God Helps Those Who....

Isaiah 58



Everyone has heard the saying "God helps those who help themselves."   The saying is completely contrary to what scripture teaches.  Isaiah 58 speaks volumes to this issue.  [ All scripture quotations are from NET (http://www.netbible.com) ]


Is 58:1 "Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loud as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin!

This prophetic oracle opens up with God addressing the prophet.  The literary form is poetry.  In Hebrew poetry, this means each pair of lines exhibit parallelism.   In verse 1, each line in the pairs express the same thought.  Here the prophet is being commissioned to deliver a message.

Prophecy is not primarily about predicting the future; it is about pronouncing judgement and redemption.  Here, the prophet is commissioned loudly confront Israel regarding their sin.  This is focused on the present, not the future.

Is 58:2 They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.
They ask me for just decrees;
they want to be near God.

Verse 2 introduces a paradox.  After comissioning the prophet to confront his people with their sins, God then proceeds to say good things about them.  The NIV doesn't do this verse justice.  The NIV translators introduced the word "seem" a couple of times, which anticipates the later resolution of the paradox.   While this is technically what the point of the passage actually is, it fails let the passage's artistry make the point in its own way.

Is 58:3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast?
Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’

In the Hebrew, the transition to the words of the people are abrupt, without any indication beyond the change in person and number of the pronouns.  Both NET and NIV make the transition more explicit with "They lament" or "They say".   This verse further builds the paradox.  The people protest that they fast and humble themselves, yet are ignored by God.  Where is this sin talked about in verse 1?  By all accounts to this point, the people are very devout!

Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires,
you oppress your workers.
Is 58:4 Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,
and fist fights. [tn Heb "and for striking with a sinful fist."]
Do not fast as you do today,
trying to make your voice heard in heaven.

Here we understand why the apparant paradox: lack of sincerity.  Note that the sins here are not theological in nature.  The issue isn't overt idolatry, incorrect beliefs, disbelief, or even infractions of ritual.  The issues are social concerns: selfishness, oppression of workers, and conflict, both verbal and physical, with others.   Fasting, and other such rituals, are not a tool for bending God to our own selfish wills, but that is exactly what the people here are accused of trying to do.

Compare this passage to others with a similar theme:

Mi 3:9 Listen to this, you leaders of the family of Jacob,
you rulers of the nation of Israel!
You hate justice
and pervert all that is right.
Mi 3:10 You build Zion through bloody deeds,
Jerusalem through violent deeds of injustice.
Mi 3:11 Her leaders take bribes when they decide legal cases,
her priests teach for profit,
and her prophets read omens for pay.
Yet they claim to trust the Lord and say,
"The Lord is among us.
Disaster will not come upon us!"

Ec 5:1 Be careful what you do when you go to the temple of God;
Draw near to listen rather than to offer a sacrifice like fools,
for they do not realize that they are doing wrong.
Ec 5:2 Do not be rash with your mouth or hasty in your heart to bring up a matter before God,
For God is in heaven and you are on earth!
Therefore, let your words be few.

Is 58:5 Is this really the kind of fasting I want?
Do I want a day when people just humble themselves,
bowing their heads like a reed
and stretching out on sackcloth and ashes?
Is this really what you call a fast,
a day that is pleasing to the Lord?

Verse 5 is a series of retorical questions.  The implied answer to each is "No" (made explicit in the following verse).  Fasting (or any religious ritual) is not and end to itself.  Note this passage in Psalms which similarly criticizes hypocracy of empty ritual.

Ps 50:16 God says this to the evildoer:
"How can you declare my commands,
and talk about my covenant?
Ps 50:17 For you hate instruction
and reject my words.
Ps 50:18 When you see a thief, you join him;
you associate with men who are unfaithful to their wives.
Ps 50:19 You do damage with words,
and use your tongue to deceive.
Ps 50:20 You plot against your brother;
you slander your own brother.

Jeremiah also uses rhetoric regarding empty ritual.

Je 7:21 The Lord also said to the people of Judah, "The Lord God of Israel who rules over all says: ‘You might as well go ahead and add the meat of your burnt offerings to that of the other sacrifices and eat it, too! Je 7:22 Consider this: When I spoke to your ancestors after I brought them out of Egypt, I did not merely give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.

Amos explicitly states God's disgust with Israel's religious ceremonies.

Am 5:21 "I absolutely despise your festivals.
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies.
Am 5:22 Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on the fattened calves you offer in peace.
Am 5:23 Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Am 5:24 Justice must flow like water,
right actions like a stream that never dries up.
Am 5:25 You did not bring me sacrifices and grain offerings during the forty years you spent in the wilderness, family of Israel.

Is 58:6 No, this is the kind of fast I want.
I want you to remove the sinful chains,
to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke,
to set free the oppressed,
and to break every burdensome yoke.
Is 58:7 I want you to share your food with the hungry
and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people.
When you see someone naked, clothe him!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!

The rhetorical questions are here answered explicitly (No!).  Further, we are told what kind of fast God does want, and it has nothing to do with performing a ritual in a particular fomulaic way.  What is really amazing, it has nothing to do "church" stuff at all.  It has, instead, everything to do with social issues: our relationship to our fellow men, both in justice and charity.

Verse  6 deals with justice, while verse 7 deals with charity.  The justice of verse 6 is radical: not only is the yoke to be removed, it is to be broken.  The chains, ropes, and yokes are more than just the literal tools of imprisonment and slavery, but are metaphors for any sort of oppression.  Verse 7 mentions the necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, and family, and our duty to provide them.

