Introduction to Isaiah 56

Isaiah 56 extends the calls of the previous chapter: men are required to amend their ways in preparation for the imminent revelation of salvation resulting from the Servant’s completed work (v1–2). In the following section (56:3–8) the invitation to partake of the righteousness about to be revealed is presented in another form, lest anyone should be excluded; foreigners, and even eunuchs would become connected, with equal privileges with the people of God, the natural seed of Abraham. The last part of this chapter (v9–12) is a prophecy of an invasion of the land on account of slothful and degenerate leadership.

56:1–2 A third call to participate. It is a call to  obedience in view of the impending revelation of  God’s righteousness.

56:1 “Thus saith Yahweh, Keep ye judgment  [Heb mishpat, justice], and do justice [Heb  zedek, righteousness; rsv ‘keep justice, and do righteousness’]: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed.”

In view of the fact that the Kingdom of God was at hand, Yahweh states how to prepare for it, what qualities of character were demanded of those who would embrace its offers and be admitted to partake of its privileges. It is not an offer based on human achievement and works, but is founded upon what God has accomplished through His Servant: it is described as “my salvation”, and “my righteousness” (cp 53:11; 51:1), which is described as “near” (51:5) and “forever” (51:6); it is based upon humility, belief, repentance and forgiveness, the antithesis of human pride. It is notable that though the command is in the present tense it relates to the future! The call is imperative, urgent and pulsating; there is no room for indifference or procrastination in matters relating to the God of heaven. The same compulsion rings through the cries of the Baptist, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2); cries which were echoed by the King himself, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17). Of how much greater import are the words for us who live on the brink of the Lord’s coming, the greatest event in human history.

“Keep ye judgment, and do justice” (rsv ‘Keep  justice, and do righteousness’) Whilst men are dependent upon God’s righteousness in Christ, sincerity of approach to Him is seen in the bringing  forth of fruits meet for repentance. Hence John  called upon men to change their ways in view of the coming of the Saviour (Luke 3:3–14).

56:2 “Blessed is the man [Heb enosh, Roth ‘frail  man’] that doeth this, and the son of man [Heb  adam] that layeth hold on it; [Heb, binds himself  fast to it] that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil.”

Both words translated “man” emphasize his humble origins: enosh – man’s frailty; and adam – his earthly constitution. All share mortality and hence the need for redemption: gone are the old boundaries of descent, race and privilege; the blessedness, or happiness resulting from “doing this” and “laying hold on it” is defined in verses 5 to 8.

But what is the “it”, which one must do to “lay hold on” the blessing? The last part of this verse tells us: “that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil”.

“that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it”  First be it noted that the two verbs “doeth” and  “layeth hold” are in the imperfect tense, signifying  continuous action, perseverance and not just for a moment; and this applies to the keeping of the Sabbath and keeping one’s hand from doing evil.

The Sabbath was to be observed as a day of rest when men ceased from their labours and worshipped Yahweh. It was a unique rite in Israel and was a memorial or sign between the nation and Yahweh (Exod 20:8–11; 31:13–17). At home the regulation of the Sabbath preserved awareness of Israel’s special relationship with the Creator, a constant sense of worship and the need for devotion and holiness; abroad among strangers it would serve to remind all of the peculiar nature of their institutions and that they were worshippers of Yahweh. Failure to observe it, or “polluting it”, would deprive them of regulated time for meditation on heavenly things, with the result eternal death.

But the Sabbath signified much more particularly to those in the Christian era, for Jesus Christ was in himself and in the blessings he brings the very essence of the Sabbath. Hence the miracles of healing he performed were most appropriately often done on the Sabbath (John 5:9; Matt 12:1, 8–13; Luke 13:11–17): “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:23–28).

The Sabbath law per se was not endorsed by the apostles, but its import was and is binding on believers, as taught in Hebrews: “There remaineth therefore a rest [mrg ‘keeping of a sabbath’] to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his [cp v4]. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest….” (4:9–11). It is in this way that those who embrace the salvation in Christ “(keep) the sabbath from polluting it”. A high view of the Sabbath, the spirit of the Sabbath, is beautifully expressed in Isaiah 58:13–14: “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of Yahweh, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in Yahweh; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth.”

“Keeping the sabbath” is again mentioned among the conditions to be observed by eunuchs (v4) and strangers (v6).

