Salvation for others, 1-8
We come to the last section of the book, often referred to by scholars as ‘Third Isaiah’. People have begun to return from exile in Babylon. The future is bright: God’s ‘salvation’ and ‘righteousness’ are close at hand, v1; the foreigner and the eunuch (v5) will be included among God’s people (v5, cf. Ex 12:48; Ruth 2:12; Isa 2:2-4/Mic 4:1-3). In fact, we have here in Isa 56:1-8 a vision of a worldwide community of the people of the one true God.
The NT will make even plainer the truth that God’s righteous Servant died for the sins of the whole world, Jn 1:29, and the believing Jews and Gentiles would together become one people in Christ, Eph 3:1-12).
But they had returned to a land under Persian rule, and, moreover, they were viewed with suspicion and even hostility by those already living in the area. Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Malachi show that the summons to ‘maintain justice and do what is right’ was very imperfectly obeyed.
‘But the most serious problems arose from the fact that this small community lived “between the times,” so to speak. The return from exile had begun but was far from complete, Isa 56:8 … The glorious new age the prophets had spoken about had begun to dawn, but much – very much – still awaited fulfilment. Things were not as they had been, but neither were they as they would be. The community lived in tension between the “now” and the “not yet.” They had the beginnings of what God had promised but not the fullness of it. It was a time in many respects like our own, between the first and second comings of Christ. The kingdom of God has come, but is yet to come. It is an exciting time but also a difficult one, when (as Paul puts it) “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for … the redemption of our bodies”.’ (Rom 8:23) (Webb)
Webb note that the overall shape of this last part of Isaiah indicates, however, more than merely a similarity of circumstances between the Jews of his day and ourselves. This section is preceded by ch. 53, with its astonishing account of the death and exaltation of the Messiah, and the final consummation in the new heavens and the new earth in chapters 65 & 66. ‘This is the period in which we now live, referred to in the New Testament as “the last days,” Acts 2:16-21; Heb 1:1-3. In short, the text has a double focus, and we will need to bear this constantly in mind if we want to appreciate fully its richness and relevance to us.’
1 Pet 1:10 reminds us that concerning the salvation that was to be wrought by Jesus Christ, ‘the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care.’
Oswalt supports the idea that chapters 56-66 are in a chiastic structure:-
A. Obedient foreigners, Isa 56:1-8
B. Necessity of ethical righteousness, Isa 56:9-59:15a
C. Divine warrior, Isa 59:15b-21
D. Jerusalem, light of the world, Isa 60:1-62:12
C. Divine warrior, Isa 63:1-6
B. Necessity of ethical righteousness, Isa 63:7-66:17
C. Obedient foreigners, Isa 66:18-24
Within the structure, the midpoint (D) has particular prominence. Oswalt notes that Isaiah ‘is unwilling to end any segment in the book with the kind of promise that will leave readers with the feeling that their present behaviour is unimportant because of the certainty of the future promises of blessing.’ So although ‘Jerusalem, light of the world’ is the climax, ‘the final words of the book have to do with the necessity of obeying God if we are to be among that worshiping crowd from every tribe, tongue and nation.’
With regard to the section as a whole (chapters 56-66) we note that Jesus himself quoted Isa 61, announcing, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Notice too, though, that our Lord concludes with, ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, and does not proceed to, ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’ This is because his earthly ministry inaugurated ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’, but the ‘day of vengeance’ has not yet arrived. We can conclude that Isa 56-66 are still in process of being fulfilled.
Isa 56:1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
The Talmud records the saying of one of the rabbis that ‘Moses gave Israel 613 commandments, David reduced them to 10 Psa 15, Micah to three, (Mic 6:8) Isaiah to 2, (Isa 56:1) but Habakkuk 2:4 to one: the righteous shall live by his faith.’
With regard to the present section (56:1-8), J.A. Alexander says:- ‘The doctrine of the passage is simply this, that they who enjoy extraordinary privileges, or expect extraordinary favours, are under corresponding obligations to do the will of God; and, moreover, that the nearer the manifestation of God’s mercy, whether in time or eternity, the louder the call to righteousness of life. These truths are of no restricted application, but may be applied wherever the relation of a Church or chosen people can be recognized.’
