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RS/MP Lesson 25: “Fasting” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on January 6, 2011

This lesson is, confessedly, a little bland. So I’m going to focus only on a single scriptural text cited on page 147, namely, Isaiah 58. (Note that only verses 8-9 are quoted in the lesson, though other parts of Isaiah 58 are summarized there and verses 3-11 are listed in the “Additional Scriptures” part of the lesson.) I’ll first take up a bit of exegetical work, then a bit of more strictly interpretive work… as is my wont.

Isaiah 58, Exegetically Considered

Here is Isaiah 58:3-9a in the NRSV translation (which I’m using because it flows very nicely, and allows for a quick comprehension of the larger spirit of the passage):

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

It should be noticed first that this text unfolds as a question-and-response between Israel and the Lord. Israel opens the exchange by asking a question (verse 3a), and the Lord responds at length (verses 3b-9a). The Lord’s response divides, as I hope the arrangement above makes clear, into four basic parts: (1) verses 3b-5, in which the Lord criticizes Israel’s understanding of the fast; (2) verses 6-7, in which the Lord identifies his own understanding of the fast; and (3) verses 8-9a, in which the Lord associates promises with an embrace of the fast he outlines.

The passage I’ve quoted here is preceded by an important two-verse preface of sorts. In 58:1, the Lord addresses the prophet, summoning him to “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” But then in 58:2, the Lord goes on to say: “Yet day after day they [Israel!] seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.” How are these two verses to made sense of? Isn’t verse 2 rather straightforwardly at odds with verse 1? A few details should be helpful here. Verse 2 is riddled with technical vocabulary drawn from the cult: “seek me” is a phrase referring in the Old Testament to ritual activity; “my ways” is a phrase that refers to the rites of the temple in the OT; “ordinance of their God” is not difficult to associate with the temple; and “draw near to God” is a technical phrase associated with offering sacrifice in the OT. What verses 1-2 set up, then, is a people who is busily involved in all the temple ritual, who do everything, in the words of verse 2, “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness,” but who nonetheless do not understand the spirit of the rituals they engage in. Piety is, for Israel at this point, entirely ritualistic. This helps to make sense of the question in verse 3 that launches the conversation. Israel is asking God why there is no divine response to their systematic piety. And the response works at length through an explanation of how their systematic piety entirely misses the point.

Isaiah 58 goes on beyond what I have quoted, making further promises associated with fulfilling the fast, and talking briefly about similar promises associated with observance of the Sabbath. I’ll leave these verses for another time.

The basic structure and focus of Isaiah 58:3-9a is, then, clear. Structure: a question from Israel (verse 3a), followed by a criticism (verses 3b-5), a clarification (verses 6-7), and a promise (verses 8-9a) from God. Focus: everything here turns on the difference between mechanical fulfillment of ritual requirements and what God is actually after with such prescriptions.

Isaiah 58, Interpretively Considered

So what might we learn from this text?

The first thing to notice, I think, is the nature of Israel’s misunderstanding of the fast. Their initial question makes clear that they see fasting to be almost a technical operation—believing, it seems, that there is a kind of “automatic” link between the action of fasting and the blessing or benefit that is supposed to issue from it in response. The spirit of their question marks it as an accusation: God is not, they suppose, playing by His own rules. It would seem that the question is intended to call God to account, to point out to Him His responsibility to give what Israel takes to be the blessings due them because of their fasting.

The initial words of criticism from God make still clearer what is wrong with Israel’s understanding of fasting: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day!” Still sharper: “Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight!” What can these phrases mean? How can fasting be done only in one’s own interest, or, still stranger, only to quarrel and fight? As regards the first of these, one is of course reminded of the Savior’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, where He warns against fasting only in order to draw the admiration of other people. This is certainly pertinent, but I’m not sure it is precisely what the text has in view. Given the question posed by Israel—“Why don’t you, God, see our fasting?”—the point seems to be that the self-interest guiding Israel’s fasts is a question of their attempting to render God a kind of mechanism: Israel believes that fasting works, and so they use it to get what they desire. The problem is, then, precisely in their desire, desire that makes them believe that fasting is only a means to the end of mobilizing God to utilize His transcendent power to satisfy their sinful wants. Israel seems to believe that fasting is a way to force God into their service, a way of getting Him to go about their work without asking any embarrassing questions.

God’s response to all this is straightforward: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.”

But then He goes on to criticize the very spirit of fasting: “It such the fast that I choose . . . ? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?” Here again one is reminded of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He chides those who make a public show of mourning in their fast in order to draw the attention of others. But again I think that the focus is not quite the same. I think the Lord’s point here is to make clear that the heavy emphasis on self-affliction and mourning that obsesses Israel in their fasts entirely misses the point: the fast is a happy occasion! (Remember D&C 59:13-14: “. . . that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full. Verily, this is fasting and prayer, or in other words, rejoicing and prayer.”) There is, in God’s view, something jubilant about renunciation. But this deserves explanation. And God gives it, starting in the next verse.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” This is precisely the language of the jubilee. Remember that under the Law of Moses, every fiftieth year was a jubilee year: every slave was released from bondage, every debt was forgiven, land reverted to non-ownership, and the whole year was given to incessant rejoicing. This, it seems, is the fast that God has in mind. The renunciation in question is not a mournful self-affliction, but a refusal to commit oneself fully to the oppressive spirit of self-aggrandizement. To fast is to take a sabbatical, and from every aspect of the workaday world that implies oppression. This is why, back in verse 3, the Lord said not only that Israel was serving their own interests on fast days, but that they were “oppress[ing] all [their] workers.” Inasmuch as the fast did not lead to liberation, it was no genuine fast.