“and keepeth his hand from doing any evil”  Keeping the Sabbath involves positive ordering of life around the work of the living God, the ecclesia;  and keeping one’s hand from doing any evil is the negative restraint of personal behaviour from doing wrong. Punctilious observance of the Sabbath as set  out in the ‘over-defined’ “tradition of the elders” by  the Pharisees was often not accompanied by moral rectitude, and reaped the Lord’s rebuke in his day and generation (Luke 11:37–54). The message is not without relevance today.

56:3–8 The assurance of perfect equality with Israelites is held out to eunuchs and strangers

56:3 “Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath  joined himself to Yahweh, speak saying, Yahweh hath utterly separated me [rsv, Roth ‘will surely  separate’] from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.”

The eunuch and the stranger in certain circumstances were specifically excluded from the congregation of Israel and these statements are made against this background (Deut 23:1,3).

“Neither let the son of the stranger” That is, a  foreigner, who would become a proselyte to the true religion. Deuteronomy 23:3 dealt with specific instances requiring special treatment, but in fact the Old Testament was never exclusive on the basis of nationality. The Abrahamic promise envisaged  blessings on all nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18).  Deuteronomy 10:17–19 and Exodus 12:48–49  express the general position that the stranger was a welcome convert, as Rahab and Ruth illustrate; the universality of the calling of God is never  more eloquently expressed than in Isaiah 49:6 and  55:1–3.

“stranger, speak … Yahweh hath utterly separated  me from his people” Foreigners were not to esteem  themselves outcasts, cut off from the privileges of  God’s people. These words are spoken from the  perception that they were second-rate citizens, an  opinion prevailing among Jews. Feelings of being  excluded from divine privileges are here annulled,  all the barriers are broken down. There was to be no sense of inferiority for Gentiles, or superiority for  Jews as all are made one in Christ (Gal 3:26–29); no sense of class, caste or rank: the Law, which set the bar very high for Gentile proselytes, has been nailed  to the cross (Col 2); the middle wall of partition has come tumbling down (Eph 2).

“neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry  tree” Eunuchs were often set over harems in the east  (Est 2:3,14,15; 4:5), and were employed also as high  officers at court (Est 1:10, 12, 15; Acts 8:27; Dan  1:3). Through physical defect they were unable to procreate, and hence, without the distraction of wife  or family they could become dedicated servants  and administrators. Jesus widened the definition  of a “eunuch” to include those “which have made  themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s  sake” (Matt 19:12).

A dry tree is an emblem of that which is barren, useless and unfruitful. Inability to become a father and have a family, coupled with the proscription of the Law, could generate feelings of worthlessness. But was not Daniel a eunuch, a man greatly beloved of his God?

Jesus reinterpreted what it means to be a dry tree when he cursed the fig (Matt 21:19, cp Ezek 17:24; Psa 52:8). Its withering from the roots upward symbolized the sterile, fruitless worship of the national leaders bent upon crucifying their Messiah. Physical imperfection in any form is no barrier to acceptable worship of Him with Whom there is no respect of persons (Jas 2:1; Deut 10:17).

56:4 “For thus saith Yahweh unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that  please me, and take hold of my covenant.”

Mention is made of “the stranger” first in verse  3 and of “the eunuchs” secondly in verse 4. The  blessings they will receive are given in the reverse  order, namely in verse 4 for the eunuchs, in verse  7 for the stranger.

What eunuchs must do is summarised in three requirements.

1 “keep my sabbaths” Refer to 56:2 where the  significance of this is discussed.

2 “choose the things that please me” The three  requirements overlap, but in determining what  pleases the Lord, a glance at the Lord Jesus’  life provides the answer. To please God is to  do His will (53:10; 55:11). This is dramatically set forth by the placing of two New Testament  statements in juxtaposition: upon his baptism the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved  Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17),  and the Lord could say to his detractors, “he  that sent me is with me … for I do always those  things that please him” (John 8:29). Looking  at his example, his attitude, his compassion as  portrayed in the Gospels, gives us the plainest  definition of what it means to “choose the things  that please me (God)”; he made God’s will his  preference and sacrificed his own. See also  58:6,7,10,13,14.

3 “and take hold [niv ‘hold fast’] of my covenant”  The new covenant ratified by the blood of Jesus  Christ (Jer 31:31, 32; Matt 26:28; Isa 42:6; 49:8)  is accessible to all, whereas the old covenant  was made with one nation (Exod 24:8) and there  were obstacles in the path of others who desired to embrace it; for example, circumcision: it was  a yoke which the apostles decided not to place on Gentiles (Acts 15:8–11).

The three verbs chosen are strong words – the  embrace of the God of Israel must be decisive, total  and without equivocation – it is a commitment to  “my sabbaths”, “the things that please me”, and  “my covenant”.

