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?