Bible Commentary: Isaiah 56-57

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Isaiah 56-57

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Keep from Defiling the Sabbath

From chapter 56 on, the book of Isaiah is believed by many commentators to be addressing the Jews who had returned to the Promised Land following the Babylonian captivity—around 150 years or more from when Isaiah preached. Of course, some of Isaiah's prophecies in this section were probably meant, at least in some sense, for those of His day. And some were likely also addressed to people who lived much later—even people of the end time.

Chapter 56 begins with an exhortation to "keep justice, and do righteousness" (verse 1)—a major theme in the book of Isaiah. Verse 2 says the man who does this is blessed. And then a real problem is presented for those who believe that God's Sabbath was just for Israel and only for Old Testament times.

Isaiah quotes God in describing the importance of not defiling the Sabbath, which God gave as a sign identifying Him and His people (Exodus 31:13-17). This theme is further elaborated on in the following verses, regarding eunuchs and foreigners. "The eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant" (Isaiah 56:4) are to receive a great reward, being brought within God's walls. This is significant because, under the Old Covenant, eunuchs were not allowed to "enter the assembly of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:1). Thus, the prophecy in Isaiah mainly looked forward to New Covenant times—and, of all things, the Sabbath is singled out as important to keep. Ironically, many today mistakenly contend that the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments no longer in force under the New Covenant.

So, too, the foreigner "who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant" (Isaiah 56:6), was promised to be brought into God's house—His temple. Deuteronomy 23 listed certain foreigners who were not allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord. Yet in Isaiah God says His temple is to be "a house of prayer for all nations" (verse 7), and He lets Israel know that there will be others gathered together besides Israelites. Again, this clearly looked forward to New Covenant times, when salvation would be offered to the gentiles. And again, the Sabbath is made an important focus. It is clear from the verses above, and from Isaiah 58:13-14, that keeping the Sabbath is an important part of what is expected of all those with whom God is working. Christ Himself explained that the Sabbath was made for man—i.e., all mankind—and not just for the Jews (Mark 2:27-28).

(For more on this important weekly Holy Day, request or download our free booklet Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest.)

Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus entered the temple and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers. In doing so, He stated that the temple was to be a house of prayer, not merchandise, and cited Isaiah 56:7 (see Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)

Sorceress, Adulterer and Harlot 

According to its note on Isaiah 56:9-12, The New Bible Commentary: Revised states: "Dumb dogs, sleeping dogs, greedy dogs… characterize the spiritual leaders (watchmen; cf. Ezk. 3:17), while shepherds is an OT term for rulers [although it could signify spiritual leaders as well]. The sequence is instructive: spiritually, to have no vision (v. 10a; cf. 1 Sa. 3:1) is to have no message (v. 10b) and to drift into escapism (v. 10c) and self-pleasing (v. 11a); meanwhile the civil leadership (vv. 11b, 12) will improve on this example with stronger excess and blither optimism."

Isaiah 57:1-2 shows that the death of God's true followers is often misinterpreted. Probably some see it as evidence that they were misled. Yet it is not always the wicked who die prematurely. The righteous may also die early—because of God's mercy, in order to spare them from hardship that they might otherwise have to experience. This is not to say that they could not endure the evil—it is just that they don't need to for their personal character development, and so God chooses to shelter them in the grave, where they unconsciously await the resurrection.

Of verses 1-13 the same commentary just quoted states: "The watchmen have relaxed (56:9-12), and evil has duly flooded in. The times could well be those of Manasseh, Hezekiah's apostate son, whose persecution of the innocent (2 Ki. 21:16) would accord with v. 1, and whose burning of his own son (2 Ki. 21:6) matches the revival of Molech-worship here (vv. 5b, 9)." Of course, these aspects of Manasseh's reign transpired after the death of Hezekiah himself, which puts it beyond the date of Isaiah's actual preaching (Isaiah 1:1)—thus still requiring divine foresight.

It is sad, in light of all that we've read concerning Israel's wonderful future, to again read of the awful apostasy of God's people—viewed by Him as an adulterous wife. Even today, the descendants of these same Israelites are rife with paganism and idolatry. While children are not literally sacrificed as they once were (verse 5), the unborn are murdered, aborted in a terrible holocaust at the altar of convenience and personal freedom. And living children are still offered over to the evil ways of our society from a young age—setting them on the path of death instead of God's right path of life.

Then notice verse 8: "Behind the doors and their posts you have set up your remembrance." The verse goes on to show this to be pagan. In Deuteronomy 6, God said of His instructions, "You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (verse 9). Many took this literally. The Bible Reader's Companion explains: "The religious Jew attached small tubes containing bits of Scripture to his doorpost. Isaiah complains that while these symbols of piety are present, behind your doors there are pagan symbols. It's what's inside our homes, and our hearts, that counts" (note on Isaiah 57:8). Even today, many claim to follow the Bible—yet they set up pagan symbols such as Christmas trees right in their living rooms. Indeed, this is the norm in modern Christendom.

Verses 7-9 portray an adulterous wife seductively seeking lovers. The "king" of verse 9 could refer to the pagan god Molech (meaning "king"). Equated with the Roman god Saturn, his birthday was observed at the winter solstice with child sacrifice and evergreen trees (such as in verse 5). Indeed, in many respects, while the great false Christianity of this world claims to worship Jesus Christ, they are actually worshiping the wrong king, the false savior of the Babylonian mysteries—the sun god Baal or Molech. (It should perhaps be mentioned that some commentaries suggest that "king" in this verse could also indicate a foreign ruler the Israelites appeal to for aid rather than God. This happened in ancient times, and it appears from prophecy that it will happen again in the end time—this last time with the ruler of the European "Beast" power foretold elsewhere in Scripture, who will himself be directly tied to the false worship system already mentioned.)

The remainder of the chapter contrasts the fear and punishment of the wicked with the peace and reward of the righteous. Yes, even despite Israel's idolatrous rebellion, God in His unbounded mercy looks to the future redemption He has planned. Verse 15 is a comforting passage. God is "high and lofty," yet He dwells with us as we pursue our mundane affairs here below. God will be as intimately involved in our lives as we allow Him to be. This contrasts with the way pagan gods were depicted in some ancient cultures—as distant from the people: "Epicurean philosophy [in Greece] depicted the gods on Mount Olympus…in detached unconcern for the world" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 15).

Paul cites verse 19 about preaching peace as applying to Jesus (Ephesians 2:17). And the chapter ends with the same words that ended chapter 48: There is no peace for the wicked.