56:1-66:24 PRESENT SHAME AND FUTURE GLORY
Having looked beyond the Babylonian captivity to the Jews’ imminent return to their homeland, the prophet now sees the people resettled in and around Jerusalem. What he sees causes him to realize that this is not the golden age after all. Social and religious sins once again become a characteristic of the national life of Israel. The prophet contrasts this corrupt state of affairs with conditions in the ideal Jerusalem of the future.
In this section, as in the previous sections (Chapters 40-48 and 49-55), we must remember that we are reading poetry, where the pictures are vivid and the language exaggerated. We do not need to interpret the prophecies literally (e.g. mountains do not literally have voices and trees do not literally have hands; cf.
55:12). The important consideration for the reader is not merely what the prophecies say, but what they mean.
Of particular importance is the spiritual significance of the prophecies, and this is the aspect that the New Testament emphasizes. The prophecies of Isaiah take on new meaning once Jesus Christ has come.
Thus, the glorious kingdom that God promised Israel is, above all, a spiritual kingdom centred in Jesus the Messiah (32:1-8; cf. Luke 17:21). The faithful remnant of Israel is in fact the true Israel (10:20- 23; cf. Rom 9:6-7,27-33). The spiritual, not the natural, descendants of Abraham are the real people of God (41:8; cf. Gal 3:29). The salvation of God is proclaimed worldwide and people of all nations join in one body to be his people (54:1-3; cf. Gal 4:26-28). The new Jerusalem for which believers hope is not material and earthly like the old, but is spiritual and from heaven (60:1-22; cf. Rev 21:1-4; 21:22-27).
True worshippers (56:1-8)
God reminds his people that life in the rebuilt nation must be based on his law. This applies to laws that concern social justice as well as those that concern religious practices (56:1-2).
When the Jews returned to Jerusalem, some Gentile converts returned with them. Among these were several eunuchs, possibly people who were previously connected with the palaces in Babylon and Persia. The law of Moses made it plain that eunuchs were to be excluded from the tabernacle worship, probably to discourage the Israelites from making their own people eunuchs (Deut 23:1). But in the new Jerusalem all foreigners, eunuchs or otherwise, who honour God and keep his law should be allowed to worship in the temple along with godly Israelites (3-5).
Love and obedience towards God, not physical or national characteristics, are the important things in God’s sight. The temple is for the use of all people, not just Jews, because God’s mercy is for all people (6-8).
Corruption and idolatry (56:9-57:21)
The Assyrian captivity of the northerners and the Babylonian captivity of the southerners did not include the whole populations. Those who were of no use to the conquerors were left behind, along with scattered country people who escaped the enemy. These and their descendants soon followed the old religious practices of the Canaanite people. They worshipped idols, offered human sacrifices to the god Molech, and practised fertility rites with religious prostitutes, all in the hope of becoming prosperous
(2 Kings 17:24-41). Those who engaged in these practices tried to join in the worship of Yahweh when the Jews returned from captivity.
Israel’s spiritual leaders should have been like alert watchmen, who warned the people of these dangers and instructed them in the ways of God. Instead, says the prophet, they are like lazy, overfed watchdogs who can only sleep. They are interested only in personal gain and do not care for the people. The civil leaders (likened to bad shepherds) are equally greedy and corrupt (9-12).
In such conditions the righteous are the ones who suffer. They find relief only when they rest in death (57:1-2). The wicked, meanwhile, carry on with their witchcraft, immorality, idolatry and child sacrifice. They do not realize that by their behaviour they are challenging God and inviting his judgment (3-6).
Although their idolatrous practices involve costly sacrifices, shameful behaviour and tiresome journeys, they persist in them, hoping vainly for a better life (7-10).
Although the people have turned from God to worthless idols, God has been patient with them. But his patience has not led them to repentance. They will now find that their gods will not save them from God’s punishment (11-13).
By contrast, God will help those faithful to him, no matter what obstacles are in their way. Although he is exalted above the heavens, he also dwells with those who humbly acknowledge their sin and turn from it (14-15). He may punish them when they do wrong, but he does not remain angry with them.
When they humbly acknowledge their wrong and show their desire to please him again, he gives them new life and strength (16-18). The repentant enjoy peace and fellowship with God, but the wicked live in a turmoil of uncleanness. They will be excluded from God’s peace for ever (19-21).