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Isaiah 56: Keeping the Sabbath


Photo by Evgeni Tcherkasski on Unsplash


Chapter 56:1 is a good example of the trouble a chapter break can make.


This is what the LORD says:

“Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.“


If we hadn’t read chapter 55 and didn’t know the LORD was speaking to those already in the tent, we might think He’s saying we’d better straighten up if we ever want to see His salvation. But since we have read the last chapter, we know He’s talking to those who have already made it through the door. They came, they listened, they ate. Now it’s time for them to demonstrate what His salvation and righteousness are like. They will be the magnet that draws the attention of the world.


I’m guessing you are one of those already in the tent. (If you aren’t, I recommend you read chapter 55 now. It will change your life.) So, as modern-day magnets, we can listen to what He’s saying in these verses and digest them as if He’s saying it to us.


“Blessed is the one who does this—

Blessed. I like that.


But the next line is a little troubling for a Gentile like me:


“the person who holds it fast,

who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.” (v. 2)


I get the part about keeping my hands from evil, but what about keeping the Sabbath? What does that mean for me?


When the children of Israel came out of Egypt after more than 100 years with no rest, they were commanded to keep the Sabbath—to set aside every seventh day to rest and remember the LORD (Exodus 16:23). That would be a demonstration to the workaholic world around them that they were different. Their lives were organized around God.


They weren’t given much instruction about keeping the Sabbath. Basically, don’t work or die (Exodus 31:12-17). The seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord.” (Exodus 35:2)


Not surprisingly, man had a hard time believing something so central could be so simple. So by the time of Jesus, rabbinic law had dissected and debated “keeping the Sabbath,” to the point they could now define it as not doing any form of thirty-nine things—things like plowing, or spinning, or skinning, or writing—or anything that could cause you to do one of those thirty-nine things. For example, removing part of a plant is considered reaping—a Sabbath no-no—so climbing a tree is rabbinically forbidden because you might tear off a branch as you climb.


Now you may better understand why Jesus’ disciples got into trouble for munching grain as they walked through a field (Mark 2:23). They weren’t breaking the Sabbath by eating but by “harvesting.”


Oh my. God had simply said, “Don’t work. Rest.”


“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15) Don’t worry. Trust.


God had more to say about the “why” of the Sabbath than the “how.“


Exodus 31:12-17:


“Because it is holy to you...“

“It is given so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.”

(Catch that? It is He who makes us holy. Keeping the Sabbath holy just reminds us of that.)

“The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you…”


During the time of the Babylonian exile, keeping the Sabbath became especially significant—for those who cared. It was a “sign” between God and Israel that they were still in covenant. No temple necessary.


So that fourth commandment—remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy—became shorthand for “keep God first in everything.” No elaborate ceremonies, no over-the-top sacrifices, simply rest and trust in Him.


How does that translate for you and me in the New Covenant? The Bible Project has a cool video that addresses that question, but in short, for the Christian, keeping the Sabbath means resting in Christ (Matthew 11:28-30; Colossians 2:6-16). Jesus said he is LORD of the Sabbath, so he gets to decide what the Sabbath is and has decided to celebrate it by doing good and showing mercy (Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 2:27).


But let’s get back to the time of Isaiah. In chapter 56, God is speaking blessing over those who put Him first—those who keep the Sabbath.


He calls that loyalty lots of things—keeping my Sabbaths, choosing what pleases me, holding fast to my covenant, binding yourselves to me, ministering to me, loving me—and he makes special mention of two groups of people who will be blessed if they do: the foreigners and the eunuchs. Oh, the kind heart of God!


Throughout their history, Israel was under instruction to treat the foreigner with compassion. The foreigner in Israel could become a proselyte and take part in temple worship. But in the mind of a foreigner, a foreigner is still a foreigner, a second-class citizen at best. But here God includes faithful foreigners in the blessing. He says to them, “No. You’re my people. You’re welcome where I live. Enjoy.” (v. 3, 6-7)


A eunuch, whether by tragic accident or pagan rite, was unable to have children in a baby-crazy world. But God includes devoted eunuchs in the blessing by saying, “You’re fruitful to me. You may not have kids running around with your name on, but your name is noted here where I live. I’ve given you a name and it’s yours forever.” (v. 3-5)


So the promise to both—to all, really—is that they are welcome to rest where God is, if indeed they will rest.


Given what religion has done to the language of Scripture, the designation as a “house of prayer“ in verse 7 might make it sound rather stuffy, but think about it. All these things will take place in the Millennial Kingdom. In a tent (Amos 9:11-12; Acts 15:16-18). The King will be there and His enemies will not. All our prayers will have been answered, and all that’s left is the worship. And the singing. And the learning. And the eating. And the dancing.


No wonder He calls it His “joyful house of prayer.” (v. 7)


The Sovereign LORD, no doubt, will be the happiest one there. He’s gathered the scattered ones of Israel and now He says, “I will gather still others to them” in this place for all nations, open to all who will keep the Sabbath. (v. 8)



Sad to say, though, there are things that need to be addressed in the meantime.


Verses 9-12 are directed to Israel’s corrupt leadership. Isaiah is inviting the beasts of the field and forest—hostile nations who want eat up Israel—to a kind of party. Present at the party are the blind and ignorant watchmen—palace prophets who are supposed to be watching out for God’s people. If they do know anything, they’re not saying. Then there are the political leaders who take, and take, and take some more. And there are the priests who don’t have a clue what to do about it. So they all pretend like things just couldn’t be better.

But beasts don’t take a day off, and soon they’ll be knocking at the door.


Better news next time, I hope.