‘The scope of these verses’, says Matthew Henry, ‘is to show that when God is coming towards us in a way of mercy we must go forth to meet him in a way of duty.’
“Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand” – Note the similarity to John the Baptist’s message – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Mt 3:2. Barnes remarks that although this passage seems originally to have been addressed to the Jews in Babylon, and to the end of their captivity, the language is appropriate to the coming of God’s kingdom under the Messiah. Indeed, these verses seem to underlie a number of NT passages, Mt 3:2; Lk 21:31; Rom 13:11. Barnes adds: ‘Though the actual coming of the Messiah at the time of the exile was at a period comparatively remote, yet the commencement of the great work of their deliverance was near at hand. They were soon to be rescued, and this rescue was to be but the first in the train of deliverances that would result in the entire redemption of the people of God, and was to be the public pledge that all that he had promised of the redemption of the world should be certainly effected.’
‘Walk by rule, and make conscience of what you say and do, that you do no wrong to any. Render to all their dues exactly, and, in exacting what is due to you, keep up a court of equity in your own bosom, to moderate the rigours of the law. Be ruled by that golden rule, “Do as you would be done by.” Magistrates must administer justice wisely and faithfully. This is required to evidence the sincerity of our faith and repentance, and to open the way of mercy.’ (MHC)
‘Maintain justice and do what is right’, says Calvin, sums up the second table of the law, and embraces not only the avoidance of wrong-doing, but also helping our neighbours in every way.
“My salvation is close at hand” – ‘The salvation here spoken of has now come; yet, there being still a further salvation in view, the apostle presses duty upon us Christians with the same argument. Rom 13:11, Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.’ (MHC)
“My righteousness”, says Motyer, is shorthand for ‘the fulfilment of my righteous purposes’. Oswalt remarks that the term ‘righteousness’ is used in chapters 1-39 exclusively of behaviour that is consistent with God’s commands. In chapters 40-55 it usually refers to God’s faithful deliverance of his people (despite their failings). Chapters 56-66 synthesise these two teachings, showing that upright conduct is required, but that such conduct is only possible through God’s grace.
On being ready for God’s day of salvation, see also Heb 10:25.
Isa 56:2 Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Blessed is the man – The specific blessings are outlined in v7f.
Sabbath – ‘Acceptance of the Sabbath involves the reorganization of the whole of life in order to accommodate the principle of one day set apart; it is also the Lord’s invitation to his covenant people (Exod. 31:16) to enter into his rest (Exod. 23:12; 31:17).’ (Motyer)
Sabbath observance is not to be viewed as negative or narrowly legalistic. It was not merely about the prohibition of work, but about marking out God’s people as distinctive, and providing opportunities for rest, renewal, and worship.
‘Sabbath-sanctification is here put for all the duties of the first table, the fruits of our love to God, as justice and judgment are put for all those of the second table, the fruits of our love to our neighbour.’ (MHC)
In Isa 58:6f, however, Sabbath observance is linked to humanitarian concerns such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and care of the homeless.
‘As the Sabbath was instituted while man was yet within the precincts of Paradise, and unseduced by the wiles of the devil, we are warranted to conclude that a day of holy rest was useful and necessary to him, even in a state of innocence; and if it was of use and advantage to him then, how much more must it be now! Man is now
become so sinful, so earthly, so forgetful of God, so careless of his highest interests, that were it not for the solemnities of the Sabbath, he would speedily lose all sense of religion, and utterly neglect the salvation of his soul.’ (D. Rees. quotes in The Bible Illustrator)
Goldingay thinks that Sabbath observance here is principally a mark of Jewish distinctiveness, of holding fast to the covenant, vv4,6.
Webb reminds us that Sabbath observance meant rest, ‘not just for masters, but for servants as well, and even for working animals and resident foreigners’, Ex 20:10. Webb adds: ‘To keep the Sabbath meant, among other things, that you served the God who created the world and cared for everyone and everything in it.’ Furthermore, ‘It also had to do with perfection or completeness. It recalled the completeness of god’s original work of creation (Gen 2:2f), and looked forward to the time when his work of re-creation would also be complete. The Sabbath rest was a sign of the final rest which all God’s people will enjoy in the new heavens and new earth (Isa 66:22f). so there is no petty legalism here. The Sabbath is viewed not as an end in itself, but as a sign that the whole of life was to be lived in submission to God, and that meant sharing his concern for justice.’
