Isaiah 56:1-58:14

At the end of Isaiah 55 the wonderful prophetic strain, concerning the One who was to come forth as both the "Servant" and the "Arm" of the Lord, comes to an end. In chapter 56 the prophet had to revert to the state of things among the people to whom previously he addressed himself.

He spoke in the name of the Lord and the fact that He called for equity and justice reveals that these excellent things were not being practised among the people. His salvation and righteousness were "near to come," though not fully revealed until after Christ came. When we open the Epistle to the Romans, we meet with both salvation and righteousness in verses 16 and 17 of the first chapter. Both are fully manifested in the death and resurrection of Christ; not as antagonistic the one to the other, but in the fullest agreement and harmony. While waiting for this manifestation the man who lived in accordance with righteousness would be blessed indeed. The sabbath was the sign of God's covenant with Israel, therefore it must be observed faithfully.

Moreover the blessings, that came from obedience to God's holy requirements in His law, were not confined to the seed of Israel, but extended to the stranger who sought the Lord. This passage, verses 3-8, is one to be noted with care. The door was open to any, no matter whence they came, who really feared the Lord, and sought Him and His covenant amongst His people. The Queen of Sheba, for instance, came to question Solomon, not because of his vast knowledge of natural history, and his great literary output (see, 1 Kings 4: 29-34), but, "concerning the name of the Lord" (1 Kings 10: 1). So too the eunuch is specially mentioned in our passage, and in Acts 8, we have the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was indeed one of the "sons of the stranger," who were seeking to "join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord." What was promised to such by the prophet here was made good to him only in a more abundant measure since he was not given a place "in My holy mountain," but rather "called . . . into the grace of Christ." (Gal. 1: 6).

Even under the law the Divine thought was, "Mine house shall be called a house of prayer for all people." This is just the scripture quoted by the Lord on His last visit to the temple, just before He suffered; and He had with sorrow to add, "but ye have made it a den of thieves" (Matt. 21: 13). Such was the awful state into which the Jews had lapsed, and we are painfully aware that they were well on the way to it as we read this book of Isaiah. Yet the gracious promise of verse 8 abides. God will yet gather a remnant of His people, who are outcasts amongst men, and when He does so, He will gather others, who hitherto have been strangers. Today God is specially concentrating upon the strangers, visiting "the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for His name" (Acts 15: 14).

Having uttered the promise of God, the prophet now turned abruptly to denounce the state of the people, and especially those who were in the place of watchmen and shepherds. The one were both blind and dumb, the other greedy for their gain and not for the welfare of the sheep. As a result the beasts of the field would break through and devour: a warning this of oppressing nations about to assail them from without, while those who should warn and defend were like drunkards, filled with false optimism.

Hence the opening words of Chapter 57. The time had come when God would remove from their midst the righteous and the merciful, and so it might appear as though these were under His judgment; whereas the fact was that it were better for them to be removed by death than to live to share the judgment that would fall. A striking example of this was seen somewhat later when God-fearing Josiah was taken away that his eyes might not see the disasters impending. It could then be said of him that "he shall enter into peace."

The evil state of things that existed among the people is again exposed, beginning with verse 3. Even in Hezekiah's day the state of things was thus. Reading the account of his reign in both Kings and Chronicles we might imagine that the mass of the nation followed their king in the fear of the Lord, but evidently they did not, and idolatrous evils still largely characterized the people. Down to the end of verse 14, these idolatrous practices and the moral filthiness that accompanied them are denounced, and it is plainly foretold that, even when disaster came upon them from without, no object of their veneration would be able to deliver them. Their works, and what they considered to be their "righteousness" would be of no profit to them. The whole spirit that animated them was wrong.

The right spirit is indicated in verse 15. Jehovah presents Himself in a light calculated to produce that right spirit in those that approach Him. He is high and elevated in the depths of space, far above this little world. He inhabits eternity, not restricted by the times and seasons that confine us. His name is "Holy." Are we sensible of this? If so, we shall at once be contrite as regards the past, and humble in the present. And it is the heart and spirit of the humble and contrite that God revives, so that they may dwell in His presence in the high and holy place.

These things were promised to those that feared the Lord in Israel in the past days, and they are more abundantly true for us today, who are not under the law but called into the grace of Christ. Self-satisfaction and pride are the last things that should characterise us. We may well rejoice that we know God as our Father; but let us never overlook the fact that our Father is God.

The succeeding verses go on to speak of God's governmental dealings with the people. He had to deal in wrath with them because of their sin and rebellion, but He would not contend with them as a nation for ever. The moment would come when He would heal and bless, and establish peace, both for those far off and for those near. The term, "far off" may refer to the sons of Israel, who would be scattered, as distinguished from those who would be in the land. But what is said is true, if we understand it as referring to Gentiles, who were "far off," in the sense of Ephesians 2: 13. But also in either case the peace has to be "created" by God, and is not something produced by men. Isaiah 53 has told us how the peace is created.

The peace is only for those who are brought into right relations with God. It is not for the wicked who far from Him, are as restless as the sea. The winds keep the sea in perpetual agitation. Satan, who is "the prince of power of the air," keeps the wicked in a condition similar to the sea, and all their visible actions are like "mire and dirt."

