Commentary (Bible study)
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
ISAIAH 55-66: THE CONTEXT
This chapter follows the exuberant chapter 55, which invites everyone who thirsts to come to the waters and those who have no money to come, buy and eat (55:1). In that chapter, Yahweh promises, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you” (55:3b) and says, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6a). Yahweh assures Israel that his word “shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please” (55:11). Finally, he promises these exiles, who have lived in captivity in Babylonia for five decades, “You shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace” (55:12)—a promise that will soon be fulfilled through the agency of Cyrus of Persia.
Chapter 55 is so climactic that some scholars ask why the book doesn’t conclude there. The answer depends on our understanding of the authorship of this book. There are three main theories of authorship:
• The first is that one man, Isaiah, son of Amoz (1:1), wrote the entire book.
• The second is that Isaiah, son of Amoz, wrote chapters 1-39 and that another prophet or group of prophets wrote chapters 40-66. Proponents of this theory call the author of chapters 1-39 First Isaiah and the author of chapters 40-66 Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah).
• The third theory is that First Isaiah wrote chapters 1-39—Second Isaiah wrote chapters 40-55—and another prophet or group of prophets known as Third Isaiah (or Trito-Isaiah) wrote chapters 56-66. In this schema, First Isaiah covers the period prior to the Babylonian captivity—Second Isaiah was written near the end of the captivity, about 540 B.C.—and Third Isaiah was written as the exiles began their return to Jerusalem, about 520 B.C. (Brueggemann, 167).
If one accepts the third theory, the reason that the book of Isaiah doesn’t conclude with chapter 55 is obvious. Chapters 56-66 were added later by another author.
But others see the matter differently. Oswalt says that chapters 1-55 are incomplete—something theological needs to be added. Chapters 56-66 emphasize righteousness, the people’s inability to live righteously, and the importance of grace—showing people how to move beyond the letter of the law to its spirit—to the living of holy lives (Oswalt, 452-453).
The text that follows this one (56:9 ff.) speaks of problems within the community—corruption among Israel’s rulers (56:9-12)—idolatry (57:1-13)—false worship (chapter 58)—injustice and oppression (chapter 59)—thus endangering Israel with the loss of the promise (Hanson, 193).
But the text goes on from there in a reassuring mode, speaking of the ingathering of the dispersed (chapter 60)—the good news of deliverance (chapter 61)—the vindication and salvation of Zion (chapter 62)—Yahweh’s mercy (63:7- 64:12).
The book concludes with a note about the righteousness of Yahweh’s judgment (chapter 65) and the worship that Yahweh demands (chapter 66).
ISAIAH 56:1. KEEP JUSTICE, AND DO RIGHTEOUSNESS
1Thus says Yahweh,
“Keep justice (Hebrew: mis·pat),
and do righteousness (Hebrew: seda·qa);
for my salvation is near to come,
and my righteousness to be revealed.”
“Thus says Yahweh” (v. 1a). Thus the prophet announces that these are Yahweh’s words. What follows is non-negotiable. If the people are wise, they will listen and heed.
“Keep justice (mis·pat), and do righteousness” (seda·qa) (v. 1b). Chapter 55 has extended wonderful promises, which might have led some to conclude that Yahweh has relented with regard to demands for justice and righteousness.This verse, however, re-emphasizes the requirements for justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) that Yahweh has established from the beginning. The fundamentals are unchanged.
The combination of justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) is a recurring theme in the book of Isaiah. (1:21; 5:7, 16, 9:7; 16:5, 28:17; 32:1, 16). Justice and righteousness are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives.
Yahweh’s law provides specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to Yahweh by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
“for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (v. 1c). The emphasis here is not on maintaining justice (mis·pat) and doing righteousness (seda·qa) so that salvation and deliverance might come. Yahweh instead announces that salvation and deliverance are just around the corner, which in fact will turn out to be the case. Israel needs to practice justice and righteousness so that it will be ready to receive salvation when it comes.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist will issue a similar call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”—and Jesus will echo that call (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
ISAIAH 56:2-5. BLESSED IS THE MAN WHO DOES THIS
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.
3“Neither let the foreigner, who has joined himself to Yahweh, speak, saying, ‘Yahweh will surely separate me from his people;’ neither let the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’
4For thus says Yahweh, “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant: 5to them I will give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than of sons and of daughters; I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”
While these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. Verse 2 promises happiness to the person who maintains justice and does what is right (v. 1)—who “keeps the sabbath…and keeps his hands from doing any evil” (v. 2).
But it is verses 3-5 that are truly remarkable. These verses extend Yahweh’s promises to foreigners and eunuchs, two groups that have been treated as outcasts.
• When Yahweh speaks of foreigners, he means Gentiles, whom Israel has treated as a lower form of life unworthy of Yahweh’s concern.
• Eunuchs are either men whose sexual organs have been damaged or castrated males used in various forms of government service. They are men who cannot sire children and therefore have no future—their names will disappear with their death. Deuteronomy forbids the admission of eunuchs “into the assembly of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 23:1). In other words, foreigners and eunuchs represent outsiders—people living beyond the pale.
In verse 3, Yahweh holds out a promise that foreigners can be included among Yahweh’s beloved. In verses 4-5, Yahweh promises to give faithful eunuchs a monument “in my house and within my walls” (meaning the temple)—as well as “a name better than of sons and daughters” (better than Israelites)—”an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” So the names of the eunuchs will not die out with their death, because Yahweh will give them an everlasting name.
