Isaiah 52 has beautifully pictured the deliverance of Zion, the people of God. A message is being proclaimed throughout the world. The message is of peace, happiness, and salvation (52:7). The declaration is made: “Your God reigns.” It is not over because of our sins. God is going to redeem (52:3,9). Every eye is going to see the return of the Lord to his people, Zion (52:8). “The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10). We are left with a looming and important question. How? How will these things happen? How is God going to redeem his people? How is God going to bring comfort to his people? How will every eye see the return of the Lord? How will people see the arm of the Lord and see salvation to the ends of the earth? Isaiah’s prophecy will give the explanation.
Isaiah declares, “Behold!” Look at this! See this and understand. Notice this is God himself speaking at this point about his servant. “My servant shall act wisely.” When God sends his servant, the Christ, he will act wisely. This is not simply saying that the servant possesses wisdom. The point is that the servant will know exactly what to do to accomplish this result. He will succeed when he arrives. The servant will accomplish the salvation of his people.
When the servant comes there will be a threefold exaltation. He will be high, lifted up, and exalted. We know in the scriptures when we read a threefold declaration that it is to emphasize the characteristic with a superlative. For example, when the spiritual beings around the throne speak of the Lord as “Holy, holy, holy” this is to make the point that he is the holiest. When the servant arrives he is going to be exalted. High, lifted up, and greatly exalted is the picture for the Lord’s servant. He will possess an extraordinary exalted position. The servant accomplishing this Lord’s task will bring about extraordinary exaltation. The apostles taught about this glorious exaltation concerning the resurrection of Jesus.
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:29–33 ESV) Jesus received the greatest exaltation when God raised him from the dead and sat him at his right hand with all power and authority. Jesus would be successful and be greatly exalted.
Further, many are going to be astonished at the servant. The Lord speaks directly to the servant so that the servant knows exactly what is going to happen. People are going to be astonished by this servant. By the way, the NASB adds “you people” completely without warrant. This description is about the servant, not about the people. Now when we think of astonishment we have in our language of thinking about that in a good way. I can say that I am astonished that the Dolphins came back from a significant deficit and won the game. But the root of this Hebrew word is connected with acts of destruction, desolation, and total obliterations (Smith, New American Commentary, 437). So this is not a positive astonishment but a negative reaction of astonishment by the people. Some translations read, “Many were appalled at you” (HCSB, NIV), which communicates the idea well. People will be appalled at this servant. Why? The Lord gives two reasons for the astonishment of the many.
First, they are astonished and appalled by his appearance. This verse is a shocking declaration. “His appearance was so disfigured that He did not look like a man, and His form did not resemble a human being” (Isaiah 52:14 HCSB). This is a good functional translation of this passage. Please just think about what this is saying. When I was 18, I came down with the chicken pox. I was so sick that when I looked in the mirror I cried because my face was so disfigured by the chicken pox that I was unrecognizable. Regarding the servant, the Lord says that people will be appalled at him because of his appearance being so marred and his body so crushed that it will be beyond recognition. It is difficult for us to appreciate the horror of what Jesus endured on our behalf so that we would receive salvation and redemption. One of the reasons for our difficulty appreciating what Jesus enduring is that we do not see the same kind of punishment used today on people that Jesus endured. It is even more difficult for us to comprehend because of the brevity of the scriptures concerning what happened. Here is what the gospel records.
Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:26 ESV)
According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “The whip was the dreaded flagellum, made by plaiting pieces of bone or lead into leather thongs. The victim was stripped and tied to a post. Severe flogging not only reduced the flesh to bloody pulp but could open up the body until the bones were visible and the entrails exposed (cf. TDNT, 4:510-12; Jos. War II, 612 [xxi.5]; VI, 304 [v.3]). Flogging as an independent punishment frequently ended in death.”
Isaiah is picturing the horror of the suffering that would come through his scourging and subsequent crucifixion. This is a shocking contrast to the previous sentence where we learned that the servant would succeed and be highly exalted. The suffering of Jesus would be the means of his success in accomplishing the will of the Father and the salvation of the world. This is exactly what Jesus taught while on the earth.
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (John 12:31–33 ESV) Satan is cast out and people are drawn to Christ by him being lifted up and killed on the cross.
But there is something else that is astonishing or appalling which is described in verse 15. The servant will sprinkle many nations through his suffering. Most translations read “sprinkle” but a couple of translations read “startle.” But to use the word “startle” requires emending the text, which we simply should never do unless absolutely required. Difficult readings should not compel us to change the reading, especially because sprinkling works very well with what is being prophesied. Kings are also going to be astonished by what the servant does.
Why are the kings astonished and why are the many appalled? The rest of verse 15 explains: “For that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” The nations and kings are going to see and understand what previously had not been told to them. The hope of life and covenant blessings, which were proclaimed only to Israel, are now given to the Gentiles. This is how Paul uses this text when he quotes it in Romans 15:21.
In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” (Romans 15:17–21 ESV)
Thus, the servant sprinkling the nations makes sense here because sprinkling in the scriptures is both cleansing and covenantal. For the sake of time we will consider just one text but this one text shows how sprinkling is for cleansing and for belonging to the covenant.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. (Hebrews 9:13–22 ESV)
The suffering of the servant will bring the Gentiles into covenant relationship with God and they will find cleansing from their sins. This will cause the many (physical Israel) to be appalled. They were appalled at the suffering of Jesus How could he be the Savior of the world and the Messiah and suffer in such a fashion? They were appalled at the suffering of Jesus because they would not accept that the Gentiles would enter into the promised covenant blessings.
Consider that this is exactly what the next sentence declares. “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” This is a rhetorical question. The answer is that Israel has heard but has not believed. They have seen the arm of the Lord revealed but will not believe. This report contains such astonishing factors that would be hard to believe. The servant is the unveiling of the arm of the Lord. This will be the way that God will heal and restore his people and the nations. Notice that this again is quoted by Paul to prove the rejection of Israel.
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:16–17 ESV)
Jesus said the same thing when he quoted this passage from Isaiah:
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. (John 12:36–39 ESV)
Many will be appalled at the servant and reject him, even though he would succeed in his redemptive work. The question comes to us. When we look at Jesus who succeed through his suffering, will we believe the message of Christ? Will we believe the astonishing message? We must consider the suffering of the cross and be moved by the fact that this was the way for him to succeed! Jesus succeeded through suffering. Jesus succeeded through sacrifice. Believing the message means following Jesus to the cross. We belong to Jesus and succeed in Jesus through suffering and sacrifice for the Lord. Love the Lord Jesus for what he has done for you.