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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 56

Verse 1

This chapter is designated by many scholars as another glimpse of the times of Messiah, but we cannot accept such an interpretation; and, although there are certain portions of the chapter which indeed are definitely applicable to "latter days" in the kingdom of heaven, there are other portions of it which are thoroughly Jewish with no application whatever to Christians or times of the Messiah. This strange mingling of separate subjects in a single passage is often found in Scripture, the great example being that spoken by Christ himself in his prophecy of the destruction of the literal Jerusalem, which is also, at the very same time, a prophecy of the end of the world (Matthew 24).

Therefore, in this chapter, all references to "the sabbath" and to "burnt-offerings and sacrifices" are directed to Jews alone; whereas, the prophecy of that "new name," better than "of sons and daughters," and the acceptability of eunuchs and "foreigners," that is, "Gentiles," into the service of God is clearly a prophecy of the Messianic kingdom.

Failure to take account of this fundamental principle of Biblical interpretation led even great scholars like Albert Barnes to make this chapter a prophecy that the Sabbath Day would be incorporated as a binding obligation in the Church of Jesus Christ.[1] The only trouble with such an interpretation is that it forces Isaiah to prophecy a lie.

In all the New Testament, or the whole Bible for that matter, there is never an instance in which the sabbath day was ever made a requirement for anyone except Jews. The apostle Paul commanded, "Let no man, therefore judge you in respect of ... a sabbath day ... For he (Christ) hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Colossians 2:14,15).

J. R. Dummelow has given a very convincing analysis of why this whole passage pertains to the pre-exilic Israel, and is not primarily directed either to post-exilic or Christian times:

(a) The picture here of the infatuated and self-indulgent leaders of Israel fits the pre-exilic Israel much better than it does the times of the exile (Isaiah 56:10-12). (b) The idolatrous rites alluded to (Isaiah 57:5-9) are those practiced in the later days of the Jewish monarchy (Manasseh's reign). (c) The persecution of true followers of Jehovah (Isaiah 57:1) suggests the reign of Manasseh. (d) The natural features mentioned (Isaiah 57:5,6) are Palestinian, not Baylonian. (e) The seeking of foreign alliances alluded to (Isaiah 57:6-10) fits the days of Israel's monarchy, not the times of the exile, or later.[2]

It should be noted that Dummelow treated this and the following chapters as a unit, which, of course, is correct. To the analysis given above, we wish to add the fact that the triple injunction regarding the "Sabbath" in Isaiah 56:2,4,6 of this chapter removes every possibility of the chapter's application to the times of the captivity; because nobody can believe that God would have commanded a nation of slaves in Babylon to "observe the sabbath day." What slave-master would have allowed such a thing? No, the very fact of the commandment implies that Israel could have observed it. Most of the commentators who favor other interpretations have noted this difficulty and suppose that it was some kind of "a spiritual observance" that was commanded. Who ever heard of such a thing?

The great thrust of both Isaiah 56 and Isaiah 57, is God's warnings to his apostate people, then approaching their captivity, to, "Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even the statutes and ordinances" (Malachi 4:4). Thus the very last word of Jehovah to his wicked nation, as recorded here, was exactly the same as the last word of the Old Testament to the same apostate and hardened people in the last three verses of the Old Testament, (Malachi 4:4). quoted above, namely, "Get with it, and observe the law of Moses!".

Isaiah 56:1-2

"Thus saith Jehovah, Keep ye justice, and do righteousness; for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that holdeth it fast; that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, and keepeth his hand from doing anything evil."

In a word, these two verses are simply an admonition to the apostate Israelites to "Remember the law of Moses" and obey it. They were nearing the climax of their long pursuit of the utmost wickedness under Manasseh, which would result in God's removing the whole nation into captivity. The command to "keep the sabbath" is a synecdoche, standing for all of the obligations of the law of Moses. This figure is used extensively throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as in the New Testament declaration that men are justified "by faith," which means the belief, acceptance, and obedience to all the obligations of the Christian religion. It will recur in Isaiah 56:4 and Isaiah 56:6.

Verse 3

"Neither let the foreigner, that hath joined himself to Jehovah, speak, saying, Jehovah will surely separate me from his people; neither let the eunuch say, Behold I am a dry tree. For thus saith Jehovah of the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant: Unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off."

Notice that the words "hold fast my covenant" in Isaiah 56:4 are the same as "keeping the sabbath days," thus a reference to their keeping the whole law of Moses.

