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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 52

Verses 1-12

1. Anticipation of salvation 49:1-52:12

This first segment focuses on the anticipation of salvation. Israel needed to believe the promises of God concerning the coming salvation. The possibility of a restored relationship between Israel and her God becomes increasingly clear as this section unfolds. Likewise, the cosmic dimension of this salvation becomes increasingly obvious. The section reaches its climax with the announcement that God has won victory and the people are free (Isaiah 52:7-12).

"These chapters present God’s Servant, Messiah, in three important relationships: to the Gentile nations (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 50:3), to His Father (Isaiah 50:4-11), and to His people Israel (Isaiah 51:1 to Isaiah 52:12)." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 54.]

Verses 9-12

Awakening to deliverance 51:9-52:12

The presence and repetition of the call to awake (Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 51:17; Isaiah 52:1) identifies this unit of prophetic material as one. The Israelites were to wake up to the power of God that had not changed (Isaiah 51:9-16), and to the purpose of God, namely: His plan for their life (Isaiah 51:17-23). They should also wake up to the peace of God, since He would not abandon them (Isaiah 52:1-12). [Note: Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 573.] The section begins with the question of whether God can and will save His people from their enemies (Isaiah 51:9-16). The answer is that He will cause Israel’s enemies to suffer (Isaiah 51:17-23), and that He will deliver Israel from her enemies (Isaiah 52:1-12).

Verse 1

God called on Israel to awake and to be strong (in the strength that God provides). The Israelites did not need to call on Him to awake and to be strong, as they had done (Isaiah 51:9). He was ready to save them. But were they ready to trust Him for their salvation (cf. Isaiah 40:27-31; Isaiah 42:23-25; Isaiah 43:22-24; Isaiah 45:9-13; Isaiah 45:15; Isaiah 45:18-19; Isaiah 46:8-13; Isaiah 48:1-22; Isaiah 49:14 to Isaiah 50:3)? The Lord instructed the people of Zion to put on the beautiful garments of salvation that God would provide for them. How He would provide salvation for them is the subject of the next Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). God saw His people as comprising a holy city, and they needed to view themselves that way too, as holy people (cf. Isaiah 4:2-6; 1 Corinthians 1:2). References to Jerusalem as "the holy city" appear in Nehemiah 11:1; Nehemiah 11:18; Isaiah 48:2; Isaiah 52:1; Daniel 9:24; Matthew 4:5; Matthew 27:53; and Revelation 11:2. The Lord would forbid any uncommitted and unclean people from having a part in His future for them.

"Notwithstanding the priestly house of Aaron and the royal house of David, the ideal of a royal, priestly people (Exodus 19:4-6) had never been realized, but while Zion slept (1a) a marvel occurred so that on waking she finds new garments laid out (1bc), expressive of a new status of holiness (1d)." [Note: Motyer, p. 416. Cf. Zechariah 3.]

Verses 1-12

Released Zion 52:1-12

God next called on His people to prepare to receive the salvation that He would provide for them. They would have to lay hold of it by faith for it to benefit them.

"The third ’wake-up call’ (Isaiah 52:1-6) is also addressed to Jerusalem and is a command not only to wake up but to dress up! It is not enough for her to put off her stupor (Isaiah 51:17-23); she must also put on her glorious garments." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 57.]

The first "wake-up call" is in Isaiah 51:9-16.

Verse 2

Israel could not deliver herself, but she needed to rise up from her humiliated and bound condition and respond to the Lord’s deliverance of her (cf. Isaiah 47:1). Salvation is not by works of righteousness, but it does require faith. Humans cannot break the chains that bind them, but they must remove them, with His help, since God has promised that He will break them.

Verse 3

Yahweh announced that since no one forced God to sell Israel into slavery (cf. Isaiah 45:13; Isaiah 50:1), neither would anyone force Him to redeem her. He would free her of His own free will, just as He had sent her into captivity of His own free will (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19). There was, therefore, no impediment to His redeeming her.

