Ritual without Reality – Isaiah 58: 1-5

By: Northern Seminary


(Part 1 of a two part study of Isaiah 58:1-8)

There is great danger in thinking everything is fine or well when it isn’t:

  • Sportsmen and sportswomen so convinced of their own ability they no longer train hard.
  • Politicians so persuaded by their own rhetoric, they believe everyone else is persuaded too.
  • A ship’s captain so confident of his vessel’s technology he ignores obvious visual signs that they are about to run onto rocks.


Misplaced confidence leads to complacency, and complacency leads to disaster.

It can happen in spiritual matters.  For the ancient Israelites, there was a false confidence that all was well between them and God, and God warned and challenged them about it through the prophet Isaiah.  This is a two part study and today I will read Isaiah 58:1-5:


1 Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Hard words, but this is a challenge about ritual without reality.  In other words, fasting without faith – sacrifice without service – offerings without obedience.

There is no doubt the Israelites did many things they were supposed to do:

  • They sought after God.
  • They studied to know his will.
  • They looked to God for just decisions.
  • They seemed eager for spiritual experiences.
  • They fasted and bowed down before God.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with any of that.

But here was the problem: they didn’t really mean it.  It all looked good, but it was more show than substance.

In my younger, fitter years I played a lot of rugby.  Rugby is a tough game – lots of running, scrambling for the ball, tackling hard, and sometimes punching, biting and scratching – and all with no protection.

The situation I hated most was to be the last defender when a giant-sized, ferocious opponent came running with the ball determined to score a try.  You had to tackle him, but he was a monster and you could easily be hurt.   But I knew exactly what to do.  I called it the ‘pretend tackle’.  As the incredible hulk was about to trample me, I’d fling my arms in his direction – but with no force, no attempt to grab him round the legs and drag him to the ground.  My flailing leap seemed great but there was no real contact.  My opponent would still go on and score, but it would look like I’d done my duty.

These Israelites were no better in their spiritual lives than my pretend tackle in rugby: all the right signs of godliness but no reality.  At the same time as they were fasting, they were exploiting their workers, quarreling, and fighting.  God says to them: Do you really think that’s the kind of fast I want – just a momentary thing – while the rest of the time you break my laws?

There is a warning here for every Christian.  It doesn’t matter

  • How much you pray,
  • How often you read the Bible,
  • How ecstatic in worship you are,
  • How much knowledge of doctrine you have,
  • How impressively you teach others.

None of that means anything to God if it’s not matched with a life of real devotion and real obedience.

Jesus gave strong warnings about those who will say, “Lord, Lord” to him, and they’ll claim to have done many wonderful things in his name, but they were never committed, never obedient, never disciples.  (Matt. 7: 21-23)

God requires sincere faith from those who say they follow him – people who don’t just hear the word but do the word – people who live what they believe.

God told his people of long ago:

“You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

God’s word to us now is still a warning about ritual without reality.  We cannot give God part of our lives, part of our time, part of our money, part of our career, part of our relationships – as if “that’ll do.”  It won’t do.

There can be no ‘no-go’ areas to Almighty God.  To be his is to be entirely his.

Some signals of what that means in practice come in the next verses of Isaiah 58.


Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

March 11, 2013

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