The Wheat and the Weeds: Holy Living in a Mixed-up World


The Wheat and the Weeds: Holy Living in a Mixed-up World

Isaiah 56–57

For the High and Exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy, says this: “I live in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.” (Isa 57:15)

Main Idea: The people of the world are mixed like wheat with weeds; the humble “wheat” will be gathered to live with God eternally; the idolatrous “weeds” will be blown away.

  1. The Wheat: Humble Outcasts Welcomed (56:1-8)
    1. Living in light of God’s coming righteousness (56:1-2)
    2. Humble outcasts welcomed to God’s house (56:3-8)
  2. The Weeds: Self-Indulgent Leaders Devoured (56:9-12)
    1. Invitation to beasts to devour (56:9)
    2. Israel’s self-indulgent leaders (56:10-12)
  3. The Wheat: Righteous People Rescued by Death (57:1-2)
    1. The death of the righteous misunderstood (57:1)
    2. The righteous rescued from evil by death (57:1-2)
  4. The Weeds: Idolatrous People Exposed and Blown Away (57:3-13a)
    1. Mockers summoned for judgment (57:3-4)
    2. Idolatrous worship exposed (57:5-13a)
    3. Idolatrous worshipers blown away (57:11-13a)
  5. The Wheat: God Dwelling with Humbled and Healed Sinners (57:13b-19)
    1. The humble welcomed to dwell with God (57:13b-15)
    2. Contrite sinners healed by God’s judgment (57:16-19)
  6. The Weeds: God Condemning the Wicked to Endless Restlessness (57:20-21)
    1. The wicked endlessly restless (57:20)
    2. The wicked condemned to no peace with God (57:21)

We who delight in Christ’s banquet of grace (Isa 55) must share daily life with people whose “god is their stomach” and whose tastes are entirely earthly. Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the weeds to capture the mixed nature of life in this world (Matt 13:24-30). The wheat and weeds live life in close proximity together, but in the end they will be eternally separated: the wheat gathered into the barn (heaven) and the weeds thrown into a blazing furnace (hell).

Isaiah 56–57 describes in a back-and-forth rhythm the two classes of people—the wheat and the weeds—in powerfully vivid terms. The great challenge is to set these words in Isaiah’s context. Isaiah is looking ahead with prophetic vision to a day when eunuchs and aliens, excluded from the temple in the old covenant, will be welcomed in the assembly and God’s house will be a house of prayer for all nations. But he also speaks clearly about the great wickedness of Israel’s watchmen living self-indulgent lives of feasting and about Judah as sons of a sorceress who pursue idolatrous worship practices adopted from Canaanite religions. These things happened much more clearly before the exile, during the days of Manasseh, and were the very practices that led to the exile. So Isaiah looks immediately to his own day and right after but also to the centuries beyond, in the days of the church, when Gentile outcasts will now be welcomed. The strongest contrast is between the lowly of spirit whom God welcomes into his high and holy dwelling place (57:15-19) and the restless wicked who will never know that peace (57:20-21).

The Wheat: Humble Outcasts Welcomed

Isaiah 56:1-8

This section gives an amazing foretaste of the day when Christ would destroy the “dividing wall of hostility” by abolishing the “law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations” that separated Jews from Gentiles (Eph 2:14-15). The new covenant would create new people who “preserve justice and do what is right” (Isa 56:1). Declared holy though justification, they would live holy lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah describes this in old-covenant terms—keeping the Sabbath, offering sacrifices (vv. 6-7)—but these are types and shadows of the reality that is Christ (Col 2:17). In point of fact, eunuchs in particular were permanently excluded from entering the Lord’s assembly (Deut 23:1). So how could they be welcomed in here? The text says that a eunuch who is converted and who holds fast to his covenant through faith (vv. 3-4) should never say the Lord would exclude him from his people or, “I am a dried-up tree.” Actually, the Lord promises here to give such a humble outcast who comes to him in faith a place within the walls of his sanctuary and an everlasting name that will never be cut off. It is impossible for us to hear these words without thinking of the new covenant in Christ, in which any who call on the name of Jesus will become “living stones” who are fitted together to be a spiritual house where holy sacrifices are offered to the Lord (1 Pet 2:5) and in which Jewish and Gentile Christians will be built together to become a dwelling where God lives by his Spirit (Eph 2:22). God promises to bring to his holy mountain the eunuchs and foreigners who convert to the Lord, who love his name and serve him (Isa 56:6-7). Jesus quotes verse 7 in Mark 11:17, showing that the temple was always meant to have a worldwide focus, a yearning for the nations to come to faith in the one true God. But only in Christ has that shadow become a reality. In verse 8 God promises to gather in dispersed people beyond merely the remnant of Israel, a promise reiterated in John 11:52 in which John says Jesus would die for non-Jewish elect “to unite the scattered children of God.”

