This section is a long and complex oracle that denounces sinfulness in vivid detail and commends the faith as the only solution for the deep spiritual needs of life. The first part, the condemnation, begins with an accusation of the wicked leaders (56:9-12), but moves quickly to a description of the nation’s evil idolatrous practices in spite of the presence of the righteous remnant (57:1-13a). The comfort, the second part, is held out for the contrite and the lowly (57:13b-19). The last two verses return to the warning that there is no peace for the wicked (20,21).137 There are other ways that this passage can be broken down (especially verses 1 and 2 seem to be a unit, and verses 20 and 21 separate); but essentially the first part is about the evil, and the second part the comfort.
The prophet summons the “beasts” to invade, meaning foreign armies (hypocatastasis); the call is rhetorical, making the point that there is nothing to stop them. The “watchmen” have not done their job. These are the prophets and priests who were to warn the people. But, the prophet says, they are all dumb dogs (hypocatastasis). Dogs that don’t bark at danger are not good watch dogs. More than that, they are lazy and greedy, looking out for themselves first. As ignorant shepherds (another implied comparison) they turn to their own gain, and are looking for the good life, always a better experience. What a failure the “watchmen” and the “shepherds” were for Israel (see Jeremiah and Ezekiel especially on this).
This failure is the main reason for the idolatry that will be denounced later.
According to the first two verses, the prophet notes that no one cares that the righteous have died. The application of this point would fit any time; but the projected meaning here is about people who died in the exile. The righteous, the devout, are swept away with the wicked, and no one takes it seriously. Innocent people died. But the text makes it clear that they died to be spared the greater evil; and, in contrast to the wicked who die, they will enter peace, they will find rest as they lie down in death. The chapter will end by telling us there is no peace for the wicked.
In the Babylonian exile, as in all wars and catastrophes, good people died as well as the wicked. And while no one paid much attention to the distinction (unless, of course, some probably used it to point out that it did no good to be righteous, or that the wicked were no worse than the righteous), God made it clear that for the righteous death was an entrance into eternal peace. How much better to do in such a calamity knowing you were right with God, than to go out into a devastating eternity.
As I said above, this could be a separate section. But I think he is talking about the wicked who would perish in exile, and so begins with a distinction that not all who die there are wicked.
In this section we have a detailed description of evil, idolatrous acts. The important thing to note is that Israel did all of these when they were in their own land and not when they were in captivity. In captivity they may have wavered in their views of Yahweh versus Marduk in view of the war and the exile; but these practices listed here were distinctively Canaanite. The Babylonian captivity purged idolatry from Israel.
So the section needs to be treated as you would treat Ezekiel 1-8. Ezekiel is actually in the exile, but writes about the idolatry in Jerusalem in order to explain why they went into captivity. It was not for bad political choices as they had explained. This chapter in Isaiah would have had the same effect on the exiles—this is why you are here, so do not even think about lapsing into this now or in the future, for there is no peace for the wicked. But, of course, the chapter would have also been an important indictment on the people prior to the exile, Isaiah’s actual audience, especially in the reigns of Ahaz and later Manasseh (who tradition says had the prophet sawn asunder). The sinfulness of these practices is self-evident. But the people doing them convinced themselves that such practices met their spiritual needs.
The wicked would have no chance of resting in peace when they died. The following catalogue explains why. Verse 3 begins the description with “seed” or “offspring” to show that they shared the nature of adulterers and prostitutes. Metonymy (probably adjunct) will figure in these verses because while they describe idolatry false religion was also fornication, literally. This is the point of verse 5 which says, “you burn with lust among the oaks.” The groves of trees were signs of fertility of a local “baal”; that then became a place to worship—to practice the fertility cult. Verse 7 continues this motif: where they made their bed they sacrificed to pagan deities, meaning, the practice of the bed was the sacrifice, at least in part. The pagan symbols of verse 8 probably refer to what Ezekiel 16:17 refers to; looking on the “nakedness” is literally looking on the “hand” (yad), a euphemism for the male organ,138 the sign of fertility. Their idolatry in Canaan was with all kinds of symbols and implements that were designed to induce fertility. Where they were to have placed the Law—the doorposts—they had these grotesque images. They forsook the LORD and made a covenant with the leaders and devotees of the ritual, on whose nakedness they looked.
According to verse 9 they sought information from pagan shrines—everywhere but the LORD. They sent ambassadors to Molech and to Sheol. They were trying to induce false gods to reveal things; theirs was a cult of the dead, so they consulted with the dead by this mysterious seance. The gods of the underworld figured prominently in pagan ritual. One thinks of King Saul in his greatest need going to the Witch of Endor for truth—only to have the LORD bring up Samuel to announce his death. The point is that they feared non-entities, and ignored the Omnipotent One.
It is interesting to note in verse 10 that they believed this all met their needs. They were worn out by these pursuits, but somehow found strength in them rather than see how hopeless it all was. People wrapped up in pagan religion, whether Canaanite or modern, do so for some reason. Satan is able to meet some of their needs, and they then believe the lie.
