Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 56

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



The last major section of Isaiah deals with the necessity of living out the righteousness of God (cf. Romans 12-16). These chapters emphasize what the characteristics of the servants of the Lord should be. Again, the focus is on Israel primarily but not exclusively. All God’s people are in view, though God’s will for Israel and His promises to Israel were Isaiah’s chief concerns.

Many liberal interpreters of Isaiah believe that a "Trito-Isaiah" wrote these chapters, a "Deutero-Isaiah" wrote chapters 40-55, and Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote chapters 1-39. [Note: See the Old Testament Introductions in the bibliography of these notes for extensive discussion of this issue.] Most conservative commentators believe that Isaiah of Jerusalem wrote the whole book.

"These chapters are about the internalization of the law by means of an intimate relationship with the God who alone can enable people to live holy lives." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 453.]

This section also clarifies the relationship between works and grace, both of which Isaiah spoke of as essential in his earlier chapters. The structure of this section is as follows. [Note: Ibid., p. 465.]

A Foreign worshipers Isaiah 56:1-8

B Ethical righteousness Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 59:15 a

C The divine warrior Isaiah 59:15-21

D Eschatological hope chs. 60-62

C’ The divine warrior Isaiah 63:1-6

B’ Ethical righteousness Isaiah 63:7 to Isaiah 66:17

A’ Foreign worshipers Isaiah 66:18-24

A. Recognition of human inability chs. 56-59

It is important that God’s people demonstrate righteousness in their lives, but that is impossible without divine enablement. These chapters clarify the roles of God and man in demonstrating righteousness. This section consists of two parts, each of which concludes with a promise from God to help His people (chs 56-57 and 58-59). Each of the two parts has three segments: an example of realized righteousness (Isaiah 56:1-8 and Isaiah 58:1-14), a reflection on the situation (Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:13 and Isaiah 59:1-15 a), and an announcement of the Lord’s help (Isaiah 57:14-21 and Isaiah 59:15-21).

1. The need for humility and holiness chs. 56-57

These chapters introduce the main subject of this section of the book, which grows out of what Isaiah revealed previously. If salvation depends on God’s grace, do God’s servants have any responsibility other than receiving that grace? Simply being a member of the covenant community of Israel and fulfilling the cultic (worship system) requirements of the Mosaic Law might seem to be an adequate response for some Israelites. Isaiah revealed that God had redeemed them so they could demonstrate His righteousness in their lives in the world. This would glorify Him, bring others to Him, and result in Israel’s greatest blessing. But demonstrating that righteousness was impossible for them to do by themselves (cf. chs. 1-39). They needed to appropriate His grace as redeemed people-redeemed from captivity (chs. 40-48) and redeemed from sin (chs. 49-55)-to become the servants of God that He intended them to be. Chapter 56 contains moral exhortations in view of God’s salvation.

Verse 1

This pericope flows smoothly out of the previous section of the book dealing with God’s provision of salvation for Israel and the world. The Lord had more to say to Isaiah’s audience: "Thus says the LORD."

Since His salvation was about to appear, in return from captivity and in the atoning work of the Servant, His people should practice justice and righteousness (cf. Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17; Titus 3:8). They had a responsibility beyond just believing His promises (chs. 54-55). Notice that practicing justice and righteousness does not accomplish salvation. They should be its consequence; they cannot be its cause (cf. Romans 12:1-2).

"We would indeed be blind not to observe that Isaiah 56:1 reflects precisely where the church stands today: looking back to the once-for-all redemption at Calvary (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12) and awaiting a final divine act which will rescue the church from sin, failure and opposition and deal finally with any and every counterforce." [Note: Motyer, p. 462.]

Verses 1-8

The basis of acceptance and blessing 56:1-8

This transitional pericope introduces the problem that the previous sections of the book posed, which I have tried to explain just above. It also begins the explanation of the solution by placing in stark contrast two opposing views of what pleases God: simply being a child of Abraham, versus living in loving obedience to God.

Verse 2

Ethical conduct will result in divine blessing. Profaning the Sabbath and doing evil are the opposite of preserving justice and doing righteousness. They represent specific acts of obedience (observing the Sabbath) and an attitude toward life (doing good). By refraining from work on the Sabbath, the Israelites expressed trust that God would provide for their needs as He promised. Next to circumcision, keeping the Sabbath was the central sign of the Mosaic Covenant (cf. Exodus 31:13-17; Ezekiel 20:12-17). God’s standard is perfection: His people were to keep their hands from doing "any evil" (cf. Matthew 5:48).

"Those who have received mighty blessings from the Lord have an obligation faithfully to do His will, and in the Old Testament dispensation this would be accomplished by keeping the law and observing the sabbath" [Note: Young, 3:388.]

Verse 3

In view of the priority of heartfelt obedience over mere ritual observance of the Law, the foreigner and eunuch, for example, should not feel hopeless, i.e., considering themselves lifeless or fruitless. All who genuinely seek the Lord (Isaiah 55:6) would find acceptance by Him, even though they might not qualify for participation in the cultic worship of Israel (cf. Exodus 12:48-49).

