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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.]
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.
As the leadership of the nation grew worse, the number of righteous people shrank, without people perceiving what was happening. God allowed this disappearance of the devout to spare them the judgment He would bring on the evil nation and its ungodly rulers. Few people in the nation, however, understood this reason for the depletion of the righteous.
"Such deaths are not understood by the godless, for they do not realize that God in His goodness often takes righteous men to Himself to deliver them from some impending catastrophe." [Note: Ibid., 3:399-400.]
God will do this when He removes the church from the earth before He brings the Tribulation on it. He did it in the past when he removed Lot before He destroyed Sodom.
The righteous person entered a condition of peace by dying and going to his or her eternal reward. The end of the righteous, then, contrasts with that of the wicked leaders (Isaiah 56:9-12).
God summoned the idolatrous Israelites, in contrast to the righteous (Isaiah 57:1-2), to come before Him for judgment. Rather than behaving like descendants of Abraham and Sarah (cf. Isaiah 51:2), these wicked Israelites were acting as though their father was an adulterer and their mother a sorceress and a prostitute. That is, they were congenitally selfish, unfaithful to God, and wayward.
"Adultery . . . expresses the principle (unfaithfulness to the covenant); prostitution the practice (devotion to lovers other than the Lord). The adulterer gives his love elsewhere; the prostitute takes other lovers." [Note: Motyer, p. 472.]
Rampant apostasy 57:3-13
Isaiah identified another mark of Israel, which boasted in its election by God and viewed righteousness in terms of correct worship ritual. This was the widespread departure of the nation from God (apostasy). She had forsaken God and had pursued idols.
Evidently the people these wicked Israelites mocked were the righteous minority among them. Like children, they ridiculed the righteous for being different from themselves. They were rebellious and deceitful in their relationship to the Lord.
They were rebellious and deceitful in that they practiced fertility worship and child sacrifice. They believed connection with nature, rather than a spiritual relationship with the Creator, would yield fertility. They also believed that sacrificing the next generation would guarantee the preservation of the present generation. Of course, the opposite is true. God’s people burned with lust as they carried out these pagan rites in the places thought to be most conducive to their success. "Oaks" (terebinths, Heb. ’elim) may refer to large trees, not a particular variety of tree. These trees were the places and objects of idol worship. [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Trees," by F. N. Hepper.] How different a relationship with Yahweh based on trust would have been.
Having chosen to worship in the wadis, the apostate Israelites would have to be content to have the rocks of the wadis as their gods (cf. Romans 1:20-25). A wadi (Heb. nahal) is a streambed that is dry most of the year but in the rainy season becomes a rushing torrent. As mountaintops became places of worship because they were close to heaven and the gods, so wadis in valleys became places of worship because they were close to Sheol and the dead. The unfaithful in Israel even made drink and grain offerings to these rocks. This was not the kind of behavior that would cause God to change His mind about bringing judgment on His people.
The Israelites also worshipped idols on mountains, as the pagans did to get closer to their gods. Such worship constituted infidelity to the Lord and adultery with loved idols. Thus Israel had made her bed and slept with another man when she worshipped as she did. However, Isaiah’s language was more than figurative since worship of these nature deities involved sacred prostitution.
The unfaithful Israelites were evidently setting up memorial objects to the idols in their homes as well. The Scripture portions that they were to place on their doorframes (Deuteronomy 6:9; Deuteronomy 11:20) were to remind them of the Lord, but they had installed rival reminders inside their homes. The holder of these Scripture portions is called a mezuzah, and many observant Jews still install them on their doorframes, even today. The Lord’s "wife" had turned her back on Him and had gone to bed with other lovers. She had been unfaithful to her covenant with Yahweh and had covenanted to worship idols, since she loved the physical aspects of their worship.
Some Israelites had also traveled far from home to worship other gods. This may be a reference to making political alliances with other nations and then worshipping their gods with them (cf. Ezekiel 23). The king in view may be the most prominent foreign ruler at the time Isaiah wrote this prophecy. These political trips involved great distances. The negotiators would take the oils and perfumes used in the worship of foreign gods with them. Over time these instances of idolatry had increased. But instead of going to foreign nations, Isaiah said these envoys were really going to Sheol because God would slay His people for their unfaithfulness to Him.
These trips to obtain political security through idolatry wore the envoys out. Rather than ensuring that security did not come in that way, however, they persevered in their wickedness in spite of their weariness.
"As with any addiction, the memory of former gratification drives one on, even when the gratification grows steadily less and less. To admit that the quest is hopeless would be to drive one back into the arms of God, whose invitation to surrender all control and live in trust one has already rejected." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 481.]
Yahweh asked the Israelites a question. Who had terrified them that they betrayed the truth (cf. Proverbs 30:6), their covenant partner, and their concern for Him (cf. Isaiah 57:1)? Obviously it was not a great threat that had made them unfaithful, but neglect of Him. Perhaps if He had been more active in judging their sins they would have remembered Him. But, graciously, He had been silent about their sins, and so they had not paid attention to Him.
