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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 56

Verses 1-8


Isaiah 56:1—66:24

This final section of the Isaiah literature comes mostly from a time when the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt, as has also the Temple (see Introduction to Isaiah 40-66). The author or authors of these chapters are in Jerusalem, and allusion is made to life in the revived city. The spirit of Second Isaiah so infuses the chapters that it seems impossible to attribute them to a “Third Isaiah” as has frequently been done in the past. It is more appropriate to see this material as deriving from the school of Second Isaiah, most of it indeed from the inspiration of the prophet himself, although perhaps his disciples in this case have played an important role in the actual composition as well as in the transmission of the prophecy. The chapters seem to divide themselves into two main groups, 56-59 and 60-66, the second group having to do almost solely with the coming age of complete restoration for Israel and the conversion of the world in the new age which, according to the prophet’s perspective, was about to dawn. That is, the restoration of Jerusalem, its Temple, and a small province of Judah in the years between 539 and 515 b.c. have not brought the complete fulfillment predicted in chapters 40-55. The hope for the future, however, still burns brightly as a vital part of faith in the Lord.

Divine Exhortation (56:1—59:21)

God’s Promise to Society’s Outcasts (56:1-8)

We now come to material that is very different in mood and in type from that encountered in chapters 40-55. The form is not that of prophecy but of exhortation concerned with worship in the rebuilt Temple (vs. 7). This is one of the reasons why many interpreters have assumed that this section must have been written by an author other than Second Isaiah himself. Another reason for the assumption of a different authorship is the reference to Sabbath-keeping in verse 2. Second Isaiah in chapters 40-55 says nothing about such details of the religious life. The real question to be asked, however, is whether the changed situation cannot account for the change in mood. Since the Temple has been rebuilt and worship is going on within it, the time of composition must be after 515 b.c., when the Temple was completed, and therefore at least a quarter of a century later than the composition of chapters 40-55. Certainly the great-mindedness, the compassion, and the interest in all mankind shown in verses 3-8 is directly within the spirit of the earlier prophecy.

The exhortation begins with the command to keep justice and to do righteousness, for the salvation of God is soon to come. That is, in the interim of waiting, high standards of ethical community life must be maintained. Verse 2 is in the form of a saying popular among the wise men of Israel, and not common in prophecy. The Hebrew word at the beginning of the verse is mistakenly translated “blessed.” The Hebrew word refers rather to the fortunate or happy state of the person who has received blessing, not to the act of blessing itself. Hence the meaning here is “fortunate is the man who does this”; that is, who acts with justice and righteousness in his dealings with others. The phrase “son of man” simply means “human being” and is used by the Hebrew poet who does not wish to repeat the word “man” in a poetic line with synonymous parallelism between the two parts of it. Responsible, ethical life includes the keeping of the Sabbath as a holy day, it being an institution set within the divinely created order (Genesis 2:1-3) and an integral part of the Mosaic Covenant as indicated by the Decalogue (Exodus 20:8-11). Since it is the only institution specifically mentioned in the Decalogue, it is impossible to assume that it was not a matter of great importance to the Israelite religious leader, whether prophet, priest, or Levitical teacher. Israel was the first people of the world to see the seven-day week as a part of God’s creative order, with one of those days separated as a day of rest and worship. The institution was to be widely adopted in the Roman empire, even among those who cared nothing for the Jewish or Christian religions.

In verses 3-8 we have one of the finest and most compassionate statements in the whole of Scripture. When foreigners are converted and join in the common worship of God in the Temple, there is to be absolutely no segregation whatsoever. All are to join joyfully in the services, for the Temple “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (vs. 7). In verse 8 the Lord is quoted as declaring that he is going to gather to himself people other than those of Israel. The Bible has often been used wrongly by proponents of racial segregation in modern times, but this passage in the spirit and from the school of Israel’s greatest prophet is the most forthright statement possible against any artificial divisions among those whom God chooses to make his own people. The relation of Gentiles to Jews was a continuing problem in Judaism and was the first major controversy within the early Christian community, one that was settled as the school of Second Isaiah would have had it settled (see Acts 15). When Jesus cleansed the Temple he coupled the passage about God’s house as a house of prayer with the reference to a cave of robbers in Jeremiah 7:11, as a statement of what the Temple really was supposed to be in contrast to what it had become (Mark 11:17).

The parallel message to the eunuchs (vss. 3-5) is remarkable. Israelites had a great respect for the body as a creation of God and therefore had a horror of bodily mutilation. According to old Hebrew law, a eunuch could not be a full member of the community of Israel or of the community of worship (Deuteronomy 23:1). Yet in the course of the centuries, and especially in the Persian government, many who took offices in the royal palace were forced to become eunuchs in order to maintain their positions. Here the eunuch is specifically addressed by God and told that special provision will be made for him within the Temple and that he will be given a monument better than the family which he cannot have. This indeed is a marvelous and comforting saying to people caught within the ways of the world, and who otherwise might suffer a kind of separation and excommunication from their communities.

Verses 9-13

Condemnation of Corrupt Leaders (56:9—57:13)

This section suddenly introduces a type of condemnation like that found in First Isaiah and other pre-exilic prophets. It is clear that the suffering and exile of Israel have taught some of the people nothing whatever. Consequently among the new community are “watchmen” (prophets and religious leaders) and “shepherds” (community leaders, government officials) who are called greedy “dogs” (vs. 11). The irresponsible use of strong drink (vs. 12) reminds one of similar words in 5:11, 22 .

In 57:1-10 a group of the community are condemned in the strongest possible terms. They are idolators and are also unjust in their relations to their fellows, so that the righteous and the devout are not safe from their actions. The identity of this group is unknown, but it is the first time in the literature of Second Isaiah that such a forthright condemnation in the name of God is addressed to a specific group of people, other than the taunt song against Babylon in chapter 47. This section, then, is the clearest possible indication of the changed situation behind the prophecy. A new community in Palestine has been formed, and there are those within it who have learned nothing from their past.

In verses 11-13 the judgment upon these people is pronounced. When it comes, their collection of idols will not be able to deliver them, for the idols are so light and insignificant that a wind will carry them away. The ones who are to possess this land, meaning the Promised Land of Palestine, are those— and only those—who take refuge in the Lord.

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"Commentary on Isaiah 56". "Layman's Bible Commentary".