Hence there can be no peace for the wicked. This solemn statement closed the first section of nine chapters. There seems however to be a deeper emphasis in its repetition, since we have now had before us the judgment of sin in the death of the Messiah, the sinless Substitute, in Isaiah 53.

The third and last section of nine chapters now opens with a command that the prophet himself had to fulfil. Loudly and forcibly to accuse the house of Jacob of their transgressions and sins was no pleasing task; rather one that would be met with resentment and anger. The same thing however is necessary in connection with the Gospel today. In the Epistle to the Romans the Gospel is not expounded before the sinfulness of all mankind is plainly and fully exposed. In the Acts of the Apostles we see the same thing in practice. In Acts 7, Stephen did it with great power, and paid the penalty with his life. The same thing in its measure marked the public preachings of Peter and Paul; and when Paul faced Felix privately, "he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come," so much so that Felix trembled. We venture to think that this solemn note has far too often been missing in these days, as the Gospel is preached.

Verses 2 and 3 reveal why such a testimony of conviction was so needed, and for just the same reason is it needed today. The sins of the people were being covered up with a round of religious duties. They were going up to the temple, apparently seeking God. They took delight in acquaintance with God's ways, in observing His ordinances, in fasting and afflicting their souls. Were not all these outward things enough and to be commended?

Yet they were but a mask, and when this was removed, what was beneath? Verses 3-5 show us what was beneath. Their "fast" was really a time of pleasure. There was exaction, strife, debate, the ill-treatment of others, though they bowed down their heads in a false humility and spread sackcloth and ashes beneath them. Their fast was just a matter of outward religious ceremony, and had nothing in it of that inward self-denial that it was supposed to indicate.

Is this the fast that God had chosen? is what verse 6 asks. And verse 7 proceeds to indicate the fast that would be acceptable unto God. Before Him what counts is what is moral rather than what is ceremonial. By Hosea God said, "I desired mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6: 6); and the Lord quoted this twice (Matt. 9: 13; Matt. 12: 7) Thus we see here exposed the hypocrisy that came into full display and reached its climax in the Pharisees when our Lord was on earth; and as often noticed the severest denunciations that ever fell from the lips of our Lord were against the Pharisees. To none of the publicans and harlots did the Lord utter such words as are found in Matthew 23: 1-33.

This evil was plainly visible in Isaiah's day; but having exposed it, the prophet was led to show that if his rebuke was accepted and the people repented there was yet blessing in store for them. Then, of course, they would walk in righteousness, and as a result there would be for them light and health and glory. The light would be like the dawning of new day. Their health would spring forth speedily. Their righteousness would open the way before them, and the glory of the Lord would protect their rear. Is Israel ever going to achieve this desirable state as the result of their law-keeping? The answer is, No. The New Testament makes this very plain.

Will this state then ever be reached? The answer is, only through their Messiah, whom they have rejected. When first He came, it was as, "the Dayspring from on high" (Luke 1: 78); it was the dawning of a new day in which Israel's light was to break forth. But they would have none of Him. What is predicted here is deferred consequently until He appears again in His glory. They will then be a born-again people, with the Spirit poured forth on them as objects of Divine mercy. Then, and not till then, will the glory of the Lord be a guard to their rear.

But in Isaiah's day the people were still being dealt with as men in the flesh and on the ground of their responsibility under the law, so the blessing proposed is based on their obedience. Hence there is found that fatal, "If . . ." in verse 9. When the law was given it was, "If ye will obey..." (Ex. 19: 5), and so again is it here; and thus it must be as long as a law regime prevails. All through Israel's national history there has never been the taking away of the things mentioned in verse 9, nor the drawing out of their soul to the things mentioned in verse 10. Hence the good things of verse 11 and 12, have never yet in any full sense been realized, though a limited revival was granted under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah.

The fatal, "If . . ." meets us again as we look at verse 13. This time it is linked with the due observance of the sabbath, and this seventh day was given to Israel, we must again recall, as the sign between themselves and God, when the law was given, as is stated in Ezekiel 20: 12. Sabbath-keeping had therefore a very special place in the law economy. If therefore the people turned away their foot from its due observance and merely used the day for the doing of their own pleasure, it was to do despite to the covenant of which it was the sign. This is just what the people were doing in the days of Isaiah.

In John 5 we read how the Lord Jesus healed the impotent man on a sabbath day. This gave great offence to the Jews and because of it they sought to slay Him. The Lord's answer was, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." The fact was that the covenant of law which demanded works of obedience from Israel, was hopelessly broken, and the sabbath, which was the sign of it, was being set aside. The time had now arrived for the work of the Son and of the Father to come into display, as indeed it did on the first day of the week, when our Lord rose from the dead, now known to us as "The Lord's day."

We can however read the last verse of this chapter, as also the verses that precede, as setting forth what God will eventually bring to pass for Israel in the millennial day that is coming, not as the result of their doings, but solely as the fruit of what their Messiah has already done, coupled with the righteous power to be put forth when He comes again in His glory. Then Israel will be like, "a watered garden," and "the old waste places" shall be built. Then shall Israel delight itself in the Lord, and consequently "ride upon the high places of the earth."

They are far from doing this at present; but they shall certainly do so. And, Why? "For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." His word is stable. What He says always comes to pass.