ISAIAH 52:1-6. THE CONTEXT
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but serve as an essential introduction to it. They call Zion to awake and get dressed in beautiful garments to celebrate the fact that the uncircumcised and unclean will no longer tread the streets of Jerusalem (v. 1). They call captive Jerusalem to wake up and loose the bonds of captivity (v. 2).
The author is Second Isaiah, who wrote chapters 40-55 to bring words of hope to the people of Judah, who have suffered defeat and have seen their beloved Jerusalem destroyed and many of their fellow-citizens killed by the sword. The survivors have suffered a lengthy exile in Babylonia.
This has led to a crisis of faith. The exiles wonder if Yahweh has abandoned them—or if the Babylonian gods have shown themselves to be stronger than Yahweh. First Isaiah, who wrote chapters 1-39, has answered these questions. He has laid the responsibility for the captivity squarely at the feet of the captives. They have sinned, and the exile is their punishment.
But Yahweh has not abandoned the exiles but is instead planning their redemption. Yahweh has used the Babylonians to punish the exiles and to prepare them for redemption, but that phase of their history is drawing to a close. Yahweh has raised up Cyrus of Persia to defeat the Babylonians and to assume world dominance (Isaiah 45:1). Cyrus will reverse the cruel oppression of the Babylonians and will allow the people of Judah to return to their homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. However, it is not Cyrus who will save the people, but Yahweh.
“For thus says Yahweh ‘You were sold for nothing; and you shall be redeemed without money'” (v. 3). Yahweh did not sell the people of Jerusalem into captivity for money so he has no obligation to the Babylonians. He allowed Babylonia to place the people of Judah in bondage as punishment for their sins, but is now free to secure Judah’s release. There is no need for Yahweh to pay a fee to redeem Judah, because Babylonia paid nothing for the privilege of placing Judah in captivity.
Verses 4-5 recount Israel’s bondage to Egypt and Assyria and the resultant effect on Yahweh’s reputation. “My name continually all the day is blasphemed,” Yahweh says (v. 5).
“Therefore my people shall know (Hebrew: yada) my name” (v. 6). Yahweh will take such decisive action that his people will no longer doubt his name but will know (yada) his name. Yada denotes a deep kind of knowing that comes from experience—from relationship. It is the word used in Genesis for a man knowing his wife (Genesis 4:1, 17, 25). We often interpret that as sexual knowledge, which is true to the marriage context. However, as married people can attest, the yada that comes with marriage is a knowing that goes far beyond sexual knowledge. It is an understanding of the thoughts and feelings and values of the marriage partner—a knowing at the deepest levels.
“Therefore they shall know in that day that I am he who speaks; behold, it is“ (v. 6). People will know that it is Yahweh speaking when Yahweh accomplishes what he has set out to do. In truth, Yahweh has been accomplishing his purposes through the Babylonian captivity, but that is something that neither the exiles nor the Babylonians could understand. From their perspectives, it has appeared that the Babylonian gods have won a victory—that they have proven more powerful than Yahweh. When Yahweh raises up Cyrus of Persia to defeat the Babylonians and free the Judean exiles, Yahweh will be publicly vindicated. It will be apparent to all that Yahweh is a great God.
ISAIAH 52:7. HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET
7How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news (Hebrew: mebasser) of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
The messenger has brought good news “from Babylon to Jerusalem” (Brueggemann, 138). He might be the messenger whom God commissioned earlier with these words:
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
“Speak comfortably to Jerusalem;
and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received of Yahweh’s hand
double for all her sins” (40:1-2).
The good news is that Yahweh (working through the agency of Cyrus of Persia) has defeated Babylon. Israel will soon be free.
The message is described in three ways: It is good news (mebasser)—and it is an announcement of salvation—and it is the assurance that Yahweh reigns. The New Testament equivalent is euangelion (gospel).
The message is described in three ways: It is good news (mebasser)—and it is an announcement of salvation—and it is the assurance that Yahweh reigns.
“The Hebrew word mebasser, ‘good news’ (v. 7), was the inspiration for the use of the Greek word euangelion, or ‘gospel,’ by the first Christians” (Hoppe, 361).
