Bible Commentary: Isaiah 52-53

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Isaiah 52-53

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The Good News of Zion's Redemption

Chapter 52 begins by describing Zion or Jerusalem in a state of bondage and captivity from which it is to be freed and then exalted. The statement in verse 2 to "arise and sit down" is not a contradiction. She is to rise from the dust and sit on a throne. As the New International Version phrases it: "Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem." Once again, we should notice the parallel between national Israel's physical deliverance and spiritual Israel's salvation—which physical Israel will eventually experience as well, following its conversion into spiritual Israel.

God allowed His people to be taken captive in ancient times and will do so again at the end. But the gentile captors do not understand themselves to be agents of God's punishment. In fact, they glory in their power and terribly abuse God's people, saying such things as "So where is their God?" (see Psalm 115:2). In this way, God's name is continually blasphemed throughout the duration of His people's captivity (Isaiah 52:5). God will make Himself known to all nations through His awesome deliverance of His people.

The apostle Paul quotes verse 7, mentioning what is written there about how beautiful the feet are of those who preach the gospel, or good news, of salvation (Romans 10:15). This concept is addressed as well by the prophet Nahum (Nahum 1:15). And in Ephesians 6:15, Paul explains that our feet are to be clothed "with the preparation of the gospel of peace," which is what makes them beautiful—a poetic expression for the fact that good news (the gospel) is being brought by the feet of the bearer. By extension, we could view this as applying to whatever means is used to transmit such information (today including an automobile conveying a minister to deliver a sermon, a postal delivery truck bringing a magazine proclaiming God's truth, a radio station carrying a program on which the good news of God's Kingdom is announced, etc.).

God led the apostle Paul to draw upon the prophecies of Isaiah because they still directly apply to the life of a Christian, as well as provide an outline of the events yet to unfold in the history of mankind. Again, we see continuing evidence that the Old Testament, and not just the New, is for Christians.

The command to be "clean" and to depart and separate ourselves from that which is unclean (Isaiah 52:11) is referred to by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17. It is a theme echoed in the book of Revelation as well—to come out of Babylon, as a type of that which is unclean (Revelation 18:2, 4). God says moreover that those who bear His "vessels" are to be clean. This appears to refer to priestly duties. God told Moses to tell Aaron and his sons: "Whoever of all your descendants throughout your generations, who goes near the holy things which the children of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has uncleanness upon him, that person shall be cut off from My presence: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 22:1-3). The priests thus had to remain ritually clean to carry out their duties. Yet this was merely symbolic of the spiritual purity God requires of His spiritual priesthood, His Church (see 1 Peter 2:5, 9).

The Suffering Servant

Beginning with Isaiah 52:13, we have a section giving some of the remarkable prophecies of the Messiah's sufferings and other aspects of His life at His coming—that is, His first coming. We have seen that God will redeem His people (verse 2). And now He tells us how. While ultimate deliverance would come by a miraculous force of awesome power (at the Messiah's secondcoming), redemption would first come through a great sacrifice out of the depth of unfathomable humility. The Lord—the Creator of mankind, Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 3:9)—would come in the flesh and die for the sins of those He created. God the Father would thus give His only begotten Son for redemption of the whole world (John 3:16). It is truly mind-boggling to contemplate.

"Amidst a declaration of the Lord's coming salvation (see 52:7-12; 54:1-10), Isaiah [through God's inspiration] places a portrait of the Suffering Servant (52:13-53:12)…. Three other passages in Isaiah focus on the Servant and [the four] are called the 'Servant Songs' (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9). The first song celebrates the Servant as the One who will establish justice for all (42:4). The second highlights the deliverance that the Servant will provide. He will restore Israel and become a 'light to the Gentiles.' The third emphasizes the God-given wisdom of the Servant. All this culminates in the description of the suffering and death of the Servant in ch. 53, the final 'Servant Song'" ("INDepth: The Suffering Servant," Nelson Study Bible, sidebar on Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

Many of the Jews looked for the triumphant Christ to come and save them from their enemies, but they did not recognize the true Messiah when He came to save us first from our sins. Even now, all too many who adhere to at least the form of biblical Christianity look more to the triumphant coming of Christ to give them victory and rulership over the world and fail to grasp the critical importance of eliminating the unclean elements from their lives first. Many, sadly, will find themselves on the outside in that day (see Matthew 7:21-23; 25:1-13)—until they have learned to recognize the meaning of Christ's first coming in their lives.

Because of the conflicts with the Jews over Jesus being the Messiah, it is not surprising that the New Testament writers quote quite a bit from this section of Isaiah.

In discussing his ministry to the gentiles, Paul cites Isaiah 52:15 to show that Christ was fulfilling this prophecy through him in preaching to those who had not yet heard the gospel (Romans 15:21). Right after Paul cites the passage about preaching the gospel mentioned above (10:15; Isaiah 52:7), he quotes from this same section of Isaiah, asking, "Who has believed our report?" (Romans 10:16; Isaiah 53:1). John also quotes this verse in Isaiah as being fulfilled by Jesus when the Jews of His day did not believe in Him.

The apostles Matthew and Peter quoted Isaiah 53:4-6, which deals with Jesus taking our sins on Himself (see Matthew 8:17; 1 Peter 2:24-25). Peter also quoted from verse 9 of Isaiah 53 in the same place (1 Peter 2:22). In Isaiah 53:4, some margins correctly state that an alternate translation of the Hebrew word for "grief" is "sickness," and an alternate translation for "sorrows" is "pains." Indeed, the New Testament quotes the verse: "He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses" (Matthew 8:17). Here, then, is an important foundation for divine healing—that Christ's physical suffering, together with His death, was to not only pay for our sins, but also to take upon Himself the suffering of our diseases and injuries. (For more on this subject, compare Matthew 8:16-17; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 Corinthians 11:29-30; James 5:14-15; Psalm 103:1-3.)

When Philip was sent by God to talk with the Ethiopian eunuch in the desert south of Jerusalem, the man was reading a passage from Isaiah that he asked Philip to explain to him (Acts 8:26-35). The specific section he was reading was verses 7-8 of Isaiah 53.

In verse 12, "poured out His soul [physical life] unto death" refers to His dying from blood loss, "for the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11).

Jesus, when preparing to leave the upper room where He kept His last Passover with His disciples before His death, quoted Isaiah 53:12 about being numbered with transgressors as a verse He needed to fulfill, and a reason to take swords with them (Luke 22:35-38). Mark cites the crucifixion between two thieves as actually fulfilling this prophecy (Mark 15:28).

It is sobering to read this passage, particularly when we see that Jesus was to be beaten into terrible disfigurement (Isaiah 52:14). Having inspired Isaiah to write this prophecy, Jesus, in the moments before His arrest on the night of the Passover, was fully aware of the suffering that lay ahead of Him. Yet through it all, He remained cognizant of His mission—and dedicated to it. He remained the ultimate, giving Servant of His Father. And indeed, He came to serve us too, to the point of suffering indescribable betrayal and agony and finally dying in our place. Let us all accept the justification His death has made available to us (53:11). But, realizing that it is our sins that necessitated His death, let us leave our sinful ways behind with Him in His death—and come out of sin through the power of His resurrected life (compare Romans 5:9-10; Galatians 2:20).