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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Isaiah 56

 

 

Introduction

Isaiah 56-66. Yahweh’s Deliverance.

As we approach this last section it should perhaps be noted that the dividing point between 40-55 and 56-66 is to some extent arbitrary and used for convenience. There is no specific point of separation. Chapter 55 moves on into chapter 56.

This being said this section of Isaiah is built around the theme of faithfulness to the everlasting covenant mentioned in Isaiah 55:3, and of response (or lack of response) to God’s saving purposes. One important aspect of this is with regard to the keeping of the Sabbath which comes with a threefold emphasis in Isaiah 56:1-8; Isaiah 58:13; Isaiah 66:23, where the thought is of keeping one day set apart for the worship of Yahweh (Isaiah 66:23). The ancient emphasis on simply not working on the Sabbath is not mentioned, although can be assumed, but the idea of the Sabbath has become more positive. It is a day for worship (Isaiah 66:23) and for doing Yahweh’s pleasure (Isaiah 58:13). It is a day for submission to Yahweh. It is a day for delighting in His will.

Note how this ‘new’ approach to the Sabbath is in line with Isaiah 1:11-15. It is not calling simply for a laborious observance of its requirement, but for a new positive attitude towards God. It is to be living and not dead.

It is significant that this observance of the Sabbath is especially linked to ‘outsiders’ coming to Yahweh. It becomes the sign that eunuchs (Isaiah 56:4), ‘strangers’ (Isaiah 56:6) and ‘all flesh’ (Isaiah 66:23) are welcomed within the new covenant. For Yahweh’s house is to be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7). Significantly there is no mention of circumcision. True worship of Yahweh on one day out of seven in full-hearted and total commitment, and ceasing to do evil and learning to do well, become the signs of true believers (compare Isaiah 1:16-18). It is good news for all.

The theme of this section might be seen as summarised in Isaiah 61:2. It looks forward to ‘the acceptable year of Yahweh’ and the ‘the Day of Vengeance of our God. It is noteworthy in this regard that after chapter 53 the theme of the Servant of Yahweh ceases to be prominent, having been prominent from chapter 41 onwards, and from this point on mention is made rather of His ‘servants’, always in the plural, who will carry forward His will. This is because in the Servant described in chapter 53 the idea of the Servant has come to its full potential. In what He has accomplished there He has achieved what Israel had failed to achieve, a way back to God for all men. Now He must divide the spoil with the strong (Isaiah 53:12). All else must now flow from Him. The great Servant has fulfilled all that is necessary for Gods work of deliverance, His task as the Servant is done and the Servant as such now almost falls from view (but see commentary).

But this is not because He has ceased to be important. It is because He now takes on a new role. Concentration will now be on Him as coming as a Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20), as a Mighty Warrior (Isaiah 59:17-18) and as an Anointed One on Whom has come the Spirit of the Lord Yahweh (Isaiah 61:1-2). This latter reference to the Spirit links the Anointed One both with the coming Davidic king (Isaiah 11:1-4) and with the coming Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4). He will come to deliver and to proclaim the acceptable year of Yahweh and the day of God’s vengeance and to establish Yahweh’s new priesthood. (But this is not Cyrus. It is significant in this regard that the Spirit is nowhere connected with the activity of Cyrus. He was ‘anointed’ but being anointed refers to a setting apart by Yahweh to His service. It does not necessarily indicate the presence of the Spirit. Cyrus was neither beloved nor Spirit-filled. He was simply for a brief period God’s external instrument who freed God’s people from the constraints of external idolatry).

In some ways Isaiah 61:1-2 might be seen as a crux passage in Isaiah for another reason, for as expounded by Jesus it demonstrates quite clearly the telescoping of his prophecies. Jesus would apply the first part of Isaiah 56:2 to Himself and His current ministry as far as ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’, a ‘year’ lasting on through the centuries (Luke 4:16-19). And it was at this point that He ‘closed the book’. The ‘day of vengeance’, although occurring at times through history, would then finally come at the end of time. Jesus thus recognised that Isaiah’s prophecies stretched out over the centuries.

