Words are powerful. Full of latent potential to influence all sorts of people and situations. For followers of Jesus, words in the bible are especially powerful, as they are taken as the words of God. This is why care needs to be taken with ‘bible headings’ – words inserted into the text by bible editors to break up sections and paragraphs. Most readers view them as part of the original text, which of course they are not. In my experience these headings can be very useful, but on some occasions they are unhelpful, and one of these is Isaiah 58 – a passage I spoke from yesterday and which in many bibles in headed ‘True Fasting’.
I wrote a little book a few years ago on fasting, and I have since been surprised by quite a number of people who have approached me saying that they don’t see the need to fast as, according to Isaiah 58, ‘true fasting’ is about caring for the poor. Where does that view come from? Because it’s not what Isaiah 58 really means, and yet it’s the view of many Christians. My conclusion is that it comes from the ‘bible heading’ at the beginning of the chapter. So what is the message of Isaiah 58?
Isaiah 58:6 clearly says that the kind of fasting God is really looking for is not the giving up of food but the giving up of the Israelites’ unconcern for the poor and the marginalised. It’s a message spoken to a people who fast regularly and rather mechanically – going through the ‘right’ kind of religious ritual – but who are not taking their social responsibilities seriously. Clearly this lack of joined up thinking pains God. They need to hear that fasting does not automatically release God’s power as they thought; their lifestyle also needs to be considered too.
So the purpose of Isaiah 58 is not really a message about fasting at all. The criticised ritual highlighted could actually have been prayer in general, or sung praise, or even the reading of Scripture. The point is more about social justice than fasting. And all this is set in the larger context of renewal, with God desiring a people whose lifestyle is consistent with their prayers and practices: where the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, the naked are clothed, the sick are healed and God’s presence and power is known. This is the message: join up your prayers and practices.
So if any bible editors read this, may I suggest that the ‘bible heading’ of Isaiah 58 should be changed to ‘True Renewal’ or (to pick up the language of Is 58:12) perhaps ‘True Restoration’.
The passage reminds us that a renewed/restored church will care for the poor. If we don’t, then something is very wrong. But let’s also not forget that Scripture consistently tells us that prayerful fasting is important too. It would be interesting to see, if Isaiah 58’s ‘bible heading’ were changed, whether the ancient practice of fasting would once again become a common and powerful practice amongst God’s caring-for-the-poor people.