Isaiah (Part 70): The Sabbath Principle Application (Ch 59)
Before entering chapter 59, we must finish with 58. Although the rest of chapter 58 (verses 6 through 14) may seem self explanatory, they, nonetheless, require some focus of thought. Remember that God has just argued against the rescued Jews’ (and our) activity in fasting. The rescue has already occurred (for 2nd temple period Jews and for post-resurrection Christians). The fasts that are undertaken are specifically to focus on relationship with God through an activity of denying self. Yet that was not good enough for God. He argued the principle that self-denial is not fully helpful in the covenant community if the intent is only to create a personal standard of holiness. No! God says. Self denial is appropriate, but it must accompany provisional care for others. So then, self denial of food, for example in the fast, realizes benefit, not just because we deny ourselves, but because we offer that food which we have denied to ourselves to others in need. Therein lies the complete benefit. Our covenant relationship with God is not characterized by a self-denial for personal holiness. It is characterized by self-denial for the benefit of those in need. When that happens, the blessing of Isaiah 58:6-14 takes place.
Notice that the blessing spoken of in these verses can almost be considered as a reward by God for doing right (whereas the withholding of blessing—or judgment—was the result of not doing right). But we should not be thinking along these lines. Remember God is addressing those in post-rescue covenant. He is addressing us, not unrighteous Israel in need of salvation. We are already in covenant community. It is in this fellowship with God that he says we are transgressing. So, then, he is not about to punish us with eternal gnashing of teeth. The problem here is that we cannot have right relationship with him while not being in right relationship with all those of his covenant community. In other words (and simply), attempts at relationship with God without concern for relationship with one another cannot result in right relationship with God. That is the lesson. That is what we learn about New Covenant living way back here in the Old Testament! The key principle is that Sabbath rest involves community.
Now notice that this conclusion in discussion of Sabbath rest, is the second bookend to how the initial discussion began in chapter 56. In that chapter, we were given the first bookend by being told to keep the Sabbath without desecrating it. In chapter 58, the second bookend, we are told that if we keep from desecrating the Sabbath, blessing is in store (58:13-14). Thus, Sabbath rest absolutely must incorporate community. That is what the Sabbath rest is all about. It is not personal, singular, solitary, silo-effected relationship with God alone. Sabbath rest is a community affair. It involves all of the covenant community of God.
We must pause here to consider this important idea. American Christianity has veered off a little from this notion. I am not trying to denigrate America by these comments. America has gained tremendous privileged understanding because it promotes individual thinking. I thank God for that. I thank God for the fact that I am living in America at this time when I can hold to my beliefs without fear of violation of personal liberty. Those American Christians who sneer at America for not being “like the world” understand little of the benefit they enjoy. And yet, with every beneficial blessing comes the tendency to carry it too far to the extreme. Individualism in America has shoved our understanding of Christianity to the extreme. We can now hardly think of Christianity without settling it in the box of individualism. At this extreme, what then becomes of community?
We have developed an idea in American Christendom of Christian Hedonism. It is the idea that enjoyment of God is the greatest good and therefore the objective of our Christian pursuit. This is a dangerously wrong-headed idea. Certainly enjoyment of God is something we all love and embrace. The problem comes when we decide that since we enjoy this and since God promises this, it ought to be our objective.
There are some nebulous arguments against this Christian Hedonism-type thinking. First, the Bible constantly encourages us to look beyond ourselves to others. It is in the care of others that we find fulfillment, not in the insistence that we obtain joy. If our concern is inwardly focused on our own joy, we may distort our outward activity according to perceived attainment of joy as opposed to performing our activity for the good of God and others.
Yet, still there is a bare-bones logical reason for tossing Christian Hedonism aside. The joy I experience from seeking the good of someone else is in direct proportion to my focus on the other person’s benefit. Thus, if I reduce my focus on the other person’s benefit in order to concentrate focus on personal joy, I necessarily reduce my joy. Focusing on my own joy just doesn’t result in as great a pleasure as focusing on another person’s benefit.
This has been the sticking point or problematic area of hedonistic philosophy throughout the ages. God has made us creatures who experience satisfaction through outward expression of care. Sin distorts our outward expression, forcing focus on ourselves. With that focus on ourselves, we simply do not receive the satisfaction experienced when we empty ourselves in pursuit of the benefit of others (I Cor 10:24).
Therefore, Christian Hedonism will fail as surely as secular hedonism fails. God’s encouragement throughout Scripture is in an outward outlook. Yes, we will enjoy satisfaction and pleasure in relationship with God and his people. But we will realize that satisfaction based on an objective of dying to self and focus on God and others.
From the bookends regarding focus on Sabbath rest found at the beginning of Isaiah 56 and the end of Isaiah 58, we would expect that this section is completed. However, we have one more chapter to include in this section. As in most sermons, argument is initially made, and only afterwards is application presented to the listeners. It is the same for this section. Chapters 56 through 58 presented the argument, recalling Israel’s failure and God’s salvation. Chapter 59 provides the application.
The first verse of chapter 59 tells us that God’s hand is not too short to save nor is his ear too deaf to hear. This is not new revelation being given. Rather, this is a summary of what Isaiah has been saying all along. The listeners should know this. In other words, Isaiah, is basically saying, “Now that you understand God’s concern about relationship—that he hears and that he cares, take a look at what you’ve been doing!” Verse 2 seems to say, “Is it no wonder that you have no relationship with God??” In other words, if God cares foremost about interpersonal relationship and you have been building this huge wall of selfish sin, don’t you think that this is a barrier to relationship with God? Huh? Duh?
