Deuteronomy 31, Isaiah 58

Read Deuteronomy 31 and Isaiah 58.

This devotional is about Isaiah 58.

There is a place for symbolism and ceremony when it comes to following the Lord. In the Deuteronomy 31 chapter that we also read today, God commissioned Joshua (vv. 14-15), a symbolic act where the Lord officially recognized Joshua as Israel’s leader. So, symbolism sometimes is useful.

Here in Isaiah 58, however, God confronted the mere symbolism of fasting. In verse 2 he said, “day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways….” Fasting was the symbol they chose to signal their sincerity and desire to know the Lord. But they were unhappy that their humility in fasting did not give them the answers to prayer they had been seeking (vv. 2b-3d). In response, the Lord called attention to the ways in which they were living disobediently to him while they attempted to show their devotion through fasting.

Fasting was regarded as a way to express humility (v. 3c, 5b). Humility is about unselfishness; it is about acknowledging that God is the Creator and Lord and we belong to and serve him. But the Lord was unimpressed by the pretense of humility symbolized by fasting. Instead, he wanted to see some actual humility, some real unselfishness, expressed in giving your workers some time off to rest (v. 3f), not bickering and arguing with others (v. 4a) or using violence to get your way (v. 4b). If you make your workers work while you take time off, argue with people to get your way, and even beat someone else while you are fasting, you’re not humble or unselfish; just the opposite.

God wanted his people to skip the fasting and be generous in sharing food with the hungry, shelter with homeless, and clothing with those who need it. In these ways you aren’t symbolically depriving yourself but rather depriving yourself in the sense that you give up some of your food, some of your space at home, and some of your clothes to someone who needs them. Generosity for those in need, then, is a greater expression of faith and devotion to God than a religious symbol like fasting.

How does this apply to us today? We don’t have many symbolic or ceremonial practices in our faith because Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law for us. But we do sometimes measure our spiritual life by how faithfully we practice things like church attendance, serving in the ministry, or reading the Word. When done from the heart, these change us to live more in line with the image of Christ but they can also be done to reassure us of our spirituality or to signal to other believers how devoted to God we are. We can have perfect Sunday attendance but still be mean and quarrelsome and cranky. We can read the word everyday and not miss one verse in this devotional plan but still selfishly take advantage of others.

We don’t feed the poor or shelter the homeless to earn favor with God. We also don’t read the Word or pray to gain his favor either. All of these things are expressions of a heart that loves God. Verses 13-14a spelled this out in connection to observing the Sabbath: “if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord….”

So, do you enjoy reading the Word, praying, serving, and worshipping on Sunday because you want to connect with God? Do you show love and generosity toward others because you are grateful for God’s love and desire to share it with others? This is the kind of worship God wants. It is worship that does what he commands but does it from the heart, not to impress God with our consistency.

So, how can you show genuine generosity to someone today?

Exodus 11:1-12:21, Job 29, Psalm 59

Today’s readings are Exodus 11:1-12:21, Job 29, and Psalm 59.

This devotional is about Exodus 11:1-12:21.

The most famous–and costly–of the ten plagues was prophesied to Pharaoh and the people of Israel in today’s readings. God promised, through Moses, that, “Every firstborn son in Egypt will die” (v. 5a). The prophecy was very serious and very specific.

So was the promise of deliverance. In fact, as I read this familiar passage of Scripture today, I was struck by how detailed the instructions were to those who believed God’s word about the firstborn sons. Verses 3-10 detailed specifically what must be done to save your firstborn son’s life:

  • The ratio of animals slaughtered to families was specific: one lamb per family (with some exceptions, v. 4) had to be killed and consumed (v. 3).
  • The animals slaughtered were specific: They “must be year-old males without defect” (v. 5b) and they could only be sheep or goats (v. 5b).
  • The date was specific: “the fourteenth day of the month” (v. 6a)
  • The time they were to be slaughtered was specific: “at twilight” (v. 6c).
  • The sign of their faith in God was specific: “take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs” (v. 7b).
  • The menu for this day was specific: no pizza that night; instead, “they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast” (v. 8).
  • The way the lambs were prepared was specific: “Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs” (v. 9).
  • The way leftovers were handled was specific: “if some is left till morning, you must burn it” (v. 10).
  • The way the meal was eaten was specific: “with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.”

Not one of these requirements had the spiritual or physical power to stop an angel from taking a boy’s life. The commands, though specific, were arbitrary. Death angels are not afraid of sheep blood on door posts or leftovers. But following the Lord’s instructions perfectly was important, for three reasons:

  • First, and foremost, the substitutionary sacrifice of the lamb whose blood was placed over the door to one’s home looked forward to Christ’s sacrifice for us as our substitute. Being careless with God’s instructions would cause the symbolism that pointed to Christ to be fuzzy instead of clear.
  • Second, obedience to these instructions indicated genuine faith in God and his word. If you really believed that God was going to take the life of the firstborn son of every disobedient family, you would be very careful to do exactly what God said to do.
  • Third, these instructions would provide the template for the annual observance of the Passover. They gave Israel a specific way to remember and celebrate God’s deliverance for many generations to come.

Now, what does any of this have to do with us Christians? In a general sense, this passage shows us the importance of paying attention to the specifics of God’s word. But, in a more …uh… specific sense, we don’t observe the Passover as Christians because Christ fulfilled the law on that and every other point.

But remember that the lamb and its blood were mere symbols. They had no inherent spiritual power; they merely demonstrated that someone believed God’s word and pointed toward the sacrifice of Christ. So, in the Christian era, isn’t that a lot like baptism? The water of baptism has no inherent power but those who believe in Jesus will be obedient by following his command to be baptized because water baptism symbolizes important spiritual realities about our identification with Jesus’s death burial and resurrection. The Passover lamb pointed toward the death of Christ; baptism points back to it. Both symbols are evidence of faith in God.

These days, however, some people don’t think baptism is very important. They want to change the meaning of it as a symbol by baptizing babies with a different mode besides immersion. And I’ve met some who profess faith in Christ who have never been baptized and don’t seem to think it is very important.

There is no death angel killing firstborns in this age of grace, thankfully. But isn’t just as important, if we believe God’s word, to follow his detailed instructions carefully? If you’re trusting Christ but have never been baptized, let the example of the Israelites at Passover be your guide. If you have been careless about something else God has instructed Christians to do, think about how carefully Israel followed God’s instructions in this passage.

Then go and do likewise, not because you fear losing your firstborn son, but because you fear and love God and want to keep his commands.