Called to hate?” That headline to a “special news report” in Christianity Today caught my eye—as did the stunning picture posted beside it. I read on: “After gay student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in October 1998, a tall man in a white cowboy hat descended upon the Wyoming funeral, waving fluorescent signs of Shepard’s face amid blood-red flames and chanting the mantra ‘Matt is in hell.’”1 On the opposite page appeared a full-colour, full-page photograph of self-proclaimed pastor Fred Phelps. Standing by the side of a road, garbed in what has become his trademark white cowboy hat, wraparound sunglasses and dark blue dress suit—there he was with a white-gloved hand rest ing against his giant, US flag-draped, wooden sign that proclaimed to all who passed by: “Fags are worthy of death— Romans 1:32.”
Speaking to a reporter, Fred Phelps was inflexible: “God won’t allow us to have excuses… . Some are called to preach his message of love and I’ve been called to preach his message of hate.
Where are the old-time preachers who tell people the truth? God hates evildoers and fornicators and fags.”2 “[Fred’s] call, he says, came at a sweltering tent meeting in Meridian, Mississippi, when the elders of his church gathered around him to anoint him, using the words of Isaiah 58:1: ‘Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins.’ [And so] when Phelps takes the pulpit at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, sin is usually a large part of the sermon.”3 Can you believe it? Poor Fred Phelps thinks he’s been called to preach the message “God hates sinners” to a dying world. And it would surely be a comedy were it not such a tragedy—Phelps’s conviction that Isaiah 58:1 is divine licence for his call to hate.
If he’d taken the time to read that ancient passage carefully, he would have discovered that it is a call to do precisely the opposite!
a message to God’s people
Is Phelps alone in his mistaken interpretation?
I squirm a bit to confess that there are many other preachers who have also cited Isaiah 58:1 to justify their own “tough stance” on sin and sinners.
So, is Isaiah 58:1 really God’s call to preach a message of hate? Or is it, instead, His passionate appeal to both preach and practice the very opposite?
It says, “Shout it aloud, do not holdback.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” (Isaiah 58:1–3).
One reality is immediately clear from even a cursory reading of this chapter: God certainly isn’t calling His people to hurry out into the world to proclaim the sins of the world to the world—because Isaiah 58:1 is clearly not the mission of the church to the world. Rather, it is the message of God to the church! And therein lies a major difference.
It’s as if God is putting His arm around His prophet Isaiah and pleading with him: “Isaiah, you’ve got to help Me get the attention of My people.
They keep trying to remind Me that they have the truth. But Isaiah, you must cry it out in no uncertain terms: ‘You’ve lost the truth!’ “
That is what Isaiah 58 is about— how a people once entrusted with “the truth” have lost it and how they can yet recover it in the end. It is intriguing to spot the unmistakable clues and code words tucked inside Isaiah 58, which reveal who the intended audience is.
For ancient Israel, The Day of Atonement came once a year, a som bre reminder that God would convene a day of judgment at the end of time to cleanse this world of sin. Amid its sobering wake-up call, it was—and is—a passionate invitation from God to His friends on earth to become “at one” with Him! Isaiah 58 shoots like an arrow straight into the heart of a people living in the end-time, in that Day of At-one-ment.
Which may be all the more reason for us to pay close attention to the ancient appeal from God that Isaiah’s prophecy contains.
In Isaiah 58:1, God cries out to the prophet, “Raise your voice like a trumpet.” The Hebrew trumpet—or shophar—was used to herald the arrival of the Day of Atonement. And there is more Day of Atonement language in Isaiah 58. The Day of Atonement was the only day on which the law required fasting.
God absents Himself
So, the shophar has announced the day’s arrival, and in keeping with the Day of Atonement, the people have begun fasting—dutifully denying themselves simple pleasures in order to demonstrate their commitment to God.
But something’s gone wrong. The people don’t seem to be getting through to God! “Why have we fasted …
and You have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You have not noticed?” (Isaiah 58:3).
These people profess to serve God.
They are people who “seem eager” for Him to come near them. They keep eagerly hoping that the end is near and God is coming soon! After all, this is the Day of Atonement, the great day of judgment. They can’t figure out why God isn’t “drawing near” with judgments against the lost world! Isaiah 58 continues with God’s reply: “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your work ers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”
God minces no words as, with a wave of His celestial hand, He pushes aside their boasted orthodoxy. For here is a community obsessed with its religious behaviour and overdosing on its spiritual disciplines. They have occupied themselves with themselves—with their own praying, fasting and worshipping.