In a series of questions the LORD through the prophet wonders whom they feared more than the LORD. The rebuke is that the people misunderstood the silence of God, and so did not fear Him but followed after false gods. Consequently, God will call them to task, display their works, and see if their false deities can save them. No, the wind will blow them away!
In verse 13b we have a transition to the second half of the passage. “The one who makes me his refuge (hypocatastasis for “trust”) will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.” The hope here is the restoration to the land and to worship in Zion.
Verse 14 begins with a call for preparation. It repeats the theme of Isaiah 40, to remove the obstacles from the way of the LORD. There it was a message of spiritual preparation, repenting and reforming; here it would include that, but perhaps is more general for removing any obstacles that would slow down the fulfillment of the promise of restoration.
Verse 15 is the actual explanation for the comfort, and will, therefore, occupy more of your exegetical interest in this passage. The descriptions of God are the same as we have seen before, beginning in chapter 6 with the “High and Lofty One.” The theme of “live forever” lets the audience know that life and death and time are no problem for God. The point of all this exaltation is to say that the One who dwells on High dwells also with/in the lowly. And the New Testament will expand the theme to say that He will take the lowly on High with Him. Here we have the themes of God’s greatness and God’s grace.
So you should spend some time on “contrite” (daka’) and “lowly” (shaphal). One who is lowly in spirit is one who is humble, surrendered, depending on God. One who is contrite is one who has had his spirit or attitude crushed by a divine act. There can be no service to God apart from these attitudes. God resists the proud, but dwells with the repentant, surrendered, obedient, grateful, sinner. Both words are probably implied comparisons (hypocatastases).
Once you have defined the terms and illustrated them you need to make the point that God does not leave them crushed and low—He revives them. The Hebrew term means “renew, restore, cause life.” As soon as they are crushed and lowly, He comes to dwell in/with them, and they are no longer crushed. God has no desire to keep people abased and crushed—He wants life. They may be still humbled over it all, but that is different.
Verse 16 explains how this happens: God will end His anger, or the human spirit would be devastated. Rather, those days are shortened (God knows what people can take); and verse 18 tells how He revives his spirit: “I will heal … I will guide … restore … comfort.” These are words that have appeared many times in the book, and need to be developed again here.
In the exile God poured out His wrath and punished sinful, rebellious unbelieving Israelites. He destroyed many; He brought many to their knees. Those who were contrite and repentant He would forgive and restore to their land, so that they could praise Him. Most of these had never gone into wicked idolatry like their reprobate countrymen had. To such who are righteous, including idolaters who now repented, God gave peace (compare verses 2 and 19). It would be “peace” in this life (v. 19) and “peace” in the life to come (v. 2).
These two verses show that there is no peace whatsoever for the wicked. They thought they were finding it in their evil works, but they cannot. All that is held out to the righteous—life, health, prosperity, comfort—goes to make up the idea of “peace.”
This passage should be pretty straightforward for exposition, especially in view of modern pagan trends, inside and outside the Church. The whole culture worships false gods in the most profane and debased ways. Thus, God brings judgment and destruction. People who belong to the faith, however, humbly submit to His will, and He will heal, guide, and comfort them with peace.
As for applications, we can work in several areas. For the wicked, the pagan unbeliever, whether in personal trouble (divine judgment) or not (deceived in his prosperity), the message is clear: repent or perish (as Jesus preached). For the believer the message is one of comfort—God heals, comforts, guides, and grants peace, now and in the life to come. This would call for a greater commitment to the faith. Another way to apply the passage to the believer is to say believers ought to pick up the message the prophet was giving; that is, we ought to warn the wicked, and hold out the clear promise of fellowship with the LORD.
So there are several levels of application here, from the pre-exilic community, to different periods of oppression, to the eschaton. But one aspect is timeless and basic to each level: God dwells with the humble and the contrite. If people want to show that they are true believers and faithful to the LORD, they must show evidence of repenting, surrender to His will, and walk humbly before Him; then, He will dwell with them, heal them, restore them to life, and bring them peace, comfort, and joy—so that they might turn from mourning to praise. So we might begin by asking people where they find comfort, joy, peace, and fulfillment.
Greenfield, J. C. “The Preposition B … Tahat in Isaiah 57:5.” ZAW 73 (1961):226-227.
Irwin, W. H. “The Smooth Stones of the Wadi. Isaiah 57:6.” CBQ 29 (1967):31-40.
Morgenstern, J. “Jerusalem—485 B.C.” HUCA 27 (1956):101-179; 28 (1957):15-47; 30 (1960):1-29.
________. “Further Light from the Book of Isaiah upon the Catastrophe of 485 B.C.” HUCA 37 (1966):1-28.
Renaud, B. “Le mort du juste, entree dans la paix (Isa. 57:1-2).” RScRel 51 (1977):3-21.
Weise, M. “Jesaja 57:5f.” ZAW 72 (1960):25-32.
137 The last two verses, or at least the last verse, may have been an editorial colophon because it has been used before (48:22). It is at least a favorite idea of the prophet.
138 Perhaps. It is also possible that yad simply meant something like an extremity that could be used for either hand or organ.