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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God confronts his people for empty religious practice
Text:Isaiah 58:1-9a (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 125:1,2                                                                              

Ps 51:3,6        

Reading – Isaiah 58

Ps 50:4,5,6

Sermon – Isaiah 58:1-9a

Ps 50:7,8,11

Hy 77:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, what’s the greatest danger that our congregation faces? You could answer that in a lot of ways. What is the greatest danger? Someone will mention false teaching, a corrupting or a watering down of the true doctrine. Someone else will say worldliness, how the flood of immorality outside the church means that it starts to drip inside.

The greatest danger? Hard to say, but in Scripture there is a warning given to the church again and again. It is God’s warning against empty religious practice. It’s the danger of doing many church-like things, meeting religious expectations, but not doing it for the Lord. Instead, we might be busy with church because we’ve always been busy with church. Or we think our prayers and giving must count for something—that it’ll look good on our resumé when we appear before Christ for judgment. It’s the danger of an only outward faith.

Think of Jesus’s many warnings to the Pharisees, how He condemned their showy prayers and their exaggerated worship. Or think of Paul’s rebuke of the Galatians, who thought that keeping the rules was the way to be right with God. It’s in the Old Testament too, like Jeremiah’s complaint against the Israelites who found false comfort just by having the temple of God in their midst. As long as they went to the temple as expected, they were good—even if they were keeping their false gods on the side.

It’s also in Isaiah, who brings God’s Word against a very religious people. They are fasting, putting on sackcloth, talking about holiness—but not living it, not at all. It is the danger of empty religion. For someone could well think they’re doing everything right, firmly on the road to salvation, but they’ve been misled by their own performance.

Since chapter 40, Isaiah has mostly preached a gospel of restoration and return. But nearing the end of the book, he warns about this serious danger. For God calls us to live in a way that is consistent with being saved by Christ. No more hollow acts and pious words, but it’s time for a life of real repentance and intimacy with God. I preach God’s Word to you from Isaiah 58:1-9,

God confronts his people for empty religious practice:

  1. no hollow shows of fasting
  2. but tangible acts of repentance
  3. leading to true intimacy with God


1) no hollow shows of fasting: From verse 1 we can tell God is urgent about this warning: “Cry aloud, spare not,” He says to Isaiah, “Lift up your voice like a trumpet.” He wants his prophet to call at the top of his lungs so that this message gets through to the people.

His voice should be like a trumpet: the Hebrew says like a shofar. Those were the instruments that Israel heard blasting at Sinai, announcing the LORD’s presence. In a sense, Isaiah’s voice must echo the voice of the law, exposing sins and urging repentance. As God says, “Tell my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (v 1). It’s so vital, because only through repentance can we receive God’s gift of forgiveness.

So what was this pressing problem? We’re a bit confused, because look how God begins: “They seek me daily, and delight to know my ways” (v 2). Sounds pretty good to me! The people of Judah have decent habits of faith: seeking God every day, not forgetting his ordinances, doing the ‘righteous sort of thing.’ By every appearance there was a desire to walk with God and do his will.

If we stayed in verse 2, we’d have little reason for concern. And that’s what makes empty religion such a deceptive thing. Everything can look right. A church can have good traditions of worship and the right creeds, or a family can seem solid, or an individual appears and sounds very godly. A quick glance reveals nothing amiss. But there may be a serious problem which needs changing.       

And that’s what God exposes in verse 3. For despite acting like a righteous nation, Judah is perplexed. They’ve done a lot of good things lately, but it feels like God isn’t happy with them. “Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and you take no notice?’” (v 3). It feels like God isn’t pleased with their worship. Somehow they expected more of a response: some blessing, some prosperity.

In their complaint, the people mention fasting. The issue wasn’t only about fasting, but that was the thing that Judah seemed most proud of, spiritually. ‘We fast! We afflict our souls! Now why doesn’t God like it?’

A bit of background on fasting: for the Old Testament people, fasting always went together with mourning and grieving. You would go for a day (or sometimes more) without food or drink. And as you experienced the discomfort of an empty stomach, you’d be reminded of your lowly state before God, and you would have sorrow.

There was just one regular fast that everyone was required to do, on the Day of Atonement, once per year. But there were other occasions when God’s people fasted. They sometimes fasted as part of their grieving for the death of someone important, like a king. Or they fasted when they repented from sin. Sometimes the king would proclaim a fast during times of national emergency so that everyone could devote themselves to prayer.

Fasting in Israel probably would’ve been an impressive occasion: to know that the whole community was fasting, united in grief and prayer. And when they fasted, God says in verse 5, they “bow down [their] head like a bulrush.” Maybe you’ve seen bulrushes or tall reeds bent over in a light breeze. That’s a good image for these folks, because they’re bent over in prayer. Yet the image suggests that being bent over was automatic, ritualistic. They knew how to play the part.

