Tuesdays are for the Old Testament
Luther, Martin, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, translated by Herbert J.A. Bowman) Luther’s Works, Vol. 17, Lectures on Isaiah Chapters 40-66.St. Louis: Concordia, 1972. Logos Electronic Edition.
“Isaiah Chapter 58” pp. 282-294
Isaiah 58 begins with a call to the prophet. Make Israel know their sin. Luther notes that the sin of Israel is covered with superstition, very like the sin of the people of his time and place (LW 17, 282). As Luther sees it, people will follow religious ideas they have devised, including their own ceremonies, then they will claim that they follow God. They then are indignant because God doesn’t do what they would like. Isaiah 58:2 depicts Israel exactly this way (LW 17, 283). Luther continues by describing the hypocrisy of both Israel and the Saxons. Commenting on verse four, he observes the intolerance of the legalist. “Here He says that sins and external morals call for no love and mercy; they only tyrannize. Thus every hypocrite, most zealous for his own works, is the worst kind of tyrant and the most poisonous snake, and so they can hide their poison under an appearance of godliness, but meanwhile they are burning with zeal for revenge and for doing evil. There is nothing but to pass judgment, to disparage, and to do injury even in the best things” (LW 17, 284). DS comments that we now see this attitude among secularists who wish to signal their virtue and force others to adopt their particular social preferences. God’s call in verses 5 and following is to stop the oppression. Repent of wickedness and release the prisoners taken in zeal for ungodly things (LW 17, 286). On the contrary, God’s people are to feed the hungry, rescue the oppressed, show hospitality to others. Luther sums it up with the New Testament command: “love your neighbor as yourself” (LW 17, 287). He does, however, point out that the person who is our neighbor is the one who is willing to put in his own effort. Loving the neighbor does not require caring for those who are unwilling to work or who simply want to receive our property. “Just as my flesh eats and drinks but also works, so the neighbor should work too. Then we must help him. I say this so that you will not approve of the hoboes who run hither and yon and suck us dry and go after our property without lifting a finger. If we thus nurture our brother as our own flesh, we shall please God” (LW 17, 287).
As the people of Israel do live acccording to God’s mercy, in verse 8 we find promises from God. Those who live a godly life will receive blessing from God. Chief among these blessings Luther considers to be a clear conscience before God. The Christian can know he has acted in a way which is pleasing to God and beneficial to his neighbor. This brings rest and joy. (LW 17, 288). God’s promise in verses 10 and following includes guidance, health, perseverance, and the ability to leave a heritage for the future. Through individuals who do evil, the society falls. Through those who do good, society grows in peace, stability, prosperity, and security (LW 17, 291). Luther considers verses 13-14 to refer to those who would “blaspheme the Gospel and say that it is responsible for the appearance of all hunger, persecution, wars, and calamity. We say that calamity, etc., come of themselves. Yet in this conflict and calamity we would not be preserved if the Gospel had not come” (LW 17, 292). In Luther’s day, as in ours, we can see outspoken opponents of Christianity. In fact, though, Luther observes that the Christians have normally been involved in preserving society, not breaking it down. Keeping social ceremonies, including those created by the best-intentioned innovators, will not avail. Dedication to God will.