56:5 “Even unto them will I give in mine house  and within my walls a place [Heb yad, neb  ‘memorial’, rsv ‘monument’] and a name [Heb  vashem] better than of sons and of daughters [lb  ‘better than the honour they would receive from having sons and daughters’]: I will give them an  everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”

This verse presents the inestimable honour, the hitherto unattainable heights the eunuch will receive for his attachment to the Hope of Israel. For him the taboos, the gnawing grievances of his physical limitations, will be eclipsed by the blessings intrinsic in his new relationship. This privilege, the honour of procreation, of being a father, of family, will be transcended by a higher fellowship.

The Lord Jesus Christ dramatically illustrated this new, higher relationship in his personal life, his ministry and his teaching. He never married. He could not fulfil the Father’s will involving total commitment, of sinlessness, had he married; he was a self-made eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matt 19). He was not limited by the ties of family, always deferring to the relationship with his heavenly Father (Mark 3:31–35; Luke 11:27–28). He knew that as a result of his death he would not be childless but become the father of an innumerable family; he would “see his seed … the travail of his soul, and … be satisfied” (53:8, 10–12; 9:6; 22:21).

The Ethiopian eunuch

He was reading Isaiah 53:7–8 [lxx], “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter … In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken away from the earth.” Feeling a kindred spirit with the subject of these verses he asked Philip, divinely sent to him, “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?”

We are told that Philip (unlike the Servant in 53:7) “opened his mouth and (beginning) at the same scripture … preached unto him Jesus.” Following his belief “with all (his) heart”, Philip acceded to his request for baptism. Then he went on his way rejoicing. Can we not imagine Philip traversing Isaiah 53, 54, 55 and 56, where the welcome and blessing specifically addressed to eunuchs occurs? It is hard to imagine this did not happen. The Ethiopian eunuch “went on his way rejoicing”. He had much to rejoice in, the promise of a memorial in God’s house, of an everlasting name (cp 55:13); and with the stranger to be made “joyful in my house” (v7).

Solomon reflected on the utter vanity of one who might live long and have a hundred children, but who “does not enjoy life’s good things” (rsv) and who is not honoured at his burial (Ecc 6:3–6). How much better is the lot of the Ethiopian eunuch than that?

a place [yad] and a name [vashem] better than of  sons and of daughters” Yad Vashem is the name of the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, taken from this verse in Isaiah. It is a sombre reminder of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews in Europe  by the Nazis. It is a memorial to the six million who perished at the hand of Hitler, Eichman and their henchmen. Also there is an avenue of trees  commemorating “righteous Gentiles” who sought to alleviate their suffering, among whom are the Swede, Raoul Wallenburg, and the German, Oscar Schindler.

There is an appropriateness in the use of these words from Isaiah, but it falls far short of the contextual meaning intended.

“in mine house” As living stones “in my Father’s  house”, as Jesus said (John 14:2–3,23; 1 Pet 2:5).

“that shall not be cut off” This is the third time these words appear. They are also used of the  Servant (53:8), and of the perfected earth, which  “shall be to Yahweh for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (55:13).

56:6 “Also the sons of the stranger, that join  [‘Levi’, Gen 29:34; cp Acts 8:29!] themselves to Yahweh, to serve him, and to love the name of  Yahweh, to be his servants, every one that keepeth  the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of  my covenant.”

This verse elaborates what the stranger, foreigner, alien must do to receive the blessing promised in verse 2 and given in detail in verse 7.

Whilst God intended from the beginning that all nations would be part of His plan to fill the earth with men who honour Him, the hopeless plight  of Gentiles is nowhere set forth more starkly than in the Apostle Paul’s words which allude to this  verse: “ … ye being in time past Gentiles … who are called Uncircumcision … That at that time  ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the  covenants of promise, having no hope, and without  God in the world” (Eph 2:11,12). Notice that in the following verses (13–18) Isaiah 57:19 is cited and expounded, verses that speak of the same matter, Gentile inclusion.

What the sons of the stranger must do

  1. “that join themselves to Yahweh” (cp v3). This entails belief of the Gospel and baptism into Christ: all, both Jew and Gentile become “one  in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It is the greatest decision in life and has the most wide-ranging  and long-standing consequences. “Join” is a  strong word, as can be seen by Leah’s use  of it when she named her third son Levi.  This “joining” has consequences; the  whole direction in life has changed, and service to Yahweh becomes the prevailing  affection. They must serve Him, love His  name, and be His servants (by following the example of the Servant, see notes 54:17). It  is not a case of becoming part of a system  or identifying with a people, but involves  personal devotion to Yahweh and to His Son on the grounds of revealed truth.
  2. “that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it” See 56:2,4.
  3. “and taketh hold of my covenant” See 56:4.