Consider how how this can apply to modern politics.  How does this apply to issues such as our involvement in Kuwait and Kosovo?  How should this apply to issues such as Cuba?  What about social programs such as homeless shelters? subsidisied child care?  progressive tax rates?  prescription benefits?  In many ways verse 6 and 7 could be described as a "bleeding heart liberal" agenda.

Job 31:16 If I have refused to give the poor what they desired,
or caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
Job 31:17 If I ate my morsel of bread myself,
and did not share any of it with orphans—
Job 31:18 but from my youth I raised the orphan like a father,
and from my mother’s womb
I guided the widow.
Job 31:19 If I have seen anyone about to perish for lack of clothing,
or a poor man without a coat,
Job 31:20 whose heart did not bless me
as he warmed himself with the fleece of my sheep,
Job 31:21 if I have raised my hand to vote against the orphan,
when I saw my support in the court,
Job 31:22 then let my arm fall from the shoulder,
let my arm be broken off at the socket.

Is 1:15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I look the other way;
when you offer your many prayers,
I do not listen,
because your hands are covered with blood.
Is 1:16 Wash! Cleanse yourselves!
Remove your sinful deeds
from my sight.
Stop sinning!
Is 1:17 Learn to do what is right!
Promote justice!
Give the oppressed reason to celebrate!
Take up the cause of the orphan!
Defend the rights of the widow!

Is 58:8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise;
your restoration will quickly arrive;
your godly behavior will go before you,
and the Lord’s splendor will be your rear guard.
Is 58:9 Then you will call out, and the Lord will respond;
you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’

This 6 line poetic refrain is a reversal of the of the lament of verse 3a.  True godly behaviour, not just empty ritual, will result in restoring Israel's relationship with God.

Is 1:18 Come, let’s consider your options," says the Lord.
"Though your sins have stained you like the color red,
you can become white like snow;
though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet,
you can become white like wool.
Is 1:19 If you have a willing attitude and obey,
then you will again eat the good crops of the land.

Eze 18:5 "If a man is righteous, and carries out justice and righteousness— 18:6 if he does not eat pagan sacrifices on the mountains and does not petition the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not approach a woman to have sexual relations with her while she is having her period, 18:7 does not oppress anyone, but gives the debtor back his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and clothes the naked, 18:8 does not lend at usury nor take interest, but refrains from wrongdoing, carries out true justice between men, 18:9 obeys my statutes and guards my judgments so as to deal faithfully—that man is righteous; he will certainly live, declares the Sovereign Lord.

Dan 4:27 Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you. Break away from your sins by doing acts of righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged."

You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you
and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully.
Is 58:10 You must actively help the hungry
and feed the oppressed.
Then your light will dispel the darkness,
and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
Is 58:11 The Lord will continually lead you;
he will feed you even in parched regions.
He will give you renewed strength,
and you will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring that continually produces water.
Is 58:12 Your perpetual ruins will be rebuilt;
you will reestablish the ancient foundations.
You will be called, ‘The one who repairs broken walls,
the one who makes the ruins livable again.’

This passage repeats the themes of the previous.  The redundancy suggests this was a separate oracle, place here adjacent to the previous passage by the anthologist who collected them.  The point, however, is the same.  Israel is told to help their fellow man.  Fed the hungry, relieve the oprresed.  Help those in need.  In response God will help them.  The Biblical teaching is not the self-centered "God helps those who help themselves", it is rather "God helps those who help others"!!!  This is the teaching of the prophets, Messiah, and apostles.

Zech 7:1 In King Darius’s fourth year, on the fourth day of Kislev, the ninth month, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah. 7:2 Now the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer and Regem-Melech and their companions to seek the Lord’s favor 7:3 by asking the priests of the sovereign Lord’s temple and the prophets, "Should we weep in the fifth month, fasting as we have done over the years?" 7:4 The word of the sovereign Lord then came to me, 7:5 "Speak to all the people and priests of the land as follows: ‘When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months through all these seventy years, did you truly fast for me—for me, indeed? 7:6 And now when you eat and drink, are you not doing so for yourselves?’" 7:7 Should you not have obeyed the words that the Lord cried out through the former prophets when Jerusalem was peacefully inhabited and her surrounding cities, the Negev, and the Shephelah were also populated?

Zech 7:8 Again the word of the Lord came to Zechariah: 7:9 "The sovereign Lord said, ‘Exercise true judgment and show brotherhood and compassion to each other. 7:10 You must not oppress the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being.’

Zech 7:11 "But they refused to pay attention, turning away stubbornly and stopping their ears so they could not hear. 7:12 Indeed, they made their heart as hard as diamond, so that they could not obey the Torah and the other words the sovereign Lord had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore, the sovereign Lord had poured out great wrath.

Zech 7:13 "‘It then came about that just as I cried out, but they would not obey, so they will cry out, but I will not listen,’ the sovereign Lord had said. 7:14 ‘Rather, I will sweep them away in a storm into all the nations that they are not familiar with.’ Thus the land had become desolate because of them, with no one crossing through or returning, for they had made the fruitful land a waste."

Mk 12:28 Now one of the experts in the law came and heard them debating. When he saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the most important of all?" 12:29 Jesus answered, "The most important is: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 12:31 The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." 12:32 The expert in the law said to him, "That is true, Teacher; you are right to say that he is one, and there is no one else besides him. 12:33 And to love him with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.

James even goes so far as to define religion as social justice:

James 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

This would suggest that the "Christianity is about a relationship, not a religion" refrain, while well meaning, is perhaps a little bit misguided.