Isaiah 56 – 58
Isaiah 56:1-8 Here is a statement of great beauty and encouragement. The chapter opens with an exhortation to righteousness, yet this godly life occurs in an environment of wickedness. In 55:1, God invited the world to dinner; here in v.3, He extends a universal invitation to membership in the people of God.
56:1 On the cross of Christ the penalty for the guilt of our sin was fully discharged. There is nothing to add to that. Sin in our world and in our lives is still present, so a call to righteousness is given. The Lord comforts us that this is not a situation that will continue as it now is forever. His salvation will be revealed (Romans 13:11-14). He will clean up the world and us as well (Philippians 1:6).
56:2 Meanwhile those who do right are promised blessing. The chief issue of obedience in this passage is the Sabbath, a subject that is mentioned in chapters 56,58 & 66. To live a life of six days of work and one of rest would differ noticeably with the practice of the ungodly. It would mark the righteous out as separate from worldly life, because the Sabbath would be kept out of respect for God Who commanded it. An unbeliever might not steal and he might be faithful to one woman, but only one who believes in the Lord would keep one day every week holy for Him.
56:3 Contrary to the expectations of Jews, the Lord has a wide door for inclusion among His people (14:1). The foreigner is welcome, so is the eunuch. In the gospel there is no ethnic barrier, nor one for a person who is less than normal. Foreigners are part of the “many” of 53:11,12 and the reason for the larger tent in 54:2,3.
56:4-7 These newcomers are welcome, but the welcome
is into a life of obedience. Gentiles join themselves to the Lord, just as we
read in 14:1 of them joining
To show the universal nature of salvation, the Lord calls His house, a
house of prayer for all nations [see Mark 11:17], just as Solomon prayed in 1
Kings 8:41-43. Blessing to all peoples on earth through Abraham (Genesis 12:3)
is coming closer. It is the Lord Who is active in fulfilling His Word, to
Next, Isaiah 56 reveals the ugliness of sin among
57:1-2 There is peace for the righteous. Knowing the great trouble they face in the world, God deliberately uses death to spare them from more evil. They have peace in their souls in dying, peace in their graves awaiting the resurrection, and great pleasure in the presence of Christ (Philippians 1:21-23; Hebrews 11:39,40). This is truth man is unable to realize (v.1); only those who believe His word are comforted. (This verse could be the origin of the famous RIP, ‘rest in peace’.)
57:3-5 To show a major switch from the righteous to the wicked, v.3 opens with a strong “But you”! This shows also that the prophet is preaching; his word is not merely giving information. He challenges his people as in 2 Timothy 3:16,17.
The Hebrew language has gender in second and third person verbs; vv.3-5 are addressed to men plural. From v.6 to part of v.13, women are addressed – i.e., first the offspring, then the mother.
The sneering (v.4) shows hostility to the Lord. They broke covenant and pursued the gods of their neighbors. (See Deuteronomy 4:25-31; 6:13-19.) They spurned the Lord their God (1:4). The marriage bed (see also vv.7,8) is a figure used to describe vividly the illicit religious union of spiritual adultery (Jeremiah 3:6-9; Ezekiel 23:36-39). Not having an active, loving, prayerful, obedient worship of the Lord, opened the door to other attractions – other gods. That resulted in such abominations as burning their children to false gods. It is the nature of sin to enslave (Romans 6:16-20), and destroy (James 1:13-15). The lust for false gods consumes the one who worships them, while the worship of the true God transforms into His moral likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). So far in chapter 57, Isaiah has drawn a sharp difference between those who walk uprightly under God’s Spirit, and “sons of a sorceress” who come under the control of evil spirits. (See Proverbs 4:18,19).
57:6,7 The idols were from the valleys to the tops of hills, a way of saying they were everywhere. Sacrificing to them was giving idols the thanks due to God. The Lord makes clear that He knows this is happening and will respond. A bed on a hilltop open to observation shows how blatant their activity was.
57:8-10 God’s commandments were to be written on the frames of their doors (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Probably v.8 indicates that these were removed and hidden as those commandments were being broken. Making an alliance with heathen nations is likened to being in bed with those nations, a way to say that covenants with them rather than the Lord was adulterous in nature. As a prostitute looks to gain, God’s people hoped for a benefit from their dealings with nations whose armies could bring them protection. They felt this was worth leaving their God. They sent their ambassadors to other nations, and the prostitute’s perfume (v.9) was to win the favors of kings. (See 28:14,15). It would not succeed; all they did would wear them out, but they would not admit the truth.
