Isaiah 56
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Isaiah 56:1-8. Removal of the religious Disabilities of Eunuchs and Proselytes

(1) The passage opens with a general exhortation to righteous conduct and a correct religious attitude, to be manifested by a strict regard for the sanctity of the Sabbath (Isaiah 56:1-2). (2) The main subject of the oracle is then introduced, viz., the fears entertained by foreigners and eunuchs that they would be excluded from participation in the blessings of the covenant (Isaiah 56:3). (3) To the latter class is promised the signal honour of a monument in the Temple and a name “better than sons and daughters,” i.e. more than compensating for the loss of that perpetuation through posterity of which a cruel fate had deprived them (Isaiah 56:4-5). (4) In like manner the “sons of the stranger” are reassured by the confirmation of their right to a full share in the worship of the new Temple (Isaiah 56:6-7 a). (5) The principle on which this privilege rests is stated in all its breadth and spirituality, viz., the destiny of the religion of Israel to supersede distinctions of race and to unite men of all nations in the common worship of the true God (7b, 8).

The short oracle stands in no very close connexion either with what precedes or with what follows. Although it has often been treated as an appendix to ch. 55, its real affinities seem rather to be with the group of prophecies which follow. Like them it presents features which are thought by some recent critics to point to a period subsequent to the return of the first exiles from Babylon (see Introduction, pp. lv–lx). It is urged that the religious status of the two classes referred to would hardly become a practical question until the new community was formed; that the adhesion of proselytes is spoken of by the second Isaiah as a natural consequence of Israel’s exaltation (Isaiah 44:5), and that nothing that happened prior to the release of the Jews is likely to have given rise to such misgivings as are expressed in Isaiah 56:3. Further, that the most obvious inference from Isaiah 56:7 b, 8 is that the Temple is already in existence, and that part of Israel has already been gathered. These indications, taken in conjunction with many references in chs. 57 ff., render it probable that we are here face to face with the problems raised by the situation of the new Jewish community in Palestine.

Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed.
1, 2. The exhortation to righteousness is based on the nearness of Jehovah’s salvation (cf. Isaiah 46:13, Isaiah 55:6). justice should be righteousness (as in R.V.), the same word as in the last line of the verse, but in a different sense. In the first case righteousness means conformity to the law of God (cf. Isaiah 58:2), in the second it is, as often, equivalent to salvation. The thought that salvation is near is as characteristic of the later chapters of this book as of chs. 40–55. (see Isaiah 57:14, Isaiah 58:8 ff., Isaiah 59:15 ff., Isaiah 60:1 ff., Isaiah 62:6 &c.), but it is equally prominent in the post-Exilic prophecies of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The establishment of the Jews in their own land had not realised the glorious predictions connected with it in 40–55; yet the conviction remained immoveable that the final act of redemption was at hand, and was retarded only by the sin of the people.

Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil.
2. The blessing attached to Isaiah 56:1 extends to mankind in general (note the expressions man and Song of Solomon of man), i.e. to all who comply with the conditions of membership in the Jewish community.

that layeth hold on it] Better as R.V. that holdeth fast by it (and so Isaiah 56:4 and Isaiah 56:6).

that keepeth the sabbath from profaning it (R.V.)] (i.e. “so as not to profane it,” so Isaiah 56:6). The same emphasis on Sabbath observance appears in ch. Isaiah 58:13, and so in Ezekiel 20:12 ff; Ezekiel 22:8; Ezekiel 22:26 (cf. Jeremiah 17:19 ff.). Although one of the most ancient of Israel’s religious institutions (Exodus 20:8; Deuteronomy 5:15; Amos 8:5) the Sabbath acquired peculiar significance during the Exile, when the ordinances of public worship were suspended and the Sabbath and circumcision became the chief external badges of fidelity to the covenant of which it was the sign (Exodus 31:13-14; Ezekiel 20:12).

from doing any evil] such offences as are specified in Isaiah 58:4 ff., Isaiah 59:3 f.

Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.
3. the son of the stranger means simply the individual foreigner (R.V. the stranger), not one whose father was a foreigner.

The Lord hath utterly separated] Render with R.V., will surely separate. The case supposed is that of a foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord, i.e. has become a proselyte by accepting the symbols of Jewish nationality (circumcision, &c.), but now has reason to fear that his qualifications will be disallowed. This anxiety is hardly to be explained by the law of Deuteronomy 23:3-8; for the regulations there laid down apply only to Moabites, Ammonites, Egyptians and Edomites; and the general tendency of the legislation is in favour of the religious rights of proselytes. (See the exhaustive monograph of Bertholet, Die Stellung der Israeliten und der Juden zu den Fremden, 1896.) It is more likely that the immediate cause of apprehension was some manifestation of an exclusive and intolerant spirit amongst the leaders of the new Jerusalem. Against this spirit (if it existed) the prophet’s words enter a strong protest (see Isaiah 56:6-7).

the eunuch] Such persons are excluded from the congregation by Deuteronomy 23:1. On that passage Prof. W. R. Smith remarks that “Presumably the original sense of this rule was directed not against the unfortunate victims of Oriental tyranny and the harem system, but against the religious mutilation of the Galli” &c. (Driver’s Deuteronomy, p. 259). If this be so, the present passage need not be regarded as superseding the Deuteronomic law; it may be only a protest against its extension to cases which it did not contemplate; for it is certain that those here referred to were “the unfortunate victims of Oriental tyranny.”

I am a dry tree] He could not become the head of a family in Israel, and therefore felt that he had no real and permanent share in the hopes of the nation.

For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;
4, 5. In spite of his disability the God-fearing eunuch shall be recognised as a worthy member of the congregation of Jehovah, and his name shall be had in everlasting honour in the new Israel.

that keep my sabbaths] For the expression, cf. Leviticus 19:3; Leviticus 19:30; Leviticus 26:2, &c.

hold fast (as Isaiah 56:2) my covenant] by conscientious obedience.

Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.
5. a place] a monument; lit., “a hand.” There seems no reason to doubt that the promise is to be understood literally. An illustration of what is meant is found in 2 Samuel 18:18, where we read that Absalom, in the prospect of dying childless, erected the pillar to his own memory which was known as “Absalom’s hand” (cf. also 1 Samuel 15:12, R.V. marg.). The case of those here spoken of is precisely similar. They have “no son to keep their name in remembrance,” but their memory shall be perpetuated by a monument erected within the Templewalls; and such a memorial, testifying to the esteem of the whole community, is better (and more enduring) than sons and daughters.

Also 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 keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant;
6, 7. The answer to the misgivings of proselytes (Isaiah 56:3).

to serve him] Better as R.V. to minister unto him. The verb is used of honourable personal service (Genesis 39:4; Genesis 40:4), and especially of the priestly service of God at the sanctuary. It is found again in ch. Isaiah 60:7; Isaiah 60:10, Isaiah 61:6.

to love the name of the Lord] Cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Deuteronomy 11:1, &c.

to be his servants] i.e. worshippers (a different word from that used above).

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 upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.
7. Foreigners who fulfil these conditions have full access to the sanctuary.

make them joyful] “cause them to rejoice.” The phrase is formed from a common Deuteronomic expression for taking part in the Temple ritual: to “rejoice before Jehovah” (Deuteronomy 12:7; Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18, &c.).

my house of prayer] The Temple is the place where prayer is answered; see 1 Kings 8 passim, esp. 1 Kings 8:29 f., and 1 Kings 8:41-43.

The sacrifices of proselytes are referred to in the Law: Numbers 15:14 ff.; Leviticus 22:18 ff; Leviticus 17:8 ff.

for mine house … people] (R.V., rightly, for all peoples) Cited by our Lord, Matthew 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46. The emphasis lies on the last words; that the Temple is a house of prayer has been already said, what is now added is that it shall be so to men of all nationalities.

The Lord GOD which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.
8. The Lord God … saith] Saith the Lord Jehovah &c. The formula usually follows the sentence to which it refers; here it introduces it, as ch. Isaiah 1:24; Zechariah 12:1; Psalm 110:1.

which gathereth the dispersed of Israel] Cf. ch. Isaiah 11:12; Psalm 147:2.

Yet will I gather others &c.] Lit. “I will yet further gather to him, to his gathered ones.” “His gathered ones” is the antithesis to the “dispersed” above. The language certainly suggests (though it may not absolutely prove) that a partial gathering has taken place: the promise is that yet more shall be gathered, and, amongst these, men from “all peoples.”

All ye beasts of the field, come to devour, yea, all ye beasts in the forest.
9. The apostrophe to the wild beasts is suggested by the following comparison of the people to an ill-guarded and therefore defenceless flock. That a new chastisement at the hands of the heathen is actually contemplated need not be assumed. A close parallel is found in Jeremiah 12:9; cf. Ezekiel 34:5; Ezekiel 34:8.

Ch. Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:21. A Protest against the Unworthy Shepherds of God’s Flock, and the arrogant Heathenism by which it is threatened; followed by a Message of Consolation to True Israelites

This sombre and impassioned discourse is composed of three parts:

i. ch. Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:2.—The defenceless condition of the community, due to the incompetence of its spiritual leaders.

(1) All the wild beasts of the field and the forest are invited to come and devour the unprotected flock (Isaiah 56:9). (2) For its rulers neglect their duty; they are inefficient as dumb dogs, they are slothful, greedy and sensual (Isaiah 56:10-12). (3) In consequence of their incapacity the righteous perish, none regarding their fate (Isaiah 57:1-2).

ii. Isaiah 57:3-13 a. A bitter tirade against an insolent and aggressive paganising party, animated by a contemptuous hostility towards the true religion.

(1) This party, which is characterised as a bastard and hybrid race, the illegitimate offspring of an adulterer and a harlot, is summoned to the bar to hear the Divine sentence on their career of flagrant idolatry (Isaiah 57:3-4). (2) The indictment follows, in the form of a recital of the varied heathen rites to which they were addicted (Isaiah 57:5-9), and in which with infatuated perversity they still persist in spite of all the teachings of experience (Isaiah 57:10-11). (3) Judgement is then pronounced; Jehovah will unmask the hypocrisy of their pretended righteousness, and leave them to the protection of the false deities whom they have so diligently served, but who shall be unable to save them (Isaiah 57:12-13).

iii. Isaiah 57:14-21. The prophet now turns with a message of comfort to the depressed and contrite people of God. The obstacles in the way of their salvation shall be removed (Isaiah 57:14); Jehovah, whose condescension brings Him near to the lowly in heart, will at length avert His anger, and bring healing and peace (Isaiah 57:15-19); only the wicked who persist in their impenitence are excluded from the promised blessing (Isaiah 57:20-21).

Isaiah 56:9 to Isaiah 57:2. Denunciation of the worthless rulers of the Jewish community.—The difficulty of supposing that this passage refers to the state of things in the Exile is obvious. Israel is compared to a flock in charge of its own shepherds; and these shepherds are responsible both for the internal disorders from which it suffers, and the outward dangers which threaten it. An invitation to the wild beasts (the heathen nations) to come and devour a people already “robbed and spoiled” (Isaiah 42:22) by foreign conquest, is almost inconceivable. It is of course possible, as many scholars hold, that the verses are extracted from a pre-exilic prophecy; but the description is at least as applicable to the conditions which existed after the return from Babylon. The books of Malachi and Nehemiah reveal incidentally a state of affairs which would go far to account for the dark picture here presented of the ruling classes in the restored community.

His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber.
10–12. The delinquencies of the rulers. The watchmen are the spiritual leaders of the community, who in the earlier post-exilic period were the priests and the prophets (see Nehemiah 6:10-14). Elsewhere the word is used metaphorically only of the prophets (Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 3:17; Ezekiel 33:2 ff.) and to them the description here chiefly applies, although there may be no reason for excluding the priests, with whom the higher authority lay, and who shared in the vices here specified. These guides are blind, not discerning the evils of the time, and dumb, afraid to speak out against them.

they are all ignorant] Lit. “they all of them know not.” Several codices of the LXX. supply an infinitive (φρονῆσαι), by which the sense and parallelism are improved (cf. the similar phrase in Isaiah 56:11 “they know not how to observe”: E.V. “cannot understand”).

dumb dogs, they cannot bark] in contrast to the true prophet, who “cries aloud and spares not,” shewing the people their transgressions (see ch. Isaiah 58:1; cf. Ezekiel 33:1 ff.), and specially gives warning of the approach of an enemy; Ezekiel 33:6. Sheep-dogs are mentioned in Job 30:1.

sleeping] R.V. “dreaming,” better raving. The word, which occurs only here, means in Arabic to talk deliriously in sickness. Cheyne suggests that it contains a play on the word for “seers,” from which it differs in a single letter (hòzîm and ḥôzîm).

loving to slumber] The laziness of the dog was proverbial amongst the Arabs: “he delays like a sleepy hound” (Gesenius).

Yea, 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.
11. The first line reads, And the dogs are greedy (lit. “strong of soul,” i.e. appetite), they know not how to be satisfied. The charge of cupidity and of selling oracles for gain is one frequently brought against the false prophets (Micah 3:5; Micah 3:11; Jeremiah 6:13; Ezekiel 13:19; Ezekiel 22:25); a contemporary instance may be the incident of Shemaiah (Nehemiah 6:10 ff.). That the priesthood was infected with the same vice of covetousness is shown by Malachi 1:12; on the upper classes generally see Nehemiah 5:7 ff.

and they are shepherds &c.] The meaning can hardly be that those who have been called dogs are really the shepherds of the flock; but it is not easy to obtain a satisfactory sense. Cheyne renders “and these, pastors as they are,” taking “pastors” in the figurative sense of rulers. Dillmann with a slight change of the text reads “and even these, the shepherds,” supposing that a class of persons different from the “watchmen” (prophets) are now spoken of, viz., the nobles and elders. On any view the sentence is awkward; it adds nothing to the thought, and may originally have been a marginal gloss.

they all look to their own way] R.V. they have all turned to their own way; all pursue their selfish interests (cf. Isaiah 53:6).

from his quarter] Render, without exception, as Ezekiel 25:9; Genesis 19:4.

Come ye, 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.
12. As an illustration of their highest idea of enjoyment, one of these watchmen is introduced inviting his fellows to a prolonged carousal. Cf. ch. Isaiah 5:11 f., 22, Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 28:7 f.; Micah 2:11.

we will fill ourselves &c.] a coarse bacchanalian expression: “we will swill strong drink.”

and much more abundant] Rather, as R.V. (a day) great beyond measure!

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