To add to the picture, God says they “spread out sackcloth and ashes” (v 5). You probably know that sackcloth was a rough and itchy fabric, not at all suited to being worn on the skin. Wearing it showed humility before God. And covering yourself with ashes gave the message that you were so distressed that you didn’t even care about your appearance.

All this fasting could’ve been good, but it turns out to be hollow. It made a nice impression of the people’s sadness for sins. And yet these shows of repentance were disconnected from what actually lived in the people. It looked good, and it even felt good. Because when you fast, it really seems like you’re giving something up for God: no food, no drink—‘I’m suffering for the Lord’s sake. And He must be pleased by that.’

So that’s why the people are whining, “Why have we fasted, and God has not seen?” But it’s not that God hasn’t taken notice. He has seen it, but not with favour. The people aren’t actually sorry for their sins, but they’re just seeking to get something from the Lord. They’re hoping to manipulate God like the nations manipulated their gods: if you bring a sacrifice, and afflict yourself, you pressure the gods to act on your behalf. It’s empty worship.

And the emptiness becomes even more clear when we learn that some were abusing their servants at the same time as they were fasting! Verse 3: “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers.” Isaiah doesn’t explain exactly what was happening. But while some people were busy with their religious activity, their servants had to work even harder, and they got mistreated.

Verse 4 says, “You fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness.” God wanted fasting to show humility of spirit, an attitude of repentance. But their religious activity was so far from touching the heart, because Judah was still quarrelsome and violent. God doesn’t want religion like that, when it lacks real devotion to him.

Can you think of any ways in which these words apply to us? It’s a lot about fasting, so we have to make a shift to apply it to our situation. Fasting isn’t something we talk about much. Maybe some of us fast in private—that’s fine. But let’s extend these words to all of our outward religious activity. What does it mean to do the right thing, but without any heart? What does it mean to go along with the crowd, like all the fasting folks of Judah, but not because you really care? Do we ever do religious things just because we’ve always done them? It is the question of why we do the things we do, as church, or as individual believers.

Think of anything that is customary and expected for a child of God to do. We could mention church attendance on Sundays. Or daily devotions and set times for prayer, like at our meals. Then there’s tithing or giving our first-fruits to the Lord. These are all valuable activities, ones that we often emphasize.

And these things can very much serve as barometers for our faith: what is the atmosphere of your heart? Are you praying? Do you spend time in Scripture? Do you faithfully attend church? Do you cheerfully give money?

We emphasize these good activities. But we can miss their true meaning. We can stress the outward, focus on appearance. Like Judah, knowing just when to bow the head, how to wear sackcloth just right. We know what to do, too. We can play the part when we come to church and make the appropriate motions of singing and opening our Bible. Or we know just what to say to the elders at a homevisit. Or we make sure we pray for our meals and tell God that we’re sorry for our sins.

The danger is doing these things without a heart for God. Maybe we do them because we reckon it’s the way to acquire his blessings. Or we do them because it eases our guilty conscience. Or we do them because we’ve always done them. Or we do them because it is easier than actually repenting from our sins.

Wouldn’t you agree that this is one of the greatest dangers we face? It is, because we are well-established and organized as a church community, like Judah was. So we have set routines for home life and church life. We know what is expected of us, like showing up for Holy Supper and making sure we set up a monthly donation. It is possible to do all these very good things, but without heart, without a love for God and other people. Instead, God desires that we walk with him and show it with tangible acts of repentance.


2) but tangible acts of repentance: You could say that God is a very practical God, always hands-on. That is, God is never satisfied with our words alone, with intellectual agreement, or even with creeds that are solidly Scriptural. God always says, ‘You have to be a doer. I need to see your faith, because true faith works.’

So that is what God seeks from Judah (and from us): tangible acts of repentance, something concrete and real. More than going through the motions of fasting and grieving for sin, God wanted to see real change—the activity of putting things right when they’ve been wrong, doing justice and showing mercy.

In verse 5, God asks them: “Is [this] a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul?” In other words: what does God want? Not superficial religion, but something else. And what is that “something else”? On top of the list is godly conduct toward those around us!

It should’ve been clear to Judah that God delights in mercy. As one commentator points out, “Only once in the Old Testament does God command his people to fast. But in hundreds of places he commands his people to treat other people, especially those weaker than they, with respect, justice, and kindness.”

This is the kind of faith that truly pleases God, when outward things like praying or going to church are accompanied by genuine repentance. Isaiah says that you don’t show that you’re devoted to God by going without food on certain days. You show it by a whole lifestyle of giving up self-indulgence and greed and replacing it by generosity to the poor.