Verse 4

Sovereign Yahweh further declared that the Israelites had gone down to Egypt of their own volition in the days of Jacob. Later the Assyrians had taken them captive against their will. These earliest and most recent oppressions represented all of them that Israel had undergone. The implication is that since God can freely liberate (Isaiah 52:3), He could redeem His people from enemy-imposed captivity as easily as He could redeem them from self-imposed captivity.

Verse 5

Yahweh reflected on the present situation: What have we here? Israel was in captivity but not because God had to give her over to a superior person. Furthermore, Israel’s leaders wailed because of the shame of their defeat. Finally, the victors held Yahweh’s name in contempt because they concluded He was weaker than their strongest gods.

Verse 6

The Lord’s conclusion to the situation was twofold. First, He would so deliver His people that there would be no question in their minds that He was the only true God (cf. Ezekiel 36:21-32). Second, Yahweh would prove that He is who He claimed to be, by fulfilling what He had predicted He would do. "In that day" anticipates a time, yet future, in which God would act decisively for His people to vindicate His name.

A hymn of praise ends this promise of redemption (cf. Isaiah 42:10-12; Isaiah 44:23; Isaiah 49:13; Isaiah 54).

"The prophet sees in spirit, how the tidings of the redemption, to which the fall of Babylon, which is equivalent to the dismission of the prisoners, gives the finishing stroke, are carried over the mountains of Judah to Jerusalem." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:298-99.]

Verse 7

Isaiah exulted in the good news that the Lord had just revealed. The news had reached His people through a messenger whom the prophet pictured as running across mountains with his message (cf. Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 41:27; Nahum 1:15). The messenger’s feet were beautiful because they carried him and his message of peace, happiness, and salvation (cf. Matthew 10:1-7; Romans 10:15). His message is that Yahweh is the only true God and that He reigns as the sovereign over the universe and all supposed gods. Watts believed the rejoicing was due to Darius seizing the reigns of power from the Babylonians. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, pp. 216-17.]

"What does God’s rule entail? It entails a condition where all things are in their proper relation to each other, with nothing left hanging, incomplete, or unfulfilled (peace, shalom); it entails a condition where creation purposes are realized (good, tob; cf. Genesis 1:4; Genesis 1:10, etc.); it entails a condition of freedom from every bondage, but particularly the bondage resultant from sin (salvation, yeshu’a). Where God reigns, these follow. Of course, this is exactly congruent with what the Christian faith considers its good news (euangelion) to be." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 368.]

Verse 8

Watchmen along the walls of Jerusalem saw the messenger coming, and they joined in the rejoicing as they realized that he brought a message of Yahweh’s approaching victory for Zion.

Verse 9

Now all the people of Jerusalem, even the downtrodden, joined the chorus and praised God for coming to comfort and redeem His people.

"To give thanks in advance is the highest form of faith. The person praising God for what he or she does not yet possess is the person who truly believes the promises of God." [Note: Ibid., p. 370.]

Verse 10

God would display His power (roll up His sleeves) before all the nations by redeeming His people (cf. Isaiah 18:3). It was customary for warriors to bare their right arms up to their shoulders so they could fight without the encumbrance of a sleeve. [Note: Delitzsch, 2:300.] God’s power is holy in that it is perfect and transcendent, and it is also for a holy purpose, namely, the salvation of His people (cf. Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). His salvation would become visible to the whole world.

Verse 11

In view of this salvation, the redeemed should depart from the unclean place where they had been, and purify themselves. The Babylonian exiles, who would be set free, should return to Jerusalem to reestablish their holy lives, in a holy city, in a holy land. The decision of many Israelites to remain in Babylon rather than returning with Zerubbabel, Ezra, or Nehemiah, was sinful rebellion against God’s revealed will for them. Some of them, such as Daniel perhaps, may not have been able to return, however. The recipients of spiritual salvation, which these Babylonian exiles represent, should also respond to redemption by living lives separated from sin unto God (cf. Lamentations 4:15; 2 Corinthians 6:17). The vessels in view are those things needed to worship God as He prescribed (cf. Ezra 1:7).