The man who…keeps his hand from doing any evil – Purity of worship (keeping the Sabbath without desecrating it) and upright behaviour are inseparable in Scripture.
Isa 56:3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
The inclusiveness of Isaiah’s message is indicated by the mention of two types, the proselyte and the eunuch. Neither need regard himself as second-rate among the people of God. The old barriers are coming down.
It is not the purebred Israelite, who can trace his ancestry back to Abraham, who is pleasing to God. It is, rather, that ‘foreigner’, who is not part of that ancestral line, and the ‘eunuch’, who cannot pass that line on, who live in obedience to God’s covenant, who are accepted by God. (Oswalt)
Deut 23:1-8 excluded some groups (Ammonites and Moabites) from fellowship with the people of God. But even that turned out not to be an absolute prohibition, as the story of Ruth (a Moabitess) shows. The exclusiveness of Ezra 4; 10; Neh 9:2; 13:23-30 (dating from a similar period as this part of Isaiah) is due to the need to safeguard the purity of the community; but the present passage teaches that when foreigners and eunuchs share the distinctive features of the believing community, they may be welcomed within it. Now, as then, the people of God must avoid two equal and opposite errors – syncretism and isolationism. With syncretism, we absorb the ideas and practices of the surrounding culture and lose everything that is distinctive about the faith of the gospel. With isolationism, we draw a boundary around our own religious subculture and seek to protect our identity by excluding others. In the early church, the lesson was not learned without some difficulty: see Acts 10:9-19, 34f; Gal 2:11-14; 3:28; Eph 3:4-13; Col 3:11. But the seeds of this inclusivism are found right here (see esp. Isa 56:8). (Oswalt).
The Apologetics Study Bible explains: ‘The Lord’s word to Isaiah here in effect canceled the directives of Dt 23:1–8, which excluded eunuchs, Ammonites, and Moabites from the congregation of Israel. The law of Moses was given when Israel was about to occupy the land of Canaan, a time when strict separation from pagan religious practices and from anything symbolic of spiritual imperfection or rebellion against the Lord, was of highest priority…What God originally sought of His people, through the law, was purity of heart and righteous behavior, Now, hundreds of years later, He graciously allows anyone who loves Him, regardless of physical or ethnic characteristics, to enter the temple and worship Him.’
We can, accordingly, regard prohibitions such as those found in Deut, Ezra and Nehemiah as ‘special measures’ that were required for limited period of time in order to preserve the distinctiveness of God’s people.
Eunuch – the word has occurred only once previously in Isaiah (Isa 39:7), where we read that some of Hezekiah’s sons would be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. The implication would be that, if Deut 23 stood as an unalterable law, those Jews with royal blood would have no place in public worship and would have no progeny to continue their line.
“‘Dry tree'” – Barren, unfruitful. Family life was of central importance in Israel. Yet even though the eunuch can bear no children he does not need to feel isolated or excluded.
The NT shows that those who are both foreigners and eunuchs can be included in the Christian church, Acts 8:27ff.
Isa 56:4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—
“Who choose was pleases me” – ‘who will be willing to sacrifice their own pleasure and preferences to those things which I choose, and in which I delight.’ (Barnes)
In speaking thus to the foreigner and the eunuch God ‘appears to annihilate all the external marks in which alone the Jews gloried.’ (Calvin)
The inclusivity proclaimed here is not mere abstract acceptance. It is those eunuchs and foreigners who confess the Lord and give themselves to the demands of the covenant who are welcomed.
Isa 56:5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.
“I will give…” – This is not a matter of human right, to be demanded with a clenched fist, but of divine gift, to be received with an open hand.
The believing, faithful eunuch will by no means have second-class status. ‘To them the Lord grants access to his presence (temple … walls), personal acceptance (memorial … name), more than abundant recompense for deprivations (better than) and eternal security (everlasting … not cut off)’ (Motyer).