There is an ironic quality to this verse. When we speak of physical beauty, we seldom if ever mention feet. We think of feet as one of our more modest parts. However, for a person in trouble, the instrument of salvation will appear as a thing of beauty regardless of its intrinsic appearance. To a drowning person, an old barge approaching with a rope would be as beautiful as anything could be. To a person dying of thirst, a cup of water would be beautiful even if the cup were chipped or soiled. To people imprisoned in the Nazi death camps, the American GI’s who liberated them were a beautiful sight, even though the GI’s needed a shave and shower and were clothed in olive-drab uniforms. So it is here. To exiles who have lost hope that they might ever be free again, the one who announces peace and good news and salvation is beautiful—right down to his feet.
ISAIAH 52:8. YOUR WATCHMEN LIFT UP THE VOICE
8The voice of your watchmen! they lift up the voice, together do they sing; for they shall see eye to eye, when Yahweh returns (Hebrew: sub) to Zion.
“The voice of your watchmen! they lift up the voice, together do they sing“ (v. 8a). The first people to see the messenger would be the watchmen or sentinels looking out over the surrounding countryside. These sentinels would be on watch for approaching enemies, but would be delighted to see a messenger bearing good news.
These sentinels see the messenger at a distance, but understand from his gestures that the news is good. Perhaps the messenger raises his arms above his head in a “V” for victory. Perhaps he thrusts his fist in the air. In some way, he conveys to the sentinels that the news is good.
Sentinels are trained to alert the populace to danger, but are happy to announce good news instead. In this case, the sentinels lift up their voices and sing together. The prophet calls the people to listen so that they can hear the voices of the sentinels—so that they can share in the joy that the sentinels are experiencing.
“for they shall see eye to eye, when Yahweh returns (sub) to Zion“ (v. 8b). The Hebrew verb sub appears frequently in the Old Testament and has a variety of meanings—to turn or return or change or restore. In this instance, the prophet could be speaking of the restoration of Zion—or the return of Yahweh to Zion—or both.
Zion, of course, refers to Mount Zion on which Jerusalem is built. In the Bible, it is often used to speak of Jerusalem itself.
ISAIAH 52:9. BREAK FORTH INTO JOY!
9Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem; for Yahweh has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
“Break forth into joy, sing together, you waste places of Jerusalem” (v. 9). First, the messenger signaled that the news was good. Then the sentinels burst out in song to celebrate the good news. Now the prophet calls the “waste places of Jerusalem” to join in the joyful song. Keep in mind that this is poetry in which it is possible for ruins to raise their voice in song. Jesus used similar language on Palm Sunday when the Pharisees insisted that he order his disciples to stop praising him. He replied, “I tell you that if these (people) were silent, the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
In this earlier instance, we might think of the ruins of the city as a metaphor for the people of Jerusalem. Their lives have been ruined by the Babylonians, but now they can rejoice and break forth in singing because Yahweh has made possible their restoration. They will no longer be a ruined people, but will instead be a redeemed people.
“for Yahweh has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9b). The ruins will not remain ruins, because Yahweh has comforted his people and has redeemed Jerusalem. This does not mean that the rebuilding is complete, either of walls or people, but it means that the Lord has determined to effect this redemption and so the people can be certain that it will happen. The call is to “break forth together into joy, sing together,” even though the people have not yet been privileged to see the fruits of Yahweh’s determination to redeem them. “To give thanks in advance is the highest form of praise” (Oswalt, 370).
The word “redeemed” has to do with release from bondage, and usually involves some sort of payment or ransom to achieve the release. However, as noted in verse 3, Yahweh has not had to pay a price to achieve the redemption of his people.
ISAIAH 52:10. YAHWEH HAS MADE BARE HIS HOLY ARM
10Yahweh has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
“Yahweh has made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations“ (v. 10a). Yahweh’s bared arm serves to warn those who would oppose Yahweh’s purposes. His holy arm is bared for battle against those who would subvert his holiness or the holiness of his people. His holy purpose is not only that people should observe Torah law faithfully, but also that they might establish justice and provide for those in need.