57:11-13 Reaching for other helpers was a rejection of the Lord. They dreaded nations which in the Lord’s sight are as nothing (40:15-17). This is what happens when the knowledge of God fades in the mind; people will fear the power they know rather than the Lord they do not. We are to be careful what we fear (8:11-13). The Lord said He would expose them and what they were doing (v.12). Judgment was coming, and in that day their idols and alliances would be no help. They had taken refuge in weakness rather than in the Lord their God. (This connects to previous texts of the Lord being a shelter: 4:6, 32:2, and 25:4.) The idolaters are gone already, and shall never walk again on the land they loved, while the meek of Isaiah’s day, who rested in their graves (v.2), will live again to inherit the earth (Job 19:25,26; Matthew 5:5; Romans 4:13).
57:13 Isaiah speaks of the righteous again (vv.1,2). The godly man lives by faith in the Lord (Habakkuk 2:4). The righteous will inherit the land. To preserve their land, the unfaithful turned to heathen nations (vv.8-10), hoping by that kind of help to remain in it. It had the opposite effect. That land was the gift of God (Deuteronomy 4:1,2). The man who makes the Lord His trust will even be allowed to approach God’s holy mountain, the place of His temple and presence. The righteous were not sinless, but they could approach God by sacrifice at His temple. God is approachable through Christ only; those who believe in Him are forgiven; in Christ they draw near to God (Hebrews 10:19-25).
57:14 The righteous may lie in death, but a highway is being built for them to come home to the Lord to live with Him in His presence (35:8-10). The theme of gathering in 56:8 is repeated. Jesus prayed that His own would be with Him (John 17:24). There will be no obstacles; nothing can stop their homeward journey.
57:15 While heathen practice happened on a high hill (v.7), God Who lives in a very high and holy place speaks of living with His people who repent.
God speaks of Himself as lofty, the same word in 6:1 and of Christ in 52:13. This means God is transcendent. This was said of His thoughts in 55:9. He is transcendent in what He is, which puts understanding of such a God out of our reach. We are left with the great privilege to learn of Him, but only as He chooses to reveal Himself. Beyond this we cannot go and must not try. Our sinful hearts will assume He is like us, which is a violation of the second commandment. We were made in His image, not He in ours. It is also the essence of every heathen religion. God is not a man (Numbers 23:19). It amazed the Psalmist that God, Whose glory is above the heavens, would be mindful of man (Psalm 8). Psalm 113 is remarkably like 57:15. It tells us God must stoop down to look on the heavens, let alone the earth. Yet He says in 57:15 that He is with the downtrodden. He is able to revive the lowly; the point here is that He wills to do so gladly. God cannot change His moral character (Titus 1:2), so how can He fellowship with sinful man?
57:16 The Lord explains His condescension with a statement of mystery. The same Lord, Who does not leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:7), Whose eyes are too pure to look on evil (Habakkuk 1:13) has found a way not to accuse a sinner, even though He is the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25)! This amazing situation should make us wonder how this can be. Some things are forensic and we cannot understand salvation apart from seeing this aspect of it. God does not accuse us sinners He has forgiven, not because we are without sin, but because Jesus has taken the accusation of our sin and its penalty. Because of this grace for us, God can continue His love to us.
God justly accuses because sin is real; He is angry because it is an offense to His holiness. Yet He can see with compassion how helpless we are in our sin and have mercy on us. His forbearance concerning the sin of His people in Isaiah’s day was based entirely on the certainty of the sacrifice Christ would later make for them (Romans 3:25,26). God saw that man receiving what His sins deserved would be crushed under the load of His wrath. He had not created man to be destroyed but to fellowship with the high and lofty One, thus God would act to restore the fellowship man lost.
57:17-19 The sin and resulting wrath against greed were reality. Temporal punishment followed, a foretaste of the ultimate eternal banishment from the presence of the Lord (2 Thessalonians 1:9). (Note also 2 Samuel 14:14.) God punished, but like those punished in Revelation 16, punishment alone does not change man’s heart; only a new birth does that (1 Peter 1:3). Here we find God’s desire to do the opposite of expelling from the Garden (Genesis 3:23,24). He would have fellowship with sinful man by changing the man. This is what baptism signifies; the sinner must be cleansed in the washing of a new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-7). This is what the Lord is speaking about in Isaiah 57, the man, on his own, continues in his sin. But God on His own (John 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:25) heals, directs into a new life, and restores comfort. Reconciliation is the comfort and peace of sins forgiven.
A response in man is necessary. In Hosea 14:1,2 the prophet
God announces peace, peace. In 53:5, peace is based on the piercing of Christ. For His elect, God has put His spear away. He completes reconciliation by creating a response in His own one by one. (“I will heal him” in v.19 is singular. The NIV should not make it plural.) “Far and near” shows it is for Jews and Gentiles – for as many as the Lord will call (Acts 2:39; Ephesians 2:13-17).