And the Lord goes on describing the jubilant fast: “to share you bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin,” etc. Note how similar this list is to the list the Savior provides in Matthew 25 when He tells the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Finally, the blessings come, and they culminate with: “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” And that is what Israel has been seeking. But now they have to see that they can only expect a response from the Lord if they have replaced their thaumaturgical fast with the jubilant fast. But really, if they have replaced their self-indulgent desires with desires to emancipate everyone and everything—even nature itself!—then they cannot have any desire left to muster God to their own selfish aims.

What, then, is fasting? It is anything but a practice that aims at self-control or self-domination. In this regard, I think it is important that the lesson in the manual has changed in the present edition in an interesting way. On the bottom of page 147, what used to read “If we teach our children to fast, they will develop the willpower to overcome greater temptations later in their lives” now reads “If we teach our children to fast, they will develop the spiritual strength to overcome greater temptations later in their lives.”

This basic reorientation is, I think, at least a start.

12 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 25: “Fasting” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. BrianJ said

    “The first thing to notice, I think, is the nature of Israel’s misunderstanding of the fast. Their initial question makes clear that they see fasting to be almost a technical operation—–believing, it seems, that there is a kind of “automatic” link between the action of fasting and the blessing or benefit that is supposed to issue from it in response.”

    Excellent! Thanks for putting this into words for me.

  2. calimom said

    I really enjoyed your lesson. I don’t attend grown-up classes so I enjoy visiting here. What is taught in chapter 58 of Isaiah is profound for the saints today in so many ways (as is most of Isaiah). Do we systematically attend to our rites the same way the house of Jacob did? I think we often miss the spiritual aspect of many of the teachings/rites of the gospel. Your lesson was a good reminder to beware of such neglect.

  3. DLewis said

    Great stuff. I think your analysis is spot on.

  4. JeanneM said

    Thank you for a very fine analysis and the emphasis on the spirit of the fast.
    I’m wondering if anyone noticed in the section on fast offerings (p 147) that the manual reverts back to the former definition of the fast offering, that is, the cost of two meals? That was amended long ago by Pres. Kimball (still looking for the source–I remember hearing it in about 1984), who asked us to leave that definition behind and give far more. The manual does mention giving as much as we are able, but lately all I hear in talks and lessons is the two-meal standard being invoked with no reference to President Kimball at all. We will never become a consecrated people if we hang onto that old way of looking at the fast offering. I’m disappointed that the manual does just that. One of the easiest ways to live the Law of Consecration today is to give our surplus to the bishop through the fast offering (and, of course, the other offering categories on the donation slip).
    The problem may lie in the fact that the Law of Consecration is generally understood by church members, including endowed members, to be a law that we will be asked to live “someday”, forgetting what we hear and do in the temple regarding it.

    • joespencer said

      “The problem may lie in the fact that the Law of Consecration is generally understood by church members, including endowed members, to be a law that we will be asked to live “someday”, forgetting what we hear and do in the temple regarding it.”

      Undoubtedly. If you track down this reference, be kind of enough to post it. It would be helpful for those teaching this lesson!

  5. jenw said

    really excellent and thought-provoking notes. Learned a lot from studying this chapter and reading your notes and other verses. It seems to me that we (in the church) talk a lot about fasting as a way to make something happen, to get something. Reading these notes made me wonder about that, though I think the point seems to be that we can fast to request special blessings (in hopes of mobilizing God) as long as our fasts resemble what the Lord lays out in these verses.

  6. Mike B. said

    We do tend to treat fasting as a way of mobilizing God. We probably should tend more towards fasting for the Work of the Lord/Church. I think it is appropriate to fast for specially needed blessings, but in fear and trembling. I think in those cases fasting has definitely helped me to approach the Lord in a supplicative spirit.

    That being said, if the Israelites were trying to force God with their obedience, do verses like D&C 82:10, as well as D&C 130:20-21 to a lesser extent, justify that?

    • GP Teacher said

      “That being said, if the Israelites were trying to force God with their obedience, do verses like D&C 82:10, as well as D&C 130:20-21 to a lesser extent, justify that?”

      Not at all. I think the entire purpose of Isaiah 58 is that obedience is more than just lip service and hollow action. Obedience to eternal laws requires the utilization of our entire being. In so doing we grow and mature and the promised blessing is the outcome of our growth. Fasting is not an arbitrary task that God chose so he can miraculously bless us if we accomplish it. When we fast, we transcend the natural man and become closer to God, thereby obtaining the promised blessing of his help.

  7. Mike B. said

    President Hinckley – “The trouble with most of our prayers,” and I’d add fasting, “is that we give them as if we were picking up the telephone and ordering groceries – we place our order and hang up. We need to meditate, contemplate, think of what we are praying about and for and then speak to the Lord as one man speaketh to another.”

    I his last line highlights the difference in attitudes. The first is unconcerned with a personal relationship with the teller on the other line. The second knows the person he’s talking to intimately and is asking for help.

  8. Keith said

    You can find the President Kimball reference in this article (but I’m going to make you read the whole thing to find the reference because it’s a great article–required reading in my Doctrine and Covenants courses): http://rsc.byu.edu/pubSHarperAllThings.php

  9. May God bless u the more for ur effort to His work

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    RS/MP Lesson 25: “Fasting” (Gospel Principles Manual) « Feast upon the Word Blog…

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