April 21: Isaiah 52:14-15

Isaiah 52:14-15a

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you—
so destroyed from (that of) a man (was the) sight of him,
and (the) appearance of him from (that of the) sons of man
—so will he sprinkle many nations.”

There are four lines here in vv. 14-15a, the second and third of which represent a parenthetical descriptive statement. It is the first and fourth lines that provide the principal declaration:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you,
so will he sprinkle many nations.”

The shift from 2nd person to 3rd may seem awkward or confusing to us, but it is not at all uncommon in Hebrew poetry (including the Prophetic poems). In the initial line, the Servant is being addressed. Based on the context of verse 13 (discussed in the previous note), the scene of vv. 14-15ff would appear to be the heavenly court of YHWH, the Servant having been exalted and elevated to a heavenly position. If so, then it is the court/council of YHWH—if not YHWH Himself—who addresses the Servant.

The verb <mv* denotes “devastation, desolation,” etc. The seeming obscurity of why “many (people)” would be “devastated” by the sight of the Servant helps to explain the parenthetic lines 2-3, which serve to clarify the situation. The “devastation” is a reaction to the “destruction” (tj^v=m!, from the root tjv) of the Servant. It is specifically his visible appearance that has been destroyed (i.e., marred, disfigured); the two nouns used to express this are ha#r=m^ (“seeing, something seen, sight of [something]”) and ra^T) (“shape, form, outline”). The latter word implies that his physical form has, in some way, been destroyed.

The extent of the physical/visible destruction is defined by the use of the preposition /m! (“from”) in a comparative sense (i.e., more than). His appearance/form has been destroyed more than that of an ordinary human being—parallel terms “man” [vya!] and “sons of man” [<d*a* yn@B=]). The parallelism here is both synonymous and emphatic, with the double-reference used for dramatic emphasis.

Clearly, the Servant has endured considerable suffering (which may have led to his death, cf. the discussion in the previous note), though no indication is given here of the exact nature of this suffering, nor the reasons for it. However, it establishes the important theme, of the Servant’s suffering, that will be developed in the remainder of the poem.

The most difficult part of vv. 14-15a is the use of the verb hz`n` (“sprinkle”) in the final line. It is said that the Servant (“he”) will “sprinkle many nations”. This provides a comparative parallel with the first line (cf. above):

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he sprinkle many nations.”

This suggests that the “sprinkling” is related in some way to the devastated reaction over the Servant’s appearance. But what, precisely, is the significance of this “sprinkling”?

[It should be noted that some commentators, following the LXX translation qauma/sontai (“they will wonder [at]”), would explain the verb hz`n` in the sense of “spring/leap up”, possibly to be identified with a separate root hzn (II) with this meaning, posited on the basis of evidence in Arabic. This seems to me quite tenuous, being introduced by commentators almost entirely for the purpose of explaining the odd mention of “sprinkling” here in v. 15. However, if valid, the lines above would need to be translated as:

“Like (the) many who were devastated over you
|| so will he cause many nations to leap [i.e., with amazement].”

This supposed use of hz`n` is unattested anywhere else in the Old Testament, compared with the regular use of the verb in the sense of “sprinkle, spurt”; this, combined with the introduction of the theme of purification (cf. below) in the prior vv. 11-12, strongly argues for retaining the meaning of “sprinkle” here.]

The verb hz`n` occurs 24 times in the Old Testament, almost always in connection with purification rituals, sometimes associated specifically with the consecration and service of the priesthood. 15 of the 24 occurrences are in the book of Leviticus; cf. also Exod 29:21; Num 8:7; 19:4, 18ff. The verb is used once more in the book of Isaiah (63:3), but that is the only other reference in Prophets. The usage in Isa 63:3 is significant in that it departs from the traditional association with purification; instead, it is serves as a powerful image of judgment—the end-time judgment by God against the nations. In this case, the sprinkling (or better, splattering) of blood is compared with the image of the ‘blood’ of grapes that is pressed/poured out in the harvesting and production of wine. This harvest imagery, used as a motif of the end-time Judgment, is also found in Joel 3:13ff, and was picked up also in the Last Judgment visions of the book of Revelation (14:8-10ff, 17-20; 19:15, etc).

However, the context here in our passage suggests rather that the more common, positive sense of purification is in view (cf. on the initial verses 11-12, in the previous note). While it is not possible to make a definite assessment at this point in our study, the reference here seems to evoke an important Deutero-Isaian theme—namely, that the new covenant established with Israel will, in the New Age, ultimately be extended to the other nations as well. The Servant and “Anointed One[s]” of YHWH will play a key role in this eschatological ‘mission’ to the surrounding nations. This is a point that was discussed in the earlier article on Isa 42:1ff, and will be elaborated further as we continue in our analysis of 52:13-53:12. Based on the immediate context of verses 14-15, it is not at all clear just what the Servant’s role will be, or what is involved in his “sprinkling” the nations, beyond the general association with purification (cf. above). Again, we should be able to gain greater clarity on this point as we proceed through the passage.

In terms of an early Christian application of vv. 14-15 to the person of Jesus, one can easily see how it would have been applied to his suffering and death. The severe marring of his physical appearance would have fit in quite well with the historical reality of the crucifixion (including the whipping/scourging that preceded it). Even though the visible, physical affects of this punishment are barely mentioned at all in the Gospel narratives (being treated with considerable reserve), many Christians at the time would have been aware of it. Another Deutero-Isaian reference, which would have been more applicable to the (physical) mistreatment/abuse of Jesus, prior to (and apart from) the scourging, is 50:6 (cp. Mark 14:65; 15:19 pars; John 18:22-23).

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