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Sprinkled Nations & Speechless Kings
A meditation on the last few verses of Isaiah 52
“Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” — ISAIAH 52:13-15
Because I was raised in a secular Jewish home, I was basically unfamiliar with the story of Jesus throughout my childhood. In fact, I even recall a time in high school when I wondered about the meaning of “Good Friday” which was printed on the calendar hanging right there on the wall in front of me. Then it struck me—Good Friday must be the opposite of Friday the 13th!
A year or two later, I stumbled on to various passages in the Old Testament that seemed to relate to the idea of a coming messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of his people. And of all the texts I studied, the one that stood out for me as the most significant was Isaiah’s famous “Song the Suffering Servant” recorded in Isaiah 53. In coming months I’ll devote a few episodes to this topic, but in this article I’d like to focus on the very beginning of this famous song, which actually starts in the last few verses of Isaiah 52.
When I first encountered this section of Isaiah’s famous prophecy, I immediately made the connection to Jesus. So I began to discuss it with various Rabbis, asking them about the identity of the suffering servant. That’s when I discovered that most contemporary Jews interpret this passage metaphorically (Isaiah essentially personified the suffering of the nation of Israel as a single individual). But as I later discovered, ancient Jews both before and after the time of Christ believed this passage spoke of Israel’s coming messiah.
In Isaiah 52:13, we read, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely…” but when Jews of the second century AD translated this verse into Aramaic, it was rendered, “Behold my servant, the Messiah…” Now, based on the way they continued to interpret that passage, it’s clear that these Aramaic translators were not Jewish Christians, nevertheless, they did end up affirming, not only that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant referred to the coming messiah, but also that “our iniquities will be forgiven on account of him,” and that in the process, he would hand “his life over to death.”
Among the treasures of the Dead Sea Scrolls are found a number of hymns and poems that reflect on various passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. And one hymn in particular is included in multiple scrolls, which is helpful because some of these scrolls are fragmentary, and that which is missing from one scroll can be replaced with the text from another. And so by comparing all the copies, we can essentially create a composite of a hymn that was sung in the Jewish community at Qumran over a century before the time of Jesus. And this hymn reads as follows:
There are none comparable to me in my glory [Is 42:8], no one besides me shall be exalted [Is 52:13]…Who is considered as contemptible as I am? And who has been despised like me? [Is 49:7, 52:5, 53:3]. Who like me is rejected by men [Is 53:3]. Who is comparable to me in my glory? [Is 42:8]…Who has borne troubles like me? [Is 53:4]. To whom shall you compare with me in my teaching. For I have dwelt on high in the heavens. Who is like me among the divine beings? [Ps 86:8]. Who can endure the utterance of my lips? For I am the beloved of the King...and to my glory no one compares [Is 42:8, 48:11]. Sing praise to the King of glory [Ps 24:7-10]. Light shines out [Is 9:2, 42:6, 49:6, 51:4] and joy pours forth...fear ceases, a fountain for eternal blessing opens [Zec 13:1]. Iniquity is ended [Is 53:6, Dan 9:24]...and guilt shall be no more [Is 53:10]
It seems clear that the Jews who sang this ancient hymn at Qumran had interpreted Isaiah’s Suffering Servant as a “divine being” who would be despised and rejected, and who would also somehow solve the problem of iniquity and guilt. After reflecting on many Jewish texts of this sort, Daniel Boyarin, who is Professor of Talmud at the University of Berkeley, argues that many Jews both before and after the time of Christ believed in the concept of a suffering messiah.
“He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…” This part of the prophecy is actually rather mysterious. How can a person be exalted, while at the same time be “marred” beyond recognition? How can an individual be “high and lifted up,” and yet also “despised and rejected” (Is 53:3)? John 12:32-33 solves this mystery for us. After Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself,” the narrator then says, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” In other words, Jesus used the language of Isaiah 52:13 to reveal the fact that he would soon be “lifted up” on the cross. And yet, that which initially seemed like a humiliating defeat actually became the source of his exaltation around the world—which is why we’re still talking about it some 2,000 years later. This is how we’re to make sense of verses 13 and 14 of Isaiah 52.
“So shall he sprinkle many nations.” Here’s where things get really interesting. The Hebrew word translated sprinkle is “nazah” which is the same word we find in Leviticus 16:14 which says, “The high priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side.” It also appears in Numbers 19 which describes the red heifer sacrifice which the high priest was to perform “outside the camp.” According to verse 4 of that passage, the priest was to take some of the blood of that sacrifice and sprinkle it “toward the front of the tent of meeting.”According to the Talmud, this was “an atonement for the high priest and the whole congregation,” but here in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant, the sprinkling of this blood actually atones for “many nations.”
“Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” It’s a well establish fact of the universe that the ruling class prefers to hear the sound of their collective voice. They spend a great deal of their time making decrees, utterances, proclamations, and often appear in front of the camera telling you what to think or how to behave. But according to Isaiah, Israel’s messiah would inspire monarchs around the world to shut their mouth for once. And astonishingly, this prophecy actually came true! Think about that for a moment. Certainly, the sprinkling of the nations lies at the heart of Christ’s mission, but the fact that he also left kings around the world speechless is definitely something worth celebrating at this time of year. And, Lord willing, his story will continue to shut their mouths—and ours as well.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of the White Horse Inn which he also served as host from 2019-2021, and he received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary in California.
Targum Jonathan (Isaiah 52:13, 53:4, 12).
See my article, “Where Was Jesus Crucified?,” for parallels to Jesus’ death, particularly if we situate it on the top of the Mount of Olives where the red heifer sacrifice was performed.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanh. 6:1-4
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