Isaiah 58:5
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 to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
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(5) A day for a man to afflict his soul.—The phrase comes from Leviticus 16:29, and describes the soul-sorrow which was the true ideal of fasting. In contrast with this we have the picture, reminding us of Matthew 6:16, of the mechanical prostrations, which are as the waving of a bulrush in the breeze. The image suggests a new aspect of our Lord’s statement, that the Baptist was not as “a reed shaken by the wind” (Matthew 11:7), scil., that his fasting was not outward and ceremonial, like that of the Pharisees.

58:3-12 A fast is a day to afflict the soul; if it does not express true sorrow for sin, and does not promote the putting away of sin, it is not a fast. These professors had shown sorrow on stated or occasioned fasts. But they indulged pride, covetousness, and malignant passions. To be liberal and merciful is more acceptable to God than mere fasting, which, without them, is vain and hypocritical. Many who seem humble in God's house, are hard at home, and harass their families. But no man's faith justifies, which does not work by love. Yet persons, families, neighbourhoods, churches, or nations, show repentance and sorrow for sin, by keeping a fast sincerely, and, from right motives, repenting, and doing good works. The heavy yoke of sin and oppression must be removed. As sin and sorrow dry the bones and weaken the strongest human constitution; so the duties of kindness and charity strengthen and refresh both body and mind. Those who do justly and love mercy, shall have the comfort, even in this world. Good works will bring the blessing of God, provided they are done from love to God and man, and wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit.Is it such a fast that I have chosen? - Is this such a mode of fasting as I have appointed and as Iapprove?

A day for a man to afflict his soul? - Margin, 'To afflict his soul for a day.' The reading in the text is the more correct; and the idea is, that the pain and inconvenience experienced by the abstinence from food was not the end in view in fasting. This seems to have been the mistake which they made, that they supposed there was something meritorious in the very pain incurred by such abstinence. Is there not danger of this now? Do we not often feel that there is something meritorious in the very inconveniences which we suffer in our acts of self denial? The important idea in the passage before us is, that the pain and inconvenience which we may endure by the most rigid fasting are not meritorious in the sight of God. They are not that at which he aims by the appointment of fasting. He aims at justice, truth, benevolence, holiness Isaiah 58:6-7; and he esteems the act of fasting to be of value only as it will be the means of leading us to reflect on our faults, and to amend our lives.

Is it to bow down his head - A bulrush is the large reed that grows in marshy places. It is, says Johnson, without knots or joints. In the midst of water it grows luxuriantly, yet the stalk is not solid or compact like wood, and, being unsupported by joints, it easily bends over under its own weight. it thus becomes the emblem of a man bowed down with grief. Here it refers to the sanctimoniousness of a hypocrite when fasting - a man without real feeling who puts on an air of affected solemnity, and 'appears to others to fast.' Against that the Saviour warned his disciples, and directed them, when they fasted, to do it in their ordinary dress, and to maintain an aspect of cheerfulness Matthew 6:17-18. The hypocrites in the time of Isaiah seemed to have supposed that the object was gained if they assumed this affected seriousness. How much danger is there of this now! How often do even Christians assume, on all the more solemn occasions of religious observance, a forced sanctimoniousness of manner; a demure and dejected air; nay, an appearance of melancholy - which is often understood by the worm to be misanthropy, and which easily slides into misanthropy! Against this we should guard. Nothing more injures the cause of religion than sanctimoniousness, gloom, reserve, coldness, and the conduct and deportment which, whether right or wrong, will be construed by those around us as misanthropy. Be it not forgotten that the seriousness which religion produces is always consistent with cheerfulness, and is always accompanied by benevolence; and the moment we feel that our religious acts consist in merely bowing down the head like a bulrush, that moment we may be sure we shall do injury to all with whom we come in contact.

