Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).
1. How are Israel’s watchmen described (see Isaiah 56:10-12 printed below?) Note: The watchmen are the leaders of the nation.
Israel’s watchmen are blind, all of them lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark. They lie around dreaming; they love to sleep. (11) Indeed, these dogs are greedy, they are never satisfied. They are shepherds who are unable to understand; they have all gone their own way, each one seeks his own gain from every quarter. (12) Come, they say, let us get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! Tomorrow will be like today, or even better! (Isaiah 56:10-12)
The ungodly state of the nation is evidenced in the conduct of the leaders (or, “watchmen.”) They are described as being “blind” and “lacking knowledge” (verse 10). The very ones whose responsibility it is to guard the nation and be on the alert for its well-being are found to be incompetent and not capable of doing the job entrusted to them. What accounts for this deplorable condition? According to verse 10b, the leaders are self-indulgent: they are described as lazy dogs, idly lying around, daydreaming and snoring.
2. How is the society as a whole described? See Isaiah 57:3,5-6 (printed below)
But you, come here—you sons of a sorceress, you offspring of adulterers and prostitutes! …(5) you who burn with lust among the oaks and under every green tree, you who sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags? (6) The idols among the smooth stones of the ravines are your portion; they are your lot. Yes, to them you have poured out drink offerings, to them you have presented grain offerings. Should I accept these things? (Isaiah 57:3,5-6)
Verses 3-10 of Isaiah 57 describe the conduct of the majority of the people of the nation of Israel at this time in history. These people are described as forsaking the Lord and giving themselves over to every form of pagan practice, no matter how immoral (“you who burn with lust among the oaks”—they were engaging in pagan cultic prostitution) or hideous (even sacrificing their children to pagan deities—”you who sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.”)
3. Sandwiched in between the description of the leaders of the nation (Isaiah 56:10-12) and the description of the society itself (Isaiah 57:3-10) is a description of the righteous—those within the society who are faithful to the Lord their God. What happens to them and why? See Isaiah 57:1-2 (printed below)
The righteous man perishes, but no one takes it to heart; devout men are removed, but no one understands that the righteous are removed in order that they may be spared from the coming calamity. (2) The righteous enters into peace; they rest in their deathbeds, each one who walked in the way of righteousness. (Isaiah 57:1-2)
Given the conduct of the leaders and the society as a whole, it is little wonder that in Isaiah 57:1 one finds the words, “The righteous man perishes…the righteous are removed.” In such an ungodly society there was the silencing, the persecuting, and the exterminating of those who demonstrated dedication to the Lord their God, those who practiced righteousness (Isaiah 56:1). But note the commentary given in Isaiah 57:1b-2, “no one understands that the righteous are removed in order that they may be spared from the coming calamity.” Unbeknown to the apostate nation, the righteous are being mercifully removed (delivered by death). The righteous “enters into peace; they rest in their death beds” (verse 2). Death for the righteous—those who trust in the Lord, covered by His righteousness and being conformed to that righteousness—is the entrance into peace; it is described as a resting in their beds, peacefully waiting the day of resurrection from the catastrophic judgment that was about to befall the nation (note 2 Kings 22:20).
4. What does the Lord say to the foreigner and the eunuch who are committed to Him? See Isaiah 56:3-7 (printed below) Why do you suppose the Lord addresses these words to them?
Do not let the foreigner who has committed himself to Jehovah say, Jehovah will surely separate me from his people. Neither let the eunuch say, Look, I am a dry tree. (4) This is what Jehovah says about the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths, and who choose the things that please me, and adhere to my covenant: (5) I will give to them in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name that is better than sons and daughters—I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (6) And the foreigners who commit themselves to Jehovah to minister to him, and to love the name of Jehovah, to be his servants, everyone who observes the Sabbath and does not profane it, and who adheres to my covenant—(7) these I will bring to my holy mountain and I will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called “a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3-7)
In verses 3-7 the Lord addresses a special word to the foreigner who has come into His covenant and to the eunuch. The concern of the foreigner and of the eunuch was that because of their race (the foreigner being a non-Israelite by birth) or their physical condition (note Deuteronomy 23:1 concerning the eunuch), they might be unacceptable to the Lord. The Lord addresses a word of assurance first to the committed eunuch (verses 5) and then to the committed foreigner (verses 6-7). There is a two-fold reason for this special address to the committed foreigner and eunuch. First and foremost, to assure them of their acceptance with the Lord despite their non-Jewish identity or their physical defect. But also to impress upon the nation of Israel that what is of ultimate importance is not mere religious heritage or religious formality, but personal faith in the Lord and the outworking of that faith in the form of obedience to His commandments.
5. What instructions does the Lord give to those who are faithful to Him (see Isaiah 56:1a printed below?) What incentive or encouragement does the Lord provide (see Isaiah 56:1b printed below?)
This is what Jehovah says, Maintain justice and practice righteousness… (Isaiah 56:1a)
…for my salvation is coming soon and my righteousness is about to be revealed. (Isaiah 56:1b)
In verse 1 the Lord urges and exhorts the faithful to remain faithful, because “my salvation is coming soon and my righteousness is about to be revealed.” He assures them that He will be faithful to honor and reward their commitment to Him. True to His Word, that day of repayment and reward surely came: when the Babylonians conquered the apostate nation of Israel, those who had maintained their faithful commitment to Christ inherited the land (note Jeremiah 39:8-10). What the Lord did in the days of Old Testament Israel is just one example of His commitment to those who are committed to Him (note Matthew 5:10-12).