17. The Announcement of Comfort to the Redeemed (Isaiah 52:1-12)
This section continues the theme of the last chapter, making the link with the repetition of the call “awake” (51:17 and 52:1). Now the LORD calls Zion to awake from her sleep because He will not allow His name to be blasphemed any longer (1-6); in fact, heralds announce to Zion that God has come to reign (7-8), prompting the call for Jerusalem to rejoice because God has brought salvation (9-10). The section closes when the righteous are exhorted to come home because the LORD will protect them (11-12).
There are a number of ways that this passage could be outlined. For ease in the arrangement, I shall break up the first part into two sections:
the call to exchange degradation for rightful dignity (1,2) and
the reason for the call (3-6); then I shall combine verses 7-10 for
the heralds and the rejoicing (7-10), and the finally,
the concluding call (11,12) will parallel the beginning call.
I. God calls His people to exchange their degraded condition for their position of rightful service (52:1,2).
The prophet, speaking the Word of the LORD, calls for the people to respond to the call of God. The primary audience, of course, would be the exiles in Babylon who are called to step out in faith and return to their land and their service (and as we said before, Isaiah probably thought his immediate audience would go into exile and then need these words to encourage them and to call them home). Announcing such an oracle would have the impact of warning and encouragement on the immediate (eighth century) audience would be warning and encouragement—warning not to get themselves into the predicament of an exile and have to face all of this, and encouragement that if and when they did a remnant would return (as the message based on the name of the prophet’s child early declared). In other words, no matter how bad the invasion and exile might be, there was a future for Israel—they should expect to return to the land.
We know what the oracle meant in Old Testament times; but what does it mean for us today? For the modern application the message could be applied on several levels: (1) just as there would have been unbelievers in Babylon who would come to faith at this call, so too today people might respond to the message (this or any message about the future fulfillment of the promises) and leave their bondage and sin and find themselves in the service of the LORD; (2) Christians who have been living under the oppression of the world (largely due to sin) and being conformed to the world may need to separate themselves and be useful in God’s service; and (3) believers need to watch and be ready for the coming of the LORD, for the passage may be again a picture of the LORD’s calling His people out of the bondage of this world to service above in the final redemption.
Verse 1 employs several figures in the call for an appropriate response of faith by the people. The addressee here is “Zion”—hence the feminine forms of the verbs. “Zion” is the mountain on which the temple once stood; so here it is a metonymy of subject for the people of the land who center their attention on Jerusalem. It is possible the prophet is addressing the exiles still; but it is interesting that the provenance of his oracles now shifts to the focus in the land of Israel.
The first figure is “Awake”; this is an implied comparison, comparing the waking up from sleep with responding by faith to God’s Word. The idea of “awake” has been used previously in chapter 50 for responding to the Word of God, as well as in chapter 51 for the unfaithful to wake up. Here the word is repeated; the figure of repetition is used to urge the immediate response of the people.
“Put on” (libsi [liv-she], s.v. labas [lah-vash]) is another comparison, linking the ideas of putting on clothes with acting by faith (compare Ephesians 6 with its “put on the whole armor of God”). The idea means to make full use of something. Here that “something” is “strength” (‘oz [oze]), probably a metonymy of effect, the cause being the power of God that will give the believers the strength to do what needs to be done (recall the renewing of strength in Isaiah 40). So the point is that by faith they must respond to the Word of God and trust God to enable them to return to the land.
They are called to put on their “beautiful garments.” The expression recalls the festive robes of the priests (cf. Exod. 19:14 and 28:40). Rather than be in the estate of the slave (47:1), the people will be restored to their dignified state of a holy nation and a kingdom of priests (see Zech. 3 which symbolizes this restoration by having the filthy garments removed from the priest (who signifies the nation) and clean robes and a new miter or turban given to him (which signifies the renewal to spiritual service after the exile).
The explanation given in the verse is that from this time on the un-circumcised and the unclean (probably referring to the Babylonian invading armies among others) will not plunder the temple and the state and desecrate them. Of course, this promise is contingent upon their putting on the strength by faith. Unfortunately, very soon after their return the people lapsed into sin, necessitating the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, and even Malachi. Consequently, the un-circumcised and unclean (Seleucids, Romans, and others) did again enter and plunder. Thus, the promise of the restoration to the land and to service must await the end of the age. All the prophets continued to hold out such glorious promises; and the people had the opportunity to fulfill it, to be that generation. But as each generation failed, the people knew that their time wasn’t it—they looked for another.
Further references: for the un-circumcised Babylonians, see Ezek. 44:9; for “put on” metaphor terminology, see Isa. 11:5 and 51:9; for the ultimate spiritual fulfillment of this promise that nothing unclean will enter the holy city, see Rev. 21:2,10.