57:20,21 The wicked are simply those God has left alone in their sin, those who keep on in the ways of their unchanged hearts (v.17). They are not what they were created to be. God Who is holy has left them in their sin (John 8:21) so there is for them neither peace with God nor peace within. They are like the sea churning up mud (48:22). God does not draw near to them; He has left them alone. The kindest thing God does for a sinner is to intervene in his life though unbeckoned, drawing him to Christ, breaking his will to rebel, and making him bow down in repentance and faith to be saved (Romans 11:22; Ephesians 2:7-9). God delivers His salvation by powerfully subduing sinners to His gracious and beneficial rule. Then the former enemy has peace with God (Romans 5:1) and joy in his Lord (56:7).
58:1 The prophet was to cry out with authority against rebellion in the house of Jacob. The reference to Jacob implies their covenantal heritage. This section ends in v.14 with the inheritance that God promised Jacob’s descendents.
58:2-3 Their religious activity was pretense, the appearance of godliness (2Timothy 3:1-5). They complain to God that their efforts do not seem to move Him as they felt He should respond (v.3). This shows they were thinking like Canaanites, whose religious activity was designed to move the gods to respond (1Kings 18:25-29). The true religion of the real God is that He will always keep His Word without human inducement to do so. He commands and His people must respond. (Note the prologue of the law in Exodus 20:1,2.)
58:3-5 Sinners are incapable of producing godliness. They can only create false appearances. Their days of fasting are similar to the activity described in Colossians 2:20-23. Hearts without the fruit of the Spirit will erupt in animosity, thus the quarreling and fighting. Anyone can wear sackcloth and sit on ashes without being godly. Isaiah says they bow “like a reed”. A reed does not know God, so when it bends over, it is not an act of devotion to the Lord. The exploitation of workers is not specific here. Other prophets tell of wages not paid (Jeremiah 22:13). Since Isaiah will soon speak of the Sabbath again, he might have in mind a situation where the boss man goes off in some religious activity while his workers lack the day of rest God commanded should be given even to animals (Exodus 20:8). The religious design was to impress God, but their kind of fasting revealed how ungodly they were. They should not expect their voice to be heard on high!
58:6-12 True denial – for fasting is a denial of self – involves the unselfish service of others. Isaiah does not treat fasting as merely abstaining from eating, an activity all desire and need. He points to specific things where unselfish, God-honoring practices are needed. One example uses the language of chains, cords, and yokes. He pleads for people to be set free from bondage. It was in the power of these ostensible God-worshippers to do this, but it would be at some cost to themselves. They should provide food, shelter, and clothing to the needy, and natural affection for their families. Relieving oppression is repeated in v.9 with ceasing from doing harm with words. Isaiah then increases his appeal. It is not enough to feed the hungry as the occasion arises; they ought to spend themselves on such a venture. They were so busy extracting every bit of gain they could acquire, that the prophet calls for that same kind of zeal in reverse. Note the high profile given to greed in 57:17. This , chapter calls for the repentance mentioned there. Isaiah is calling for a conversion like that of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8.
58:8-10 The Lord promises blessing for obedience. They sought blessing on their terms, now God tells what good they may have on His terms. Benefits would “break out” in abundance: healing of what is abnormal; their righteousness would be genuine, not contrived; they would have the Lord in all His glory as their guardian. Sinners try to manipulate God; now He promises to answer the prayers of the righteous. He is responsive to the obedient. Light will replace their confusion; God will meet their needs in difficult times and strengthen them. Earlier their greed and oppression had prosperity as a motive; now the Lord says He is the One Who will make them like a well-watered garden. Old losses, such as the destruction of their cities in 1:7 would be reversed; the nation would be rebuilt and they would live in safety. All this is promised if they would treat their neighbors well. The word ‘love’ is not used, but what God required was the love commanded in Leviticus 19:18.
58:13,14 After showing the need to love their neighbor (in connection with the abuse of a day of fasting), Isaiah turns to the love of God in relation to the day He claims as His own – the day He sanctified and commands us to honor. The Sabbath is mentioned here in the context of blessing. Those criticized earlier in the chapter had erected, on their own authority, a day of fasting; they imposed on themselves a melancholy day in which it would be impossible to have any joy and delight. What God had for their spiritual advancement was a day of delight! It should thus be protected from abuse, from ordinary labor, such as their feet heading off to the drudgery of a seventh day of work that week. The Lord their Creator Redeemer should be their joy. If life went on as usual every day, they would lose this opportunity. In time the Sabbath would become the day when brothers and sisters gather in happy fellowship to worship the Lord. It was to be a day of delight. Thus they should not succumb to injecting whatever they please into this one day a week to compete with the Sabbath. Obedience was again encouraged. The ugly fast of the wicked would be replaced by feasts in which the righteous enjoy the gifts of the Lord. They would ride high on the heights of the land promised to their fathers, and secured by the Lord its Guardian. They would be a people not worn out, on land not worn out, a people not ignorant of their God and His creation, but enjoying their place as His obedient covenant people.