This paralleling of salvation and judgment is, as we have seen, a regular one in Isaiah. And once again in this section salvation is paralleled with judgment, and thus the Mighty Warrior not only arises on behalf of His own (Isaiah 59:17), but also appears as the One Who is the instrument of Yahweh’s vengeance on His enemies (Isaiah 59:18), and especially on Edom (Isaiah 63:1-6). That this latter figure is Yahweh or His Emissary comes out in that He speaks of ‘My redeemed ones’ (Isaiah 56:4). In Isaiah it has been almost always Yahweh Who has been seen as the Redeemer (see introduction to the Commentary), but now the Redeemer appears as a distinctive figure, see Isaiah 59:20.

The judgment that comes on Edom is a depiction of the day of vengeance. Edom here therefore represents God’s judgment on those who, having had every opportunity of coming to Him, have rejected Yahweh and have been rejected by Him (see on Isaiah 21:11-12). Edom had always been specially favoured from a conversion point of view (Deuteronomy 23:7-8, compare 3-6). The original Edom (Esau) was the son of Isaac who went outside the line of promise because he rejected his birthright, and his seed subsequently became the perpetual and permanent enemy of the people of God, and thus like Babylon had to be destroyed for ever (34). Babylon represented the world at enmity with God, Edom the traitor in the midst. In the one case as a city, and in the other as an identifiable independent people, both eventually ceased to exist, with what remained of the Edomites (Edom had been overrun by the Nabataeans) moving into southern Judah and being absorbed by the Jews at the point of the sword.

But the whole purpose of the section (and indeed of the whole book) is to lead up to the triumph of the new heaven and the new earth when all is made right and the whole world worships Yahweh (Isaiah 65:16 to Isaiah 66:24).

The section may be seen as divided into three parts.

· The first from Isaiah 56:1 to Isaiah 59:15 a offers hope to those who will respond to Him, but depicts the true spiritual condition of God’s nominal people as a whole as one of formality and ingrained sin. He is seeking to arouse them from their spiritual apathy. Central to its thought is that God is dwelling in His High and Holy place, awaiting the response of those among His nominal people whose hearts are responsive towards Him (Isaiah 57:15)

The second, Isaiah 59:15 b - Isaiah 62:12 depicts the coming of the Redeemer and the consequences that are to follow. If only they will respond He will raise them out of the darkness, bring about the return of their exiles, and establish them in splendour as His people. It includes the promise of the coming of an Anointed One (Isaiah 61:1) who will help in bringing this about.

· The third, Isaiah 63:1 onwards, begins with a depiction of God’s judgment on the wicked (Isaiah 63:1-6), again reveals the condition of God’s people historically, and leads up through judgment to the final glorious consummation, closing with a depiction of the triumph of Yahweh, and a further depiction of God’s judgment on the wicked (Isaiah 66:24).

Alternately some see part 2 as ending at Isaiah 63:1-6 with the judgment on Edom, with this being followed by the third section which also ends with warnings of judgment.

THE TRUE CONDITION OF GOD’S NOMINAL PEOPLE (Isaiah 56:1 to Isaiah 59:15 a).

In this section Isaiah offers hope to all who will respond to Him from a humble and contrite heart (Isaiah 57:15), but strongly affirms the apathetic state of the people, and lays bare the ways in which they are failing. While outwardly religious, they are failing in their moral response to the covenant, and in their responsibility towards one another and towards God.

Chapter 56 God’s Welcome Extended to All, But Judah’s Leaders Are Failing in Their Responsibility.

This chapter is a chapter of contrasts. On the one hand God’s heart is open to all, including the physically impaired and the racially impaired, and all who seek righteousness are welcome. His house is open to all (Isaiah 56:7). It is an indication that Yahweh’s welcome still reaches out widely. But the problem is then revealed to be that the spiritual leaders of Judah are by their blindness, laziness and greed welcoming ‘wild beasts’ who tear the hearts out of His people. Their perspective is that they are simply offering them ‘a good time’. Compare Isaiah 22:13. Let them eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow they die.


Verses 1-8

The Welcome Given To Eunuchs and Strangers To Enter Fully Into the House of Yahweh (Isaiah 56:1-8).