Why this special reference to "foreigners" and to "eunuchs"? Isaiah had already prophesied, "That a certain number of the seed of Hezekiah would serve as eunuchs in the royal palace of the king of Babylon" (2 Kings 20:18); and Daniel and his three faithful companions were among those who thus served.[3] There were doubtless many others of the captives who suffered the same cruel treatment. The words given here were for the encouragement of all such persons. The foreigners were included because of the likelihood that some of the Babylonians would, through human kindness, become attached to God's people and join them; and these words were also extended to encourage them.

This meant that, "The law of Deuteronomy 23:1, regarding the exclusion of eunuchs and foreigners, would be abrogated,"[4] during the times of the captivity for those who "kept the covenant."


"A memorial name, a name better than of sons and of daughters ... an everlasting name that shall not be cut off ..." (Isaiah 56:5). The name here referred to is the name, Christian. Isaiah here prophesied that the name would be given, not by God's enemies, but by himself within his house and within his walls, that is, within the church, the church being the only "house" God ever had, certainly, not the Jewish Temple, which, from the beginning was contrary to God's will. Isaiah also prophesied that this memorial name would be "a new name" (Isaiah 62:2), and a name which the "mouth of the Lord" would give, and that it would be given after the "kings and the Gentiles had seen the righteousness of God," that is, after the Church of Messiah had been established and after Gentiles were accepted into it. (See the discussion of the name "Christian," in Vol. 5, (Acts) of my New Testament Series of Commentaries, pp. 333-336.)

Verse 6

"Also the foreigners that join themselves to Jehovah, to minister unto him, and to love the name of Jehovah, to be his servants, everyone that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it, and holdeth fast my covenant; even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. The Lord Jehovah, who gathereth the outcasts of Israel, saith, Yet will I gather others to him, besides his own that are gathered."

There is a very curious mingling of expressions here with applications both to the old Israel in such terms as "burnt-offerings and sacrifices" and to the New Institution in words like, "my holy mountain" and "my house of prayer." Certainly the Jewish Temple was never "a house of prayer for all peoples"; Jesus called it a "den of thieves and robbers."

"The assurances and promises here to the foreigners and eunuchs who had been excluded from the Commonwealth of Israel, are that they should be received to the full enjoyment of of the richer privileges of the Christian Church; and a specific prediction is inserted respecting the ingathering of Gentiles generally.[5]

Speaking of Isaiah 56:8, here, McGuiggan stated that, "It is clear that `outcasts' here does not mean `all Jews,' but `the righteous remnant.'"[6]

The great promise held out for eunuchs in this chapter explains why the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 happened to be reading in this part of Isaiah (Isaiah 53) when he encountered Philip on the road to Gaza and was baptized into Christ.

Verse 9

"All ye beasts of the field, come to devour, yea, all ye beasts in the forest. His watchmen are blind, they are all without knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. Yea, the dogs are greedy, they can never have enough; and these are shepherds that cannot understand: they have all turned to their own way, each one to his own gain, from every quarter. Come ye, say they, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow shall be as this day, a day great beyond measure."

As Homer Hailey declared, "The evidence of this paragraph is far stronger for the view that Isaiah has turned from prophesying of the captivity, and that he is speaking to the people of his own day, summarizing the causes that will lead to the captivity of Israel."[7] The significance of this is that the critical allegation that, "This chapter was written at a time long after the captivity, after the Temple had been rebuilt and was the center of an elaborate ritual,"[8] is absolutely untenable. On the contrary, the Temple of Solomon, at the time envisioned here, was still standing; and the abuses mentioned were all prevalent in the days of Isaiah and afterward. These were precisely the very things that led to the captivity. There is no doubt whatever of Isaiah's authorship of all these chapters. If he had not been, Christ would never have referred to these passages, accrediting them to the great eighth century prophet, Isaiah. All of the critics on earth do not represent any authority sufficiently dependable to offset this fact.

The terrible failure of the prophets and leaders of the Jews during this period of their apostasy was deplorable. They are here referred to as dumb, lazy dogs that will not bark. They not only neglected their duties as watchmen over the religious affairs of Israel, but they were greedy for gain, interested only in the profits they might reap from their offices; and they also were given over to laziness, drunkenness, and irresponsibility. Isaiah will continue his prophecy regarding such leaders in the following chapter.

When one contrasts Jehovah's evaluation of those dumb, lazy dogs with their high social standing and the prestige which they enjoyed during their generation, it raises the question regarding so-called "Christian" writers today who contradict every line of the Holy Bible on the principles of a' system which in arrogance and conceit is called "higher criticism." Are any of Jehovah's words here applicable to them?

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 56". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.