Isaiah 58 Depicts Modern Pauline Churchgoers
Isaiah in chapter 58 depicts a people truly seeking God and delighting to know God's ways in verses 1-3 but whom God rejects anyway in verses 5-10. The believing heart without corresponding action is inadequate, so this inspired passage teaches.
First, let's read verses 1-3:
“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet they seek me daily
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they delight to draw near to God.
3 ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers. (ESV)
Twice in this passage, the meaning is clear when you look at the Hebrew -- the people "delight" -- first "to know my ways" and second "they delight in God." The people also "seek me day by day." This "delight" means it is clearly a heart-felt pursuit of God. It is the opposite of those in Isaiah 1 who honor God with their lips but their "heart are far from him." (Isaiah 1:15.)
Rather, these people delight in the Lord, and eagerly seek God in their hearts. Their problem is they disobey despite such zeal to love God and be near Him!
For this word meaning, see for yourself the Hebrew page on Isaiah 58:2 at bible.hub.com at this link.
One Solitary Twisted Translation
Incidentally, to blunt this clear meaning, the NIV renders this as "seem eager" when no such "seem" meaning is actually present. Compare all the other translations which are correct: KJV / Websters "delight to know my ways... take delight in approaching to God," ASV, NASB "they delight to know my ways ... and they delight in the nearness to God" ; ISV "eager to know my ways ... eager to draw near to God"
Commentators Who Somewhat Distort The Meaning via Explanation
The Presybeterian writers Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012) at 39 comment on this passage:
Here Israel appears to be characterized by personal piety...: worshipping, offering sacrifices, celebrating religious holidays, fasting, and praying. Translate this into the modern era, and we might say these folks are faithfully going to church each Sunday, attending midweek prayer meeting, going on the annual church retreat, and singing contemporary praise music. But God was disgusted with them,....
This is close to the mark but still tries to overlay a Pauline worldview, as if the people are going through the motions and lack true faith. Instead, these people depicted in Isaiah are more precisely people who have actually sought God, delighted in God, and humbled themselves. However, God says that during their fasts they "seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers." Their faith was in the heart, but not also in deed. It was zealous eager faith without corresponding works.
God will precisely explain again how He is unimpressed by their inward heart in verses 5-10, and explains that He wants a righteous behavior to match their delight in Him:
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed[a] go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday. ESV
Thus, the fast where you truly are seeking God but at the same time seek your own pleasure and oppress your worker disgusts God. God calls a different fast -- where you help the poor, relieve the oppressed, etc. Then when you call for God, he will say "Here I am." Then your righteousness will "go before you," and God will be "your rear guard" -- your protection.
Evangelical scholar Byran E. Beyer in Encountering the Book of Isaiah (Baker Academic, 2007) at page 224 says this about the meaning of this passage - restating this to fit as much as possible his Pauline worldview on salvation -- yet letting the difference between faith alone and faith-plus-obedience bleed through other labels which he prefers:
True discipleship always involves learning and following. A disciple learns from the master and follows the master. One who only learns but does not apply learning for life change is not truly a disciple. ..[In 58:2], twice the people inquired of their God and wanted to know him and be near him. But the following verses make clear that they were not ready to follow him from their hearts.
Beyer's labels dial back the fact these people were sincerely eager, seeking and delighting in God and drawing near to God, but were disobedient. He overlays verbal guards against seeing this truth. Beyer makes it sound like the people "wanted to know God" but did not know God, when God says instead "they seek me and delight to know my ways" and "delight being near to God." They clearly believed in and knew God. But they were disobedient at the same time. Beyer calls this "learning" but not "following." Beyer minimizes the truth. Instead, it was believing - having the heart to know and delight in God and God's ways, but then not following what they knew were God's ways.
The Pauline church cannot describe this passage without mental overlays to change its meaning to make disappear its clear critique of a faith-alone belief system. But for those who are free from Paulinism, we can read the Hebrew, read the honest translations, and see Paulinism is devastated by this passage.
Faith plus works (obedience, works worthy of repentance) as James says is what saves, not faith alone.
Diagnosis of Modern Paulinism
The modern church seeks God, and wants to be close to him, and engage in prayer vigils, and fund drives to build churches, and seek others to "believe" and be saved. Faith alone supposedly saves. As a result, the modern church does not find any necessity to follow God's commands. In particular, the modern church justifies ignoring Jesus' commands as belonging to some prior dispensation of Law. We only supposedly must follow Paul.
Because Paul teaches Faith alone saves-- or at least sounds like he does, that supposedly ends the need to address what Jesus taught on salvation. Paul teaches us Jesus did away with the Law. Any effort to be righteous by actual obedience is allegedly a sin of the heart. It is supposedly wrongly motivated by pride and seeking to buy salvation, relying on Ephesians 2:8-9 as proof. Hence, the modern Christian churchgoer is ever seeking God but never finding a necessity to follow God's teachings, statutes and commands. The churchgoer is turned away from God's commands by the religious leaders even though clarified and magnified by Jesus on how to be justified / stay right with God by obedience.
God told us prophetically in Isaiah what the consequences are for believing churchgoers who stay in sin. If the people repent – their light will rise in the noon day. They will have resurrection. Implicitly, by having faith but remaining in evil, they will not have the light of resurrection. They will die in their sins like the goats who call Jesus Lord but whom He consigns to fire and worms with Satan in Matthew 25 because they did no charity.