Better than sons and daughters
Isaiah 56 should be interpreted as the opening panel of a chiastic structure that starts with 56:1 and ends with chapter 66.
A. Righteous foreigners (56:1-8)
B. God's people unable to do right (56:9-59:15a)
C. The Divine Warrior (59:15b-21)
D. God's righteousness dawns in his people (60:1-22)
E. Anointed to preach the Good News (61:1-3)
D. God's righteousness dawns in his people (61:4-62:12)
C. The Divine Warrior (63:1-6)
B. God's people unable to do right (63:7-66:17)
A. Righteous foreigners (66:18-24)
This opening verse (56:1) declares that God is prepared to deliver and ready to reveal his vindication (or his righteousness). The declaration is preceded with a call to promote justice and do what is right. On first glance, it appears that it is possible that the promotion of justice is the source of the vindication. However, the syntax declares it is God’s righteousness that is being revealed. It is also clear from the literary context that God has not found any who promote justice. “The LORD watches and is displeased, for there is no justice” (59:15)
and “So he takes matters into his own hands; (59:16). “A protector comes from Zion” (59:19)
and he is anointed to carry on a special task. He is “commissioned to encourage the poor, to help the brokenhearted, to decree the release of captives, and the freeing of prisoner, “ (Isa 61:1)
We now have a context from which to read chapter 56. Who is the Divine Warrior going to free? Who is he going to exclude? Verse 2 assigns a sort of blessing to those that commit themselves to obedience. The subsequent verses discuss the Sabbath, the temple, the covenant, and the burnt offerings and sacrifices. It is clear that the blessing invoked is not distinct from the covenant blessing of the Jews as these markers indicate. Verse 2 blesses those “who observe the Sabbath”. The Sabbath was a sign between God and the Israelite's and an invitation to enter his rest. Rest does not mean relax. It is referring to God's administration. From creation we know that God turned chaos into order. On the 7th day, he then began his administration and governance of the created order.
However, the rub comes in verse 3. It is the foreigner (that follows the Lord) that will not be excluded. Notice that the inclusion of the foreigner is not unconditional. It is not any foreigner, but the one that follows the Lord. Next, the Eunuch who observes “My Sabbaths chooses what pleases me and are faithful to my covenant” (56:4)
is also included. This actually is contrary to the law. The Eunuch is specifically excluded from the Assembly of the Lord in Deut 23:1. By purposefully highlighting those currently excluded, Isaiah is pointing out that something new is coming. Something that will include those currently excluded.
God will set up a monument within his temple. The word for monument is sometimes translated ‘name’ (KJV) or renown. This word (Shem) is the same as the son of Noah through whom the covenant was to be fulfilled. Abram was promised that God would make a name for him (Gen 12:2) in contrast to the erectors of the Tower of Babel who tried to make their own name. (Gen 11:4) This new monument will be better than sons and daughters and it will be permanent. Sons and daughters reference the Jewish people and the covenant of the law, as it exists at this time but Abram will be an instrument by which God will bless all families (Gen 12:3). It was temporary but the new monument will be permanent. Inclusion of the Eunuch proves the law is temporary because otherwise Isaiah would be suggesting the law will be broken. We know that through Christ it was instead fulfilled.
In verses 6 and 7, foreigners are once again affirmed. They will be brought to the Holy Mountain. The Holy Mountain has special significance. It is Yahweh’s mountain dwelling. It is associated with the subjugation of his enemies. Solomon serves as an example. After being given rest and subjugating his enemies, he built the temple which was followed by praise and tribute from foreigners such as the Queen of Sheba. The acceptance of atoning burnt offerings and pleasing sacrifices (56:7) guarantee entrance and now the “temple will be known as a temple where all nations pray” (7).
The inclusion of Eunuchs is a telling feature of Isaiah 56. First the passage discusses the righteous foreigner. This speaks of inclusion but not to the same extent. The foreigner was not generally excluded because of being a foreigner. Abraham, when he received the sign of circumcision also circumcised the foreigners in his household (Gen 17:27). Exo 12:48 describes the foreigner that wants to observe the Passover. He must be circumcised and then should be treated as one born in the land. The law admonishes the Jews to treat foreigners well as they were once foreigners in Egypt (Deu 23:7). The inclusion of foreigners does not represent a radical change in the way God deals with Israel. In fact, you could say that foreigners were always, in some ways the object of God’s grace and the Jews were the instruments (Gen 12:3).
In contrast, a Eunuch was specifically excluded. He was not just under-privileged; he was un-welcomed. How can Isaiah suggest that those excluded (not just by Jewish tradition, but by law) can now be included? Deut 23:1 specifically states that they are excluded from public worship. Eunuchs mentioned here seem to represent those that were previously excluded. They are now included, not as a sub class but as equals. For them (Eunuchs and foreigners) God will erect a permanent monument better than sons and daughters. No longer is national identity considered – now access is based on this new monument. Acceptance is guaranteed for those that are faithful to his covenant. God himself will bring him to his holy mountain and make him happy (7). This place is where the atoning offerings and sacrifices will guarantee his prayers are heard. His prayers alongside those of all nations will be heard.
Jesus, in the cleansing of the temple (Luke 19:46) did not just quote Isaiah (56:7) because it fit the mood of his situation. His quotation was intentional and deeply theological. The temple had been abused and was no longer meeting its purpose. Isaiah 56 is referring to the end of the law by the acceptance of the Eunuch and the raising of a monument better than sons and daughters. Isaiah also tightly transitions from the inclusion of the Eunuch to the devouring of what belongs to the blind watchman and the selfish shepherds. Jeremiah 7 affirms the prophecy of the destruction of the temple. The context of Matthew also affirms that this is Jesus’s intent. In quoting Isaiah, he was declaring the inclusion of the previously excluded and the destruction of the temple. The atoning cross of Christ was the monument and the rejection of Christ resulting in judgment on the Jews and the destruction of both the temple and the city.