spirit to be with you, which otherwise you just didn’t have.

Terry B: So, it’s the light in the D&C, 93 cents of truth and knowledge and intelligence. So, what does it mean to say it breaks forth as the morning?

Terry S: It’s like the sun coming up and you see a little bit, then pretty soon it’s just everywhere and it can’t be contained.

Victor: And especially after a dark night, how much you look forward to that coming.

Terry B: You can count on it. It’s going to be there.

Ray: In the New Testament imagery here in the Sermon on the Mount,  you’re the light of the earth, the light of the world. And what is that light?  We learn later in the book of Mormon, the light that we hold up is Christ. And I really believe as we fast, as we invite that spirit into our lives, our testimonies of Christ will grow and then we’ll illuminate.

Victor: You see verses 11 and 12, where this what comes into us, he has little couplets here of thirst and food and, that’s you, your body kind of receives and then he talks about gardens and springs as far as your fields and your place around your home. And then the foundations and the waste places of your communities, and finally, the paths and all. I mean, it’ll start with you and that’ll be your house, your neighborhood, the whole community to receive blessings and these images of peace and prosperity.

Ray: You really have put the Lord to the test in this one, don’t you?

Terry B: Let’s look at some of the other promises before we leave this. I just love some of this other stuff, “your righteousness will go before thee.” I always think of the Armor of God. Righteousness is your breastplate, right? That protects your vital organs there. But breastplates don’t cover your back. You’re exposed in the back and you can’t see the enemy coming. But look what he says here, “Your righteousness goes before thee and what protects you in the back,” at the end of verse 8.  It’s almost like your righteousness will protect you from the adversaries and the things you see in front of you, but I’ll protect you from what can come from behind. If you fast.

Victor: That you might not otherwise be aware of.

Terry B: Yea, I’m your rear guard, that’s a rearward means, I’ve got your back, the phrases today.  I love the promise of verse 9 that suggest also that our prayers have become more effective.  When we pray God says, “Here I am, I’ll answer.” Beautiful promises for fasting properly. If you read this, and you wonder, why would you ever just go hungry instead of fasting? Verse 13 and 14, he changes the topic. I think these could be its own chapter in itself. Although it’s two. Herein, I think he’s trying to teach us what constitutes proper Sabbath day observance as well. Terry, why don’t you read verse 13 for us?

Terry S: Sure. “If thou turn away thou foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my Holy day and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord honorable and shall honor him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words.”

Terry B: You do 14 also.

Terry S: Sure. “Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the Earth and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.”
Terry B:  Wonderful promises there in verse 14, and all speak of exaltation that you qualify for if you keep the Sabbath properly. You’ve probably all had the experience of teaching a Sunday school class where the students wanted you to list on the board everything you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath day. How many hours of Super Bowl can I watch before I would not be temple worthy? I think he’s giving us a rule of thumb here, how do we evaluate if a Sabbath day activity is appropriate or not in verse 13. As you look through that, what’s the rule?

Victor: Not doing thine own ways or thine own pleasures, or kind of your own activities. It reflects back again on chapter 55 – His ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not ours. Well, instead of doing your ways and your thoughts, concentrate on my ways and my thoughts. Those things have a higher spiritual nature, I guess.

Ray: There’s also an acknowledgment that the Sabbath is the Holy of the Lord, that it’s His day. We have the knowledge that it’s His day.

Terry B: We think of it as a day of rest often, but it really rests from other laborers. I know that you all serve at important colleges and I imagine some of your Sabbath days, you’re often weary at the end, but you’ve kept the Sabbath holy because you haven’t been seeking your own way or your own pleasures. I wonder how our Sabbath day observance would change if when we had some discretionary time, if we thought of verse 13 and asked ourselves, now what can they do during this time to serve God or to serve others? Maybe we’d make different choices. I’m glad that it’s there. Great council on Sabbath day. We need to move on now to chapter 59. 59 in some way seems to be a little bit of a throwback to some of the chapters that we read, or themes that we read in the first 35 chapters. This is a pretty powerful and scathing rebuke to the wicked, outlining some of the things they’ve done wrong but finishes with a wonderful promise to the people. He asks a question in verse 1 and 2, Ray, why don’t you read those for us and then maybe ask a question or summarize the message in your own words.

Ray: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear, but your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you that he will not hear.” I think he’s making a pretty blunt statement here, and that is that God’s hand is not shortened, he can save, he is here, he hears, and he doesn’t withdraw from us. It’s our inequities that separate us from God. It is our own behavior that kind of pulls us away from God. God’s hand is always outstretched. That’s what he’s saying to us.