56:7 “Even them will I bring to my holy mountain,  and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their  burnt offerings [Heb olah] and their sacrifices  [Heb zebac, peace offerings] shall be accepted  upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called  an house of prayer [Heb tephillah, song of praise]  for all people [rsv ‘peoples’; lxx ethnesin, as cited  by Jesus in Mark 11:17 etc].”

“Even them will I bring to my holy mountain” The  holy place previously was the exclusive domain of  the chosen priests. By no lesser person than Yahweh  Himself will the redeemed be brought on “The  way of holiness” (35:8) to “my holy mountain”. It  is the same glorious vision as that found in Isaiah  35:8–10 and carried forward in Hebrews 12:22  and Revelation 14:1–5. There could be no greater  guarantee of acceptance. The “holiness”, once a  barrier to the unclean, shall not be a divide for those  sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints (1 Cor  1:2; 6:11; John 17:17–19).

“and make them joyful in my house of prayer”  Fear of discrimination will be annulled and  forgotten in that wondrous day of comfort, approval  and acceptance. The accompanying joy and  exhilaration is inexpressible. It will be the “new  song” in the mouth of the redeemed (Rev 14:3; 5:9);  “the ransomed of Yahweh shall return, and come  to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their  heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow  and sighing shall flee away” (Isa 35:10; 51:11).

“their burnt offerings [olah] and their sacrifices  [Heb zebac, peace offering] shall be accepted on  mine altar” The two offerings mentioned belong  to the final stages of the sacrificial code; the sin  and trespass are not in view. Appropriately they  signify dedication and fellowship (peace with  God), for they are one with Yahweh. In point of  fact the immortalised saints will not literally have  to offer but the mortal Gentiles will. Sacrifices and  offerings will be reinstated in worship in the age to  come. The redeemed will be priests after the order  of Melchizedek, while mortal priests, the Levites,  will be purified “that they may offer unto Yahweh  an offering [minchah] in righteousness” (Mal 3:2).

“for my house shall be called an house of prayer  for all nations” These words were cited by the  Lord when he entered the Temple and “overthrew  the tables of the money changers” to express what  that place would become. Tragically it had been  degraded to a place of greed and merchandise, “a  den of thieves” (Matt 21:13; Jer 7:8,11).

The word translated prayer (tephillah) can  mean a song of praise and so the universal joy and blessedness of that day is foretold.

56:8 “The Lord Yahweh which gathereth the  outcasts of Israel [cp Psa 147:2] saith, Yet will I  gather others to him [Israel], beside those that are  gathered unto him [rsv, niv, ‘besides those already  gathered’].

Here the gathering of the Gentiles is plainly  forecast. Three times the verb “gather” is used.  There is a clear allusion to this verse in John 11:52,  “And not for that nation only, but that also he  should gather together in one the children of God  that were scattered abroad”; and Ephesians 1:10,  “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he  might gather together in one all things in Christ.”  Jesus also appears to have these words in mind  when he said, “other sheep I have which are not of  this fold [Israel]: them also I must bring, and they  shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold,  and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Significantly, too,  the words are found in the parable of the Marriage  Feast: the servants sent into the highways (ie the  apostles sent to the Gentiles) were to “gather(ing) together all as many as they found” so that the  marriage would be furnished with guests (Matt  22:10).

“The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of  Israel” This is a notable address. Why speak of  Yahweh as He Who gathers “the outcasts of Israel?”  Because it is in harmony with the prevailing thought  of the preceding verses, that Gentiles etc are on the  same footing as Israelites: as Yahweh had to gather  the outcasts of Israel, so He would have to gather  Gentile outcasts! Outcasts not so much through  being scattered geographically but spiritually by  apostasy. Israelites could not fancy themselves to be  superior, nor Gentiles feel inferior: all have sinned  and all are in need of mercy (Rom 11:30–32).

“The Lord God [the Sovereign Yahweh] saith …  Yet will I gather others [Gentiles, the ‘other sheep’  John 10:16] to him, beside those [Israelites] that are  gathered unto him” This is a fiat of the Gatherer of the outcasts of Israel! It emphasises that there  is an equality, that no nation has any ground for  boasting or complaint.

We can thank our loving heavenly Father that  He has drawn us to His Son, touched our hearts, and given us light and hope in an otherwise dark and evil world.