Reflections on Isaiah 52-53

Get ready, God is at work!

What strikes me about the oracle in chapter 51 of Isaiah is the pairing of the prophet’s call for the people to prepare for and respond to God’s action to redeem.

Notice God’s commitment to action

  • “The uncircumcised and unclean shall enter [the holy city] no more”
  • “You shall be redeemed without money” – i.e. – God will act to free the people of Israel
  • “My people shall know my name…it is I who speak…here am I.”
  • The LORD has comforted his people…[God] has redeemed Jerusalem
  • The LORD has bared his holy arm [has acted in a way evident to all the nations]

What kind of response is called for?

  • ‘Awake, Awake!’ ‘put on your strength’
  • shake yourselves from the dust and rise up!
  • Joy, singing, celebration at the good news announced of God’s salvation
  • ‘Depart, Depart!’ ‘touch no unclean thing..go out from the midst of it’
  • purify yourselves, you who carry the vessels of the LORD

In context, what we hear is a promise that God has acted and is acting, to restore Jerusalem as its holy place and acting in such a way that the people and the nations will know that the LORD (i.e. the God revealed to Moses) reigns, is able to act and redeem the people of Israel from exile.

The primary action belongs to God – the people cannot free themselves from exile or alter the situation in Jerusalem.  Yet God’s action calls for human response: of gratitude and recognition of God’s action, as well as concrete action to live into what God has done – wake up, put on your strength, get up off the ground and start heading home, because now is the time God is moving.  And in the leaving from exile, it’s the time to refocus on embracing what is pure, what is good, letting go of everything that is not.  In this journey home, there is no need to rush, as if afraid of enemies, for God promises to go ahead and behind of them; guarding them along the way.

Looking backward in scripture, we find connections to the Passover story; of God’s action to save and the call to prepare.  We can also compare this message to the way in which Jesus conducted his ministry – the message that God’s kingdom (reign) is at hand, and the appropriate response is to celebrate and to repent (to change our direction).  God’s action – our response.

What speaks to you in this passage today?  How does this message resonate to those who are weary, feeling ‘in the dust’, bound and stuck in things that are less than the best God has created us for?  How is God calling us to respond today?

The next section – 52:13 through the rest of chapter 53 speak of God’s servant.

In this section of Isaiah, we find repeated many of the promises made earlier in the book; of the servant of the LORD prospering, of the nations taking notice, of messengers proclaiming good news.  But there is also, as Isaiah commentator John Watts notes, an ominous sense of foreboding – this good news comes in connection with a messenger who surprises the nations, who is crushed, despised, rejected, killed without cause and without returning violence.  Yet through this one who was so afflicted, God’s purpose is accomplished for healing and bearing away their sin.

For those brought up in the Christian tradition, it’s hard *not* to see Jesus in these passages.  Hold on to that thought – we’ll come back to it.

But for now, in the immediate context, we recognize that all along, the message is one of God’s action to return the exiles from Babylon, which happened historically in waves of exiles returning over an extended period of time.  Likewise, many years passed before the walls or the temple were rebuilt (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  Sometimes God works in miraculous ways that are sudden and dramatic.  More often, the miracle is of God’s working through the slow process of working in and through us, who sometimes get it, are sometimes obedient, and other times discouraged and disobedient.  In the midst of this, we find the echo of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who asserted that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  – not that human endeavors will inevitably turn out good, but that under the lordship of God, God’s purposes will eventually be achieved.  It is in this that we are called to place our trust and hope.

The identity of the servant in this section is difficult to locate precisely.  Is it Cyrus or Darius; Persian kings who served God’s purposes in returning the exiles and protecting them?  Is it Zerubbabel, executed for work that could be considered a threat to the surrounding nations?  Is it the people of Israel as a whole; suffering, yet with a future?  (John Watts, Word Bible Commentary – gives a potential structure and outline that postulates that Zerubbabel was murdered at the hands of local political leaders after restarting the building process in Jerusalem, and that when Darius (who supported the rebuilding) arrives to adjudicate the matter, the people acknowledge their guilt, and are pardoned.

But to speak of broader themes for a moment, we can see yet again the pattern of God choosing those who everyone else disregards, those who are seen as weak or lacking, whether a person or a people, to be ones who carry out God’s purposes, so that it is God who is seen to be at work through them.  It is not in our self-sufficiency that the world comes to know God, but in God’s provision in our need.

Despite being rejected and afflicted, this servant exposes sin and in taking it on without returning it, carries it away from us.  This points us to the deeper work of God.  Historically, the temple was rebuilt – the people remained in the land and the story continued forward. But the temple, and the land itself were not the ultimate purpose.  For those of us who follow Christ, we hear a the deepest work of God fulfilled in these verses.  If we now look at this passage through a Christ-centered lens, what do we find?

How have we (individually and collectively) looked at Jesus?

How does Isaiah describe what Jesus has done for us?  How do the writers of the Gospels and other letters of the New Testament make this connection?  – here are some threads to ponder:

“See, my servant shall prosper: he shall be exalted and lifted up.” (Isa 52:13)

“[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father..” (Philippians 2:8-11)

Although [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Lord, who has believed our message, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (John 12:37-38, quoting Isaiah 53:1)

“He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:3)

Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.”  (Luke 18:31-33)

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17, quoting Isaiah 53:4)

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, (1 Cor 15:3-5)

“…Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28)

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:22-25, compare with Isa 53:5-9)

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?”  But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:11-14)

“They made his grave with the wicked, and his tomb with the rich” (Isaiah 53:9b)

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.” (Matthew 27:57-60)

“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.  When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.” (Isaiah 53:10)

“The next day [John the baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” – John 1:29

“Out of his anguish, he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.  The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:11-12)

“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:18-21)