“and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (v. 10b). The salvation that Yahweh offers is not limited to Israel or Judah, but involves “the ends of the earth.” Later, we will see the early church struggling over the proper role of Gentiles in the church. However, in verses such as this, the Old Testament gives notice that God is concerned for both Jews and Gentiles—for “all the ends of the earth.”
ISAIAH 52:11-12. TOUCH NO UNCLEAN THING!
11Depart, depart, go out from there, touch no unclean thing! Go out of the midst of her! Cleanse yourselves, you who bear the vessels of Yahweh. 12For you shall not go out in haste, neither shall you go by flight: for Yahweh will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading, but most commentaries treat verses 7-12 as a unit.
“Depart, depart, go out from there” (v. 11a). The exiles have dreamed of departing from Babylonia—departing from exile—being freed from slavery—returning to their homeland. The situation is very much like that of their ancestors in Egypt, who were also in bondage to another powerful nation. In neither situation was there any reason other than Yahweh to hope that they might find freedom. Their situation seemed hopeless and their bondage seemed to have no end. But now they hear the command to depart—to “go out from there.” These are the words that they have longed to hear.
The question is whether they will believe the good news and act on the command. Yahweh has done his part. Now their freedom is dependent on their willingness to do what Yahweh has commanded. If they have become overly comfortable in their servitude or too fearful to act, they will never see their homeland again.
The same is true for us. People of faith often talk about what they call “a leap of faith.” That language alludes to the difficulty involved in acting on faith rather than having some sort of guarantee or “sure thing.” Just as God called Abram to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him, so also God calls us to act by stepping onto the road with the faith that God will reveal our destination in due time. It is difficult, sometimes hugely difficult, to leave the familiar and to step out in faith into the unfamiliar.
The exiles must depart, not only from Babylonia, but also from the sinful way of life that caused their exile in the first place. It is important to be free from outside forces that imprison us, but it is even more important to be free from the forces within that prevent us from achieving freedom.
“touch no unclean thing! Go out of the midst of her! Cleanse yourselves, you who bear the vessels of Yahweh” (v. 11b). Yahweh is holy and expects his people to be holy. They are to purify themselves so that they will be fit for the task ahead—the task of carrying the temple vessels from Babylonia to Jerusalem.
“you who bear the vessels of Yahweh“ (v. 11b). Ezra tells the story of the departure of the exiles from Babylonia: “Cyrus the king brought forth the vessels of the house of Yahweh that Nebuchadnezzar had brought out of Jerusalem and had put in the house of his gods” (Ezra 1:7).
“For you shall not go out in haste, neither shall you go by flight” (v. 12a). Unlike their departure from Egypt, where they had to flee in haste and were threatened by pursuing soldiers, their departure from Babylonia will be unhurried and safe from threat. Cyrus of Persia will allow them to depart under the protection of his imperial decree, and will even provide funds to help them with the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple.
“for Yahweh will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (v. 12b). But it is not Cyrus who is the ultimate guarantor of their freedom. Yahweh will go before them to scout out the way and will protect them from behind. With Yahweh to defend them, they can feel safe at last from all enemies and dangers.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. While Yahweh guaranteed the restoration, he didn’t make it easy. The returned exiles experienced great opposition from local people and the project ground to a halt (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4-5). However, the returned exiles appealed to King Darius, the successor to Cambyses II, the son of King Cyrus. They petitioned Darius to examine the archives to confirm that Cyrus had, in fact, commissioned the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 5). When Darius found a copy of Cyrus’ decree, he then lent his full support, including funds, to allow the rebuilding of the temple, and the former exiles completed the rebuilding (Ezra 6).
The lesson to be learned here is that we should be slow to interpret difficulty as a sign of God’s displeasure. Albert Schweitzer, who did great good things in Africa for God, said, “Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they even roll a few more upon it” (from his book, Out of My Life and Thought).
God allows his people to experience difficulty not only as punishment for their sins, but as a normal part of a life of discipleship. He doesn’t guarantee that we will have easy lives but that God will prevail. He doesn’t assure us of comfort, but of victory.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Hoppe, Leslie J., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
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Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
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Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan