Where Are the Watchman?

All you beasts of the field, come to devour—
    all you beasts in the forest.
10 His watchmen are blind;
    they are all without knowledge;
they are all silent dogs;
    they cannot bark,
dreaming, lying down,
    loving to slumber.
11 The dogs have a mighty appetite;
    they never have enough.
But they are shepherds who have no understanding;
    they have all turned to their own way,
    each to his own gain, one and all.
12 “Come,” they say, “let me get wine;
    let us fill ourselves with strong drink;
and tomorrow will be like this day,
    great beyond measure.”

The righteous man perishes,
    and no one lays it to heart;
devout men are taken away,
    while no one understands.
For the righteous man is taken away from calamity;
   he enters into peace;
they rest in their beds
    who walk in their uprightness.
Isaiah 56:9-57:2 ESV

The opening verses of this chapter feature God calling the people of Judah to bring their behavior in line with their beliefs. They claimed to be His chosen people, but their conduct did little to support their God-ordained status. But in light of all that God has promised to do for them in the future, by way of restoration and redemption, He called them to live lives that reveal their gratitude and reflect their desire for holiness.

But now, God points His divine finger at one of the primary sources of Judah’s stubborn refusal to live as the chosen people of God. It was their so-called spiritual leaders. Using blatantly satirical language, Isaiah describes them as blind watchman.  They were responsible for the spiritual care of God’s people, but they were no better than a security guard without sight. His visual impairment would make him unsuitable for the requirement of his job.

And God used the image of the watchman repeatedly in His messages to His people. He told the prophet Ezekiel:

Son of man, give your people this message: ‘When I bring an army against a country, the people of that land choose one of their own to be a watchman. When the watchman sees the enemy coming, he sounds the alarm to warn the people. Then if those who hear the alarm refuse to take action, it is their own fault if they die. They heard the alarm but ignored it, so the responsibility is theirs. If they had listened to the warning, they could have saved their lives. – Ezekiel 33:2-5 NLT

A watchman had one job to do. He was to watch and then warn of coming danger. And this imagery of the watchman was used by God to refer to the spiritual leaders of His people. God had commissioned Ezekiel as His watchman and warned him of the dangers associated with his calling.

“Son of man, I have appointed you as a watchman for Israel. Whenever you receive a message from me, warn people immediately. If I warn the wicked, saying, ‘You are under the penalty of death,’ but you fail to deliver the warning, they will die in their sins. And I will hold you responsible for their deaths. If you warn them and they refuse to repent and keep on sinning, they will die in their sins. But you will have saved yourself because you obeyed me.” – Ezekiel 3:17-19 NLT

But the watchmen of Judah were spiritually blind and, therefore, unqualified for their role. Their inability to see made them ignorant of the dangers that faced the people of Judah. They were without knowledge of the truth. And many of these men, proclaiming themselves to be spokesmen for God, were filling the ears of the people of God with lies. They were painting a rosey picture of the future and telling the people that all would be well, because they were God’s prized possession. But God had repeatedly warned His people to ignore the words of these liars.

“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
    filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
    They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
    ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
    they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT

Isaiah describes these men as “silent watchdogs that give no warning when danger comes. They love to lie around, sleeping and dreaming” (Isaiah 56:10 NLT). In other words, they are not only like blind security quards, they are like sleeping watchdogs, who doze through the impending danger, dreaming that all is well. They are worthless and unreliable. But, despite their inability to provide adequate security, these lazy dogs demand to be fed, exhibiting insatiable appetites that are never satisfied.

Isaiah compares them to shepherds who don’t know how to do their job. They were shepherds in name only, lacking in the basic knowledge of what it takes to care for the flock of God. And God delivered some harsh words to these men through the prophet Ezekiel.

“What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.” – Ezekiel 34:2-6 NLT

And Isaiah echoes God’s words, accusing the shepherds of Judah of  “all following their own path and intent on personal gain” (Isaiah 56:11 NLT). They could have cared less for the spiritual state of the flock under their care. They were much more concerned about their own comfort and personal pleasure.

“Come,” they say, “let’s get some wine and have a party.
    Let’s all get drunk.
Then tomorrow we’ll do it again
    and have an even bigger party!” – Isaiah 56:12 NLT

And, as a result of their lousy leadership, Isaiah declares, “The righteous man perishes” (Isaiah 57:1 NLT). This seems to be a statement regarding the diminishing number of righteous people in the land of Judah. The Hebrew word translated as “perishes” can also mean “vanishes.” The godly were decreasing in number. The quantity of the faithful was on the decline, with many of them disappearing from the land through captivity. And for those who remained in the land, they would have to endure the wrath of God because of His shepherds had refused to what God had called them to do. These blind, greedy, lazy, self-absorbed individuals were bringing the wrath of God on the people of God because they refused to do the will of God.

And yet, Isaiah provides a much-needed reminder that the truly righteous need not worry, even if their lives end in death. Because “those who follow godly paths will rest in peace when they die” (Isaiah 7:2 NLT). Remember the offer God made to His people in chapter 55: “Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, and you will find life” (Isaiah 55:3 NLT). A pleas was made to the righteous and the wicked to return to God.

Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously. – Isaiah 55:7 NLT

While the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders of Judah were busy lining their own pockets and satisfying their own selfish desires, God was pleading with His wayward people to return to Him. He desired that the righteous remain so, even in the face of His coming judgment. But He also longed for the lost and wandering sheep of His flock to return to Him.

The sorry state of affairs in Judah was a combination of many factors that included the sins of the people, but also the silence of the shepherds. They had failed to do their job. Rather than telling the people what they needed to hear, they told them lies that conveyed what the people preferred to hear. And God takes this breach of duty seriously.

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for…” – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT

Today, as then, many of God’s people are like sheep without a shepherd. They are being led by men and women who are in it for selfish gain. They preach messages that are pleasant to hear, but that lack the authority of God. Rather than act as God’s watchmen, they prefer the role of spiritual cheerleader. And they find themselves preaching to a people who “no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching” and who “follow their own desires and … look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3 NLT). Far too many of our pulpits are filled with false prophets, who are filling the people with futile hopes (Jeremiah 23:16). .
God is looking for faithful shepherds who will stand in the gap and declare His message of salvation and call to righteousness. May it not be said of our generation what God declared against the people in Ezekiel’s day.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall…but I found no one.” – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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