In this essay we are studying Isaiah 56:1-57:2. It would be possible to read verse one as though it were saying that one must “maintain justice and do what is right” to be saved. But that would be a salvation by works that would go against the teaching of the entire book. Indeed chapters 54-55, which we just completed, speak clearly of God’s unconditional acceptance of those who repent and believe. Therefore the best way to understand this verse is that the Lord, through Isaiah, is demanding that justice and righteousness are a proper response to God’s salvation. That interpretation is consistent with the rest of the book and the rest of the Bible for that matter.
Verse two follows up on verse one by declaring that the blessed, or happy, person is one who “keeps the Sabbath . . . and refrains from doing any evil.” Once again this is intended as a response to salvation. We must remember that the people of Israel still were under the Old Covenant. Sabbath keeping represented the cultic side of Jewish life; and abstaining from evil represented the ethical side.
Now then, verses 3-8 speak unexpectedly about those who traditionally were excluded from the covenant fellowship, e. g, foreigners and eunuchs, as being included, if they meet the conditions.
This would have seemed radical to most Jews. Indeed it would have been controversial, because the teaching contradicted the Law. Please turn in your Bible to Deut. 23:1-6. As you read down through those verses, you will see why Isaiah’s teaching would have seemed radical. Deut. 23:1-6 lays out in clear terms that certain people were to be excluded from the covenant fellowship. For example, eunuchs were to be excluded, because they were sexually mutilated (v. 1). Ammonites and Moabites were to be excluded (v. 3). And the reasons for their exclusion are given in verses 4-6. Foreigners in general were treated with respect, but they still were excluded from the covenant fellowship. Now come back to Isaiah 56. Here Isaiah declares that these very people will be included, if they meet the conditions. That would have seemed extremely radical. Some Jews would even have said it was blasphemous.
Look at verses 4-5. God clearly says to the eunuchs that they will be included if they enter into a relationship with him. They will be given an “eternal name;” and that will be better than having physical children, because it will be everlasting or eternal, something physical children are not.
In verses 6-8, following the same pattern as with the eunuch, God declares through the prophet that foreigners who meet several conditions also will be included in the covenant fellowship. As we work through this section, we need to keep in mind that it is talking about us. We are Gentiles, foreigners, insofar as Israel; is concerned.
First, the foreigners will be people who “join themselves to the Lord.” And of course that is the key condition, because it indicates a relationship. Second, they will “minister to him.” This is significant, and once again radical. The Hebrew word used here for “minister” is the same word used for the ministering of priests in the temple. The thought of a foreigner ministering in that way would have seemed abhorrent to many Jews. Third, they will be people who “love the name of the Lord.” This parallels joining themselves to the Lord. Fourth, they will be people who are the Lord’s servants. That parallels their ministering to him. Fifth, like the eunuchs, they will keep the Sabbath. And sixth, they will hold fast to the Lord’s covenant. In other words, we are held responsible for maintaining, and being faithful to, the covenant relationship.
Verse seven reveals certain benefits that the foreign believers will receive. First, God will bring them to his holy mountain. That symbolizes their full inclusion in the covenant fellowship. Notice that God personally will bring them. In other words, they will be treated like any believing Israelite. Second, God will make them joyful in his house of prayer. Third, their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on God’s altar. Of course this is not done literally under the New Covenant. What it means is that the foreigners would have the full privileges of forgiveness of sins.
I believe there are two main points in all of this. First, it is clear that God’s ultimate plan of salvation includes anyone and everyone who will meet the conditions of faith and obedience. The second major point is the fact that God did not chose Israel, and give them all that he did, in order to shut out the world. On the contrary, he did it in order to bring in the world. It is true that he kept Israel separated from the world, but that was to keep her from being absorbed into the world. If she had been absorbed into the world, she would have lost her “ability to call the world out of itself into the blessings of God” (Oswalt). The Church today faces that same challenge. We must resist being absorbed into the world so that we do not lose our ability to call the world out of itself into the blessings of God.
In verse eight Isaiah underlines the fact that God will not be finished with his gathering of believers after he gathers the exiles from Babylon. God’s plan of salvation is much bigger than Israel. He will gather all who will meet the conditions laid out in respect to the eunuchs and foreigners. Although the persons to be gathered are not specified in this verse, I agree with Oswalt that it refers to the worldwide expansion of believers that is taking place under the New Covenant.
Now then, according to Oswalt the next segment doesn’t end with the end of chapter 56. He believes it carries over to 57:2. And he gives the segment the title, “Sheep Without a Shepherd.” In the segment Isaiah lays the blame for Israel’s problems on her leaders.
In verse nine Isaiah invited the “wild animals” to come and devour. The “wild animals” are the nations, and Israel is the meal. This was a rather dramatic way of expressing the fact that God won’t tolerate his people going their own way. He always brings judgment in those who insist on doing that. And in every case of judgment, it is because of blatant sinfulness.
Verses 10-11 explain the sins of Israel’s leaders, meaning all of their leaders, though the prophets would be especially in view. The “watchmen,” NRSV, “sentinels,” are the leaders. And Isaiah says they are blind. His point is that the leaders were responsible to sound the alarm in regard to Israel’s sinfulness; but they were blind to it. Indeed they were so blind, they had no knowledge of it.
Then Isaiah changes the image. He calls the leaders watchdogs that cannot bark. They would rather sleep than keep watch and bark at danger. But the leaders are not just lazy and idle dogs. They have huge appetites. They never are satisfied with what they have to eat.
In the second half of verse 11 Isaiah once again changes the image. He now refers to the leaders as shepherds. Of course shepherds are responsible for the flock. But these shepherds have no understanding of what they are called to do, and they have failed to fulfill their responsibilities. They have gone their own way, instead of God’s; and they have sought their own greedy agendas instead of doing what God called them to do. It is these three images taken together, watchmen, dogs, and shepherds that suggest that Isaiah had kings and other leasers in mind in addition to the prophets.
The unidentified speaker in verse 12 represents the attitude of the leaders. The word used for drinking here is one that suggests drinking in excess. This is how Israel’s leaders want to spend their time. And tomorrow they will do the same thing, only better, meaning with even more excess. This verse summarizes the nasty condition of Israel’s leaders, those who are responsible for the well being of the nation.
Meanwhile, as 57:1-2 tells us, the righteous people are disappearing from Israelite society. And no one takes it to heart; they don’t even notice. Many scholars take “perish” in verse one literally and believe that the righteous people are dying out. And they interpret resting on their beds in verse two, which parallels “entering into peace” in the first half of the verse, to mean death. Others interpret the verses to mean that the righteous ones are being taken from this world to a better place, but it’s hard to tell what was in Isaiah’s mind.