What these verses promise, then, is that there is no such thing as a proscribed people—a people living outside the realm of Yahweh’s love—a people for whom Yahweh’s promises do not apply. It opens up Yahweh’s kingdom to the world.
But these are not just any foreigners or eunuchs. They are foreigners and eunuchs who keep the sabbath and refrain from doing evil. Keeping the sabbath and abstaining from evil testify to the commitment that these people have made to Yahweh (Motyer, 350-351; see also Goldingay, 316). Their faithfulness demonstrates their desire to be included among the people of God.
ISAIAH 56:6. FOREIGNERS WHO JOIN THEMSELVES TO YAHWEH
6“Also the foreigners 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 my covenant;”
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh, to minister to him, and to love the name of Yahweh, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath from profaning it, and holds fast my covenant” (v. 6). In verses 4-5, Yahweh extended specific promises to eunuchs who “keep my Sabbaths” and “choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant” (v. 4). Now in Yahweh lays the groundwork to extend similar promises to foreigners. This verse establishes several criteria that qualify foreigners to receive the blessings. The first is that they “join themselves to Yahweh.” Then Yahweh gives a group of three criteria that have to do with the relationship that grows naturally out of joining oneself to the Lord: ministering to him, loving the Lord’s name, and serving the Lord as servants. Then we find three phrases that define cultic service: keeping the sabbath—not profaning it—and holding fast Yahweh’s covenant. Note that keeping the sabbath and holding fast Yahweh’s covenant were also criteria required of eunuchs to enable them to receive Yahweh’s blessings (v. 4).
ISAIAH 56:7. EVEN THEM WILL I BRING TO MY HOLY MOUNTAIN
7“even 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 a house of prayer for all peoples.”
“even 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 a house of prayer for all peoples” (v. 7). Verse 6 set the criteria that qualify foreigners to receive Yahweh’s blessings. This verse outlines the nature of those blessings. Yahweh will personally escort these foreigners to his holy mountain—Mount Zion—the location of the Holy City and the Holy Temple. Not only will Yahweh escort them to the holy mountain, but he will also “make them joyful in my house of prayer”—the temple.
The temple was divided into several increasingly holy areas—areas to which access was increasingly restricted.
• The outer court, to which Gentiles could be admitted, was called the Court of the Gentiles. Separating the Court of the Gentiles from the rest of the temple was a wall posted with notices informing Gentiles that any Gentile caught trespassing beyond that wall would be subject to death.
• The Court of Women, where Jewish women were permitted to go.
• The Court of Israel, where Jewish men were permitted to go.
• The Court of Priests. Access to that court was usually restricted to priests, although male Jews were permitted to enter the Court of Priests for certain observances. The altar of burnt sacrifice was located in this area, and this is where priests conducted ritual sacrifices. These sacrifices accomplished a number of purposes—among them atonement for sins.
• The holiest and most restricted area was called the Holy of Holies, and only the High Priest was permitted to enter there.
So under normal circumstances, foreigners (Gentiles) could enter only the outermost courtyard, the Court of the Gentiles. To go beyond that courtyard would bring them under threat of death. But now Yahweh speaks of escorting foreigners into the temple where they could offer burnt offerings and sacrifices. It sounds as if Yahweh intends to admit these foreigners into the Court of Priests, because that is where their sacrifices would be offered. The intent, then, is to signal that Yahweh intends to break down the barriers that have been established to keep Gentiles in the far reaches of the temple—the barriers that convey special privileges to Jews and deny those privileges to Gentiles. The complete fulfillment of this promise will await the coming of the Messiah (see Galatians 3:27-29).
But there is more here. The temple is a symbol of the presence of Yahweh—of access to Yahweh. This verse promises, not just access to the temple, but access to Yahweh, wherever he may be found. The Jerusalem temple will not stand forever, but Yahweh’s love is everlasting and will insure access to all people through all generations.
ISAIAH 56:8. I WILL GATHER OTHERS TO HIM
8“The Lord Yahweh (Hebrew: YHWH adonai), who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, ‘Yet will I gather others to him, besides his own who are gathered.'”
“The Lord Yahweh, who gathers the outcasts of Israel” (v. 8a). If we accept the proposal that this chapter was written as the Jewish exiles have begun to make their return to Jerusalem, God has already gathered the outcasts of Israel—has gathered them and has begun to lead them home.
“says, ‘Yet will I gather others to him, besides his own who are gathered'” (v. 8b). Where others shun outcasts, the Lord God gathers them. The preceding verses gave foreigners and eunuchs as examples of these outcasts, but there are many kinds of outcasts. We are always tempted to define some group of people as outcasts so that we might feel superior. The various sections of the temple gave witness to the levels of Jewish society, from the priests down to lowly Gentiles.
But then there were lepers and others who were considered unclean, even though they might be Jewish. A Jewish woman was excluded from ritual activities for a period of time after childbirth—forty days after the birth of a son and two weeks after the birth of a daughter (Leviticus 12). A leper was required to wear torn clothes and allow his/her hair to be disheveled and cover his/her upper lip and cry out “Unclean, unclean” to warn non-leprous people to keep their distance (Leviticus 13:45).
In other cultures, people of various races or religions are treated as outcasts. I have even heard high school teachers talking about unmotivated young people as destined for the manual arts, such as carpentry or plumbing. The manner in which they spoke of these young people made it clear that they considered them as outcasts—although one teacher said, “But look at how much money they make.” I was reminded of a comment by John Gardner, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
We can’t afford to treat people as outcasts. Yahweh began bringing outcasts into the fold many centuries ago.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Smith, Gary V., The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan