Isaiah 56:10-12 - The Who What Why What of Watchmen

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The Messiah in Isaiah

Isaiah 56:10-12 - The Who What Why What of Watchmen

by I Gordon


As I read through Isaiah chapter 56 there was a little passage in verses 10-12 that got me thinking about 'Watchmen'. 'Watching' is a very important topic and as riveting as it is, we are not talking 'bird watching' here. This passage is obviously about watchman so we'll ask ourselves four questions concerning watchman -

  1. Who were the watchman?
  2. What were they watching for?
  3. Why did they watch?
  4. What were they longing for?

So this is the Who, What, Why, What of Watchman... So many questions... so little time. Actually we won't get it all done in one go so a second study on this will be added. This study will just look at the first two questions. It should also be mentioned that we may not stay too long in Isaiah itself because my wee study on this important topic soon led me out of the Old and into the New. Argh, testaments that is. But let's start with a general description of the role of a watchman in the Old Testament.

The Watchmen of old... 

Israel has always had many enemies (then and now unfortunately) and historically the city of Jerusalem had thick high walls around the entire city. In fact many great cities in olden days had walls around them for protection. For example, we read in scripture about the walls surrounding Babylon and the great walls of Jericho. Now Israel's watchmen were guards who would stand upon the walls of Jerusalem and in the towers and lookout upon the land. The Hebrew word for watchman is 'tsaphah' and it has the meaning  'to lean forward, to peer into the distance; by implication means to observe, behold, spy out, wait for, keep the watch.'  So they would be in their towers and upon the walls and would literally be peering forward, looking out into the distance, on the watch for messengers, unusual activity, or mostly importantly, any sign of an enemy or approaching army. A very, very important job! With that in mind, let's have a look at God's assessment of Israel's watchmen in the days of Isaiah.

Anyone in need of a sleepy blind mute watchman?

Isaiah 56:10-12 Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. (11) They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain. (12) Come, each one cries, "let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better."

You can probably imagine how the job interview went for one of the watchman described above...

 'Um, so tell us why you think you should get the watchman's job? What makes you a great candidate for this important role?'
'Well, for one, I'm as blind as a bat. Now that's not something you'll see in just any candidate. Nope, can't see a thing. Furthermore, I lack knowledge... ignoramus really... often mute, but I love my sleep. Oh yes, just love it! Argh, what else? Well, I generally look out for myself, you know, what I can gain... and I love a party and drop of the old ale! So... do I get the job?'

Do you think such a person would get the job? Not exactly attributes that look good on the CV are they? Yet that was God's assessment of Israel's watchmen in the days of Isaiah! Now obviously God was talking about more than just the watchmen upon the walls here. This was His assessment concerning Israel's spiritual leaders at the time of Isaiah. This was His assessment of those whose responsibility it was to spiritually guard God's very own people. Let's quickly run through those impressive attributes again:

Blind - The guy sitting up in the city's watchtower was supposed to keep an eye out for enemy armies. If the guy in the tower is blind, the people are in big trouble. How much more if God's leaders are blind spiritually?

Ignorant (lack knowledge) -the Hebrew word for knowledge is 'yada' meaning to know; to see and perceive; discern; distinguish. God was saying that Israel's leaders were unable to perceive what was going on, they couldn't understand God's will, the people's needs or discern when trouble was brewing on the horizon. Great... just what we wanted then and now (not!)

Mute! The job of the watchmen really just two-fold - Firstly to see the enemy and then, secondly, to alert the people of the coming danger. When they saw the work of the enemy, when they saw things that led people away from God they said... argh, nothing.  [1]  They were leaders who were in it for their own gain and pleasure  [2]  , and not for the people. God's assessment of these 'leaders' was that they spiritually asleep and loved pleasures more than they did Him. Again, not the kind of watchmen that you want but they are still around today!

So this all got me thinking about 'watching' and what it means for today. Do we have 'watchman' today in the church? Or is it the responsibility of all? And if it is something that we all do, what exactly are we to watch for? So do you remember our questions from the start? Here are the first two again.

  1. Who were the watchmen? 
  2. What were they watching for? 

Question 1: Who are the watchmen from a New Testament point of view? 

When you get to the New Testament you don't read about actual 'watchmen' anymore, but the frequency of the command to 'watch' is actually increased. There are specific people and ministries that perform the role of a watchman and I would put Jacob Prasch from Moriel Ministries and Dave Hunt from the Berean Call (amongst others) in this camp. All Church leaders in general are also given this responsibility. But it is no longer just the responsibility of a few. It is now commanded of all God's people to watch! Let's look first at some examples directed towards leaders:

 Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. 

The first part of this, the bit about 'obey your leaders and submit to them' pleases leaders very much. The second part, about how they have to watch over your soul and give an account to God, is not so pleasing! But the leaders do keep watch over those in their care none the less. Just as a watchman on the walls of Jerusalem would be scanning the horizon, watching for anything that could cause trouble to his people, so the leaders of the church are meant to keep watch over the souls of the people, that they would be cared for spiritually. That can be a little daunting, especially when leaders must give an account to God for it! That's why Paul said to the Ephesians elders:

 Act 20:28 "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. 

That's why Paul wrote to Timothy (a young leader) saying:

 1Ti 4:16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. 

The imagery here is straight from the 'watchmen' of the Old Testament, who through faithful observation and watching with discernment could save both himself and those within the city. So the 'watching' of the New Testament definitely applies in this way to the leaders. But not only the leaders! But as I said earlier, the command to 'watch' in the New Testament is not just the responsibility of a few. It is now commanded of all God's people. This will be brought out as we look at our 2nd question:

Question 2: What were they watching for?

One of the main tasks of the watchmen in the Old Testament was to be on the lookout for any signs of disturbance or the activities and schemes of the enemy. Does this change in the New Testament? Nope. Let's look at a well known verse concerning this.

 1 Peter 5:6-9 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, (7) casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. (8) Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (9) But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. 

Where it says 'be of sober spirit, be on the alert' some other versions says 'Be alert, be on the watch!'  [3]  Why? Well, the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. Therefore - keep watch! This command to 'watch' here is for all. This is not just for a leader or some specialised ministry or spiritual 'Green Beret'. No, YOU be on the alert. So what is he trying to try rob you of? What is it that he would love to destroy? It is the very thing he hates... Your faith. Resist - firm in your faith, casting your anxiety on the Lord for He cares for you.

What else should we be watchful for when it comes to the enemy? 

I'm not sure if you have read the study I did on Nehemiah but it provides us with an excellent illustration of what we should be most aware of. It is something called 'the exposed places'. Let me refresh your memory.

 Nehemiah 4:7-15 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. (8) They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. (9)  But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.  (10) Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, "The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall." (11) Also our enemies said, "Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work." (12) Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, "Wherever you turn, they will attack us." (13)  Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.  (14) After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people,  "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."  (15) When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work. 

You will note from the above that in the days of Nehemiah, when the wall was being rebuilt, there were still gaps in the wall that were called 'the exposed places'. Obviously this was a very tempting area through which to attack for any half-serious enemy. So let me ask you - what is your exposed place? What is the area that the enemy is more likely to attack you in? What is the area of weakness that you repeatedly trip up in? You will have one. We are all hopelessly flawed. We have common struggles yet we all have specific individual struggles in particular areas of weakness which the enemy will love to exploit.  [4] 

What was Nehemiah's advice? Everyone be on watch. Everyone be on guard. And specifically at the exposed places! Where are you weakest?  [5]  Some have problems with greed and the pleasures of this world. Some with lust. Some with pride and some with fear... I'm hoping that you haven't been nodding at all of those! Whatever your exposed place or places are, be aware that that is an area that the enemy would like to exploit. Be on the watch.

But remember - The battle belongs to the Lord

As we finish, we also need to be reminded once again, even if it be but a brief mention, that this battle is not ours. We play our part, no doubt (that is what this study has been about), but thank God that there is a heavenly watchman and nothing escapes His gaze!

 Psalms 127:1 Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain. 

 Psalms 121:4-5 ...He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches  [6]  over you-- the LORD is your shade at your right hand; 

It is vain to simply employ natural resources in your quest to with stand the enemy. In fact, the scripture above tells us that without the Lord on our side, any watching and guarding are done in vain! But we should take comfort and praise God that He is a heavenly watchman who, unlike us down here, never slumbers or falls asleep - not naturally or spiritually speaking! So thank Him again for His unseen work on your behalf!


So two questions down, two to go. We've looked at:

Who were the watchmen? We saw that in the Old Testament, in the natural, they were men of Israel assigned a particular task of watching from the walls of Jerusalem. We also saw that spiritually speaking, the leaders and elders of Israel were called watchmen because they watch, guard and care for the souls of God's people. The New Testament doesn't change this. The leaders in the church are still given that responsibility. Yet we also saw that the command to watch is given to all for all are open to attack.

What were they watching for? In both the Old and New Testament the watchmen were on the lookout for the schemes and activity of the enemy. So keep watch and guard the exposed places! In the second and final study on this topic we will look at the last two questions. Namely:

Why did they watch? And what were they longing for? Maybe that is a little cryptic at this stage but all shall be made clear! I hope.

The second part on this Watchmen Bible Study can be seen here

[1] ↩  Dogs make excellent watchman. That's why we have the term 'Watch dog'. My next door neighbour's dog is called Lochie. The other night I had to go outside and pull our hose in through the window to try and unblock the kitchen sink. Never mind how it got to that state... that's another story! So Lochie soon spotted someone suspicious (me) outside doing something odd after hours around my home and sounded the alarm... as any half decent watch dog would do! Well... didn't take long before other dogs across the street and in the area heard the alarm and added their voice to the chorus. I soon was being barked at from all direction. In fact it wasn't long before I started feeling like I was doing something wrong! God in this passage calls his leaders a mute dog. A mute dog? A dog that doesn't bark? That's a burglars dream dog! A true watchman will always warn. He will always bark when he sees something not right. Just like my neighbour's dog Lochie!

[2] ↩  Joseph Harris in Sunday School Times wrote about watchfulness and carelessness giving the following illustration: 'Some day you may visit the interesting and historic French-Canadian city of Quebec. There you will see the Plains of Abraham, where the English forces of General Wolfe won Quebec from the French. When you see the steep ascent that Wolf's men had to make up the face of the great rocky cliffs, you will be amazed that they succeeded. Mere boys should have been able to hold off a force of soldiers from scaling such cliffs and gaining the heights. Yet Wolfe and his men made the ascent and gained the citadel. Why? Because the overconfident defenders became careless and pleasure-loving; and one night, when they were off guard, the enemy saw his opportunity, scaled the heights, and took the city. Quebec fell because its defenders failed to keep watch.'

[3] ↩  The Greek word used here for 'alert' is gray-gor-yoo'-o  which means 'to keep awake, that is, watch (literally or figuratively): - be vigilant, wake, (be) watch (-ful).' It is used 23 times in the KJV and 16 times it is translated 'WATCH'. So again the imagery of the O.T watchmen is being used. The enemy prowls around looking for someone slumbering. So keep your eyes wide open spiritually! Keep alert!

[4] ↩  I think the illustration I used here in Nehemiah is useful. I used to play a lot of competitive tennis and we'd play teams from different regions. A lot of the times you had not ever met the opponent that you were up against so as you start the hit up before the game you'd be watching pretty closely how they hit particular shots... What was their volley like? Did they show any hesitancy on their backhand? How well did they move around the court? You look for a weakness that you could exploit for your own gain and advantage! Once you found a weakness, you keep plugging away at it - What are you trying to do? You are trying to break their faith and confidence in that area because you can't hit a good shot in tennis or any sport if your head is full of doubts. I know, sounds a tad mean really doesn't it? Would it help if I said he is trying to do the same thing to me? Not really? Ok, let's leave sports and get back to the meaning of this cruel illustration.

What is the enemy trying to do with you? Break your faith and confidence in the Lord. How? Well one way is to keep plugging away at your weakness getting you to repeatedly fail in that area. After a while it's 'Oh Lord, I've done it again.' And pretty soon you start to doubt your position in Him and possibly His love for you. Well, that is what the enemy would like anyway. So be on your guard!

[5] ↩  Like I mentioned, the enemy loves to exploit our weakest areas. He would like to make the 'gap in the wall' as large as possible so that he can come and go as he pleases. In fact such areas that are constantly exploited by the enemy can become strongholds in our lives where he goes unopposed. They are often areas where we think that there is nothing that can ever be done about them.  'It's just an area that I repeatedly fail in - What can I do?'  In the Old Testament there were 'strongholds' that the children of Israel had to overcome. For example, we read that in the days of King David, Zion (Jerusalem) was a strong hold and its inhabitants, the Jebusites, mocked David saying that he would never be able to take it.

 2 Samuel 5:6-7 Now the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, and they said to David, "  You shall not come in here, but the blind and lame will turn you away  "; thinking, "David cannot enter here."  Nevertheless, David captured the stronghold of Zion, that  is the city of David.' 

Maybe you have an area of weakness that has been turned into a stronghold by the enemy and you too have heard the mocking whisperings saying 'you'll never enter here!' 'You'll never take possession of this. You are so weak!' 'We control this area of your life.' Well, just remember that despite the lies of the enemy, there was a 'nevertheless' in the story of David and there can be one in your life too. Strongholds are established, and broken, in the thoughts and imaginations in our minds. For this reason, and concerning spiritual warfare, the Bible tells us:

 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh,  for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses  . We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ...' 

[6] ↩  The word translated 'watches' here is shamar. It is sometimes translated 'keeps' and Strong's concordance says it is

 'A primitive root; properly to hedge about (as with thorns), that is, guard; generally to protect, attend to, etc.: - beware, be circumspect, take heed (to self), keep (-er, self), mark, look narrowly, observe, preserve, regard, reserve, save (self), sure, (that lay) wait (for), watch (-man).' 

So thank God that He puts a hedge about you to guard, protect, save and watch over... and He never sleeps! Without that protection we would all be defenceless to the attacks of the enemy. That shouldn't lead to complacency on our part but it does us good to be aware that God has the final say in the works of the enemy and as we see in the book of Job, God does put a 'hedge' around His own to protect them and only allows the enemy to do what God in His sovereignty and omniscience deems right.