Verse 2 calls for the people to depart from their bondage. “Shake yourself from the dust” is a call to end their mourning. It could be taken as an implied comparison; but if there actually were periods of mourning where real dust was applied, then metonymy of adjunct would work very well. Haggai, Zechariah, and Ezra all address the issue of whether or not the fasts from Babylon were still to be mourned when they were back in the land. So I would prefer the latter figure. The expression “Loose yourself from the bonds of your neck” would be hypocatastasis, comparing being in stocks and bondage with the general idea of exile. They were not actually in such neck-bonds.
Now the people are referred to as the “captive daughter of Zion” rather than merely “Zion.” Since cities and locations are usually feminine in Hebrew, the people from Zion could easily be referred to as a daughter (collectively). The implied comparison is meant to indicate that this is the nation from Zion/Judah, what Judah produced.
II. The LORD will vindicate His name by delivering His people from bondage (52:3-6).
In these verses we have the reason for the LORD’s call for the people to respond by faith—there is nothing to prevent the LORD from reclaiming His people.
Verse 3 introduces the idea that when Israel went into bondage she went because of her own sin, and not because the LORD sold her for a price. Because no price was paid as Israel sold herself for nothing, no price was required to redeem her. Israel was still God’s possession. Verse 3 introduces this theme in a soliloquy of the LORD: Israel was not sold to Babylon for compensation, and so she will be redeemed without money. The adverb hinnam ([khin-nahm], s.v. hanan [khah-nan]) means “free, without cost, for nothing, for nought, gratis”; it is etymologically related to the word for “grace” (hen [khane]) and so provides a nice illustration of the meaning of grace as “freely” or “gratuitously, without a cause.” But here the adverb simply means “for nothing, for no cost.”
Verse 4 provides two illustrations for the people. The nation had gone down into Egypt, and had been invaded by Assyria—in both cases they were in similar bondage, but in both cases the LORD had not been through with them.
The LORD’s reasoning continues in verse 5 as the subject comes back to Babylon—now “what am I about in Babylon?” is what the LORD says. The critical problem in this verse is the verb yehelilu (yeh-hay-lee-loo). The old translations took it as a causative idea: “make them shout,” meaning that the Babylonians made the Israelites praise their gods. All we know, though, is that they taunted them to sing the songs of Zion (Ps. 137). The more recent translations take the verb as an intensive or plural use of the stem, referring to the wild shouts of exclamation with which the Babylonian rulers praised their gods for the victory over Israel. This makes better sense with the last part of the verse, that the name of the LORD was being blasphemed. This means then that the LORD’s character was being brought into contempt, and His works credited to someone else (compare the New Testament idea of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit, meaning that the works of Jesus were credited to the power of the evil one).
Verse 6 repeats the main motivation for the reunion of Israel in her land—that they might know my name—the same idea expressed in Exodus 3 and 6 for the Exodus. By His great deliverance of Israel from bondage the LORD would make His people know His name. Here the meaning of the verb “know” must have the same idea it had in Exodus 3 and 6, “to experience the meaning” of the name. They will be convinced that Yahweh is the one and only God, and that He indeed does speak. He is not like false gods; He is actively at work to bring about His will. The fulfillment of the covenant promises of the LORD will vindicate His reputation and prove that He is completely trustworthy. All the blaspheming and mocking will be suddenly silenced.
III. There will be great joy over the announcement of the glad tidings (52:7-10).
A. Good news will be welcomed by the people (7, 8).
Verse 7 is one of the better known verses in this section of the book, thanks to its citation in Romans 10:15 (see also Nah. 1:15). Paul in that section of Romans is talking about the nation of Israel, its ultimate salvation at the end of the age as a fulfillment of the promises, and the basis of that restoration in Christ’s death. So the ultimate meaning of this passage in Isaiah concerns the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even though the immediate context refers to news of Israel’s deliverance from exile. But the parallel ideas are obvious. Here is another example of how the “near view” of a prophecy is but a shadow or preview of the “far view” (compare Psalm 118 and the prophecy of the “stone which the builders rejected” which in the Old Testament refers to Israel overlooked by empires, but in the New Testament signifies Christ rejected by the leaders).
The exclamation in verse 7 (“How beautiful”) is a form of erotesis for exclaiming or declaring the prospect in the form of a question. The prophet transports himself to the future in thought130_ftn1 and sees the people in Jerusalem (in ruins of course) joyfully welcoming the returning exiles with the exclamation that “God reigns.” The basic theological point of verse 7 is the announcement of the good news of SALVATION (i.e., deliverance from bondage in exile). The cause of that salvation is God’s power over the nations (“God reigns”); the effect of that deliverance is peace and prosperity (“peace” and “good news”). Those who come to Zion with the good news—the returning exiles—are the welcomed messengers. Their feet are beautiful, meaning their coming is wonderful. “Feet” could be taken as synecdoche or metonymy (there is often a thin line between the two figures); the latter would work better to represent the whole person who comes with the good news.