This is what the LORD asks in verse 6, “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens?” The law said that slaves were meant to be released every six years, but some would hold onto them longer, benefiting from their free labour. It was a sacrifice to free your servant, but it was the right thing to do. And God says this is what his people should do. Let others live in freedom. Lighten the load of those who suffer. “Let the oppressed go free…and break every yoke” (v 6).

Again, as God says, “Is this not the fast that I have chosen?” As we said, we should apply that question to attendance at Bible study and our monthly donations. These can be very good practices, but are they the activities that God has chosen? What does the LORD require of us? He has shown us! Even as we do all these good things, He wants us to walk humbly with God, to love him with our whole heart. And God always says that a heart that loves him will also love other people. It means that we will not choose “strife and debate,” or “strike with the fist of wickedness” (v 4). Instead, we will show mercy to those who are burdened. We will lighten their load and undo heavy burdens. Tangible acts of repentance reveal a spirit that loves God.

If we believe in God, we strive to treat others fairly. Are we fair to our co-workers? Do we treat our spouse with understanding? Are we fair to our children, gracious with our brothers and sisters in the church? Do we seek their good, and put their interests ahead of our own? Do we have an eye for those who might be suffering?

And God explains what kind of repentance He seeks: “to share your bread with the hungry [and] bring to your house the poor who are cast out” (v 7). Notice how our repentance isn’t only inward-focused, having our heart right with God. But repentance is also outward-focused, showing our life change by meeting the needs of others.

Times were tough in Judah during Isaiah’s ministry. Before the exile, and during, and afterwards, there was a lot of need. Many were poor. Some were homeless. Not a few went hungry. So God exhorts his people to notice those who suffer, and to respond to their needs. There are immediate things that can be done, God says: sharing food, providing shelter, giving clothes. To those in Judah who loved fasting, God says, ‘Why don’t you eat less so that you have food to give the hungry? Why don’t you wear less expensive clothes so that you can help to clothe the poor?’ Show your faith by its works!

And that’s what the New Testament says to us too. Making a right confession of faith, or talking about repentance, is just the beginning. It comes out in your generosity of spirit, your hospitality, your care for others. James 1:27 teaches, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” In other words, show the worth of your religion by its works: help the people around you who are in need, and flee from the sinful pleasures of the world.


3) leading to true intimacy with God: What is the heart’s desire of every child of God? To be close to God, to enjoy his friendship and daily nearness. We can want that, yet we get into habits and attitudes that keep us from having true intimacy with God. We sabotage our communion with him by our sin.

So it was with Judah: their ways of fasting were a hindrance, not a help, to seeking God. As the LORD says in verse 4, “You will not fast as you do this day, to make your voice heard on high.” Their voice won’t be heard: in other words, God won’t pay any attention to their religious practices because they’re doing it in the wrong spirit.

We find a similar thing when the Psalmist says, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps 66:18). Scripture warns that we shouldn’t expect God’s favour if we are living in sin and apart from him. Even if we’re doing all the right things outwardly, God won’t respond to the faithless, and He won’t draw near.

But of course it’s not God’s will to leave it that way. If every child of God desires to draw near to him, so much the more does our heavenly Father desire it! He wants his children close to him. This comes out in the sudden change in verse 8. All the charges that God has been bringing against Judah suddenly stop. And now God speaks about the blessings that will come on those who show forth real fruits of repentance.

Verse 8: “Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.” For God’s sinful people—for you and me, and all believers—there can be a new beginning, like dawn beginning to shine after a long dark night. And God will bring healing, restoring us and making us whole. And the best part is that God brings us near to him so that we are surrounded by his grace and goodness. Verse 8 says that his righteousness will be before us, his glory behind us—on every side, God’s nearness!

This becomes our new reality through Jesus Christ. For Christ is the light that breaks forth like the morning. Christ is the one who heals our broken hearts and lives. Christ shares his righteousness with us, so that we stand forgiven in the sight of God. He has brought us into the presence of God, and how our God always goes with us!

When we live in that awareness—that God is so near for Jesus’s sake—then our life takes on a whole new shape and holy character. Because God is so near, we don’t reserve our religious activities for two hours on Sundays. Because God is so near, we don’t save our pious talk for when we’re at Bible study. Neither do we show mercy and give money only in those times when it’s expected.

Instead, it is much more. Isaiah has taught us that the faith that counts with God is the kind that can actually be seen in the way we treat other people with mercy. The faith that counts can be heard in how we talk and can be seen in how we work and play and study, every day.

And the blessed result of such a life is true intimacy with the LORD. Verse 9 says, “Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’” After a stinging rebuke of his church, God shows his grace again. God says He will answer the call of his people, and He’ll come near to us. When we repent from sin and we pursue the way of holiness, God delights to draw near.

So near that He can say to us in Christ Jesus, “Here I am.”

So near that we may walk humbly with God.

So near that He delights in our worship and takes great joy in our works.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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