Yes, we all realize that Judah had been trying to gain God’s favor through following ritual. But now that we know God is not interested in ritual (form) but rather with the heart (in trust and care), no one knows peace (59:8). The consequences of their sin (verses 9-15a) is that justice is far away. Remember that justice is performing obligation of the covenant. Our obligation is to trust in God for care. That wasn’t happening (verses 9 and 14). And therefore, satisfaction could not be found. What’s more—those who did look to God in faith were hurt by those who cared nothing for God (59:15a).
Here’s where we need to take another break to consider actions and motives. We often perceive of the laws, commands, and obligations placed on us in the Word of God as requirements that God expects of us in order for us to obtain personal standards of holiness in order to be the people, the individual image bearers, that God expects us to be. However, I think that our understanding of the motivation for God’s commands is often misinterpreted. I do not think that God gave us these commands to provide us with an ideal for a personal standard of holiness. The fall of man was not about failing to live up to a personal standard of holiness. It was about failing to be righteous—failing to be faithful to the covenant. In all of God’s restoration process, he is concerned not with finding or imputing a personal standard of holiness, but rather with a concern for righteousness—a concern for faithfulness to covenant obligation. What is our covenant obligation?? It is to trust God for care and to employ caregiving and care-receiving among each other in our relationships. Wow! Really?! Is that it?? Yes, that is it. That is what the Word tells us over and over.
You will obviously see that this needs a mindset transformation. We, who have been accustomed to thinking and acting as if God wants us to maintain a personal standard of holiness, must reengage our minds to understand God wanting us to think and act according to relational development. It is not about my personal standard of holiness. I do not do this act or avoid this sin because of my personal standard of holiness. I act and avoid any particular sin solely on the basis of my interest in relationship development—relationship with God and relationship with others.
Let that soak in for a few moments. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, I must think of my Christian life, not as trying to do Godly things because God will be pleased and I will be a good person, but rather because my relationship with God and my relationships with other Christians will improve (or, conversely, will not be harmed). I don’t know about you, but this is mind-boggling and transformative for me—for my way of thinking. I’ve always tried to do right because I thought of myself measuring up to some standard of perfection that God wants for his image bearers. But it is not about personal standards of holiness. God wants us to be a certain way for the purpose of serving relationships!
Look at the law. We have the ten commandments telling us to follow God (first four) and to act a certain way (final six). But what is impressive about those final six is that each focuses not on personal holiness, but rather on relationship. I obey parents for relationship sake. I don’t kill because I don’t want to harm relationship. I don’t commit adultery because I don’t want to harm relationship. I don’t steal because I don’t want to harm relationship. I don’t lie because I don’t want to harm relationship. I don’t covet (creating walls of bitterness and envy) because I don’t want to harm relationship. That’s the thing!!—relationship!! God’s laws were about relationship. No wonder when they asked Jesus to summarize the law, he said the greatest commandment was to LOVE God and next to LOVE others. Why did he conclude the law spoke of love?? Because the law’s purpose was for relationship.
Notice that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the Law would always remain (Matthew 5:18). But he is not speaking of the exact list of commandments any more than he was speaking of the exact list of commands when he said in Jeremiah 31:33 that he would write the law on our hearts. It is not the specific laws that were of concern, but rather the basis or foundation of the law—and as Jesus said, that foundation is love, the denial of self for the benefit of others. That’s relationship. It makes perfect sense, then, that Jesus moves from saying the law will remain to explaining that our righteousness must surpass the scribes and Pharisees. Following the letter does not give life. It is the spirit—the basis for the Law—that is of eternal importance. Keep following Jesus’ argument into the next verses. Jesus reminds them that the law says “Do not murder.” Jesus argues that if you call your brother a fool, you are just as guilty as the murderer. Why is that?? Is Jesus serious that calling someone a name is as bad as taking a life?! If we maintain hold on the point of the law, we find this makes perfect sense. If the point of not murdering is so that relationship is not harmed, it does makes sense that calling names creating conflict among people does the same thing in harming relationship. Further, Jesus says adultery is wrong by the Law, but he goes on to say lust is just as wrong. Why? Because lust harms relationship as assuredly as the adultery does. Jesus continues in speaking about divorce—not because he is setting up some standard reasons why you can divorce. He is establishing the principle that divorce—the destruction of relationship—needs to be taken seriously and not base it on a whim as the Jews were doing with their “letter of the Law” divorce certificate.
After Jesus presents them with the Lord’s Prayer, he further argues in 6:15, “But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive your wrongdoing.” What does that mean? If we understand that he is speaking to the covenant community, the mystery disappears. If we corrupt relationships by not forgiving, we cannot go to God and want that relationship to be without problem. That relationship with God has to be affected if we are broken in other areas of the covenant community. It is one community, as it was one Law. If a single command of the Law was violated, the person was guilty of all. So to if a single covenant community relationship is wrongly broken, relationship within the whole covenant community is harmed—and that means relationship with God as well.
The point then is that God’s teaching throughout the Bible—Law, writings, prophets, New Covenant—is not to make individuals good through adopting personal standards of holiness. God’s instruction and direction is for uniting us all in perfect covenant community relationship. That is how we must think. That is how the Law can be written on our hearts. As we live in the kingdom, we live to deny self for the benefit of others. It is Paul’s cry to submit ourselves one to another (Ephesians 5:21). It is James’ encouragement to sow the fruit of righteousness in peace (James 3:18). It is Peter’s insistence on being holy by “having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers” (I Peter 1:22). It is John’s revelation that “the one who loves his brother remains in the light” (I John 2:10). And it is Jesus’ command to us, “Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another” (John 13:34).