Summary: God does not want merely personal religion; He desires our investment in breaking the bondages that imprison others. America post-Vietnam is strikingly similar to Judah post-Exile. Neither can afford to retreat into comfortable religion.
A great nation had been humiliated by something they had never supposed could happen. Because they saw themselves as the people of God, chosen by him for a special role in the world's history, they had imagined themselves invulnerable. God would never desert his people, they believed. God would not permit them to suffer defeat or disgrace or despair. They were certain of that, and in the exuberance of their first years as a nation they had grown and matured and had become a marvel to all their neighbors. Their wealth had exceeded their fondest imaginations. Their culture was recognized as young, dynamic, productive. Their government was thought of as fair and just, even though sometimes charlatans and quacks and thieves were running it. Their destiny had seemed assured. But then, just as some of the nation's wiser minds had foreseen, there was a national disaster. There was a disgrace of monumental proportions. There was a defeat: a military defeat, yes, but more important, a spiritual defeat, a psychological defeat. And the spirits of a decimated nation had sunk to a low ebb.
Now, however, things were changing at last. A few years had passed and the worst was over. They were on their way back from discouragement and self-doubt. It looked as though they were finding their feet as a people again. Slowly, ever so slowly, the nation and its basic institutions were being rebuilt. Slowly, painfully, the people were finding it possible to look at themselves with some degree of pride. In fact, one of their most prominent leaders continued to assure them that they were back: back from exile, back from discouragement, back from the years of uncertainty.
But in the midst of this growing new self-confidence, which most of the people thought was just fine, another voice was heard. Another, dissenting, penetrating voice, who began to urge the people to think more deeply, to discern more carefully, to go beyond his new self-assurance. This voice …I'm sure he saw himself as a voice crying in the wilderness … this voice cried out for a new sense of justice, a commitment to the care of the needy, a determination to break the bonds of the oppressed. This voice, this prophetic voice, even spoke to the people about their faith and their religious concern, and urged them to move on from shallow faith to deeper faith, urged them to forge ahead from “me and my God" religion to a religion of concern and of justice.
The nation of which I speak … or at least one of the nations … is Judah after her exile; in the sixth century before Christ she had finally been freed from the dominance of Babylon. Through the intervention of Cyrus, King of Persia, Judah had finally been allowed to return and to rebuild her homeland. Deserted streets were once again crowded with people; broken walls were being repaired; priests and prophets alike urged the reconstruction of the Temple; and, to a degree, all seemed well. Religious participation was up, the psalms were being sung vigorously, the law was being rediscovered. All seemed well, spiritually, materially.
But the voice of the lonely prophet, whose name we really do not know. His prophecies are bound with the Book of Isaiah, and sometimes he is called Trito-Isaiah, the third Isaiah. We do not know his name, but we can call him the prophet of the return; we do not know his name, but his voice speaks with power and with clarity to us: Isaiah 58:5-11
A great people, humiliated by something they had never supposed could happen, because they were the Lord's own. But defeated and desperate though they had been, now at last they were on the way back. Now they had a measure of self-confidence, and their people were even coming back to the house of the Lord and doing all kinds of spiritual things. Where does this man, the prophet of the return, get off questioning all that? How dare he suggest that the fasts and the Sabbaths and the great and eloquent prayers of the faithful are not enough?
Another great people have been humiliated by something we had supposed could not happen. We too thought of ourselves as the Lord's own. Born in a burst of hope; nurtured with the wide open prairies and the rich forests at our fingertips; brought to maturity in the 19th century with its doctrine of manifest destiny, which held that the United States was God's instrument to civilize and Christianize the world, we Americans too thought of ourselves as well nigh indestructible. Like young people everywhere, who never give a moment's thought to the notion that they will someday die, we Americans marched into the 20th century full of confidence, full of boosterism, like a young giant flexing muscles for all the world to see. The First World War made us an international power. The Second World War sealed our dominance on the global scene. And the prosperity of the fifties lifted our confidence to unparalleled heights. We Yankees could do anything; we had that invaluable something called know-how, we had grit, we had everything. And then it happened.