For a community under stress, the quality of its leadership is critical. Leaders are to be watchmen (56:10), alert to dangers that threaten from the outside, and shepherds (56:11), nurturing and strengthening the inner life of the community. Where such leadership is lacking, the sort of situation develops which we see here. Instead of being open in the right sense – to people sincerely seeking the Lord – the community becomes open to evil people who want to exploit it (56:9). Good people are attracted, and no-one comes to their defense (57:1-2). Superstition and false religion flourish and become a cover for all kinds of wickedness (57:3-10). The fear of the Lord is lost, and other, unhealthy fears take over (57:11). And finally, God is left with no option but to judge.
Some of the details are elusive, but the overall impact is very clear. Sin will not be eradicated from God’s people until the very end. In the waiting time the struggle against it goes on unabated at both the personal and corporate levels. And where godly leadership is lacking, old evils come flooding back, even after a remarkable experience of God’s grace. It proved to be so in the period following the return from Babylon, and it is still so in the church today.
After the ideals laid out in 56:1-8, this passage comes as a shock like the shattering of a dream. But that is not the whole story. Not all fall away in the waiting time. Isaiah speaks of those who cherish the dream and would rather die that give it up (57:1-3); they take refuge in the Lord, and will finally inherit all things (57:13b). The contrast between them and the apostates whose attitudes and behavior we have already seen could hardly be more stark. As the pace quickens, and history hurtles more and more rapidly to its end, the difference between the true and false, between those who really are God’s people and those who are not, will become more and more obvious. The waiting time is a time of sifting.
This sifting involves pain, and can be very alarming, but it should not cause us despair. The failure of leadership which in fact happened in the post-exile community, and the resulting divisions and apostasy on the part of many, did not frustrate God’s plan to send Jesus when the time was right. Nor will similar failings in the church today prevent God’s purposes from reaching their final goal when Christ returns. The dream will not die, because it is God’s dream, and those who remain true will share in the fulfillment of it.
Isaiah 56:9-57:13 Reflection Questions:
Where are you spiritually, during our waiting time before Christ’s return?
Where are you with your relationship with Christ? How will you improve on it?
Can you see the leadership qualities in today’s study apply to our personal life? In what ways?
Chapter 56 launches us into the seventh and final part of Isaiah’s vision (chapters 56-66). It relates to the period following the arrival of the first returnees from Babylon. Isaiah saw that time in prophetic vision; we see it in the clear light of history (see the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah). The Judah to which they returned had been incorporated into the Persian Empire, so they were home but still not their own masters. Their numbers and resources were limited, and neighboring groups viewed them with suspicion or outright hostility. But the most serious problems arose from the fact that this small community lived “between the times”, so to speak. The return from exile had begun but was far from complete (v. 8). The community lived in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet”. They had the beginnings of what God had promised but not the fullness of it. It was a time in many respects like our own, between the first and second comings of Christ. The kingdom of God has come, but is yet to come. It is an exciting time but also a difficult one, when (as Paul puts it) “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for …the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). Waiting tests our patience and our faith. This final part of the book is about life in the interim – waiting for a new world.
These first eight verses are a fitting introduction to what follows, serving as a kind of charter for the restored community. Those whom God has freed from condemnation and despair have an obligation to do His will, and these verses set forth very clearly the ideals God has for them. They are to be marked by two things: justice and openness.
Justice (vv. 1-2): It was injustice that had brought Israel to ruin. God had looked for justice, but found only bloodshed and cries of distress. Religion had become divorced from social responsibility, ritual from right living, and so God destroyed Jerusalem and drove His people out of it rather than permit such monstrous dishonoring of His name to continue. Now those who will wake on the other side of this nightmare and have the opportunity to make a fresh start are reminded that God has the same passionate commitment to justice that He always had, and that He expects them to share it. They are to maintain justice and do what is right because His righteousness is about to be revealed (v. 2). Their life together is to be a visible sign that the kingdom of God – His reign of perfect justice and righteousness – is just around the corner, breaking in and already making its presence felt.
Openness (vv. 3-8): There is no direct command here, but the implication of what is said is very clear: the Lord accepts the foreigner and the eunuch who sincerely seek Him, and His people must do the same. This was a very difficult and sensitive issue, for there were specific statements in the Law of Moses excluding emasculated men and foreigners, especially Moabites and Ammonites. These were powerful reminders to Israel that the holiness God demanded of His people was totally incompatible with physical mutilation (as practiced in pagan cults), and that His love for them was no casual thing. He was adamantly opposed to those who sought to harm them. These laws had never been meant to exclude genuine converts, as the stories about Rahab and Ruth show quite plainly. They were to be an open community, warmly embracing all who genuinely bound themselves to the Lord (vv. 3, 6). Eunuchs in particular were to be treated with compassion. Isaiah had foreseen that members of the royal family would be made eunuchs in Babylon. This passage makes it clear that God does not intend to exclude them from His coming kingdom, nor should His people, who await its arrival.
Isaiah 56:1-8 Reflection Questions:
Where in the gospels does Jesus speak on this thought in verses 1-2?
Where in the gospels talks about a eunuch?
Does this study affect your view on a convert to Christianity from the LGBT community?