And to spread sackcloth and ashes under him - On the meaning of the word 'sackcloth,' see the notes at Isaiah 3:24. It was commonly worn around the loins in times of fasting and of any public or private calamity. It was also customary to sit on sackcloth, or to spread it under one either to lie on, or to kneel on in times of prayer, as an expression of humiliation. Thus in Esther 4:3, it is said. 'and many lay on sackcloth and ashes:' or, as it is in the margin, 'sackcloth and ashes were laid under many;' (compare 1 Kings 21:27). A passage in Josephus strongly confirms this, in which he describes the deep concern of the Jews for the danger of Herod Agrippa, after having been stricken suddenly with a violent disorder in the theater of Caesarea. 'Upon the news of his danger, immediately the multitude, with their wives and children, "sitting upon sackcloth according to their country rites," prayed for the king; all places were filled with wailing and lamentation; while the king, who lay in an upper room, beholding the people below thus falling prostrate on the ground, could not himself refrain from tears' (Antiq. xix. 8. 2). We wear crape - but for a somewhat different object. With us it is a mere sign of grief; but the wearing of sackcloth or sitting on it was not a mere sign of grief, but was regarded as tending to produce humiliation and mortification. Ashes also were a symbol of grief and sorrow. The wearing of sackcloth was usually accompanied with ashes Daniel 9:3; Esther 4:1, Esther 4:3. Penitents, or those in affliction, either sat down on the ground in dust and ashes Job 2:8; Job 42:6; Jonah 3:6; or they put ashes on their head 2 Samuel 13:19; Lamentations 3:16; or they mingled ashes with their food Psalm 102:9. The Greeks and the Romans had also the same custom of strewing themselves with ashes in mourning. Thus Homer (Iliad, xviii. 22), speaking of Achilles bewailing the death of Patroclus, says:

Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread

The scorching ashes o'er his graceful head,

His purple garments, and his golden hairs;

Those he deforms, and these he tears.

Laertes (Odys. xxiv. 315), shows his grief in the same manner:

Deep from his soul he sighed, and sorrowing spread

A cloud of ashes on his hoary head.

So Virgil (AEn. x. 844), speaking of the father of Lausus, who was brought to him wounded, says:

Canitiem immundo deformat pulvere.


5. for a man to afflict his soul—The pain felt by abstinence is not the end to be sought, as if it were meritorious; it is of value only in so far as it leads us to amend our ways (Isa 58:6, 7).

bow … head … sackcloth—to affect the outward tokens, so as to "appear to men to fast" (Mt 6:17, 18; 1Ki 21:27; Es 4:3).

That I have chosen; approve of, accept, or delight in, by a metonymy, because we delight in what we freely choose.

A day for a man to afflict his soul; or, to afflict his soul for a day. It is an hypallage, and so it may be understood either for a man to take a certain time to afflict his soul in, and that either from even to even, Leviticus 23:32, or from morning to evening, Judges 20:26 2 Samuel 3:35; or else to afflict his soul for a little time. To afflict, or keep himself low, or chastise the body for want of food, viz. outwardly, without any inward sorrow, or compunction for sin, working a true humiliation in the sight of God.

His soul, put here synecdochically for the body or person, as is usual in Scripture, Genesis 46:18,22,25 Le 5:2,4 7:20,21,27 22:11.

To bow down his head as a bulrush: here the prophet sets down those external gestures and postures in particular which they did join with their hypocritical fasts, as he had mentioned it before in general.

To bow down; bowing is the posture of mourners, Psalm 35:14; and here it is either, as if through weakness of body their heads did hang down; or counterfeitly, to represent the posture of true penitents, moving sometimes their heads this way, and that way, as the word signifieth, not unlike the balance of a clock, as the bulrush moved by the wind boweth itself down, waving to and fro, in a kind of circular or semicircular motion; the contrary motion of lifting up the head being an indication of pride, Isaiah 3:16. It is the guise of hypocrites to put on affected countenances, Mt 6 16.

To spread sackcloth and ashes under him. The Jews, to express their sorrow, made use of sackcloth and ashes two ways.