God’s true people are to live in readiness for the day of deliverance (Isaiah 56:1 b), and one day when His deliverance comes (Isaiah 56:1), as a result of the work of the Servant (Isaiah 53:1-12), and as a result of the establishing of the everlasting covenant (Isaiah 55:3), full and uninhibited worship in the temple of Yahweh will be available to all who long to engage in such worship, including those who are at present excluded, the eunuch and the ‘stranger’, those incapacitated by deformity or race. A way in is now made available for all if they will but respond in righteousness.

Isaiah 56:1

‘Thus says Yahweh,

“Keep judgment (what is just) and do righteousness,

For my salvation is near to come,

And my righteousness to be revealed.” ’

As previously described in 40-55, Yahweh’s salvation is seen to be coming and His righteousness is to be revealed in the righteous deliverance of His own, and His true people are therefore to prepare themselves and be ready for that day by ‘keeping judgment (justice) and doing righteousness’. Not how continually the emphasis is on justice, and righteousness and on doing the will of God (which in the end is what righteousness is). God’s aim is to establish a righteous people

‘Judgment’ here may be seen as referring to having a right judgment on things, as taking up a right attitude, of listening to those who like Isaiah speak the truth, of revealing right behaviour and response, behaving justly, and fulfilling all the covenant requirements, including those that enable a free approach to God.

‘Righteousness’ may be seen as involving being like the Righteous One, as involving pleasing God (compare Isaiah 56:4), and doing what is right in His eyes The righteous man obeys the covenant, which represents what is right in His eyes.

It has been suggested that we may see these ideas as responding to the negative and positive aspects of the Law, but this must not be overpressed. Part of the basic Law is negative, as echoed in the words ‘You shall not --’. Thus, you shall not have other gods, worship graven images, take Yahweh’s name in vain, steal, kill, commit adultery, covet and bear false witness. And this accords with justice. The other part is positive echoing relationship to God, remembering the Sabbath day and honouring father and mother, and this accords with righteousness, the acknowledgement of heavenly and earthly authority. The distinction, however, must not be overstressed. In the end truly behaving justly is being righteous, if it comes from the heart.

We may see all this as summed up positively (as Jesus did) in ‘you shall love Yahweh your God with heart, soul, and strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and ‘your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18). See Matthew 22:34-40 and parallels.

And the keeping of these requirements (retaining them in the heart and meditating on them so as to fulfil them) is to be in the light of the coming anticipated final deliverance of Yahweh, the salvation that is near to come, and on the fact that God will thereby reveal His own righteousness in delivering the righteous. Note the assumption. It is the righteous who will be delivered, the spiritual remnant among God’s outward people, those who are truly responding to His covenant and seeking to please God because they trust in Him (Isaiah 7:9; Isaiah 25:9; Isaiah 26:4; Isaiah 30:15).

For the idea of ‘doing righteousness’ compare Isaiah 51:1 where Isaiah speaks of ‘following after righteousness’. This is no new concept. It is not talking about slipping into a legalistic attitude. It is rather the constant expectation that Isaiah has of the righteous, that they will be righteous in deed and action. They are not only to respond to God’s righteousness, taking it to themselves (Isaiah 53:11), and bathing in it, but are also to ‘do’ righteousness. Doing righteousness is the outworking of being righteous. Compare Genesis 18:19 where a similar idea is in mind. Isaiah may well have had that verse in mind, bringing the thought of the people back to Abraham. Abraham exemplified this. He believed God and He counted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6). And the result was that he ‘did righteously’, that is, he lived righteously (Genesis 26:5).

The Old Testament idea of the righteous is that they come to God constantly through the sacrificial system seeking atonement, seeking to be right with God through His mercy, and then themselves respond to His goodness from the heart by living in accordance with His covenant requirements. They walk with God. They cease to do evil and learn to do well (Isaiah 1:16-17).

Isaiah 56:2

“Blessed is the man who does this,

And the son of man who holds it fast,

Who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it,

And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

The one who keeps judgment and does righteousness will be truly blessed and is now defined as the one who rightly keeps the Sabbath as a day set apart for God (you shall love the Lord your God) and who keeps his hand from doing evil (you shall love your neighbour), the latter being defined in Isaiah 56:4 in terms of choosing the things that please Yahweh and holding fast to His covenant. To displease Yahweh and to fail to fulfil the requirements of the covenant is to do evil. As ever in Isaiah such people are blessed because their behaviour indicates a true response to Yahweh’s offer of mercy and deliverance (Isaiah 7:9; Isaiah 25:9; Isaiah 26:4; Isaiah 30:15). The verbs are imperfects indicating continuous action.

