Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53
The chapters are among the most beautiful in the Bible; they are an important part of Western literary culture, even for non-believers.
As I have done with the previous chapters of Isaiah, I’ll try to outline how the people of Jerusalem might have understood these prophecies. Doing that will help us understand better the ways in which those prophecies are also about later events. As you read the outline, ask yourself how to understand these verses as applying to us, individually and as a church? It seems reasonable to assume that the chapter had meaning for the Israelites at the time it was given, as well as it has meaning for later people, for example Abinadi (Mosiah 14:2-12) , who quotes from Isaiah 53, and for example, Jesus speaking to the Nephites, who quotes from Isaiah 52 (3 Nephi 16:18-20). What meaning might these prophecies also have for us today that they didn’t have for others?
For those who are interested in chiasms, biblical scholars identify one in Isaiah 50:4-51:8:
This chapter continues the theme of chapter 49, indeed, the last verses of chapter 49 (verses 24-26) are certainly part of the thought of the first verses of chapter 50. They are part of the Lord’s response to Jerusalem in Isaiah 49:24: “Shall the prey be taken from the mighty or the lawful captive delivered”? In our terms, “Can anyone take away the booty of the victor, or can the slave who has been taken lawfully be saved”? The division into chapters and verses, a modern innovation, has created an artificial division in the text.
In these verses we see the captivity of Babylon, that Jerusalem (Zion) will complain that it has been forgotten (49:14-16), but that, nevertheless, the Lord will not have forgotten it.
Verse 1: Though Zion has been exiled, no divorce decree was given and no bill of sale was made to the Lordâ€™s creditors (after all, he owes nothing to anyone): the exile will be only temporary. Divorce at the time required that the husband write a writ of divorcement. One solution to poverty at the time was to sell one’s children into temporary slavery in order to pay off creditors. Isaiah uses those images to explain the Lord’s relation to Zion.
The metaphor of slavery and being redeemed from slavery is important in the Old Testament and even more important in the New, especially in the writings of Paul. Since slavery was part of ancient Near Eastern culture, the metaphor of redemptionâ€”being bought out of slaveryâ€”was obvious to those hearing these prophecies. How might we translate that metaphor into a metaphor that makes sense in our culture today?
Verses 2-3: Those who have not listened to the Lordâ€™s message are rebuked and reminded of the Lordâ€™s power.
Verses 4-6: The consolation that began in chapter 49 is interrupted. The Lordâ€™s servant speaks for himself: though the Lord taught him to speak eloquently and he sustained those who were weary, he was smitten and spit on.
Verses 7-9: Though the servant was abused, he was not ashamed to teach what he had been sent to teach. He trusted in Godâ€™s protection. (Compare Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 52:13-53:12 to verses 4-9.)
Verses 10-11: The servant addresses the Lord’s people directly: those who fear the Lord should listen to his servant, though they walk in darkness, but those who make their own light will be burned up by that light.
There are three poems in this chapter, verses 1-8, verses 9-16, and verses 17-23. In theme, the speakers uses the stories of the creation and the first patriarchs to make his point: the creation, the Patriarch’s, Israel’s history and destiny, all come together in the promise of salvation. Nevertheless, Israel remains sleepy and must be roused to attention.
Verses 1-2: Consolation is once again the theme: those who follow the Lord should remember their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, as the Lord remembers his covenant with those ancestors.
Verse 3: Speaking as if the fulfillment of prophesy has already occurred, the Lord says he will comfort Zion just as he comforted Abraham and Sarah: they were barren, as Zion will be barren, but they were made fruitful, and Zion too will be fruitful, like the Garden of Eden.
Verses 4-5: Jerusalem is called to listen to the Lord who will provide instruction (law) and judgment for all people.
Verse 6: Though the world and human life are transitory, the salvation the Lord offers is permanent, as is his righteousness.
Verses 7-8: Since the Lordâ€™s salvation and righteousness are forever, those who have his law in their hearts need not fear the taunts and reproach of human beings.
