(Isa. 56) Does this chapter mark the beginning of “third” Isaiah?

CLAIM: Critical scholars charge that this section of Isaiah is actually a third author, who felt the freedom to tack on more chapters to Isaiah’s book. We have already considered the arguments for multiple authors for the book of Isaiah (see “Authorship of Isaiah”). What was Isaiah’s purpose in these final chapters?

RESPONSE: Isaiah 56:1-8 comes on the tail end of chapter 55, where God invites “everyone” to come to him (Isa. 55:1). Oswalt observes, “Far from being an unfortunate and miscellaneous appendix to ‘the real book,’ these chapters form the necessary conclusion and climax to the book’s teaching.”[1] In other words, this passage concludes what Isaiah has been arguing for the entire book.

This passage of Scripture primarily connects the dots on the argument that Isaiah has been making throughout his entire book. From the beginning of this book, Isaiah has been arguing with the people to do justice and repent of their sin (Isa. 1:16-17). Later, Isaiah argues that God will bring his righteousness to Israel (Isa. 46:13). Here, Isaiah concludes that all peoples are to do justice based on the righteousness that God is providing (Isa. 56:1). By doing this, each individual will be “blessed” by God (Isa. 56:2). This includes the “foreigner” as well as the Israelite (Isa. 56:3, 6), as long as they follow God’s moral will (Isa. 56:4). These people, who follow Yahweh, will be given eternal life (Isa. 56:5). Isaiah concludes that this righteousness of God will be given universally to all people (Isa. 56:7-8). Oswalt argues for a chiastic structure, which parallels 66:18-24. Therefore, this literary unit most likely connects with the last lines of the book.[2]

This section of Isaiah’s book has been referred to by critics as “Trito” Isaiah, because the prophet anticipates the near return from exile. Of course, this feature of Isaiah chapters 56-66 is not a historical context; it is a literary feature of the eighth century prophet. Isaiah is communicating the conclusion to what he has been arguing for the entirety of the book: God is going to bring salvation to all peoples through the work of his Servant.

Isaiah 56 might break down in this way. First, Isaiah addresses the importance of doing justice based on the righteousness of God (vv.1-2). Second, Isaiah counters the false belief that foreigners and eunuchs will be excluded from the righteousness of God (vv.3-4). Third, Isaiah explains that God will give these people an everlasting name and access to the Temple of God (vv.5-6). Finally, Isaiah reemphasizes that God will open his doors to all people (vv.7-8).

(Isa. 56:1) Thus says the LORD, “Preserve justice and do righteousness, for My salvation is about to come and My righteousness to be revealed.”

Does this passage imply that people are simply supposed to muster up their moral energy and “preserve justice and do righteousness”? Is this an ancient version of Nike’s popular slogan: “Just Do It!” When we consider the context, we discover that this isn’t the case. Isaiah writes that we are supposed to do righteousness, because God’s righteousness is going to be revealed. Grogan writes, “Men are to do righteousness, not in order that God’s salvation may come, but because it is already near.”[3]

(Isa. 56:2) “How blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who takes hold of it; who keeps from profaning the sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

Why does Isaiah emphasize the Sabbath here? God set the length of the exile based on the breaking of the Sabbath law (Lev. 26:33-35; 2 Chron. 36:21). Therefore, he emphasizes their obedience to the Sabbath a means of testing their obedience to the entirety of the law.

(Isa. 56:3) Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

Why does Isaiah call the eunuch’s a “dry tree”? This most likely refers to their ability to give offspring. Grogan writes, “A dry tree bears no fruit; a eunuch begets no children.”[4]

In verse 2, Isaiah states that God’s offer is free to any man—not specifically Israelites. Here in verse 3, he explicitly emphasizes that all people—even eunuch’s could come to faith in Yahweh. Formerly, eunuchs were forbidden from public worship, as stated in the law (Deut. 23:1-8). While generic foreigners were always allowed to adopt the faith of Israel (Ex. 12:48:49), Isaiah explicitly states that these people were allowed to be a part of the Temple worship (v.5).

(Isa. 56:4) For thus says the LORD, “To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant,

(Isa. 56:5) To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.

Why does Isaiah mean by “My house”? This is most likely a reference to the Temple of God, as the NIV renders it. From the very beginning of the letter (Isa. 2:3), Isaiah promises that God would reconstruct this Temple. This is the fulfillment of that promise. One might ask how this harmonizes with the argument of Hebrews that the Temple is rendered unnecessary. However, that is beyond the scope of this paper to address.

(Isa. 56:6) “Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath and holds fast My covenant;

Why does Isaiah emphasize that the foreigners will “minister” and be Yahweh’s “servants”? It seems that their ability to serve shows that they are not just barely allowed into the people of God. Instead, they are given right standing alongside everyone else.

(Isa. 56:7) Even those I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

Why are there sacrifices and burnt offerings here? Even though this is the end of human history, it seems that God is reviving old covenant worship. It is difficult to discern whether or not this is meant to be taken literally (i.e. actual sacrifices at an actual temple) or figuratively (i.e. these sacrifices are symbolic of the church). While this is confusing (depending on our millennial views), we would be remiss if we missed the point of this verse: both Jews and Gentiles are allowed to come to the God of Israel. Oswalt writes, “The prophet is tying us back to the beginning of the book, reminding us that the redeemed servants of the Lord have a mission, to draw all the world to the ‘holy mountain’ (56:7; cf. 2:2-3), but also telling us that being a member of the covenant community is not a matter of inheritance but of obedience.”[5] Moreover, Jesus used this concept of the Temple to explain God’s desire to reach all people through Israel (Mk. 11:17).

(Isa. 56:8) The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, “Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”

Why does Isaiah explain the importance of Israel being gathered, if he point is to include the Gentiles? It seems that Isaiah’s logic can break down in this way: “If the Jews get regathered, then this shows that the Gentiles will too. The Jews have been gathered. Therefore, the Gentiles will as well.” In other words, since God fulfilled on part of the prophecy, they can bank on the second half.

Isaiah’s structure explains that God does not base his election on inheritance—but obedience. Those who choose to follow God—based on his righteousness—will be accepted into the new family of God (vv.1-2). This includes both the Jews and Gentiles (vv.3-4), and the people of God will be brought to serve together at the reconstructed Temple. Principally, this passage is about the people of God acting consistently with their future identity. If God is going to bring righteousness in the future, we should act consistently with that now.

The main point of the passage is that God’s righteous kingdom will be revealed in the historical future, where both Jews and Gentiles will be welcomed to worship.

The principle for us is that part of God’s righteous kingdom has been revealed already through the death and resurrection of Christ. Since Jesus’ kingdom has already been inaugurated (and since we know that it will be ultimately consummated in the second coming), we should live consistently with that now. The application for believers today is to accept all people into the kingdom of God. Moreover, since God’s righteousness will be revealed in the future, we should live consistently with that righteousness now.


[1] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 606-607.

[2] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 607.

[3] Grogan, G. W. “Isaiah.” In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986. 315.

[4] Grogan, G. W. “Isaiah.” In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986. 315.

[5] Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The New Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. 608.