The word used for ‘man’ is ’enosh, indicating man in his frailty. ‘Son of man’ is a poetic parallel to ‘man’, and is ‘ben adam’ (the son of Adam/man) thus suggesting one springing from the totality of humanity.

The emphasis on the keeping of the Sabbath expresses, in Isaiah, not the negative approach of not working (although he would certainly have accepted the necessity of that), but that of positively seeking to please God and of rightly worshipping Him (Isaiah 58:13-14; Isaiah 66:23). It is the outward expression of the trust and confidence in Yahweh that He requires, in contrast with the attitude towards it revealed by the people in Amos 8:5. God is to be central in their Sabbath thinking. It is this positive attitude that Isaiah is looking for.

Thus the keeping of the Sabbath as thought of by Isaiah was an indication of a full-hearted love for Yahweh, and of a desire to please Him and do His will. Each Sabbath was to open with the thought, ‘how can I please Him today?’ This is in interesting contrast to Jeremiah 17:19-27, who sees it in the old negative terms, although that also demonstrates how important the keeping of the Sabbath was considered to be. (This is not to decry the old terms which provided a just and right period of rest every seven days for all in the land whatever their status might be, but to bring out that Isaiah saw it in a more positive light).

Thus we do not have here the post-exilic attitude towards the Sabbath exemplified in the Pharisees who opposed Jesus, who saw it as a day of watchfulness lest self-appointed Sabbath regulations be breached, but rather a positive attitude of love and worship and being pleasing to God which was consonant with Isaiah’s whole approach. Ezekiel also saw the profanation of the Sabbath as a pre-exilic phenomenon (Ezekiel 20:12-13; Ezekiel 20:20; Ezekiel 22:8; Ezekiel 22:26) which needed to be rectified. But, in fact, nowhere does even he exhort the people in exile specifically to keep the Sabbath except by implication from the above verses, that is by going back to how they were previously required to behave. He does not see the Sabbath as the binding force during the exile suggested by some scholars.

It should be noted that if this injunction had had the exile in mind it would almost certainly have been paralleled with circumcision (as it usually is by such interpreters), the one act that could always be performed and was seen as perpetuating the covenant, but there are rather here in the verses that follow indications that circumcision would no longer be required once the Servant had fulfilled His task in Isaiah 53:1-12. Isaiah sees no need for an external sign. (Furthermore it should be noted that we have no reason in fact to consider that the exiles were able to maintain the practise of full Sabbath-keeping in their hostile environment).

Isaiah 56:3

“Nor let the stranger who has joined himself to Yahweh, speak saying,

‘Yahweh will surely separate me from his people’.

Nor let the eunuch say,

‘Behold, I am a dry tree’.”

This remarkable statement reveals how the religious atmosphere is changing in the prophetic ministry of Isaiah. There is a new openness to all and an emphasis on the spiritual rather than the flesh. Both ‘strangers’ who are not members of the covenant, and yet have come among God’s people, and ‘eunuchs’, men who have been ‘treated’ so that they are no longer fruit bearing, are to be welcomed into the new everlasting covenant because of what the Servant has done, and are to be given their heart’s desire, in the one case the right to full access to Yahweh, and in the other remembrance in Israel and entry into Yahweh’s house.

‘Strangers’ were those who came into the land, but who were not within the covenant. They had not united with the people of God through undergoing circumcision and being officially and religiously accepted into the congregation of Israel. (If they had they would no longer be ‘strangers’ - Exodus 12:48). Thus they saw themselves as ‘separate’ from the covenant and from God. But had they been circumcised there would be no reason why they should see themselves as separate from God, for once they had been circumcised and had joined the covenant, they would be one with His people. So the implication is that these ‘strangers’ would continue to be uncircumcised. This would tie in with their being paralleled with eunuchs. Both were ‘deficient’ in the privy parts. Alternately it may be that the principle in Exodus 12:48 had been neglected, and that Isaiah was declaring that it would be restored.

