If Sabbath is a day of remembrance, Sabbath School must transport us, not into dry cognition of religious fact, but into transformative telling and re-telling of the stories that make us who we are. The point is to imagine ourselves into fresh encounter with God, and thereby to submit our own arrested selfhood—our own flawed hearts—to examination and possible renewal. This is the gift that accompanies shared Bible study.
In inviting us to place our lives before the text of Isaiah, the current quarterly points to a particularly rich, but all too often overlooked, aspect of our spiritual heritage. Hebrew prophets addressed contemporary issues in light of the divine will. But after the death of Ellen White in 1915, our church began to concentrate much more on predictions about the future than on prophetic challenges to present-day religious and societal complacence. That was more than a lack; it was a loss. But by God’s grace, we can regain what was lost!
Whether you are preparing as a teacher or as a class participant for this coming Sabbath, you will do well to go, at least once, straight through chapters 55 and 58, the focus of the lesson this week. Both chapters shine as simply beautiful religious poetry; you should read them aloud and mark the phrases that strike, or perhaps even overwhelm, you. These chapters, moreover, recall the founding story, the recurrent shortcomings and the relentless hopes of the Chosen People. All this matters because the Chosen People is the “root,” Paul said (Romans 11:18), that supports our own Christian existence. We can’t know who we are unless we acknowledge and identify with our Jewish heritage.
In the first verse of Isaiah 58 the prophet reminds us that the “house of Jacob” is the people of God. For an instant, at least, the account evokes Israel’s special calling and special mission. This brings a mind a question you can pose to yourself and your class: As Adventists you belong to a movement that thinks of itself as having a special end-time work to do. How does that make you feel? In what ways has that been satisfying, or helpful, in your own religious experience? Have you ever wondered if thinking your church is special compared to other churches might entail some spiritual risk? Might it make you proud, or even arrogant? What is the spiritually healthy way to think of specialness?
Now consider Isaiah 55. Its premise is that even “chosen” people lapse sometimes into spiritual thick-headedness. They can invest in unsatisfying stuff (v. 2), or in a manner of living and thinking that brings neither joy nor peace (v. 7; compare v. 12). If this is part of Israel’s story, it’s also part of ours. And if the point of shared Bible study is to submit our own flawed hearts to examination and possible renewal, class members might share some of their experience: Can you tell us of something of times when you yourself slipped spiritually? How did you come to realize that you had invested money or energy in something hurtful and unsatisfying? How did you regain your footing, and how might your own experience help the rest of us?
Now turn your attention to Isaiah 55:8–9, which conveys the sense that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than our own. How does a proper humility assist us, whether as individuals or as a church, toward spiritual growth? Do you have a story about this that you can share? Notice, too, Isaiah 55:7 and 10–12. Here the prophet declares that God “will abundantly pardon”; God’s own voice assures us that the divine “word” can be counted on. In God’s care, “joy” and “peace” await us all.
Although the lesson does not dwell on chapters 56 and 57, they offer perspective we may well note in passing. God’s covenant with Israel reaches out to include others, both foreigners and outcasts. The nation’s rulers become more preoccupied with their own gain than with the people’s well-being. Israel falls into the deceit and violence that follow idolatrous forgetfulness of God. All this is a reminder that God is not an avuncular candy-man who hands out treats without asking questions. But if Isaiah does not trade in cheap grace, he cannot pass by the opportunity to say that God will heal all who are humble and contrite (57:14–21).
A very observant good friend of mine once told me that Ellen White quotes from Isaiah 58 more than from any other Old Testament chapter. Another friend shared with me just this week an obscure Review and Herald article in which she conjoined quotations from Isaiah 58 and Jesus’s inaugural sermon in Luke 4. Perhaps this chapter deserves lots of our attention. Here again, certainly, there can be no mistaking the prophet’s rejection of cheap grace.
False or empty religiosity, he tells us, is at once tempting and selfish. If you try to impress God by fasting, you misconceive divine priorities. God’s own voice, piercing as a trumpet, interrupts pious self-regard with two soul-shaking questions:
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?
Your class, I suggest, should read these verses entire, then ask: What do these words mean now? Many societies are divided over questions about justice and the poor. Conversation on these topics seems so fatiguing. Is there any way, then, for the poor and the well-off to reach agreement here? Or must we write such words as these out of Holy Writ by focusing on other things?
But maybe focusing on other things would be a mistake. For right away, the chapter declares that acting on God’s will can turn “gloom” into “noonday.” It can be soul-satisfying. You can, even in the here-and-now, become “the repairer of the breach, / the restorer of streets to live in” (vv. 10–12). Ask your class: Does the prophet get this right? How, given all the anger and frustration surrounding “justice” and “poverty.” can all this not actually be—wrong? Putting the questions this way should get a hand or two in the air.
Chapter 58 ends with verses (13–14) you should again read in full. Without noting a key translation problem in the KJV and NKJV, the quarterly, no doubt inadvertently, allows the old nonsense that the Sabbath debars all “pleasure” to go unchallenged. But if the Sabbath is a “delight,” as these verses say, one reason is that Sabbath rest entails setting aside, not everything pleasurable, but rather our business interests, our preoccupation with making a living. You must, or equally to the point you get to, cease from such ordinary stresses. That’s what a proper translation of the Hebrew will get across. And although these verses’ famous words about the Sabbath might seem disconnected from the chapter’s earlier themes, you and your class might well ask: Can high regard for the Sabbath itself become a kind of false or empty religiosity? Does the Sabbath of the Decalogue—here consult both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 for attention to servants and strangers, and to the memory of liberation from Egypt—actually put this chapter’s central issues again at the forefront? And if Yes, can we be true Sabbath-keepers without fully embracing the spirit of Isaiah 58?
Here again, you and your class may imagine yourselves into fresh encounter with God. Shared Bible study, if taken seriously, really does take us all to places we haven’t been before.
Charles Scriven, a former Adventist pastor and college president, serves on the board of the Adventist Forum.
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