Isaiah Chapter 56


The Sabbath linked with the Covenant. True Rest linked with
the Cross. The institution of the Sabbath and our present
relation to it considered. Israel's watchmen so torpid that
the nations are invited to spoil. Our present day "dumb dogs."

On the surface we now appear to be led back rather than forward, to law-keeping and strict Sabbath observance as the ground for acceptance and blessing. But, as we know this is impossible, we must not be satisfied with the surface, but must most carefully consider what is written, and "the Lord giving understanding" we shall see that we are not being led back to Sinai, but still onward in those morally clean paths that have ever marked the footsteps of the flock.

We have had the ground and cost of our redemption by the blood of Christ in Chapter 53; we have listened to the gracious call to poor Israel, as to a wife long forsaken, but ever loved (54); then to a wider call to the nations afar (55); and now what is looked for to follow all this grace? What path must be taken to reach full, perfectly enjoyed blessing, for this has not yet come, although brought near? A clean path, a path of practical holiness, shall alone evidence that all this grace has not been received in vain, so only can we have the realized companionship of our Lord (John 13).

We are not here led back to Sinai and its legal covenant, but onward to that covenant of grace that God will make with Israel in a day to come, and on the principle of which, being grace, we too are alone blessed now. But it is with Israel that the prophet primarily deals, and it is Israel that now under that new covenant whereby God's laws are written in their hearts (Heb. 8:19) can really keep that Sabbath which is the "sign" that everything is "very good."

1: Thus saith Jehovah: Keep judgment, do right,
For My salvation is nearing,
My righteousness nears revelation,
2: Blessed the frail man1 who doeth this,
And the son of man who doth grasp it.
Blessed is he who My sabbath doth keep
From pollution; his hand from all evil.
3: Nor let the son of the stranger e'er say,
Who to Jehovah hath joined him,
Jehovah hath severed me quite from His saints;
Nor eunuch mourn, Lo, I'm a dry tree!
4: For thus e'en to eunuchs doth the Lord speak,
To those who My sabbaths are keeping,
Taking their pleasure in what pleaseth Me,
My covenant faithfully holding,
5: To them will I give a place in My house,
Within its fair walls, far surpassing
A name carried on by daughters and sons:
I will give them a name everlasting,
That nevermore shall be cut off!
6: The sons of the stranger that cleave to the Lord
To serve Him, Jehovah's name loving,
Thankful His faithful servants to be;
Yea, all that do keep from pollution
His sabbath, and covenant hold fast:
7: Them will I bring to My holy mount,
Glad in My prayer-house will make them.
Their offerings burnt, their sacrifice slain,
I'll accept when laid on My altar;
For My house a house of prayer shall be called,
And that shall it be for all peoples.
8: This doth Jehovah Adohnai proclaim,
Who gath'reth Israel's outcasts,
Others there are whom to him I'll restore,
In addition to those I have gathered.
The prophet is standing on the verge of that reign of Christ termed the Millennium. It has not yet come, but, as in the day of John the Baptist, it is near; and little did either Isaiah or John conceive of a period of nearly two thousand years that should intervene between the sufferings of Christ and His manifested glory—a period in which the God of all grace would not be otiose, but active in carrying out purposes that were in His own Mind, though hidden until the Holy Ghost came and revealed them to His holy apostles and prophets, and particularly to our apostle Paul (Eph. 3). But let us note this striking difference: in our prophet, God's redeemed people are led to His house on earth, placed on His holy mountain, but we to our Father's House on high; this is a characteristic distinction between the two dispensations.

When Jacob was told to go up to Bethel and dwell there, instantly he commanded his household to prepare for that, by putting away everything inconsistent with such a place (Gen. 35). So when John cried the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, he too added: "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3). So here; because Jehovah's salvation was nigh, the Spirit of Christ in the prophet cries, "Keep judgment; do right"; and today, with a hundred signs telling us that we are standing on the verge of the return of our long-rejected Lord, does it not become each of us to see to it that our lamps are well-trimmed, and that nothing of this world, or the flesh, be allowed inconsistent with our welcome of His shout that calls us to be with Him forever?