God’s exclusion of foreigners and eunuchs from Israel’s public worship (Deuteronomy 23:1-8) was not because these types of people were intrinsically evil and therefore unacceptable to Him. God excluded foreigners because He wanted to teach His people that opposition to His will and His people has abiding consequences. He excluded eunuchs because He wanted His people to learn that the destruction of sexual organs that He created has consequences. These consequences affected their worship of the Holy One of Israel, as well as their public life and their private life. Ruth and the Ethiopian eunuch are the proof that God accepts people on the basis of their faith in Him-in spite of their ancestry or personal history. Non-Israelites and disabled Israelites could enjoy the blessings of God’s salvation (personal salvation and millennial blessings) along with normal believing Israelites. This passage helps us understand the qualifications for elders and deacons in the New Testament. While the office may be closed to a particular individual because of acts he committed previously that have continuing consequences, he is fully acceptable to God and capable of serving Him in equally significant ministries.

Verses 4-5

The prophet prefaced his shocking explanation of the spiritual acceptability of ritually unacceptable people with, "For thus says Yahweh." This was not just his opinion but divine revelation.

The Lord would give eunuchs who obeyed Him out of love: an eternal reputation, far greater than what they would have had if they had not obeyed Him, but instead had borne children to perpetuate their reputations on the earth. The Lord’s perpetuation of the Ethiopian eunuch’s reputation in Acts 8:27-39 is only one example of how God can do this. He has been remembered for his faith far longer than if he had only had sons and daughters. This promise can be very comforting to childless couples. If they follow God faithfully, He will bless them more greatly than He would bless them if they only had physical children. This promise of an eternal reward anticipates Jesus’ teaching that His disciples should pursue eternal rewards rather than treasures on earth (cf. Matthew 6:1-24).

Verses 6-7

Similarly, God would bless foreigners (non-Israelites) who came to believe in Yahweh, and sought to love and follow Him for His sake rather than for personal benefit (cf. Ruth 1:16). They could serve the Lord by ministering to Him. The Hebrew word translated "minister," sharet, usually describes priestly service (cf. Isaiah 60:7; Isaiah 60:10; Isaiah 61:6). Foreigners might even serve the Lord in ways that would be as significant as serving as priests in Israel, though that particular ministry was not open to them under the Law.

"The six marks of the foreigner (Isaiah 56:6) provide a beautiful description of true godliness, with love as its great dynamic, the very antithesis of Pharisaic legalism." [Note: Grogan, p. 316.]

The Lord Himself would conduct such Gentiles to the future Jerusalem, as He would bring the Israelites back from exile. There they would have the same blessings as the redeemed Israelites: sins atoned for and access to God in prayer (cf. 1 Kings 8:41-43; Malachi 1:11).

"All of Israel’s separation from the world was in order to keep Israel from being absorbed into the world and thus losing the ability to call the world out of itself into the blessings of God. But should Israel ever come to believe that its separation was so that Israel could keep her God and his blessings to herself, then all was lost." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 461.]

It was this latter attitude that so infuriated Jesus Christ when He saw how hard the Jews had made it for Gentiles to come to God and worship Him in the temple (Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; cf. John 2:16).

". . . here the temple is called ’the house of prayer,’ from the prayer which is the soul of all worship." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:363.]

Verse 8

With an unusually strong declaration (cf. Isaiah 1:24), sovereign Yahweh affirmed that He would gather many other Gentiles to Himself along with the Israelites (cf. Isaiah 19:25; Isaiah 49:6-7; Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 55:5; John 10:16). He would not save only Israelites, but Gentiles as well. The new revelation, or mystery, concerning the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the church (Ephesians 2-3), was not that God would save Gentiles as well as Jews. It was that in the church He would deal with Jews and Gentiles on the same basis. Jews would have no advantage over Gentiles as they did previously. Now both types of people could come into relationship with God directly through faith in Christ. Formerly Gentiles came into relationship with God indirectly-through Israel-through faith in Yahweh. The Lord was not referring to the Babylonian exile or to geographical dispersal, but to those scattered from Himself.

Wicked leadership 56:9-57:2

The leaders of Israel were responsible for the people’s failure to appreciate the difference between a real relationship with God and membership in the covenant community of Israel.

"The critique of leadership offered here is wholly one of character not of policy. The opinion that from the point of view of the public it matters only what the government’s policy is, but the private lives of leaders is their own affair, finds no support. The juxtaposition of Isaiah 56:9-12 with Isaiah 57:1-21 insists that private wrong and public right do not co-exist." [Note: Motyer, p. 468.]

Verse 9

Isaiah summoned the beastly enemies of Israel to come and feed on the flock of God’s people (cf. Jeremiah 12:9; Ezekiel 34:5; Ezekiel 34:8).

Verses 9-13

The basis of rejection and cursing 56:9-57:13

Whereas heartfelt love for and trust in the Lord make anyone acceptable to Him, reliance on one’s position or ability for acceptance will not.

Verse 10

The false prophets, who were God’s watchmen over His flock, were blind to the dangers that faced Israel (cf. Isaiah 21:6; Isaiah 52:8). They were like dogs that should have barked when danger approached but were silent. Instead of being on guard, they were asleep, dreaming of an unrealistically rosy future for the nation. They were unaware of those things that should have gripped their attention.

"When the minister does not warn the flock of false doctrine, he ceases to be a faithful undershepherd of the sheep, and instead becomes a dumb dog that cannot bark." [Note: Young, 3:397.]

Verse 11

These prophets and leaders of the people were greedy to satisfy their own desires and so were never satisfied. They had no understanding and so pursued their own personal agendas (cf. Isaiah 28:7-8; Isaiah 29:9-11).

Verse 12

Rather than caring for the sheep unselfishly, these shepherds went off and got drunk-repeatedly. They indulged themselves at the expense of their charges, and in the process, became enslaved and incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 56". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.