[Partially adapted from Chapter 14 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]
One of the key insights of the Protestant reformers was that worship didn’t happen only in church—it happened during the week as well, when believers worked as bakers and builders to the glory of God. And one of the enduring legacies of the Catholic and Orthodox churches is the care and craft focused on worship in church, from ritual to liturgy to the very architecture of the church itself.
Unfortunately, today many American Christians are caught between these rich traditions, not benefitting from nor being transformed by either. We can often equate worship narrowly with Sunday morning music. At times we’ve lost the scriptural depth that speaks to how we approach and worship God through our everyday actions.
Isaiah 58 is a case study in how God defines worship—and it might just change the way we understand both worship and justice. It stands as one of the few passages in Scripture that directly challenges and confounds some of the very actions we deem most righteous and good: prayer, fasting, and seeking God.
The whole of Isaiah spans the Assyrian and Babylonian exile and this particular chapter was written to the community of Jerusalem after they had returned home. The people were in the middle of an economic depression, trying to resettle themselves and rebuild their community. Families were broken, relationships were fractured, and trade wasn’t booming. The Israelites were refugees returning to their homes, unsure about their future and their ability to even survive.
We begin with God speaking to Isaiah:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.
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. (Isaiah 58:1-2 NIV)
Despite their seeming eagerness to come near, God wanted them to know there were serious sin issues. Yet in the verses that immediately follow, Israel spoke back to God, defending themselves against the charge of sin. In fact, Israel had a complaint about God’s seeming lack of attention regarding their fasting.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’ (Isaiah 58:3 NIV)
The Israelites were humbly praying and fasting, seeking God and trying to reestablish their relationship with Him. But God wasn’t responding, and He was about to tell them why:
Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists. (Isaiah 58:4 NIV)
The Israelites neglected each other as they prayed and fasted and asked God to deliver them from the difficult issues that came from having lived in exile. Israel was approaching worship as a way to get what they wanted: God’s attention and blessing. That relationship was shortcircuited, however, when Israel failed to reflect God’s character either to its own society or to the surrounding culture.
When we focus our worship on what we want, we’ll become nothing more than consumers.
Israel was going through the motions of worship—fasting, praying, and so on—without any foundation or motivation beyond their desires. They were seeking God daily in order to be blessed by God, yet God was asking them to worship in order to be a blessing to others.
Israel’s behavior was so distasteful to God that He railed against their broken sense of worship:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:5)
Couldn’t we easily substitute our familiar, post–New Testament worship practices, like fasting, singing, worship nights, and Christian concerts, into that verse? Do we fast to manipulate God or to humble ourselves?
It’s crucial that we understand the kind of worship God desires. He told Israel in the next several verses of Isaiah 58 what sort of worship pleases Him:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV)
God seems to be saying that the purest form of worship, the worship He finds most pleasing, is justice. If so, does that change the way we think about the word worship?
What if Sunday morning was the prelude to what the church does during the week? What if musical worship was the warm-up to the melody of our justice throughout the week? Isaiah 58 seems to be suggesting that God is more concerned about how we spend our scattered time than our gathered time.
The real impact of the church will be felt, for better or worse, where it connects to the messiness of the remaining 166 hours in the week.
God’s concern about how we spend our scattered time means we can’t enter fully into relationship with Him unless we are living justly. The next few verses of Isaiah 58 speak directly about God’s desire to restore the relationship broken by injustice:
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. (Isaiah 58:8-9 NIV)
The end of this section is particularly powerful: “He will say: Here am I.” God’s desire is so strong for us to love our neighbors and promote shalom that injustice is an insurmountable barrier to healthy relationship with Him.
As Isaiah 58 nears its conclusion, God continues to promise His people blessings that were contingent on the people’s actions.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:9-10 NIV)
God wanted the nation of Israel to “spend themselves,” to give their lives away for the hungry and the oppressed.
If pursuing justice is a necessary component of worship, does that change the way we should think about worship pastors? Anyone hiring a worship pastor expects that he or she can play a musical instrument, sing, and blend various styles of music together in a way that will please the congregation. Those are valid concerns, but are those ultimately worship concerns?
With the way Isaiah 58 defines worship, there is a sense in which everyone is a worship leader. If every Christian in the world were living with exactly the same amount of faith as you are, would God applaud? When your neighbor is looking for something better out of life, are you providing a true alternative?
Your worship is your leadership. It is your influence. It is your mission. Your worship is how people will perceive you and it is ultimately where people will follow you. Does your life inspire worship?
In many ways, Isaiah 58 boils down to this: to give our lives away is true worship. Like Israel, we are a people of exile, in desperate need of restoration. Our world is in ruins around us, but God promises that in true worship “ancient ruins” will be rebuilt and that we will “raise up” the foundations of many generations (v. 12). We find our greatest joy and fulfillment by worshipping God in right relationship, as we pursue His purposes in our broken world.
Perhaps today it is time to take the simple step of asking God what He would have us do, even as we sing in worship. Jesus says in Luke 19:40 that if we are silent about God’s glory, the very stones will cry out in praise. God doesn’t ask merely to hear our songs in worship—He asks us to hear His song that is meant to be sung among every tribe and nation, among poor and rich, among healthy and sick.