1. Sometimes by putting on sackcloth upon their bodies, as 1 Kings 21:27 Psalm 69:11, and casting ashes upon their heads, 2 Samuel 13:19. And,

2. Sometimes by spreading sackcloth under them, and lying down upon ashes, Esther 4:3 Job 2:8. The intent of

sackcloth was to afflict the body by its unpleasing harshness, and of

ashes to represent their own vileness, as being but dust and ashes; their putting of them on might note their uneasiness under sin, and laying on them their self-abhorrency, shaming themselves for it.

Quest. Are such rites now convenient on a day of humiliation to help us in our afflicting of ourselves?

Answ. Gospel services neither require them nor need them, respecting more the inward afflicting of the soul with godly sorrow and deep contrition; yet may they carry this instruction along with them, that our ornaments, our best and gaudy apparel, ought to be laid aside, as not suiting either the ground and cause, or the end and design, of days of humiliation.

Wilt thou call this a fast? i.e. canst thou upon a rational account as a mere man call it so? canst thou think, suppose, or believe it to be so? it being such a one as has nothing in it but the lifeless skeleton and dumb signs of a fast, nothing of deep humiliation appearing in it, or real reformation proceeding from it. Not that the prophet blames them for these external rites in this outward way of afflicting themselves; for, this he commands, Leviticus 23:27,31,32, and appoints certain rites to be used, Leviticus 16:1921. And these particular rites were frequent in their solemn humiliations, 1 Kings 21:27 Esther 4:3 Daniel 9:3; used also by the heathen, Jonah 3:5,6. See Matthew 11:21. But that which he condemns is their hypocrisy in separating true humiliation from them, for bodily exercise profiteth little, 1 Timothy 4:8.

An acceptable day to the Lord; a day that God will approve of, as before. Heb. a day of acceptance, or that will turn to a good account on your behalf. Is it such a fast that I have chosen?.... That is, can this be thought to be a fast approved of by me, and acceptable to me, before described, and is as follows:

a day for a man to afflict his soul? only to appoint a certain day, and keep that, by abstaining from bodily food, and so for a short time afflict himself; or only after this manner to afflict himself, and not humble himself for his sins, and abstain from them, and do the duties of justice and charity incumbent on him:

is it to bow down his head as a bulrush; when it is moved with the wind, or bruised, or withered; as if he was greatly depressed and humbled, and very penitent and sorrowful. The Syriac version renders it, "as a hook"; like a fish hook, which is very much bent; so Jarchi interprets the word:

and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? which were ceremonies used in times of mourning and fasting; sometimes sackcloth was put on their loins, and ashes on their heads; and sometimes these were strewed under them, and they laid down upon their sackcloth, which, being coarse, was uneasy to them, and rolled themselves in ashes, as expressive of their meanness and vileness:

wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? does this deserve the name of a fast? or can it be imagined that such a day so spent, can be agreeable to God? that such persons and services will be accepted of by him? or that hereby sin is atoned for, and God is well pleased, and will show his favour and good will, and have respect to such worshippers of him? no, surely.

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 to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
5. Should such be the fast that I choose? Can mere gestures and symbols of humiliation avail anything, along with such evidences of an unspiritual frame of mind?