But you will also have noted the place given the Sabbath, and its close link with "keeping the hand from doing any evil." I find it difficult to express the importance of this divinely formed union between the Sabbath and holy living. It means this: If there be a Sabbath—no evil doings. If there are any evil doings—no Sabbath! But let us not judge what is "evil" by our natural standards of morality. The natural conscience can pass judgment on murder or adultery, confining all its attention to what is called the second table of the law, and ignoring the first altogether. As the blood of Abel speaks, so let us permit Cain to speak to us for a minute. Look at him as he is building his altar and offering upon it the very best of his own labor. Do you think that he had the slightest idea that those very works in God's searching light were not good but evil? Would his neighbors say as they saw him thus piously engaged, "What a wicked man!" or rather, "What a good, religious man Cain is!" And yet it is those very deeds that the Spirit of God brands as "evil!" The murder of Abel was surely evil enough, yet it is not that that is so termed in 1 John 3:12, but what preceded and led up to the murder, as it is written: "Wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil and his brother's righteous." The cause must come before its result. What, then, were Abel's righteous deeds? Nothing but his offering "by which he obtained witness that he was righteous" (Heb. 11:4). What were Cain's evil deeds? Nothing but his religious offering. We can easily apply this without further aid. But with Cain's offering there can never be a Sabbath, for that was an evil deed. There can be no rest based on our religious works.

The Sabbath was to be the sign that there was no evil, of any character. If there had been any evil in Eden, aye, if one feeble groan could have been heard, would—aye, could, God have rested till He had hushed that groan? Will He, can He rest, or keep Sabbath till all again is very good? "My Father worketh hitherto and I work," said the Lord, and work is surely the opposite of rest, which the very word "sabbath" means.

That ever was, and is still, the battlefield between God and religious men, for it was not till the Lord presumed to work on the Sabbath that His enemies "took counsel together to destroy Him" (Matt. 12:1-4). Thus the first step to the Cross was Love working on the Sabbath!

But with what divine strength is the keeping of the Sabbath here insisted upon, a strength that must not be diluted in the slightest, nor on the other hand must we close our eyes to all that the Scriptures teach with regard to it. In Eden, not till all was "very good" was there a sabbath. Redeemed from Egypt it was first given as a privilege expressive of Jehovah's gracious care, and not law; but some poor foolish people heed it not, and Jehovah grieves that they refuse to keep "His commandments and His laws" (Ex. 16:27, 28); not those from Sinai surely, for that had not yet been reached, but the commands of grace of a Father to His children. Then, embodied in the very heart of the decalogue, with responsibilities Godward on one side, and manward on the other, is the Sabbath. What then was God's purpose in giving the decalogue? "It was added because of (for the sake of) transgressions" (Gal. 3:19), nor does that mean to restrain transgression, for there was none at all before the law—sin was in the world indeed, but no trangression, for "where no law is there is no transgression" (Rom. 4:15). The law turned sin into transgression and so worked wrath (Rom. 4:5). In a word, the law was given to shut man's mouth entirely (Rom. 3:19). What part then had the Sabbath in that purpose? It was given as a "sign." "Verily, My sabbaths ye shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you" (Ex. 31:13), and again this is reiterated in verse 17. "Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed." Again, retrospectively: "I gave them My sabbaths to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them" (Ezek. 20:12). And again similarly in the 20th verse. This then is clearly and unequivocally the signification of the sabbath: it was a sign. If God could rest, as He did on the first seventh day, and Israel could rest with Him, then it became a sign that all was again "very good." But if God could not rest, but work, because of sin and its sad consequences, then this gracious working of God became in itself a sign that all was out of order, and there was no sabbath at all. His Love would not permit "rest" in such conditions. The impossibility of God's resting became the sign of a broken law, of poor man being in a pit, like that sheep of Matt. 12:11, from which none could lift him but God. God then has never had one sabbath from Eden to this very day, and we, even we, do pollute the sabbath if we make any claim to keeping it, apart from perfect observance of the whole decalogue. And who can stand there? It was by not walking in Jehovah's statutes and despising His judgments that Israel polluted His sabbaths of old. For if they claimed it, whilst even one of these commandments was broken, they came with unclean hands and defiled that sabbath that they touched. Can we then pretend to, or claim a sabbath? One only is its Lord, for One alone has not forfeited His title to it. But our "memorial"—the day of which we would remind our God and Father, and on which we would enjoy rest with Him—is not the old creation rest based on a finished work of creation; but the new creation based on the finished work of redemption, and thus we enjoy a sabbath of rest of conscience and heart with Him, for in Christ all things are new, and all things are of God, and so all things there are indeed "very good"—blessed be His Name! In our prophet it is a forward look, not to the present time, of which he knew nothing, but to that millennial day when the Jew will be the centre of God's ways, and when God's laws being written on their hearts they shall keep the sabbath in truth. Now our place in spirit is with our Lord Christ in heaven, and there are no "weeks" there—angels surely do not keep any sabbath day.