Eunuchs were those who could not beget children because of mutilation to the privy parts, either accidental or deliberate (Deuteronomy 23:1) although there is a question mark about whether this applied to people accidentally mutilated. Thus they saw themselves as non-fruitbearing, ‘a dry tree’.

According to the Law neither uncircumcised stranger nor eunuch could enter the assembly of Yahweh. In the case of strangers it was because they were not within the covenant. They were still ‘outsiders’. In the case of eunuchs it was because they were looked on as physically ‘blemished’ (compare Leviticus 22:23-25) and non-fruitbearing (a further blemish because caused by physical disability).

Nothing that was blemished could be allowed to enter the sacred precincts of the temple because of God’s holiness, God’s perfection. This restriction was a way of getting this lesson over and of making men aware that God required perfection (they could, however, still make their offerings through substitutes). But through the work of the Servant both would be wholly welcomed as God’s people as long as they responded to the specific requirements of the new covenant. Circumcision has been replaced by what He has done in sacrificing Himself (see Colossians 2:11); fruitbearing is now to be a spiritual exercise. What will matter is the bearing of fruit both by good works and by witness, rather than by physical birth.

These remarkable words strictly interpreted indicated that neither lack of circumcision nor physical blemish would in the future prevent men from uniting with the people of God. All men would be welcome as long as they responded to the covenant, truly worshipped Yahweh (Isaiah 66:23) and accepted the covenant stipulations and the Davidic promises and responded to them, for God looked at what was inward and not what was outward, what was the condition of the spirit and not the condition of the flesh (compare Isaiah 57:15).

Isaiah 56:4

‘For thus says Yahweh,

“To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

And choose the things that please me and hold fast by my covenant,

“To them will I give in my house and within my walls,

A memorial and a name better than of sons and daughters.

I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off”.’

The eunuch, whether through accident, or through a deliberate mutilation, something which was common in those days outside Israel, was unable to contribute children to the seed of Abraham. His name would therefore be cut off because when he died his descendants would cease. The sense of shame and loss they felt as a result of this comes out in Isaiah’s promise concerning them. They longed that their name might be permanently remembered in Israel. (Perhaps Isaiah has in mind here the treatment that would be handed out to the sons of Hezekiah (Isaiah 39:7). It is an indication that what has happened has not cut them off from God).

There is also an indication here of how important the bearing of children was seen to be, for without them how could their names be remembered? But those eunuchs who fully responded to Yahweh, and revealed it by observing His sabbaths, choosing to do what pleased Him and fully responding to the requirements of the covenant, would receive a memorial better than that of sons and daughters. They would through the spiritual nature of their lives bring men to God who would be seen as their ‘children’. This would give them an everlasting reputation, a permanent remembrance of a non-physical kind. And for there to be everlastingness it in essence required an everlasting kingdom in order for it to be so.

Thus a fruit-bearing life which was pleasing to God, a life that sought to choose what pleased Him, a life committed to obedience to His covenant, was now to be seen as more important than the ability to beget children, and could restore a eunuch to being a fruit-bearing tree.

‘An everlasting name.’ Everlastingness is a theme of Isaiah. His eye was constantly on the everlasting future. The corollary of these promises was;

1) The resurrection of the righteous, (including these eunuchs), as described in Isaiah 26:19, thus ensuring that all God’s people both living and dead would share in His everlasting kingdom.

2) The everlasting blessedness as promised in Isaiah 35:10; Isaiah 45:17; Isaiah 51:11; Isaiah 54:8; Isaiah 61:7.

3) And the everlasting kingdom described in Ezekiel 37:25; Ezekiel 37:28 and assumed in such verses as Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 25:8; Isaiah 35:10 etc. Without that there could be no everlasting name for anyone.

‘Will I give in My house and within My walls.’ Entry for the eunuch into the close presence of God is promised. He will have full rights of access to God on parallel with others, depicted here in terms of full access to the temple, (the only way of true worship then known). And it is stressed that it is ‘within My walls’. There is no basis for seeing this as indicating full access within the sacred precinct. But there is to be no sense of exclusion from what is available to all true worshippers.

The important emphasis behind all this was that ceremonial deficiency would not exclude men from the presence of Yahweh. It would be man who would constantly build up such barriers. Not God.

