True and False
Please read Isaiah 58 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
I wondered this week about the origin of the expression “brownie points” and did a little investigating about it. The earliest use of the word “brownie” is in reference to a mythological creature - an elf - who does good deeds secretly in the night. That doesn’t quite fit with our usual use of the term as a person attempts to make brownie points precisely so they can get credit for their good deeds.
Hundreds of years later, the Girl Scouts would borrow this mythic figure to name the group for their younger members, whom they called “Brownies.” Like the secretive elves of legend, the little girls were supposed to do good deeds without expecting anything in return.
However, they DID expect something in return: merit badges. Their good deeds were sometimes done to receive that all-important patch to adorn their sash, visible signs of merit earned by learning skills and doing good deeds. This is the usage closest to the typical use of this expression.
Throughout all the ages people have reduced their relationship with God to the level of trying to earn brownie points with the Divine. I suspect we want to believe we can earn salvation or deserve God’s favor because it appeals to our ego and puts us in control of our eternal fate.
Tragically, this approach is contrary to God’s will that we live by faith entirely, putting our trust in Him. In our passage this morning God gave Isaiah a message that condemned the notion of making brownie points with God.
True worship is eternity making a difference today.
CONTEXT: Here Isaiah is doing what OT prophets normally did; he delivered a message condemning sin and urging righteousness. In this case, the sin condemned is hypocrisy and the righteousness encouraged is justice.
Before we begin, let’s note that the word SHOUT appears twice in verse one. This means to give out the message loud and full-throated. It was to be like the BLAST of a TRUMPET in terms of getting people’s attention. This is a very assertive speech - not at all TIMID - the kind of thing for which prophets were disliked and often persecuted.
1. Ferret out fake worship.
It is only an outward act. People can seem PIOUS and RIGHTEOUS but are not. (2) Anyone can do things that are correct according to Scripture and tradition without having a scrap of actual faith; they have merely learned the words and practice the expected behaviors. However, without faith and the true love it brings, such an act wears out or is dropped entirely in situations where self-interest is requires something else.
They may be trying to buy God’s favor or to please themselves. (2-3) Persons guilty of hypocrisy can view themselves as earning brownie points with God, even pretending to be DELIGHTED to LEARN about God and to WANTO TO BE NEAR Him. The people of Judah who offered fake fasts were especially impressed by their fasts and they figured all that inconvenience should get them extra brownie points.
Their intent was to purchase “Yes” answers to prayer, for God to TAKE ACTION ON THEIR BEHALF. Then, when that didn’t happen as they wanted, they were irritated with God, accusing Him of not even noticing their sacrifice!
Their humility and PENANCE were only going through the motions. (5) They had the outward forms correct - the BURLAP clothing and ASHES poured upon their heads. The only love in their fasting was love of self. It was fake fasting.
Their true nature was revealed in their actions outside the sanctuary. They oppressed their workers. (3) It’s possible that since the hypocrites weren’t working themselves, they pressed their WORKERS to work longer and harder to make up the difference.
Another sign of the falsehood of their fast was their FIGHTING AND QUARRELING while they observed their fast. (4) Sacrifices made merely out of duty or for the sake of appearances are enough to make anyone cranky. Add to that the disappointment of God apparently ignoring them and the fact that their fast was only motivated by self-love, you have lots of reasons to be short-tempered.
2. Tune into true worship. (3-12)
It is an inward state manifest in outward actions. The inward state that fasting is designed to promote is humility. The actions associated with fasting; the denial of food, the burlap robes, and the ashes, these are all meant to be means and/or signs of humbling oneself. Fasting is a counter-intuitive choice of worship activities for hypocrites. Fasting is intended to make them the kind of people who are the opposite of who they were.
Isaiah listed two outward actions that should have been associated with fasting: justice and holiness. Justice involved freeing those WRONGLY IMPRISONED (6) and lightening the BURDEN of working people and the OPPRESSED. (6+9) Justice would also be manifest in sharing FOOD with the HUNGRY (7), giving SHELTER TO THE HOMELESS (7), clothing the needy (7) and not avoiding people who need help (7). Some of these hypocrites were so bad they purposely avoided contact with their own RELATIVES who needed help!
Holiness involves the following examples: stop sinning with your tongue (4+9), avoiding QUARRELING, finger-pointing. and rumor spreading (9). Holy behaviors include rebuilding what has been broken. (12) This example looked ahead to the end of Judah’s 70 year captivity in Babylon when the people would be tasked with rebuilding Jerusalem.
Obviously, keeping the SABBATH (13) is a prime example of holiness. Isaiah noted two things. One, finding joy in the Lord, not in self-interest: he wrote, DON’T PURSUE YOUR OWN INTERESTS. Two, honoring the Sabbath with godly behavior; they were not to even TALK IDLY.
True worship receives divine rewards. There are at least twelve blessings mentioned in these verses. God’s promises are reliable because He guarantees them. (14)
Answered prayer. (9)
Reflecting God’s glory. (10)
DELIGHT in the LORD. (14)
True worship is eternity making a difference today.
Isaiah warned God’s people He was not fooled by their outward displays of religion. God knew their hearts and because they attempted to cover evil deeds with false fasts, He was against them. God was not ignoring them as they supposed; He was against them.
With that warning came an explanation that true devotion to God is a faith-based attitude of the heart that gets self out of the way and does what is right inside and outside the sanctuary, inside and outside the person.
Going beyond that, God made twelve promises to the faithful and confirmed them with His personal guarantee. He said that faithful folk will be successful in making a difference in their own maturity and moreover, in the betterment of their families and communities.
This is the legacy of the Church throughout the ages of history. As the people of God have followed Him and resisted the seductions of selfishness and worldliness, we have been blessed to make this world more like the world to come; godly people have succeeded in making the world as it is more like the world as it should be.
Today, identify one word or phrase that has meant a lot to you, something that has stirred your soul. Write it in the margin of your message notes. Naming that word or phrase, decide on something you can do today or in the week ahead that will make it come alive; something simple you can do to show someone else what that means to you.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 6, Goeffrey W. Grogan