Verse 12

The redeemed would not need to run away from their former captor as fast as they could, or to depart as fugitives, as they had to do when they left Egypt in the Exodus. They were completely free. Yahweh would go before to lead them and behind to protect them as they journeyed to their Promised Land (cf. Exodus 13:21-22; Exodus 14:19-20).

In this section, the dual implications of the prophet’s promises are very clear. Babylonian captivity lay behind what he said, but he had the larger issue of slavery to sin in mind, primarily. Release to return to the land was in view, but even more, the opportunity to return to the Lord through spiritual redemption was his point. God would deal with the result in Israel’s case, captivity, but He would also and more importantly deal with the cause, sin.

"Both the Exodus and wilderness, and in a lesser sense the Egyptian slavery, have become not only pivotal historical episodes but the photographic negatives from which the prophets, by the inspiration of their God, developed the beautiful eschatological pictures of the future." [Note: C. Hassell Bullock, "Entrée to the Pentateuch Through the Prophets: A Hermeneutics of History," in Interpreting the Word of God: Festschrift in honor of Steven Barabas, p. 76.]

2. Announcement of salvation 52:13-53:12

The second segment of the section in Isaiah dealing with God’s atonement of Israel (chs. 49-55), after the anticipation of salvation (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 52:12), is the announcement of salvation. This is the fourth and most famous Servant Song.

"The profoundest thoughts in the Old Testament revelation are to be found in this section. It is a vindication of the Servant, so clear and so true, and wrought out with such a pathos and potency, that it holds first place in Messianic prophecy." [Note: Robinson, p. 145.]

"The exaltation of the Servant of Jehovah is the theme of the prophecy which follows." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:304.]

The reader of the promises that God would redeem His people with His mighty arm (cf. Isaiah 50:2; Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 52:10) could reasonably expect that redemption to come with a great display of overwhelming power. But the careful reader of the previous Servant Songs has picked up some hints that the Servant would not fit the mold of the traditional action hero. In this passage, Isaiah filled out the previously sketchy picture of the Servant with more detail concerning His work, character, and nature. God’s greatest power is evident in His ability to return love and forgiveness for hatred and injustice, not in His ability to crush all opposition.

"No subject connected with the Old Testament has been more discussed than the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah." [Note: H. H. Rowley, "The Servant of the Lord in the Light of Three Decades of Criticism," in The Servant of the Lord and other Essays on the Old Testament, p. 3.]

This Song consists of five stanzas of three verses each. The first and last stanzas record God’s commendation of the Servant, and the middle three describe the Servant’s commitment to God’s will. The central one focuses on His substitute death. Two key contrasts mark the passage: the contrast between the Servant’s humiliation and His exaltation, and the contrast between the reader’s expectations of the Servant and reality. [Note: For a study of the rhetorical variations that stress the Servant’s sufferings and exaltation, see Ronald Bergey, "The Rhetorical Role of Reiteration in the Suffering Servant Poem (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:2 (June 1997):177-88.]

Verse 13

"Behold, My Servant" marks a new section in the development of Isaiah’s argument, but it also directs the reader to fix his or her attention carefully on the Servant (cf. Isaiah 42:1; Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12; Zechariah 9:9). The Servant would succeed in the sense of fulfilling the purpose to which God had called Him (cf. Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 49:2-3; Isaiah 50:7-9). Watts identified this servant as the Persian king Darius I (Hystaspes, 521-486 B.C.) in the whole passage (Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). He took this servant song as describing the unlikely Persian king whom God had raised up to bring His people back into their land following the exile. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, pp. 229-33.]

"The implication is that he would act with such intelligence as to succeed in his objectives." [Note: Archer, p. 646.]

In view of this success, He would be high, lifted up, and greatly exalted.

"Some commentators see in these three verbs a hint of the stages in the exaltation of our Lord, His resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of the Father. Yet the prophet’s purpose seems not so much to present the actual details of our Lord’s life as to set forth a picture of the suffering servant as such." [Note: Young, 3:336.]