to afflict his soul] Both here and in Isaiah 58:3 the phrase expresses what is of moral value in the act of fasting, the repression of sensual impulses through abstinence, &c. It is so used also in Psalm 35:13 (“I humbled my soul through fasting”), and in the laws about fasting it becomes almost a technical expression (Leviticus 16:29; Leviticus 16:31; Leviticus 23:27; Leviticus 23:32; Numbers 29:7). From it comes the noun ta‘anîth (humiliation), the common term for fasting in late Hebrew (found Ezra 9:5). How little the true end of fasting was attained in the case of those here addressed has been shewn in Isaiah 58:4.Verse 5. - Is it such a fast that I have chosen, etc.? Do you suppose that such can be the fast commanded by me in the Law - a fast which is expressly called "a day for a man to afflict his soul"? Is afflicting one's soul simply bowing down one's head as a bulrush, and making one's couch on sackcloth and ashes? Surely it is much more than this. (On the employment of "sackcloth and ashes" in fasting, see Esther 4:3; Daniel 9:3; Jonah 3:6.) But when the redemption comes, it will divide Israel into two halves, with very different prospects. "Creating fruit of the lips; Jehovah saith, 'Peace, peace to those that are far off, and to those that are near; and I heal it.' But the wicked are like the sea that is cast up for it cannot rest, and its waters cast out slime and mud. There is no peace, saith my God, for the wicked." The words of God in Isaiah 57:19 are introduced with an interpolated "inquit Jehova" (cf., Isaiah 45:24, and the ellipsis in Isaiah 41:27); and what Jehovah effects by speaking thus is placed first in a determining participial clause: "Creating fruit (נוב equals נוּב, נוב, keri ניב) of the lips," καρπὸν χείλεων (lxx, Hebrews 13:15), i.e., not of His own lips, to which בּורא would be inapplicable, but the offering of praise and thanksgiving springing from human lips (for the figure, see Psychol. p. 214, trans.; and on the root נב, to press upon forward): "Jehovah saith shâlōm, shâlōm," i.e., lasting and perfect peace (as in Isaiah 26:3), "be the portion of those of my people who are scattered far and near" (Isaiah 43:5-7; Isaiah 49:12; compare the application to heathen and Jews in Ephesians 2:17); "and I heal it" (viz., the nation, which, although scattered, is like one person in the sight of God). But the wicked, who persist in the alienation from God inherited from the fathers, are incapable of the peace which God brings to His people: they are like the sea in its tossed and stormy state (נגרשׁ pausal third pers. as an attributive clause). As this cannot rest, and as its waters cast out slime and mud, so has their natural state become one of perpetual disturbance, leading to the uninterrupted production of unclean and ungodly thoughts, words, and works. Thus, then, there is no peace for them, saith my God. With these words, which have even a more pathetic sound here than in Isaiah 48:22, the prophet seals the second book of his prophecies. The "wicked" referred to are not the heathen outside Israel, but the heathen, i.e., those estranged from God, within Israel itself.

The transition form the first to the second half of this closing prophecy is formed by ואמר in Isaiah 57:14. In the second half, from Isaiah 57:11, we find the accustomed style of our prophet; but in Isaiah 56:9-57:11a the style is so thoroughly different, that Ewald maintains that the prophet has here inserted in his book a fragment from some earlier writer of the time of Manasseh. But we regard this as very improbable. It is not required by what is stated concerning the prophets and shepherds, for the book of Ezekiel clearly shows that the prophets and shepherds of the captivity were thus debased. Still less does what is stated concerning the early death of the righteous require it; for the fundamental idea of the suffering servant of Jehovah, which is peculiar to the second book, is shadowed forth therein. Nor by what is affirmed as to the idolatrous conduct of the people; for in the very centre (Isaiah 57:4) the great mass of the people are reproached for their contemptuous treatment of the servants of Jehovah. Nor does the language itself force us to any such conjecture, for Isaiah 53:1-12 also differs from the style met with elsewhere; and yet (although Ewald regards it as an earlier, borrowed fragment) it must be written by the author of the whole, since its grandest idea finds its fullest expression there. At the same time, we may assume that the prophet described the idolatry of the people under the influences of earlier models. If he had been a prophet of the captives after the time of Isaiah, he would have rested his prophecies on Jeremiah and Ezekiel. For just as Isaiah 51:18. has the ring of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, so does Isaiah 57:3. resemble in many respects the earlier reproaches of Jeremiah (compare Jeremiah 5:7-9, Jeremiah 5:29; Jeremiah 9:8, with the expression, "Should I rest satisfied with this?"); also Jeremiah 2:25 (נואשׁ), Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6, Jeremiah 3:13 ("upon lofty mountains and under green trees"); also the night scene in Ezekiel 23.

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