This was fulfilled in Christ where there was no suggestion that being a eunuch excluded a man from being a temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19) and a part of the true body which was God’s great temple (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:22; 1 Corinthians 3:16). Nor was there mention of their exclusion from the heavenly temple. And we certainly have grounds for seeing the Ethiopian eunuch (both stranger and eunuch) as fully welcomed by God, indeed directly called by Him, and called, be it noted, on the basis of Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:26-39).

‘I will give them an everlasting namewhich will not be cut off”.’ It is tempting here to see a comparison with Deuteronomy 23:1 which speaks of the private member having been ‘cut off’ in making the man a eunuch. His private member may have been ‘cut off’, thus preventing the perpetuation of his name, but now he will receive a name that will not be ‘cut off’. He will be fully restored as a full member of the people of God. But the main point is presumably that their name will not be cut off because of the quality of their lives and its blessing to others, which would ever be remembered.

Isaiah 56:6-7

“Also the strangers who join themselves to Yahweh, to minister to him,

And to love the name of Yahweh, to be his servants,

Everyone who keeps the sabbath from profaning it,

And holds fast by 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 will be accepted on my altar,

For my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Also to be welcomed are ‘strangers’. These ‘strangers’ (non-Israelites) are said to join themselves to Yahweh in order to ‘minister’ to Him, and the word ‘minister’ suggests temple service similar to that of the Levites. Some therefore see in these a reference to the Nethinim (see note below) who were probably foreign temple-slaves who assisted the Levites in menial duties. But they were forced labour, and would surely have been circumcised into the covenant (whether voluntarily or by force) and thus would no longer be ‘strangers’, whereas these strangers seem to have joined themselves to Yahweh deliberately and are distinguished as those who ‘love the name of Yahweh’.

This therefore seems to suggest those who of their own free choice have come to Yahweh, although not being circumcised into the covenant (otherwise they would no longer be ‘strangers’). Thus their temple service must be seen as voluntary, as resulting from their love for Yahweh. But it would only be on the periphery of the temple because they were not within the covenant, and their deep grief was thus that they could not enter more deeply into that worship (in some ways they were similar to the later God-fearers in contrast with the proselytes, worshipping Yahweh but unwilling to enter the covenant through circumcision).

Here Isaiah assures them that because of what the Servant has done, if they enter fully into the new covenant introduced by Him and keep Yahweh’s Sabbath without profaning it (worship truly and seek that which delights Yahweh), then they will have a full introduction into true worship depicted in terms of entering the holy mountain, being joyful in the house of prayer and offering acceptable offerings at the altar to Yahweh. They will no longer be excluded. This is because that house of prayer is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. They will no longer be seen as strangers but as one with God’s people, even though uncircumcised. Their hearts will sing for joy in the presence of God, and they will find forgiveness of sins and atonement before Him, as Isaiah had so long before (Isaiah 6:5-7). The temple is here, then, seen as a temple for all people and the stranger no longer prays ‘towards the house’ (1 Kings 8:41-42) but enters fully into it to worship Yahweh and enjoy His presence.

Note the threefold aspects of their worship, entering the holy mountain, being joyful in the house of prayer and offering acceptable offerings at the altar of Yahweh, indicating deliberate approach, rejoicing in heart, and atonement and worship through sacrifice.

The fulfilment of this was found initially in the later welcoming of Gentiles as proselytes (those converts who submitted to full circumcision) and God-fearers, (those who received the moral and spiritual message of Yahweh but drew back from circumcision), then moreso through their full and uninhibited welcome through the blood of Jesus into the temple of God founded on the Apostles and Prophets (Ephesians 2:12-22) and then will finally also be found in their wholehearted welcome into the heavenly temple where they will enjoy God’s presence in all its fullness with no distinction.

Isaiah 56:8

‘The word of the Lord Yahweh,

Who gathers the outcasts (those pushed, driven away) of Israel,

“Yet will I gather others to him besides those who are gathered”.’

Note the reversion here to ‘the Lord Yahweh’, stressing His sovereignty over all and the stress on the prophetic word (‘neum adonai Yahweh’ - ‘the word of the Lord Yahweh’). He will not only gather those who have been pushed/driven away, the outcasts of Israel, but also others, the strangers and eunuchs who seek His face. The ‘outcasts of Israel’ may refer to those who have been thrust from Him because of their sinfulness, or may have in mind the scattered exiles around the world. Either way the idea is of their being brought back to Him. And at the same time He will gather others. We are reminded of Jesus’ words, ‘other sheep I have which are not of this fold, them also I must bring’ (John 10:16). God is calling the world back to Himself.