Terry B: It makes me think of little saying that says, ‘if you find yourself further from God today than you were yesterday, you need to ask yourself who moved?’ And we know God’s always there. He then goes on to chapter 2, I’ll outline some of the things particularly that they have done, that caused him to be moved from God to put themselves away. Verse 3, “Your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with inequity.” Sounds like violence and sin. “Your lips have spoken lies, you trust in vanity and speak lies.” What do you make of this imagery in verse 5? This is intriguing. Speaking of these people, he says, “they hatched cockatrice eggs, and weave spiders’ webs.”

Victor: Cockatrice is often translated as Adder in modern English translations, but it’s a tremendously poisonous serpent. There are some poisonous snakes that take a while to grow and develop their size and their venom, but not the Adder, I mean, it is right from their hatching, they will kill an adult and yet can you imagine taking, say a clutch of these eggs, putting them in a net or sack and just tucking them under your shirt, and so your body heat will incubate them, realizing as soon as they come out, you’re going to… And yet there are some people that just seem to put their hand right in the fire. They know this is not what they should be doing, this is not the crowd they should be going with, but they just put themselves right in the situation of spiritual or moral death, just like this imagery that he uses of physical death, here.

Terry B: So, if you find a nest of hatched Cockatrice eggs, the smart thing to do is, to get away from them or destroy them, but these people are hatching or brooding them. Do you think they’re just curious?

Ray: I don’t, I think in verse 7 it sorts of sums it up. “Their feet run to evil.” They know exactly what they’re doing, and they hasten to do it. It’s the imagery that Vic brought out here a second ago. They know what they’ve got in their hands and they damn well aren’t going to let it go.

Terry B: I think of individuals who have chronic transgressions, and there are always certain events that lead up to committing the transgression and yet, all they have to do is not let themselves be involved in the precursors to the transgression, and yet they don’t do it. They’re hatching Cockatrice eggs

Victor: Set themselves up.

Terry B: And so, as it says in verse 8, “the way of peace, they know not.” We’ve seen that word peace quite often, maybe we ought to comment for a moment. What words are being translated as peace here and what that means to the Hebrew mind?

Victor: The word Shalom, it’s used as a common greeting. When they ask how a person is – [Hebrew 00:23:23.05]. It’s, how is peace with you? It’s very much, kind of the whole atmosphere of your environment, your being, is that kind of peace that one should be looking for. It’s not just a political national, it’s more of a personal kind of peace that is talked about there.

Terry B: He then talks about what they can expect if they continue in this venue starting in verse 9, “Judgments far from us.” Verse 10, “They grope for the wall like the blind.” That’s powerful imagery, that those who are spiritually blind purposely, they stumble at noonday verse 10. “They roar like bears and mourn like doves.” This part sounds pretty sad. And look where they end up. Verse 12, Terry read that for us. This is what they have to confess eventually.

Terry S: “For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us, for our transgressions are with us and as for our iniquities, we know them.”

Terry B: Can you picture that scene? Makes me think of 2nd Nephi 9 where we talked about us having a bright recollection of all our guilt. You get the feeling no one’s going to be dragged away from the judge without saying, it’s unfair, I don’t deserve this, I’ve been praying. They’ll know.

Victor: What a contrast with the last verse of that chapter, “But here is my Covenant for them, saith the Lord, my Spirit is upon me, my words which I put in thy mouth shall not depart of thy mouth nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed saith the Lord from henceforth and forever.” So, instead of coming before the Lord in this judgment scene like we just talked about, here is this,  kind of almost sounds like a family reunion kind of a scene. A much more festive, happy occasion.

Terry S: It’s not just for the people themselves, but for all of their descendants, he goes on that your seed and your seed’s seed. That’s for henceforth and forever, which is a great promise.

Terry B: In verse 19, “You’re qualified for those things if you turn from transgression.” And then he comes as the redeemer. In contrast to verse 17, when you’re brought before him, he comes in garments of vengeance. So, you get the feeling, he can either be the avenger or the redeemer and what makes the difference, is how you’ve chosen to use your agency. It can be a tragic thing to so misuse your agency that you were afraid and wanted to run from him rather than to him when you had the opportunity to be in his presence.

Ray: So, it’s like the last statement in Narnia, where she looks out, is it Lucy, and the lion’s walking away. What is it she says…The other fellow with her says, “He’s not a tame lion,” and she says, “but he is kind.” And I think that sort of sums it up here as well too.

Terry B: So, the major themes of chapter 58 and 59 in conclusion. Someone want to summarize those for us with the major themes that we ought to take home, messages.

Terry S: 58 talks about fasting and Sabbath observance, which kind of go hand in hand and how we’re supposed to focus on others instead of ourselves. And it changes just going without food to something spiritual that helps us, and then to 59, again there’s that contrast between the wicked and the righteous and those who choose to follow God and keep his Covenant to those who deliberately choose to reject him and that kind of sums it up.

Terry B: Well said. Thank you, brethren.

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