Verses 9-10: A desperate prayer asking God to awaken and defend Zion, as he did in the past when he defeated Egypt (Rahab = â€œstormyâ€? or â€œarrogantâ€?) and killed the pharaoh (the dragon) by parting the Red Sea and allowing the recently freed children of Israel to pass through it unharmed.
Verse 11: Comparing the return of Judah from Babylon to the return of Israel from Egypt, the prophet says that those whom the Lord has ransomed will return with singing and joy.
Verses 12-16: The Lord reminds Jerusalem of who he is, namely the Creator. He will not allow captive Israel to die in the captivity, and he will make Israel his messenger to all other nations, the foundation for his redeeming work.
Verses 17-20: The Lord calls on Jerusalem (Judah) to awaken from the drunken stupor and the consequent destruction and degradation into which sin has brought it. In the poem that begins with verse 17, Israel is portrayed as a widow whose sons are too weak to help her.
Verses 21-23: Jerusalemâ€™s troubles will be transferred to those who oppress it.
Verses 1-12 are a poem, in this case an enthronement hymn: Jerusalem is portrayed as taking the throne. Isaiah 42:13-15 and 53:1-12 are another poem about the suffering servant. As before, the modern divisions in the text have artificially broken that poem.
Verses 1-3: The prophet calls on Jerusalem to awaken (compare 51:9) and to prepare for its redemption. The Lord will redeem it, but will not pay to do so (compare 50:1) because those who took Jerusalem captive paid nothing for it. Recall that the metaphor of redemption is a metaphor of being purchased from slavery: a person redeemed a slave by paying the slave’s owner for the slave and then setting him or her free.
Verses 4-6: Just as when Israel was captive in Egypt, the Assyrians have oppressed the Lordâ€™s people and they have blasphemed the Lordâ€™s name, presumably by boasting that they have overpowered his people and, therefore, must be stronger than he. But the Lordâ€™s people will know that they can trust in his name. (Compare Mosiah 5:7-8.)
Verses 7-12: The return of Israel from exile: a messenger will go before them, announcing their return and their salvation; the watchmen of Jerusalem will see them coming and announce their arrival with joyful singing of praise; so those in exile are to leave Babylon and to do so without defiling themselves because they will carry the Lordâ€™s vessels; unlike the departure from Egypt, this departure will not be in haste, though as in that departure, the Lord will guard them back and front.
Verses 13-15: The word translated “deal prudently” (“prosper” and “succeed” in other translations) suggests an act done wisely, with understanding, intelligently. The Lordâ€™s servant will not only succeed, he will be lifted up, in fact he will be lifted up very high. He will triumph. In spite of that, people will be astonished because the intensity of his suffering will deform him. He will shed his blood on the nations, and their rulers will be amazed, seeing and learning what they had never imagined.
Though this is part of the same poem we have been reading in chapter 52, the speaker changes. Now the Gentiles speak.
Verses 1-9: What the kings would never have imagined: the servant didnâ€™t seem like anyone to be admired, but he came forth like a tree growing miraculously in the desert (2); though he was despised, it was not because of his sins, but because of our sins: he suffered on our behalf, we who had all gone astray (3-6); though he suffered, he did not complain (7); in the end he was executed and buried with the wicked and the rich (8-9); all this in spite of the fact that he had done nothing violent or deceitful (9).
Verses 10-12: This suffering was the will of the Lord: Having offered his soul as a sacrifice for sin, the servant will see those who are his seed, and his life will be lengthened so that he can fulfill the purposes of the Lord. This will satisfy him, and the knowledge he gains by this sacrifice will allow him to justify many before God. Because he will have suffered death for sinners, God will give him his reward and he will conquer his enemies.
It is not difficult to see that, however they fit with the history of Judah, these chapters are also prophecies of the Savior. They give us a beautiful description of the need for the Atonement and of its accomplishment. As you read them, however, see if you can also understand them in other ways: of what other persons and events is the Atonement a type? Look at particular groups of verses and ask yourself what ways you can understand them. For example, think about various ways to understand 50:4-9 and 10-11; 51:1-3, 9-11, and 17-20; 52:1-6 and 7; and all of chapter 53. How many ways can you reasonably understand 52:7-12? Do verses 10-12 of chapter 53 say anything to us about our. suffering?