But greatly as these truths need pressing when men are still claiming that they can keep a sabbath with God, we must leave it, not without reluctance, and go on with our prophet.

Those who have no hope of posterity to continue their name, are promised, conditioned on basing all hopes on the new covenant of grace, a new name, better than that posterity might give to them. No bar will there be to the stranger, but He will welcome all who, by their new nature, desire to please Him.

Verse 8 reminds us strongly of John 10:16: "Other sheep I have which are not of this fold, them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd." But in this the reference is to the present day, and we hear nothing of walls, of cities, or of holy mountains, but in Isaiah the reference is to the millennial reign of Christ over the earth.

Now under the figure of wild-beasts, the nations of the earth are invited to attack Israel, ill-guarded as she is:

9: Come, all ye beasts of the field,
Come and devour!
Come, all ye beasts in the forest!
10: Blind are his watchmen,
Ignorant all of them!
Dumb dogs are they all,
That cannot e'en bark!
Dreaming, they lie,
And love thus to slumber!
11: Greedy the dogs are,
Never are satisfied.
And these are the shepherds
That have no understanding.
Yea, for the whole of them
Are seeking their own gain,
E'en to the last of them!2
[And thus they speak.]
12: Come, [Come,] and I will bring wine to you,
And with strong drink will we be filled:
Then as today, so will tomorrow be,
Only [in pleasure] still more abundant!
These verses clearly show that whilst the salvation of God as regards Israel may be near, it has not yet actually come, for here again we see that unbelieving mass, so careless that the hostile nations, under the figure of beasts of field and forest, are invited to come and devour them. The picture is of a flock of sheep. There are the watch-dogs whose duty it is to guard that flock, but they are all sound asleep; the beasts of field or forest need have no fear of such, they are too stupid even to bark! They are wakeful enough when it comes to seeking their own; but as to the flock, they cannot even discern the dangers that threaten, they dream that all is well, and still are recumbent. So fared it with Israel; and, alas, how history repeats itself! Is this picture quite unlike what we see about us today? Even weeping, must we own the sad correspondence with this, our own time.

The beasts of the field are the surrounding nations hostile to Israel. Come, then, we might echo, Come, ye beasts, Saracen and Turk! No, the time for such chastening is over now. They were used in the past centuries; but now there are others of another character, beasts of the forest. Come, then, all ye darkness-loving evil spirits, for few are the watchmen that are awake; the mass of them are, as Milton termed them in his day, "blind mouths!"

Verse 12 is such an invitation as the god of this world is ever holding out to his votaries, of pleasures unending, only that each day shall give a still greater satisfaction. Alas, to what an awful awakening do such invitations ever lead. "Vanity of vanities!" is the heart-cry here, and endless weeping beyond!


1 Heb., enosh, the word for "man" in his frailty and mortality.

2 The word rendered in A.V. "from his quarter" literally means, "from his utmost extremity"; in other words, "throughout the length and breadth of his own circle" (Delitzsch).