LISTEN to PODCAST: Isaiah 56 – Israel’s Blind Watchmen
READ: Isaiah 56 – Notes
STUDY: Isaiah 56 – Worksheet
Where we are:
|Part 1: Judgment||Part 2: Historical Interlude||Part 3: Salvation|
|Chapters 1-35||Chapters 36-39||Chapters 40-66|
When this takes place:
Chapter 56 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.
Isa. 56:10-11 – Israel’s watchmen are blind, all of them, they know nothing; all of them are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they dream, lie down, and love to sleep. These dogs have fierce appetites; they never have enough. And they are shepherds who have no discernment; all of them turn to their own way, every last one for his own gain.
Chapter 56 begins the final section of the book of Isaiah. While chapters 40-55 survey the Babylonian exile and speak of redemption largely in terms of a Jewish homecoming, chapters 56-66 focus on the homeland, which is seen partly as a place of corruption (Isa. 56:9 – 59:15a) and devastation (Isa. 63:7 – 64:12), but also as a place of restoration and beauty when touched by the Lord’s hand (Isa. 60-62). “The final chapters (65–66), like the prelude (56:1–8), show God’s welcome of the outsider and the heathen to his holy mountain and eternal kingdom, but press home the peril of an everlasting exclusion from these glories” (D.A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed., S. Is 55:6). Specifically, chapter 56 contrasts God’s grace and man’s wickedness, as evidenced in the lives of Judah’s leaders.
The Gentiles who believe will be included in God’s blessings for Israel. The Gentiles’ inclusion in God’s plan for worldwide blessing is addressed in many passages of Scripture, for example:
- Gen. 12:3: I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
- Acts 15:16-18: After these things I will return and will rebuild David’s tent, which has fallen down. I will rebuild its ruins and will set it up again, so that those who are left of mankind may seek the Lord – even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord who does these things, which have been known from long ago (quoting Amos 9:11-12; Isa. 45:21).
- Gal. 3:6-9: Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, so understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and foretold the good news to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed in you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith.
- Eph.3:4-6: By reading this you are able to understand my insight about the mystery of the Messiah. This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: the Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
A House of Prayer (Isa. 56:1-8)
Isaiah begins the chapter with a command from the Lord to live righteously “for My salvation is coming soon, and My righteousness will be revealed” (v. 1). The word “salvation” may be seen here as both spiritual deliverance (from idolatry and other sins) and physical protection (from the Assyrians now and from extinction during Babylonian exile later). While salvation always has been a work of God’s grace, the Jews are exhorted to live righteously as an acknowledgement of their special relationship with Yahweh. Since the Sabbath is a sign of Israel’s covenant with the Lord, keeping the Sabbath signifies belief in the covenant and trust in the covenant-keeping God (v. 2). In a similar manner, our good works as Christians are the natural response to God’s work of grace in our lives and are intended to bring glory to God (Matt. 5:16; Eph. 2:10).
In verses 3-5 the Lord reminds believing Gentiles that they have a part in His salvation and a place in His kingdom. God’s intention always has been to redeem people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Equally gracious is God’s promise to eunuchs who, under the Law, are excluded from the full rights and privileges of citizenship (Deut. 23:1). The reason for their segregation is that their parents have deliberately mutilated them for the purpose of serving in the palaces of kings and noblemen. Such a focus on status and cultural extremes would serve to take their eyes off Yahweh and prevent them from having children who would honor the one true and living God. Though the eunuchs are not at fault for their parents’ actions, the consequences are a reminder to all Jews not to allow foreign beliefs and practices to influence them. Eunuchs, however, are never excluded from God’s salvation, and the Lord adds to spiritual deliverance the promise of full citizenship in the Messianic kingdom, including “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters” (v. 5).
Foreigners who “love the Lord’s name” will be regathered along with believing Israelites. They demonstrate their belief in Yahweh by serving Him and honoring His covenant with Israel. It should not be overlooked in this passage that Gentiles are invited to observe the Sabbath along with the Jews. Warren W. Wiersbe explains: “God never before asked the Gentiles to join the Jews in keeping the Sabbath, but here He does so. He calls the very people He prohibited from entering His covenant nation: foreigners and eunuchs (Deut. 23:1–8). This is another picture of the grace of God (see Acts 8:26ff). The invitation is still, ‘Ho, everyone! Come!’ It applies to sinners today, but it will apply in a special way when Israel enters her kingdom, the temple services are restored, and the Sabbath is once again a part of Jewish worship” (Be Comforted, An Old Testament Study, S. Is 55:1).
In the future, the Lord will bring Jews and Gentiles alike to His holy mountain, where they will rejoice in His house of prayer. There, they will offer burnt offerings and sacrifices on His altar. But a question arises: If this promise points to the Millennium, which comes well after Messiah’s sacrifice on the cross, why are animal sacrifices necessary, or even appropriate? One possible explanation is that these are not blood sacrifices, but spiritual ones. The apostle Paul, for example, exhorts us as Christians to present our bodies as living sacrifices that are holy and pleasing to God; this is our “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). The writer of Hebrews tells us to “offer up a sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). And Peter reminds us that we are “living stones … built into a house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). In this case, the Lord’s “altar” could be a reference to the cross, where the Old Testament sacrifices are fulfilled and done away with and which sanctifies our sacrifices of prayer and praise.
Another possible explanation is that God will reinstitute the sacrificial system as a memorial to His Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The shed blood of innocent animals will serve as a reminder of the penalty for sin and the great price Jesus paid to redeem us from our sins. In either case, the focus of this promise is that redeemed people from across the world will gather in Jerusalem and worship the Lord.
Sleeping Watchmen (Isa. 56:9-12)
While much of chapters 49-57 offer a glimpse of Israel’s future glory, the closing verses of this chapter and all of chapter 57 describe the spiritual situation in Isaiah’s day and serve as a condemnation of the nation’s wicked. In verse 9, the “animals of the field and forest” are invited to “come and eat!” This is a call to the Gentile nations – Babylon in particular – to devour Israel as punishment for her spiritual stupor. Israel’s “watchmen” – the priests and other religious leaders – are described as “blind” and “ignorant.” They are ravenous dogs who love to eat and sleep, yet as mute beasts are unable to sound a warning of approaching danger. The leaders also are depicted as shepherds with no discernment, acting like the very sheep they are supposed to lead. Concerned only with their own comfort, they drink wine, guzzle beer and tell themselves the future is bright.
Warren Wiersbe comments: “Spiritual leaders are ‘watchmen’ (Ezek. 3:17–21; 33:1–11) who must be awake to the dangers that threaten God’s people. They are ‘shepherds’ who must put the care of the flock ahead of their own desires. When the foreign invaders (‘beasts of the field’) come, the shepherds must protect the flock, no matter what the danger might be. See Acts 20:18–38 for the description of a faithful spiritual ministry” (Be Comforted, S. Is 56:9).
Matthew Henry writes: “[W]hy are the dogs set to guard the sheep if they cannot bark to waken the shepherd and frighten the wolf? Such were these; those that had the charge of souls never reproved men for their faults, nor told them what would be in the end thereof, never gave them notice of the judgments of God that were breaking in upon them. They barked at God’s prophets, and bit them too, and worried the sheep, but made no opposition to the wolf or thief…. They loved their ease, and hated business, were always sleeping, lying down and loving to slumber. They were not overcome and overpowered by sleep, as the disciples, through grief and fatigue, but they lay down on purpose to invite sleep … It is bad with a people when their shepherds slumber (Nah. 3:18), and it is well for God’s people that their shepherd, the keeper of Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 56:9).