In God’s kingdom, all are entitled to equal privileges and advantages. No disadvantages arise from race, colour, age, gender, disability or social class. None are excluded from the house of God; there will be no second-class citizens there.
‘Everyone, however unworthy, may obtain admission into the kingdom of God. He alludes to Jerusalem and to the temple in which the Lord placed a memorial of his name. No place was given in it to any but to the Jews alone; and they would have reckoned the temple to be polluted if any of the Gentiles had entered into it. But the Lord now admits, without distinction, those whom he previously forbade. Indeed he set aside this distinction when we who were the children of strangers were brought by him into the temple—that is, into his church, which is not confined, as formerly, within those narrow limits of Judea but is extended through the whole world.’ (Calvin)
A name better than sons and daughter – To have numerous progeny would preserve one’s name and honour for generations to come. But to be regarded as the children of God is the greatest honour, and an imperishable blessing.
‘Spiritual blessings are unspeakably better than those of sons and daughters; for children are a certain care and may prove the greatest grief and shame of a man’s life, but the blessings we partake of in God’s house are a sure and constant joy and honour, comforts which cannot be embittered.’ (MHC)
“I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off” – Though they have no children to continue the family name, their name will never die out in the house of God. Is there a suggestion of everlasting life here? (EBC)
Megan DeFranza (Understanding Transgender Identities) writes: ‘The Lord does not promise to heal eunuchs or restore them to one of the two categories established in the book of Genesis. Yahweh does not declare these “dry trees” fertile so that they can perpetuate their name as Jewish men did, by begetting sons who begat sons. The Lord does not seem concerned to restore these ambiguous bodies to some creational pattern or ideal. Rather, they are blessed as eunuchs. They are promised, not the same blessing as those given to Jewish men, but something “better than sons and daughters . . . an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (v. 5).’
DeFranza concludes that eunuchs (including those with a congenital intersex condition) simply lie on one part of a continuum between male and female. ‘Eunuchs are promised a place in God’s house as they are, not after some kind of restoration to an Edenic pattern (Isa. 56:5).’
While DeFranza is, of course, right to observe that eunuchs and foreigners are to be welcomed by the Lord into his kingdom, she is probably reading too much into the text when she claims that the Lord is indifferent to eunuchism itself. If we take a whole-Bible view, then we should regard any intersex condition as entailing a disability (due to a genetic or hormonal fault, say) from which the individual will be released in the age to come.
Justin Tanis ‘sees the welcome and inclusion of eunuchs in Isaiah 56:1-5 as relevant to transgendered people because:
‘Eunuchs are the closest biblical analogy we have to transgendered people. Not only were eunuchs subject to physical modification through castration, but they also shifted roles in society from the clearly defined male and female gender roles.’
According to Tanis:
‘For transgendered persons who have a sense of an internal reality that is or may be in conflict with our physical bodies, the prophet speaks a word that focuses on the faithfulness of our lives, not on the particularities of our bodies. God’s emphasis is not on where our bodies came from or how they have been altered, but rather on the ways in which we practice our faith. Justice, inclusion and faithfulness become the primary indicators of people who are acceptable to God.’
(Cited by Davie)
Isa 56:6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—
As Motyer says, ‘entrance is open but not unconditional.’ There must be personal commitment (‘bind’), service, love, worship, sabbath observance and covenant faithfulness. These six marks ‘provide a beautiful description of true godliness, with love as its great dynamic, the very antithesis of Pharisaic legalism’ (EBC). But to serve God with this spirit is far from legalism: ‘whose service is perfect freedom’. See Heb 13:11.
“who hold fast to my covenant” – ‘Here he describes the zeal and steadfastness of those who submit themselves to God and cleave to his Word; therefore, if we are joined to God by a covenant, we ought to hold by it constantly and adhere firmly to sound doctrine, so that it may not be possible to withdraw or separate us from him in any manner.’ (Calvin)
The ancient promise to Abraham – that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed – is being fulfilled. See also 1 Kings 8:41-43.
The inclusiveness of this passage is exemplified in the account of the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26-40. As Webb says, ‘this man was both a foreigner and a eunuch, and interestingly it was the scroll of the prophet Isaiah that he was reading when Philip the evangelist met him. What a harvest was to follow in the vast Afrian continent, a harvest still being reaped today! In Acts we see Isaiah’s vision moving into top gear as the last days begin.’
Isa 56:7 these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
‘Foreigners who were formerly excluded from the church of God are called to it; henceforth the distinction between circumcision and uncircumcision will be abolished.’ (Calvin)
“These” – the eunuchs and the foreigners – will be on speaking terms with the Lord, and find acceptance with him through the means of grace (burnt offerings and sacrifices).
The vision of vv1-8 matches that of Isa 2:1-6. In the earlier passage, however, it is the eagerness of foreigners to worship in God’s temple that is emphasised, whereas here the stress is on God’s initiative. And they come not as mere observers, but as full participants.
“My holy mountain…my house of prayer” – ‘The language here is all derived from the worship of the Jews, though the meaning evidently is, that under the new dispensation, all nations would be admitted to the privileges of his people, and that the appropriate services of religion which they would offer would be acceptable to God.’ (Barnes)
“Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar” – ‘That is, their worship shall be as acceptable as that of the ancient people of God. This evidently contemplates the future times of the Messiah, and the sense is, that in those times, the Gentiles would be admitted to the same privileges of the people of God, as the Jewish nation had been.’ (Barnes)
“My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” – There is no grudging permission here; this is what the house of the Lord was always intended to be.
Jesus quotes this verse in Mt 21:13/Mk 11:17. Interestingly, it was from the Court of the Gentiles that he expelled the traders.
Isa 56:8 The Sovereign LORD declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Gather – ‘God’s work now is that of gathering. There was a time when it was scattering. Man built the tower of Babel, which was intended to be the centre of unity, the armoury of power, and the seat of dominion, whence some mighty Nimrod might sway his sceptre over all the human race: but the Lord would not have it so. Infinite wisdom baffled finite ambition. Now the Lord is gathering together in one the children of God which are scattered abroad. Jesus hath made both Jew and Gentile one, breaking down every wall of partition. This ingathering process is going on every day by the testimony of the Word, and it is to be continued until the end of time.’ (C.H. Spurgeon)
There is to be a double gathering – a gathering of the exiles, and a gathering of Gentiles, that there might be ‘one flock’ and ‘one Shepherd’, Jn 10:16. As Harman says, this will ultimately come about through the atoning work of Christ, whereby all come to God on the same terms, Acts 15:11.
Still others – others, that is, in addition to the gathered exiles and the outcasts (foreigners and eunuchs) previously mentioned.
Barnes comments: ‘The great truth is here fully expressed, that under the Messiah the pagan world would be admitted to the privileges of the people of God. The formidable and long-existing barriers between the nations would be broken down. No one nation would be permitted to come before God claiming any special privileges; none should regard themselves as in any sense inferior to any other portion of the world on account of their birth, their rank, their privileges by nature. Under this economy we are permitted to live – happy now in the assurance that though we were once regarded as strangers and foreigners, yet we are ‘now fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God’ Eph 2:19.’
Barnes adds, ‘The whole world lies on a level before God in regard to its origin – for God ‘has made of one blood all the nations of mankind to dwell on the face of all the earth’ Act 18:26. The whole race is on a level in regard to moral character – for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. And the whole race is on a level in regard to redemption – for the same Saviour died for all; the same heaven is offered to all; and the same eternal and most blessed God is ready to admit all to his favor, and to confer on all everlasting life. What thanks do ‘we owe to the God of grace for the blessings of the eternal gospel; and how anxious should we be that the offers of salvation should in fact be made known to all people! The wide world may be saved, and there is not one of the human race so degraded in rank, or color, or ignorance, that he may not be admitted to the same heaven with Abraham and the prophets, and whose prayers and praises would not be as acceptable to God as those of the most magnificent monarch who ever wore a crown.’
See Jn 10:16.
God’s accusation against the wicked, 9-12
Isa 56:9 Come, all you beasts of the field, come and devour, all you beasts of the forest!
Isa 56:10 Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep.
Isa 56:11 They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain.
Isa 56:12 “Come,” each one cries, “let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better.”