And all the while—as God is about to announce—they have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith! Simply put, God passionately cries out, “Stop it! Quit playing church! I’m sick and tired of watching you go through the motions and leave out the mission!”
So, what’s changed over the millennia?
Going through the motions? Or leaving out the mission? In the end— and before the End—what changes would God want to see in the hearts of His community of faith?
God is quick with the answer: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7).
What you have just read is the 11th commandment. It is the mission God has assigned people in and before earth’s last days. Read the Bible from cover to cover and you will find no more compelling case for proactive social action than Isaiah 58! It is a divine call for the community of faith to immerse itself in the suffering life of the world around it—the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the naked. And not only to immerse itself but to give of itself to fill those gnawing needs.
Ponder this pointed but practical application of Isaiah 58: “In all our work the principle of unselfishness revealed in Christ’s life is to be carried out. Upon the walls of our homes, the pictures, the furnishings, we are to read, ‘Bring the poor that are cast out to thy house.’ On our wardrobes we are to see written, as with the finger of God, ‘Clothe the naked.’ In the dining room, on the table laden with abundant food, we should see traced, ‘Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry?’ Isaiah 58:7.” The divine appeal of Isaiah 58 throbs with Day of Atonement imagery, which makes this ancient chapter a very contemporary call from God to a people living in “the hour of His judgment” (Revelation 14:7).
Apparently, social action has much to do with the final judgment!
the issue in the judgment
Notice carefully the categories of human misery and need God identifies here in Isaiah 58:6, 7—the hungry, the homeless, the poor and the naked. Do they sound familiar? Do you remember a story Jesus told that took these same categories of the socially disenfranchised, the economically marginalised, and the spiritually alienated and wove them into His grand-finale parable?
Christ told the story just days before His crucifixion—the Matthew 25 parable about the King who returns to earth and gathers the world’s people before Him. And even as a good Palestinian shepherd separates the light-haired sheep from the dark-coated goats, the returning King divides His subjects into two separate camps.
To those at His right hand, the Shepherd King announces: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:34–36).
And when the friends of the shepherd King hear His praise they, in humble disbelief, ask Him when they had even once seen their beloved but faraway King. “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40).
Mark it well. The Day of Atonement pronouncement by God in Isaiah 58 is matched by the Day of Judgment pronouncement by Jesus in Matthew 25.
And both verdicts are based on how people treated those suffering socially and economically. Note it carefully: on that day, the question will not be, “Did you know the truth about Me?”
Instead, the question will be, “Did you show the truth about Me?” Both passages powerfully phrase the final question in the judgment: What did you do for those desperately in need, socially, physically and economically?
Regarding Matthew 25’s sheep and goats parable, Ellen White wrote: “Christ on the Mount of Olives pictured to His disciples the scene of the great judgment day. And He represented its decision as turning upon one point. When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and suffering.”5
turning upon one point
The final probing question will be, “Did you show the truth about Me to the broken and dying world? Did you show My truth by living My love for the poor and suffering?”
Why would the Judge be so passionate about that? Because “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
Because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).
After all, “If anyone says, I love God, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
The evidence is incontrovertible. The radical bottom line of the last judgment is the passionate opening line of the eleventh commandment: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
We can no more earn a place in heaven by keeping this commandment than we can by keeping the other 10. Eternal life always has been and always will be a gift of grace. But the faith by which we receive that gift is a faith that changes us. Day by day, it transforms those who believe until they resemble the God of love—the God who loved so deeply that He gave all He had.
How we live reveals whether or not we’ve accepted that gift of grace. Those who have accepted it will love like their Lord. Those who haven’t, won’t. That’s why, in this kingdom of grace and unmerited favour, the judgment can hinge on how people have lived—how they’ve treated those in need.
So, you see, Fred Phelps’s message— God bless his mistaken soul—is wrong.
Called to hate? God forbid! The One who presides at the final judgment calls us to love: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”
(Matthew 25:40). And who better to show love to and love for than Calvary’s Judge and King?