But note the pronoun ‘him’. To whom is Yahweh going to gather these returning people? The answer is surely ‘to the Servant’. Israel were to be ‘gathered’ to him (compare Isaiah 49:5), the One through Whose sacrifice (Isaiah 53:1-12) the way back has been made possible. He will see His seed and they will be many (Isaiah 53:10). Alternately ‘to Him’ might refer to Yahweh Himself (see Isaiah 11:12).

Note On The Nethinim.

In the Old Testament the Nethinim were a group of temple-servants (1 Chronicles 9:2; 1 Chronicles 9:16 times in Ezra and Nehemiah). The word always has the article, and never occurs in the singular. The Septuagint translators usually transliterate, but in one passage (1 Chronicles 9:2) they render it, "the given ones" (hoi dedomenoi). The Syriac (Peshitta) also transliterates the word in Ezra and Nehemiah, but in 1 Chronicles 9:2 renders it by a word meaning "sojourners." "Given" is suggestive of a state of servitude, and 1 Esdras 5:29 and Josephus (Antiquities XI, v, 1) seem to confirm such an idea by calling the Nethinim "temple-slaves" (hierodouloi).

It should, however, be noted that a form of the word nethinim (nethunim) is employed in the directions regarding the Levites: "You shall give the Levites to Aaron and to his sons. They are wholly given (nethunim nethunim) to him on behalf of the children of Israel" (Numbers 3:9; compare also Isaiah 8:16; Isaiah 8:19). Here the Nethunim are the Levites given to Aaron to act as temple servants. The Nethinim on the other hand were given by David and the princes for the service of the Levites (Ezra 8:20).

Some see the beginnings of the Nethinim in the Gibeonites who were allowed to live after deceiving Joshua about their status, and of whom he said, “Now therefore you are cursed, and there shall never fail to be of you bondsmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God” (Joshua 9:23; Joshua 9:27). Others, however, trace their origin to the gift of Nethinim by David and the princes, for the service of the Levites (Ezra 8:20). Both may be possible as Nethinim may be a designation for all such foreign temple-slaves.

Their names, too, indicate diversity of origin, for besides being mostly non-Hebrew in nature, some of them are found elsewhere in the Old Testament as names of non-Israelitish tribes. The Meunim, for example (Ezra 2:50; Nehemiah 7:52), are possibly descended from the Meonites or Maonites who are mentioned as harassing Israel (Judges 10:12), as in conflict with the Simeonites (1 Chronicles 4:41), and as finally overcome by Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:7). The next name in the lists is that of the children of Nephisim. These may well be traced to the Hagrite clan of Naphish (Genesis 25:15; 1 Chronicles 5:19). And in both Ezra and Nehemiah, the list is immediately followed by that of the ‘servants of Solomon’, whose duties were similar to, and it may be even humbler than, those of the Nethinim. These servants of Solomon appear to have been descendants of the Canaanites whom Solomon employed in the building of his temple (1 Kings 5:15). All these indicators do not perhaps produce certainty, but they all point in the same direction, and support the assumption that the Nethinim were originally foreign slaves, mostly prisoners of war, who had from time to time been given to the temple by the kings and princes of the nation, to whom were assigned the lower menial duties of the house of God.

By the time of the return from the exile the Nethinim had come to be regarded as important and as a recognised part of Israel. Their numbers were considerable and three hundred and ninety two accompanied Zerubbabel at the first Return in 538 BC (Ezra 2:58; Nehemiah 7:60). Then when Ezra was called on to arrange a later return, he secured a contingent of ‘Nethinim who were given for the service of the Levites’ numbering two hundred and twenty (Ezra 8:20) to go with him. In Jerusalem they enjoyed the same privileges and immunities as the other religious orders, being included by Artaxerxes' letter to Ezra among those who should be exempt from toll, custom and tribute (Ezra 7:24). A part of the city in Ophel, opposite the Water-gate, was assigned to them as an official residence (Nehemiah 3:26; Nehemiah 3:31), and the situation is certainly appropriate if their duties at all resembled those of the Gibeonites. They were also organised into a kind of guild under their own leaders or presidents (Nehemiah 11:21).