The terms high, lifted up, and greatly exalted describe God elsewhere (cf .v. 17; Isaiah 6:1; Isaiah 33:10; Isaiah 57:15). One writer noted several similarities between these two sections of the book and used them to argue for a single writer of the entire prophecy. [Note: Herbert M. Wolf, "The Relationship Between Isaiah’s Final Servant Song (52:13-53:12) and Chapters 1-6," in A Tribute to Gleason Archer, pp. 251-59.] Thus the Servant would take a place of equality with God (cf. Acts 2:33; Acts 3:13; Acts 3:26; Philippians 2:9; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 10:12; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). This could in no way refer to Israel, the remnant in Israel, or any merely human person.

Verses 13-15

The Servant exalted 52:13-15

Verse 14

The Servant would experience the same humiliation and degradation that had marked the Israelites. Rather than appearing to be the strongest and most attractive representative of Yahweh, the Servant would appear extremely weak and unattractive to people. This description probably presents all aspects of His being: physical, mental, social, spiritual, etc. Jesus did not impress people as being the best looking, the most brilliant, the most socially engaging, or the most pious individual they had ever met, according to the Gospels. In His trials and crucifixion, Jesus’ underwent beatings that marred His physical appearance, but far more than that is in view in this description of Him. By saying that His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men, Isaiah was saying in a very strong way that His sufferings would be very great.

"Many is a theological term within the Song, referring to the whole company for whose benefit the Servant acts (15a, [53:]11c, [53:]12ae). It appears here for the first time and provides a telling contrast ’with the one, the solitary . . . servant’." [Note: Motyer, p. 425. His quotation is from J. Muilenberg, Isaiah 40-66, p. 617.]

Verse 15

The Servant’s sufferings, however, would have worldwide effects; He would sprinkle "many nations."

The interpretation of the Hebrew word yazzeh, translated "sprinkle" or "startle," has led students of this verse to two different understandings of the prophet’s line of thought. If "sprinkle" is correct, Isaiah meant that even though the Servant was such an unlikely candidate as Yahweh’s representative, He would still perform the priestly function of cleansing the world of its sins (cf. Leviticus 4:6; Leviticus 8:11; Leviticus 14:7; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Hebrews 10:22).

"Men regarded the servant as himself unclean and in need of purification, whereas he himself as a priest will sprinkle water and blood and so purify many nations." [Note: Young, 3:339. Cf. Delitzsch, 2:308; Baron, pp. 64-66; and Ortlund, p. 354. See John 19:34.]

If "startle" is correct, the prophet meant that since the Servant was such an unlikely candidate as Yahweh’s representative, He would shock the world (when He made His claims and when God would exalt Him). Both meanings are possible, and both harmonize with other revelation about the Servant. Most English translations have "sprinkle," and this is probably the primary meaning. There are other priestly allusions in the following verses (Isaiah 53:6-7; Isaiah 53:10-11). I think Isaiah may have used a double entendre at this point so his readers would see both truths. Isaiah was a master of multiple allusions, as we have seen.

Another problem is why the kings would be speechless. Would it be because of His lowly appearance (Isaiah 52:14) or because of His exaltation (Isaiah 52:13)? According to the first view, even kings would be shocked at the lowly state of the Servant (cf. John 19:19). What they had not known was that Israel’s redeemer would be a humble Servant. According to the second view, even kings would be speechless at the Servant’s exaltation (cf. Isaiah 52:13). They had never heard that one who took such a lowly place could ever sit on the throne of God.

Again, since people and kings were shocked at both the Servant’s humiliation and His exaltation, it is very hard to tell what was in Isaiah’s mind. Perhaps the first view is better because the thought of Isaiah 52:15 flows directly out of Isaiah 52:14. However, the Apostle Paul applied this verse to the preaching of the gospel in virgin and largely Gentile territory, and the gospel includes both the sufferings and glory of Messiah (cf. Romans 15:21).

"Kings shall shut their mouths-both from amazement and from their inability to say anything by way of self-justification." [Note: Archer, p. 646.]

Suffering in God’s service leads to exaltation and glorification.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 52". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.