The point of the verse is that the people will welcome the approach of the messenger who can declare that God is about to fulfill His promise of redemption. The same point applies to today’s preaching of the Gospel that announces there is a day of redemption coming.
Verse 8 carries the same theme further with a description of the watchmen calling and singing to one another when they make eye contact to confirm the coming home of the exiles. There is no reason not to take the “watchmen” literally in this passage; there would have always been such watchers, whether to safeguard whatever domains were there, or whether the Levites waiting for the dawn in the eastern skies so that they could begin the early morning sacrifice.131
This verb sapah (tsah-fah), from which we have “watchers,” is used figuratively for the prophets in Hosea 9:8; Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 3:17, 33:7; and Isaiah 56:10. But I doubt that that is the best meaning for this context, for the verse talks about the watchmen seeing the return. Besides, Brown, Driver, and Briggs do not list this passage with that meaning for “watchers.”
B. People should break forth into praise because of the LORD’s salvation (9, 10).
Verse 9 is a call to praise the LORD for this great deliverance. People are called to praise because the “desolate places” are no longer such—in fact, waste or desolate places are being called to sing. I would take this as metonymy of subject, meaning that the people who live in the waste places (which are now no longer waste places) will sing for joy. The reason?—the LORD has “comforted” and “redeemed” His people (these two words being major themes for this section of the book). So in the future when the exile is over and the rebuilding begins, people will forget their desolation and rejoice in the power of the LORD.
Verse 10 uses a bold anthropomorphism to express the dominant power of God—”He has made bare His holy arm.” It is the idea of pushing back the mantel and exposing the arm for action. “Holy” arm means that His power is unique, incomparable. There is no “arm” like His, no power like His. It will be a mighty salvation.
IV. God calls His people to respond to His deliverance with purity and confidence (52:11, 12).
Now, in a slight inclusio with the initial “awake, awake” we have the final “depart, depart.” Verse 11 records an address to the exiles that comes from Jerusalem (“from thence” shows that the speaker is not in Babylon), suggesting again the transporting of the prophet in his vision. Since the LORD is present in the march to the holy land, the people must be pure. They must not be defiled by unclean things. After all, they are to be restored as the kingdom of priests. If they truly believe in the LORD, they will separate from the world and follow the LORD’s call to a renewed spiritual service. Thus it is with every kind of deliverance.
The prophet holds out for them the promise of divine protection. Unlike the exodus from Egypt, they will not have to go in haste, or by flight, because the LORD will lead them in the way and be their rearguard as well. Compare this text to the ending of Isaiah 40.
So there is in this passage the dominant theme of the joyful departure from bondage of the exiles to the holy city. Because the promise was about to be fulfilled, the people were to purify themselves and be confident in the sovereignty of their God. Their restoration and renewal was imminent; but that new beginning was but a foretaste of the great eschatological redemption at the end of the age. For this connection compare the use of “God reigns” in Isaiah 52:7 with the several enthronement psalms where “the LORD reigns” is the cry at the end of the age.
In general, one could use this passage to teach that the LORD sovereignly reigns over the world and so people can trust in His word and obey His commands. While this would be a legitimate use, the passage has a more specific point to make, and we must always be as specific as possible. The chapter is specifically about God’s people heading for home to renew their spiritual service of the LORD. And so one basic and crucial application today would be in line with the way that Paul uses the passage. The whole chapter can be seen as a type, a picture, of God’s plan of salvation that culminates at the end of the age. It portrays a call to people who are in bondage to sin to leave their bondage because the LORD offers them redemption, deliverance; and they can depart for the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem now, where no unclean thing will enter. The destination of Zion becomes a symbol of the ultimate fulfillment of the promises. The LORD will redeem His people from all evil and purify His name from blasphemy and mocking. The reason for the great salvation with all its good news and the basis for the praise of the saints is that God reigns. So the wonderful news of the Gospel announces salvation; it is entered by faith now and realized fully at the end of the age. Those who respond by faith to the call of God begin their pilgrimage to the holy city; they themselves become bearers of the good news.
Blank, Sheldon H. “Isaiah 52:5 and the Profanation of the Name.” HUCA 25 (1954):1-6.
Hanson, Paul D. “Isaiah 52:7-10.” Interpretation 33 (1979):389-394.
Melugin, R. F. “Isaiah 52:7-10.” Interpretation 36 (1982):176-181.
130 It is interesting that one of the reasons for a deutero-Isaiah was that a prophet would not transport himself to the future exile and write to that audience. However, here even in the “deutero-Isaiah” section the prophet transports himself to the future in Palestine after the exile.
131 Psalm 130 carries the same theme and may very well reflect such an experience. The psalmist (speaking on behalf of the nation) has been forgiven by the LORD because the LORD does not mark iniquities. So he waits eagerly for the Word of the LORD to be fulfilled, more than the watchmen wait for the morning. But his forgiveness is a sign that in the end of the age God will redeem Israel from all her iniquities.