But we must surely see that these Nethinim would have been circumcised, and thus enrolled in the covenant, long before Isaiah prophesied, thus becoming Israelites by adoption (whether by force or otherwise) and therefore no longer ‘strangers’. This is supported by the fact that it is clear that the Chronicler sees no objection to their serving in the temple of Yahweh.

They are not mentioned again in the Old Testament and it may be that they, along with the singers and porters, gradually became incorporated in the general body of Levites. Their name, however, did pass into tradition and it became at a later time a butt for the scorn and bitterness of the Talmudic writers against everything that they regarded as un-Jewish. On the whole it would seem as not likely that they could be classed as ‘strangers’.

End of note.


Verses 9-12

The Present Condition of the Leadership and the People (Isaiah 56:9-12).

In total contrast with Yahweh, Who welcomes the righteous whatever their physical status, (but only the righteous), are the leadership of Israel. They allow in those who are like brute beasts, and this is because they themselves are blind and without discernment. They are like watchdogs who have lost their bark (and thus cannot warn of intruders) and are asleep. Worse, they are simply greedy for gain. They are too taken up with other things to carry out their responsibilities. This picture of them reflects earlier passages such as Isaiah 3:1-15; Isaiah 5:1-24; Isaiah 8:19.

Isaiah 56:9-10

‘All you beasts of the field, come to eat,

All you beasts in the forest.

His watchmen are blind,

They are all without knowledge,

They are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark.

Dreaming, lying around, loving to slumber.’

The harshness of the Hebrew here reflects the bitterness of Isaiah’s soul. The beasts of the field (the cattle) and of the forest (wild beasts), depicting the worst kind of people (or even foreign invaders), are being called in to partake with the supposed people of God. They can savage them and devour them, and they can make their way in undisturbed because the watchdogs are asleep.

The vivid picture sees the beasts as making their way into the city past the watchmen, in order to ravage it because the watchdogs are not doing their job. They are out of their control. And the result is that soon the city of men is full of ‘beasts’.

But this can only happen because the watchmen appointed to watch over Israel are blind, they are lacking in true spiritual knowledge, and are like watchdogs who have lost their bark, no longer warning against intruders. They are like watchdogs who dream, and lie around and sleep all day.

This may well reflect the beginning of Manasseh’s reign when idolatry once again took over, when Judah was once more opened to foreign influences, and when with all this would come the fall in moral standards that always resulted when God’s people turned from Him. The whole of society would be affected.

Isaiah 56:11-12

‘Yes the dogs are greedy, they can never have enough.

And these are shepherds who cannot understand,

They have all turned to their own way,

Each one to his gain from every quarter.

“Come,” they say, “I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink,

And tomorrow will be as this day, great beyond measure.” ’

The basic problem lies in the fact that the leaders, including the religious leaders, the priests and the prophets, are themselves only out for gain. The watchdogs are not only lazy but greedy. They are out to feather their own nests, even if it is at the cost of truth. That is why the shepherds of the people are ‘unable to understand’, that is, they have minds closed towards God and to His demands and to His covenant. It is because they have all turned to their own way (compare Isaiah 53:6). They have been seized by the deceitfulness of riches. They have become totally selfish and seek to obtain wealth from every quarter in all they do. It is always a sad day when the watchdogs and the shepherds fail in their responsibility, and especially when they become greedy. Then the cattle and the wild beasts can run wild and do what they want and the people of God suffer.

And what is more these people, the shepherds, live in their own dream world, a world of drunken stupor. They partake of wine and strong drink and thus see the future as ever rosier (compare Isaiah 5:11; Isaiah 5:22 where this results in revelry and injustice, and Isaiah 22:13, where it results in a careless attitude towards the future). Like the drunkards of Ephraim before them they fail to face up to reality (Isaiah 28:1-13). They cannot see what is happening around them. Judah is being possessed by ‘wild beasts’ and they do not care, because they are engaged in a round of pleasure and drunkenness. And the result is that truth is the victim.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 56:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-56.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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