Isaiah 52 Commentary

Joy in Jerusalem (52:1-12)

In view of these promises, the prophet urges the captive Jews to prepare for the return to Jerusalem. The city that heathen armies defiled and destroyed will be rebuilt, to become strong, holy and beautiful again (52:1-2).

God will redeem his people from slavery, but he will not pay the slave-owner (Babylon) any ransom (3). In earlier days the Israelites were made slaves in Egypt, even though they went there in peace. They then established themselves in Canaan, but again they fell into bondage. Some were taken captive to Assyria, and now the rest are slaves in Babylon. The oppressor nations paid nothing for their slaves, and God will pay nothing to release the slaves. Rather, he will punish the slave-owners, particularly since they have mocked him (4-5). Then the doubting Israelites will see clearly that their God is the controller of history (6).

Overjoyed at this reminder of the triumph of God, the prophet pictures a messenger going from Babylon to Jerusalem to announce the good news that God reigns supreme. The people of Israel will return and Jerusalem will be rebuilt (7). He pictures the watchmen in Jerusalem rejoicing as they see the first lot of exiles returning to the city. Onlookers from other nations will see God’s power displayed (8- 10).

As he pictures the first exiles leaving Babylon, the prophet reminds those carrying the temple vessels to keep themselves ceremonially clean (11; cf. Ezra 1:7-11). He cannot help but contrast the quiet and orderly departure on this occasion with the hurried exodus from Egypt when Israel set out for its land the first time (12).

Israel and the Messiah

The fourth Servant Song (52:13-53:12) emphasizes the contrast between Israel’s sufferings at the hands of the Babylonians and the coming glory in the restored nation. The song, however, does more than merely contrast suffering and glory. It reveals that the two are inseparably connected, that suffering is necessary before glory. It shows for the first time that the servant must die. He must bear punishment of sin before he can enjoy the glory that God has promised.

Previous statements in the book have made it clear that Israel is the servant who has sinned, who is punished, and who looks for future glory (see 41:8; 42:19-25; 49:5-7). But this song makes it clear that the removal of sin and the blessings of glory are possible only as another takes the punishment on behalf of the sinful servant. Yet the one who bears Israel’s sin is also called God’s servant. The servant dies for the servant; the suffering servant dies for the sinful servant.

It may be, then, that the Israel of the exile suffered for the sins of Israel of former generations; or that the faithful remnant in exile suffered because of the sins of the people as a whole in exile. The suffering, however, is not only because of Israel’s sins, but to take away Israel’s sins. Certain sins of Israel, such as idolatry, were removed through the exile, but the removal of sin in its fullest sense could come about only through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was the ideal Israel, the perfect servant, who takes away his people’s sin through bearing the punishment for them (Matt 1:21; Heb 2:14-17).

Jesus does even more than that. He dies for the sin not only of Israel, but also of the world. Only in him do people have complete forgiveness of sin, and only in him will they experience future glory (John 1:29; Heb 2:9-10).

The fourth Servant Song speaks of Israel’s sufferings at the hands of the Babylonians and its glory in the rebuilt Jerusalem. But those events do not fully satisfy the language of the song. They are but dim pictures of the sufferings of Christ and the glory that follows (1 Peter 1:11).

The servant’s suffering and glory (52:13-53:12)

Just as people were startled at the sight of the servant’s great sufferings, so will they be startled at the sight of his great glory. They will be struck dumb, as it were, as they witness a sight more glorious than they or anyone else could ever have imagined (13-15).

Many people find it hard to believe that God will give his servant such power and magnificence, because when they look at the servant they see just an ordinary person of insignificant beginnings. They liken him to a small plant growing in dry and infertile ground – so different from the magnificent trees that stand majestically in the tall forests. They see nothing in his appearance that is impressive or


attractive. On the contrary, when they see the extent of his sufferings they turn away from him in disgust, like people repelled by the sight of a diseased person (53:1-3).

At first those who see the servant’s intense suffering think that he is being punished by God for some wrong he has done. However, as they think further they realize that he is suffering not for his own sins, but for the sins of others; in fact, their sins. They are the ones who have turned away from God and they are the ones for whom the servant dies. It is for them that he bears God’s punishment (4-6).

The servant is treated cruelly, but he bears it silently. Those who judge him show neither mercy nor justice; they just send him off to be killed. His fellow citizens are just as heartless, and show no concern that he suffers death unjustly. Yet he bears all this for the sake of those who are sinners (7-8). Those who hate him leave him to die in disgrace like a criminal, but those who love him give him an honourable burial. They know he has done no wrong (9).

Despite the inhumanity of people, the servant’s death is according to God’s will. It is a sacrifice for the removal of sin. But beyond the sorrow of death is the joy of the resurrection. The servant is satisfied when he sees the fruits of his suffering, namely, a multitude of spiritual children who are forgiven their sins and accounted righteous before God because of his death (10-11). The sufferer becomes the conqueror and receives a conqueror’s reward. Because he willingly took the place of sinners and prayed for their forgiveness, he is now exalted to the highest place (12).

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