"Possibly we have here an example of Isaiah’s preaching during the long dark days of Manasseh." [Note: Motyer, p. 474.]
God would bring Israel into judgment and make known her "righteous" deeds (cf. Matthew 13:24-30; Revelation 20:12). What she considered righteousness, the blending of her elect calling and paganism, was anything but that (cf. Isaiah 56:1). She would come out lacking in that reckoning.
In that day of judgment, the idols that the Israelites had trusted in, even in captivity, would be of no help. They would be as useless and lightweight as what the winds blow away. In contrast, those who made Yahweh their refuge from the storms of life would inherit the land and possess the Zion of the future Millennium (cf. Isaiah 11:9; Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 25:6-8; Isaiah 65:25; Isaiah 66:20; Matthew 5:5).
"One of the best ways to find out whether we have idols in our lives is to ask ourselves, ’Where do I instinctively turn when I face a decision or need to solve a problem?’ Do we reach for the phone to call a friend? Do we assure ourselves that we can handle the situation ourselves? Or do we turn to God to see[k] His will and receive His help?" [Note: Wiersbe, p. 66.]
In the future, someone would give an order to prepare the way for the Israelites to return to their land and to their God (cf. Isaiah 40:3; Isaiah 62:10). Watts took this as an exhortation to the Jews in Babylonian exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 262.] The speaker is probably God, but the speech is more important than the speaker. The figure is of building a roadbed for a highway that would become the route of the Israelites.
The divine enablement 57:14-21
This pericope concludes the section begun at Isaiah 56:1 dealing with the need for humility and holiness in the redeemed people of God. Isaiah explained that the basis of God’s acceptance and blessing of His redeemed people was righteousness (Isaiah 56:1-8). Then he showed that Israel lacked that righteousness (Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:13). Her leadership was wicked (Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:2) and her populace was apostate (Isaiah 57:3-13). Now he explained that the solution to Israel’s predicament was Yahweh’s enablement (grace). The only way she could be what she should be was with the Lord’s help. This section explains how the promise that ended Isaiah 57:13 could possibly come to pass.
The structure of this section is the opposite of the former one. There, threatening ended with a brief promise, but here, promise ends with a short threat.
The reason for this proclamation is that God is who He is. He is the utterly transcendent God in relation to space (high and lifted up, cf. Isaiah 6:1; Isaiah 52:13), time (lives forever), and character (holy). Yet He is also immanent, dwelling among repentant and humble people. He dwells among them to encourage and enable them. The holy God is with His humble people (cf. Isaiah 7:14). One writer called this verse "one of the finest one-sentence summations of biblical theology in the Bible." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 487.]
"Earthly sovereigns are thought of as dwelling with the exalted and proud ones; the great Sovereign of all dwells with the humble believer." [Note: A. Martin, Isaiah . . ., p. 104.]
God will not always be angry with sinners; His anger will come to an end because He has made provision for human sin through the Servant. He becomes angry, but He is love (cf. Psalms 30:5). If God remained angry with sin, humanity could not endure His wrath and everyone would perish (cf. Genesis 6:3). Obviously God remains angry with sinners who refuse His grace, but He does not need to remain angry with the humble who accept His provision for their sins.
The Lord had been angry with the proud Israelite because of his desire for unjust gain, namely, for more and more for himself. Greed is the essential sin that results in idolatry (cf. Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 6:10). God’s anger led Him to discipline the proud Israelites and to become inaccessible to their calls for help. Israel, instead of repenting and returning to the Lord, continued in her sinful ways.
In spite of Israel’s response, Yahweh would heal, lead, and strengthen the nation’s inhabitants who mourned over their sinfulness. He would take the initiative by providing the Servant-to strengthen as well as to save (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). It is not so much grace for redemption that is in view here, as grace to overcome the attraction of sin for people already redeemed.
"The unmerited nature of God’s favor has rarely been expressed more beautifully than in Isaiah 57:18." [Note: Grogan, p. 320.]
The result would be that those delivered would praise the Lord. Consequently, there can be peace for the humble because God would heal them, whether they live near in Israel, or far off among the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 2:17). The duplication of a word like "peace" is a Hebrew idiom for something superlative in kind and total in extent (cf. Isaiah 6:3; Isaiah 21:9; Genesis 14:11; Deuteronomy 16:20; Revelation 14:8; Revelation 18:2). Since shalom was a conventional word of greeting, the speaker may have intended to give the wayward a warm welcome home (cf. John 15:11-24).
The wicked contrast with the humble who take advantage of God’s provision of grace. Far from being at peace, their existence is as tumultuous as the tossing sea, which is incapable of being at rest. Their constant agitation creates many other problems, like the raging sea casts up debris and mud. No shalom is the portion of the wicked (cf. Isaiah 48:22).
"Hence if persons have experienced the unmerited grace of God as mediated through the Savior, and then expect to live lives dominated by greed (Isaiah 57:17) and self-will, propitiating God from time to time with religious behavior, they will find not peace, but constant upheaval." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 492.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 57". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany