Isaiah 58 is the more famous cousin of Isaiah 1, but they both deal with the same theme: God is not impressed with fastidious religious observance when the daily lives of his people are filled with negligence and oppression. God says, in effect, “Your fasting and sackcloth are meaningless to me so long as you continue in rank disobedience to more important commands.”
How were the Israelites sinful? They oppressed their workers, which usually meant defrauding them of agreed upon wages (v. 3; James 5:4). They quarreled and “hit with a wicked fist” (4). They conducted business and sought their own pleasure on the Sabbath (13).
What should God’s people have done? They should have loosed the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free (6). They should have shared bread with the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed in the homeless poor (7). God promised “your light [shall] break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily” but only when the Israelites acted righteously and poured themselves out for the hungry and the afflicted (8-10).
Clearly, caring for the poor, the hungry, the afflicted is not a liberal thing to do. It is a biblical thing to do. We must allow this uncomfortable chapter to discomfort us a bit. Those of us in conservative circles can get all sorts of religious ritual right, but it counts for nothing and less than nothing if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves.
Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts; first, that we should injure nobody; and secondly, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together; for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if thou refuse thy assistance to the needy; nor will it be of much avail to render thine aid to the needy, if at the same time thou rob some of that which thou bestowest on others….These two parts, therefore, must be held together, provided only that we have our love of our neighbour approved and accepted by God (Commentary on Isaiah).
The implications of Isaiah 58 are straightforward: God’s people should hate oppression and love to help the poor.
Without wanting to mitigate this conclusion, let me offer two other comments.
1. Even though I’ve labeled this series with familiar phrase “social justice,” I don’t think that is best way to describe helping the poor. As I’ve pointed out before, “social justice” in its historical origins suggests a certain view of the world where disparity in wealth is considered de facto injustice. Therefore helping the poor is not a matter of kindness or mercy but a matter of justice. Everyone deserves their “fair share” of the society’s resources. Anything less is oppression.
But we see in Isaiah 58 that letting the oppressed go free is not the same as sharing your bread with the hungry. Granted, it could be. Perhaps the same people oppressing their workers were now being told to help them instead of harm them. But by definition, I would argue that pouring yourself out for the hungry is a matter of compassion for your fellow human being, not necessarily a matter of remedying an injustice.
2. While general principle–help the poor don’t harm them–is abundantly and repeatedly clear in Scripture, the application of this principle is less so. For example, does a passage like Isaiah 58 support state-sponsored redistribution efforts? Christians can and do argue for this, but this text certainly doesn’t require this solution to poverty.
And what should our priorities be in helping the poor? Are Christians responsible for everyone in the world? Everyone in society? I would argue there is an obligation first to our family (1 Tim. 5:8) and then to our brothers in the church (1 John 3:17; Gal. 6:10). Also, we should respond to urgent needs right in front of us when our assistance will be helpful (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we should do good to everyone as we have opportunity as shaped by our vocation and calling (Gal. 6:10).
Other questions of application might include: What is the best way to help the poor in modern society? What about the poor overseas? To what degree is all of this the mission of the church and to what extent is this work simply the outgrowth of godly living in the world? Isaiah 58 doesn’t answer these and other questions. But it does lay the groundwork for caring about these questions and, more importantly, caring about the real people for whom questions about poverty and justice are not blog fodder but matters of life and death.