The Weeds: Self-Indulgent Leaders Devoured

Isaiah 56:9-12

The final verses in the chapter expose the wickedness of “Israel’s watchmen,” the leaders of the nation. They are blind, ignorant, mute, and lazy rather than watchful, wise, and diligent. They are fiercely devoted to their food (v. 11), reminiscent of those of whom Paul says, “Their god is their stomach” (Phil 3:19). They are drunkards who can’t wait for the next bacchanal and who assume that this corrupt way of life will go on forever (v. 12). But it won’t. A different kind of feast occurs, when wild animals come and devour these self-indulgent watchmen (v. 9).

Setting these verses in prophetic context is not easy to do because the focus in Isaiah 40–55 has been postexilic, and there is no example of this kind of corruption among postexilic leaders like Ezra and Nehemiah. Therefore, it is better to see this as Isaiah’s condemnation of the wicked leaders and false prophets that led up to the Babylonian exile, including Manasseh (Ezek 34:1-6; Zech 11:16-17). However, the lessons can be applied more broadly because this kind of self-indulgent leader is common in every era.

The Wheat: Righteous People Rescued by Death

Isaiah 57:1-2

The focus moves back to the godly in 57:1-2. It may be that these godly people are those who die because the watchmen failed to protect them. But Isaiah gives an amazing and timeless word of comfort to those who mourn the death of the righteous in every generation. Because of Christ’s victory over the grave, death is no longer something that holds terror, but rather delight. People may misunderstand the death of the righteous, thinking that God has done them wrong by abandoning them to the same fate as the wicked who die. But nothing could be further from the truth. Psalm 116:15 assures us, “The death of his faithful ones is valuable in the Lord’s sight.” So none of the righteous ever die “accidentally.” Rather, God has acted to take the righteous from the presence of evil. They are swept up into heaven and never suffer again. Therefore no one should grieve the death of the righteous as if there were no hope (1 Thess 4:13).

The Weeds: Idolatrous People Exposed and Blown Away

Isaiah 57:3-13a

The next eleven verses swing back to summon, expose, and condemn the wicked idolaters who worship in the Canaanite fashion. These are called “witch’s sons, offspring of an adulterer and a prostitute” (v. 3). They mock the godly and live rebellious lives (v. 4) as they worship in the pagan pattern, burning with lust under trees, slaughtering children, pouring out drink offerings, and making grain offerings to the deities (vv. 5-6). The language is overtly sexual (vv. 7-8), reflecting both the sexual acts performed in these pagan rituals and the spiritual adultery the chosen nation of Israel was committing against her Husband, the Lord.

The mention of the king and envoys in verse 9 may hark back to Hezekiah’s faithless overtures toward Egypt (Isa 30:1-7) in order to warn future kings not to act that way. The Lord is determined to expose fear of man and failure to fear him (51:12-13). God will give their idols a chance to “rescue” them, which they will not do because they are chaff that the wind will blow away (57:13). God’s tendency to hide and to be silent leads people to question his existence and fail to fear him as they should (v. 11). It is so in our day as well: people cannot see God, and they connect dots in life that “prove” there is no God, so they do not fear him, love him, or trust him. Again, these verses seem to be dealing with preexilic sins during Manasseh’s reign (2 Kgs 21:6), which would lead to the exile in Babylon.

The Wheat: God Dwelling with Humbled and Healed Sinners

Isaiah 57:13b-19

Suddenly, the text turns back again to the righteous, promising that they will inherit the land and possess God’s holy mountain. God will build up the highway and remove every obstacle for his people to reach him, to dwell with him (v. 14).

Isaiah 57:15 is one of the greatest verses in the book; it describes God’s person and dwelling place, as well as those with whom God desires to dwell. God is revealed as the “High and Exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is holy.” What awesome words! They reveal God’s supremacy above all creation, the infinite gap that separates him from the whole universe. He is eternally alive, and his kingdom will go on forever. How could any sinner ever live in the presence of such a holy God? But because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, God is willing to live with oppressed sinners who are lowly of spirit. God promises to revive the spirit of the lowly and the heart of the oppressed who will come to him in repentance and faith.

