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 Exodus 31:13-17 [13] Speak you also to the children of Israel, saying, Truly my sabbaths you shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am the LORD that does sanctify you. [14] You shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you: every one that defiles it shall surely be put to death: for whoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. [15] Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. [16] Why the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. [17] It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
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). 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 Isaiah 56:4For thus said the LORD to the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
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) 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 Deuteronomy 23:1He that is wounded in the stones, or has his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
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). 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 Isaiah 56:6Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the LORD, to serve him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be his servants, every one that keeps the sabbath from polluting it, and takes hold of my covenant;
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), 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 Isaiah 58:13-14 [13] If you turn away your foot from the sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honorable; and shall honor him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words: [14] Then shall you delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.
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, 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 Mark 2:27-28 [27] And he said to them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: [28] Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
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(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 Isaiah 56:7Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.
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(see Matthew 21:13 Matthew 21:13And said to them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves.
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; Mark 11:17 Mark 11:17And he taught, saying to them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but you have made it a den of thieves.
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; Luke 19:46 Luke 19:46Saying to them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but you have made it a den of thieves.
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Sorceress, Adulterer and Harlot 

According to its note on Isaiah 56:9-12 Isaiah 56:9-12 [9] All you beasts of the field, come to devour, yes, all you beasts in the forest. [10] His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. [11] Yes, they are greedy dogs which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter. [12] Come you, say they, I will fetch wine, and we will fill ourselves with strong drink; and to morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.
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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 Isaiah 57:1-2 [1] The righteous perishes, and no man lays it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. [2] He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness.
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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 Kings 21:16 2 Kings 21:16Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin with which he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the LORD.
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) would accord with v. 1, and whose burning of his own son (2 Kings 21:6 2 Kings 21:6And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he worked much wickedness in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.
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) 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 Isaiah 1:1The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
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)—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 Isaiah 57:8Behind the doors also and the posts have you set up your remembrance: for you have discovered yourself to another than me, and are gone up; you have enlarged your bed, and made you a covenant with them; you loved their bed where you saw it.
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). 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 Ephesians 2:17And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were near.
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). And the chapter ends with the same words that ended chapter 48: There is no peace for the wicked.

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