Deuteronomy 31, Isaiah 58

Today’s readings are Deuteronomy 31 and Isaiah 58.

This devotional is about Isaiah 58.

There is a place for symbolism and ceremony when it comes to following the Lord. In the Deuteronomy 31 chapter that we also read today, God commissioned Joshua (vv. 14-15), a symbolic act where the Lord officially recognized Joshua as Israel’s leader. So, symbolism sometimes is useful.

Here in Isaiah 58, however, God confronted the mere symbolism of fasting. In verse 2 he said, “day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways....” Fasting was the symbol they chose to signal their sincerity and desire to know the Lord. But they were unhappy that their humility in fasting did not give them the answers to prayer they had been seeking (vv. 2b-3d). In response, the Lord called attention to the ways in which they were living disobediently to him while they attempted to show their devotion through fasting.

Fasting was regarded as a way to express humility (v. 3c, 5b). Humility is about unselfishness; it is about acknowledging that God is the Creator and Lord and we belong to and serve him. But the Lord was unimpressed by the pretense of humility symbolized by fasting. Instead, he wanted to see some actual humility, some real unselfishness, expressed in giving your workers some time off to rest (v. 3f), not bickering and arguing with others (v. 4a) or using violence to get your way (v. 4b). If you make your workers work while you take time off, argue with people to get your way, and even beat someone else while you are fasting, you’re not humble or unselfish; just the opposite.

God wanted his people to skip the fasting and be generous in sharing food with the hungry, shelter with homeless, and clothing with those who need it. In these ways you aren’t symbolically depriving yourself but rather depriving yourself in the sense that you give up some of your food, some of your space at home, and some of your clothes to someone who needs them. Generosity for those in need, then, is a greater expression of faith and devotion to God than a religious symbol like fasting.

How does this apply to us today? We don’t have many symbolic or ceremonial practices in our faith because Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law for us. But we do sometimes measure our spiritual life by how faithfully we practice things like church attendance, serving in the ministry, or reading the Word. When done from the heart, these change us to live more in line with the image of Christ but they can also be done to reassure us of our spirituality or to signal to other believers how devoted to God we are. We can have perfect Sunday attendance but still be mean and quarrelsome and cranky. We can read the word everyday and not miss one verse in this devotional plan but still selfishly take advantage of others.

We don’t feed the poor or shelter the homeless to earn favor with God. We also don’t read the Word or pray to gain his favor either. All of these things are expressions of a heart that loves God. Verses 13-14a spelled this out in connection to observing the Sabbath: “if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord....”

So, do enjoy reading the Word, praying, serving, and worshipping on Sunday because you want to connect with God? Do you show love and generosity toward others because you are grateful for God’s love and desire to share it with others? This is the kind of worship God wants. It is worship that does what he commands but does it from the heart, not to impress God with our consistency.

So, how can you show genuine generosity to someone today?