Verses 16-19 assert that these people so exalted as to live in the presence of this holy God are nothing more than sinners saved by grace. They deserved to be accused for sin, and their sins made God angry with them (v. 16). They were sinfully greedy, stubborn in pursuing the sinful desires of their hearts (v. 17). But God, because of the greatness of his grace and mercy, was willing to heal them of their ways, though he saw every evil thing they did (v. 18). The result of this astonishing healing grace was the creation (out of nothing, as in Gen 1:1) of praise on the lips of these repentant sinners (v. 19). God gives “peace, peace” (perfect peace) to those both “far or near” (Jews or Gentiles who trust in Christ) (Eph 2:17).

The Weeds: God Condemning the Wicked to Endless Restlessness

Isaiah 57:20-21

But tragically, the wicked will never know this peace. The New Testament speaks of a status of peace with God through justification by faith in Christ (Rom 5:1) and an experience of peacefulness that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus no matter what the circumstances (Phil 4:6-7). The wicked have neither. They are at war with God, and their hearts are constantly restless, churning up “mire and muck” through their filthy lusts and dirty deeds. “‘There is no peace for the wicked,’ says my God” (v. 21). This condemnation from God is in direct contrast with verses 15-19, referring not merely to earthly restlessness but to the eternity of wrath that follows such a life. The wicked in their restless roaming are exactly like their father, the devil, who is frequently portrayed in Scripture as roaming restlessly over the surface of the earth (Job 1:7; 2:2; see also the demons in Matt 12:43).


Christians should expect to live their daily lives in a mixed world, surrounded constantly by those who are refusing to sit at the banquet table of Isaiah 55. But we should also celebrate the amazing grace of God in the new covenant, welcoming by faith in Christ aliens and strangers, eunuchs and the uncircumcised, who would have been excluded in the old covenant. The promise made to the eunuchs in 56:5 is sweet to childless couples who are active in evangelism and missions. Even if they can’t have physical children, they can lead others to Christ and gain “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters.”

The exposure and condemnation of lazy, self-indulgent leaders is a timeless warning for every generation. Each of us struggles with the fleshly desire to live for food and drink, for earthly pleasures. Leaders have both greater responsibilities and greater temptations in these areas. Elders of local churches should read such descriptions of corrupt leaders and pray that God would protect them from these same kinds of sins.

Isaiah 57:1-2 is a vital reminder that the godly are taken out of this world to be spared from evil and by dying enter into peace in Christ. This will help especially those who grieve over Christians who die young.

Isaiah’s exposure of the Canaanitish idolatry in Isaiah 57:3-13 resonates with us who live in an increasingly pagan Western world.

We should memorize Isaiah 57:15 and realize that we cannot have too high a view of God’s exalted holiness or too amazed a reaction that such a God would dwell with sinners like us.

Finally, Isaiah 57:20-21 accurately diagnoses the reason for the constant strife in the world, both at the personal and the international levels. Nations usually go to war against nations because their godless leaders are restless, seeking consolation in the possessions of their neighbors.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How does the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt 13:24-30,36-43) help explain the back-and-forth rhythm of these two chapters from the righteous to the wicked?
  2. How does Isaiah 56:1-2 connect with 1 John 3:1-3, which teaches that our future perfection in Christ should make us zealous to be pure and holy now?
  3. How does Isaiah 56:3-5 give a foretaste of the new covenant in Christ, when old-covenant barriers are completely removed (Eph 2:11-22)?
  4. How does Isaiah 56:6-8 serve as a great motivation for missions?
  5. How do you see the same traits of wicked leaders described in verses 10-12 in present government and church leaders?
  6. How could the knowledge that righteous people die to be spared from evil, to enter into peace in death, give a special comfort to those who grieve over loved ones who have died in the Lord, especially those who die young?
  7. How do you see a growth of paganism in your country today?
  8. How does God’s apparent silence tempt people to think there is no God (Isa 57:11)?
  9. What does verse 15 teach you about God and about heaven?
  10. What do verses 20-21 teach you about the root cause for the misery, strife, and warfare in the world today? How are the wicked like Satan in his restlessness?