The Sovereign LORD declares—he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Yearning to Breathe Free
As a kid in early ‘70’s Chicago, it was common to have playmates with first-generation immigrant parents or grandparents. The air hung thick with Old-World sagas of how these courageous people fled brutal regimes to dig out lives in this brave new land. The image of America as a haven for the oppressed, impoverished, and weary was so vivid then that very few grade-school students graduated without knowing “The New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus sonnet mounted inside the Statue of Liberty pedestal:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Like Lazarus’s poem, Isaiah 56 also invites “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to find rest and safety among God’s people: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’” (v3) But there’s one big difference between “The New Colossus” and Isaiah 56 that mustn’t be overlooked. While Lazarus writes of immigrants, people seeking shelter in a new country, Isaiah documents God’s call to exiles—marginalized foreigners and natives viewed as strangers by their own people.
Ancient Israel functioned very similarly to modern Iran, as a theocracy whose leader governed at the behest of prophetic authority. Civic and religious statutes were one and the same, and temple status determined social status. Anyone subject to theocratic exclusion was denied full rights of citizenship. Non-Jews adopted Hebrew culture knowing they’d never fully integrate into Jewish society, because ethnicity limited their temple access to the Gentile court farthest from the altar. Even from this distance, though, many grew to cherish God's ways with equal fervor. Isaiah 56.6 describes them as “foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to [his] covenant.”
Theocratic exclusion was most sharply felt by Jews deemed ineligible for temple rites entirely. This sector was comprised of anyone afflicted by diseases, physical and mental disabilities, or congenital impairment. Also numbered among them were “eunuchs”—a catchphrase Jesus breaks down into three categories (Matthew 19.12): castrated servants, religious celibates, and men “born that way,” which historians and scholars interpret to mean same-sex orientation. Temple banishment resulted in marginalizing these people as the lowest of the low. Unworthy of the Jewish claim as “God’s chosen” and viewed as less than foreigners, they lived as political and religious exiles in their own country. Still, denied access and alienation weren’t enough to prevent large numbers of them from living obediently to honor their Maker.
Isaiah 56 issues an amnesty proclamation that nullifies Israel’s policy of exclusion. It calls for new equality based on godly devotion rather than legal compliance. While Israel’s grown accustomed to excluding minorities, injustices carried out in His name trouble God. He’s poised to initiate a gathering of those faithful to Him despite social and religious segregation. To eunuchs He promises, “I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.” (v5) And in verse 7, He vows to bring foreigners “to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”
Sweeping change is possible in a theocracy because it’s divinely ordered. It occurs much more slowly in democracies, however, as it swells from gaining enlightenment. We’re seeing this today, as state and church democracies gradually realign with God’s amnesty proclamation. Whether consciously or unconsciously submitting to His will, people are embracing new equality. Racial barriers are crumbling. Religious intolerance is becoming intolerable. Tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe freely are welcomed. Previously rejected foreigners and eunuchs take their seats among God’s people. Formerly invisible exiles are recognized as equals. It’s an amazing, beautiful thing to witness. And it’s only the beginning. In Isaiah 56.8, God declares, “I will gather still others besides those already gathered.” As we marvel at all He’s done thus far to correct our inequities and gather our exiles, we take great joy in knowing there’s much more to come.
Immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island--a visual reminder of rejected foreigners and exiles God is gathering as equals among His people.
(Tomorrow: In God We Trust)