Yesterday’s OT reading from the daily office is from Isaiah 56. It reads as follows:
1Thus says the LORD:”Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
2 Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
3 Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it,
and holds fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.”
8The Lord GOD,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares,
“I will gather yet others to him
besides those already gathered.”
A lot of the latter half of Isaiah contains gems like these. One Bible Study leader I had a few years ago once summarized Isaiah to be half woes and laments, and half promises and good news. This is, of course, a simplification of a very large and long prophet’s book, but as I’ve been plodding through the second half of Isaiah basically since Advent began, I’ve gotten a sense of just how much truth there is in this summary.
There has been a lot of scriptural reminders in my life these past few weeks of social justice issues, and the need for the people of God to push for a godly society where the poor are cared for and the oppressed are shown love, and so on. A friend of mine gave a biblical overview of God’s heart for this, in particular underscoring the doctrine of God’s “preferential treatment of the poor,” official in Roman theological stance, and still catching among protestants. The book of Isaiah has had many calls for justice, as well as many of the Sunday Eucharist OT readings these past weeks. But I just wanted to comment a few things in chapter 56.
Different translations will phrase this differently, but I like how v1 here reads “do righteousness.” There has been a lot of (valid) focus among Evangelicals upon the necessity of being righteous, and how that (necessarily) comes from the righteousness of Christ, but there has often been hesitation in setting forth this biblical injunction to do righteous deeds too. It’s not works-righteousness, it’s simply God’s will. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be about God’s will, it’s his standard for how we’re expected to live. Salvation is coming, Isaiah reminds us, but we will be blessed for our righteous deeds, which also usually suggests a curse for failing to do them.
But these works aren’t the focus of Isaiah’s message, not least in this section. Salvation is. In v3 he brings up another reoccurring theme of the book: the salvation of the Gentiles (non-Jews). When Gentiles are “joined to the Lord,” God honors that and keeps them with himself. The special revelation, the specific covenants that God makes with his own particular people are not meant to be exclusive; they are meant to be offered to all. After all, God told Abraham that he would make Abraham’s offspring a blessing to all the nations.
Another oft-scorned social category also is named in v3 and addressed through v5: eunuchs. In many ancient cultures, eunuchs were often honored as excellent and well-treated servants, because they could be trusted intimately – they were unable to father children with the wife of the house or the queen of the palace. But in Israel this was not as wide a practice; the concept of monogamous marriage was a bit more strictly protected, so fewer men had harems of wives. And plus, the continuation of family lines was very highly valued in Israelite culture (and also affirmed in religion), so eunuchs were probably not quite so great in their eyes. Nevertheless, God promises through Isaiah that even eunuchs who obey the covenant of God will be blessed with a Name (identity) greater than if they actually had children. Jesus and Paul also reaffirm similar stances towards those who remain celibate, be it by force or by choice. This is an area where protestantism has lost something – the power of single men and women who dedicate their entire lives to a ministry of the Church, be it as a pastor, a prayer warrior, an evangelist, a financial supporter, or anything else. In many churches, single adults are second-class Christians. One of sisters-in-law commented how she felt like she and her husband had more “church cred” now that they’re married, and that they felt like they were supposed to start teaching a Bible study or something. (It’d be awesome if they did, because I think they have a lot to offer their church in terms of broadening horizons, but that’s besides the point.) But we can’t despise the single. They have a powerful potential to do things that married people simply can’t commit to all the way.
Finally, v6-8 kind of restate some of what was already said, particularly in affirming the non-Israelites’ chance for salvation alongside Israel. But this time the content of that salvation is given more elaboration. They will be brought to God’s holy mountain (which even the Israelites weren’t allowed to touch at first), they will be brought into God’s “house of prayer” (even though the Temple had been off-limit to all who were unclean), and they will even be able to make sacrifices upon the altar of God! In other words, Gentiles will become as Israelites, even Israelite priests. This is a severe change in the status quo that Isaiah prophesied, and it’s unfortunate that 400ish years later, in Jesus’ lifetime, the Jewish authorities were still not very open to admitting Gentiles into their people. Although at least there was a process for so doing, involving a ritual cleansing known as baptism, and circumcision, and instruction in the Law. But for Gentiles to become priests who could offer sacrifices to God would require the Law to be rewritten, because only descendants of Aaron could be priests.
This thing about offering sacrifices is by no means limited to the Old Testament era, however, it does also point to this Church Age, or Age of the Gentiles, if you will. But that’s another post for another day; I’ve been giving sacrifice some thought of late and I think there are some misconceptions and first impressions that need to be dispelled on the subject.