OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 10 – Isaiah 58:9b-14 (Related)

When the exiles returned from Babylon around 539 BC they found a land somewhat different from what the glowing promises of Deutero-Isaiah had led them to expect. It was not until 445 BC that Nehemiah succeeded in rebuilding the city walls, and for nearly 100 years people had quite literally been eking out a living in the dust and rubble of their once proud city. They also found people in the land. Not invaders who had come to conquer or colonise – who would want to colonise a heap of stones? – but rather those who had always lived in the land alongside them, but had not been to Babylon with them, presumably because they had no skills in which the Babylonians were interested. These ‘peasants’ were treated with disdain, because the only true Jews were now those who had been through the experience of exile.

The exiles must have felt disappointed, that God had somehow sold them a pup through Deutero-Isaiah’s words. They had come from frying pan into fire, and had been roasting for 100 years. Their hopes for God’s protection and provision, for the restoration of their national life, had been dashed, and they no doubt felt cheated. So the prophet re-articulates their hopes for them (v.10-12, 14) and identifies three issues which are coming between them and God’s blessing. It is an interesting cluster of issues, and to read the book of Nehemiah alongside this passage brings illumination and explanation.

First the prophet identifies pointing fingers and malicious talk. This may be about the ‘racism’ directed against those who had every right to live in the land, but who were now regarded as foreigners, and treated as nobodies. Hand in hand with this goes the oppression of the poor, and Nehemiah suggests that this was both the ordinary people’s oppression of the peasants but also the oppression of ordinary people by the small but privileged elite, who, according to Haggai, were creaming off funds given by Emperor Cyrus for rebuilding projects and using them to sustain extravagant personal  lifestyles.

The pointing fingers of the racists and the greed of the ruling élite are of course nothing new, but the prophet makes clear the link between national health and the people’s morality, and he blames their lack of fortunes directly on these two facets of their behaviour. Bu then he adds a third, which might seem surprising to us: sabbath-keeping.

The idea of the sabbath is a really important issue in the OT, and is of course enshrined in the Ten Commandments. Yet to our ears it seems a bit outdated, in a nation where people are forced to work so hard that Sunday is their only chance for recreation and rest, where shopping and sporting activities compete for our attention, and where mobility means that many people are away on holiday or visiting friends or family. So why pick on this issue as such a vital one for the health of the nation? There are some clues within v.13 which may help us to understand.

It is worth saying, of course, that Christians are not bound by Sabbath laws as the Jews would have been, and that the Christian Sunday is not the direct equivalent of the Jewish Saturday. But nevertheless the principle of Sabbath is a sound one, built in by God in his grace because we need it, and neglected at our peril. So what does v.13 teach us about the importance of Sabbath?

First of all, to break it is to do what we please. Sabbath is a reminder that as Christians we have submitted ourselves to the Christ by whom we were bought with the price of his blood, and we find wholeness and fulfilment in being in submission to him, not by doing whatever we feel like. Sabbath is about obedience. Secondly, to break the sabbath is to resent it. Amos 8:5 condemns those who regard the Sabbath as a nuisance because it gets in the way of money-making. To deliberately keep one day free from work and the pursuit of wealth is a weekly reminder of the importance of things other than money. Sabbath is a call not to live by bred alone, and to allow others to do the same. But behind these outward observations is something deeper. We are called to regard all this as a delight, not an imposition; a blessing and not a bit of a pain. Sabbath reminds us that God really does want to be good to us, whether it feels like that or not, and to throw his blessings back in his face, apart from anything else is downright rude. Joy in the Lord and triumph for the nation are to be found both in what we stop doing, but also in what we value doing.

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