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Sunday School Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53

Posted by Jim F. on October 10, 2010

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These chapters are among the most beautiful in the Bible; they are an important part of Western literary culture, even for non-believers. Many scholars see the chapters as part of larger dramatic structure, a larger dramatic script as it were. In contemporary scripts the various parts would be marked clearly: “Chorus,” “Yahweh,” “Earth,” “Heavens,” “Armies,” etc. The fact that we must infer these from what is said makes reading Isaiah more difficult.

As I have done with the previous chapters of Isaiah, I’ll 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 the verses in question as applying to us—first individually and then 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? I will provide a few questions to help generate others.

For those interested in chiasms, biblical scholars identify one in Isaiah 50:4-51:8:

50:4-9 A
50:10-11 B
51:1-2a C
51:2b-3a D
51:3b C’
51:4-6 B’
51:7-8 A’

Chapter 50

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 rhetorical question directed at 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 answer to the Lord’s rhetorical question: the coming captivity of Babylon, that Jerusalem (Zion) will complain that it has been forgotten (49:14-16), and that, nevertheless, the Lord will not have forgotten it.

Verse 1: The children of Israel appear to have complained that the Lord has abandoned his people for no reason and that they didn’t know what was happening. (See Isaiah 40:27 and 49:14.) He responds to that complaint. Though Zion has been exiled, no divorce decree was given and no bill of sale was made to the Lord’s creditors (after all, he owes nothing to anyone): the exile will be only temporary. Divorce at the time Isaiah was writing appears to have 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 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 redemption—being bought out of slavery—was obvious to those hearing these prophecies. But it may not be as obvious to us today (for which we should be deeply grateful). How might we translate that metaphor into a metaphor that makes sense in our culture today?

When do we accuse the God of abandoning us? Why might we do so? Do these verses address us in such times, or are they directed at people in a different circumstance? Why do biblical scriptures use slavery so often as the metaphor for sin?

Verses 2-3: Those who have not listened to the Lord’s message are rebuked and reminded of the Lord’s power. Another translation of verse 2a might be “Why, when I came in, was no one there? Why, when I called, did no one answer?” The second part of the verse identifies, with rhetorical questions, what might explain why no one received the Lord or answered his call. The third part, with verse 3, gives example of his power.

In what kinds of situations might we be able to use these verses? What, for example, might it mean not to receive the Lord? What might it mean for us not to answer this call? Does the word call refer here to his call to service or to the call to repentance (or either)? What does it mean to say that the Lord’s hand is not shortened?

Verses 4-6: The Lord’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. The word weary translates the same word that was used in Isaiah 28-29 to describe the condition of Israel.

Why does this verse emphasize the Servant’s eloquence and the fact that he has helped the weary? Why is it important that the Servant’s teacher—the one who has given him “the tongue of the learned”—is the Lord? In the Old Testament, “to hear” often means “to obey.” Does it have that sense in verses 4-5? If so, what do those verses say? If the Servant of God receives the kind of treatment described in verse 6, how ought we to respond to rejection and even persecution? Do we actually experience persecution in today’s world? If not, why not?

Verses 7-9: Though the Servant was abused, he was not ashamed to teach what he had been sent to teach. He trusted in God’s protection. (Compare Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 52:13-53:12 to verses 4-9.)

Verse 7 begins with the word for: what follows in verse 7 is a consequence of what has just been said in verse 6, or verse 7 explains verse 6. How would you describe the relationship between the two verses? For example, why would the Servant say “I didn’t hid my face from shame and spitting because God will help me”? Does that word because teach us anything?

Verses 10-11: The voice switches back to that of the Lord: 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. In verse 11 “compass yourselves about with sparks” is literally translated “gird on sparks (or flames).” Oswalt suggests that this may refer to someone tying a torch to themselves to have their hands free in night battle, which would put them in danger of burning themselves (John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 1998] , 330).

When do we walk in darkness? If we have the Holy Ghost and the words of the prophets, is that ever the case? (Notice that this verse is not addressed to the unrighteous, but to those in Israel who do fear the Lord and obey what comes to them through the Lord’s Servant.)

Chapter 51

There are three poems in this chapter, verses 1-8, verses 9-16, and verses 17-23. In theme, the speaker 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. Baltzer suggests that Deutronomy 32:18 is an interpretive key here (Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-45, translated by Margaret Kohl [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001], 346): “Of the rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee.” Balzer sees that verse as bringing the themes of verses 1 and 2 into a unity: the Lord is still the rock, but now in these verses Abraham and Sarah have given birth to Israel rather than the Lord.

Is the reference to the rock and the well (“hole of the pit” in the King James translation), both of which gave Israel water, a reference to Moses? (Also see Deuteronomy 31:10.) If so, what point is the speaker making? How might a reference to Moses fit with the obvious reference to the covenant with Abraham?

Verse 3: Speaking as if the fulfillment of prophesy has already occurred, the prophet says that the Lord 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.

In what ways will Zion be fruitful? On the one hand, Zion is compared to Abraham and Sarah, who were promised many descendants. On the other hand, Zion is compared to the Garden of Eden. Is this a promise of many descendants, many heirs, or is it a promise of material comfort?

Verses 4-5: Israel is called to listen to the Lord who will himself provide instruction (law) and judgment for all people. The people of Israel would have understood this to refer to the Law of Moses. On that interpretation what do these verses teach? What might a Christian understand “law” to refer to? In verse 4, the Hebrew word translated judgment is mishpat and it suggests more than just the decision of a judge in a court case. It suggests an act that restores a community to wholeness after it has been disrupted by something. To what act or judgment do you think the Lord is referring?

Verse 6: Though the world and human life are transitory, the salvation the Lord offers is permanent, as is his righteousness.

Verses 7-8: These verses begin with another call to Israel to listen to the Lord, this time however, specifically to those who “know righteousness.” (The word translated righteousness is tsedeq, one of the roots of the name “Melchizedek.”) Since the Lord’s salvation and righteousness are forever, those who have his law in their hearts need not fear the taunts and reproach of human beings. What does the phrase “know righteousness” mean? How do we come to know righteousness? Malachi 3:18 describes the righteous person as the one who serves God. Does that definition differ from our usual understanding of the term as one who obeys the commandments? How are those definitions different? How are they the same? Ultimately, does anyone but Christ serve God?

Verses 9-10: A desperate prayer asking God to awaken and defend Zion, as he did in the past when he defeated Egypt (Rahab = “stormy” or “arrogant”) 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. In verse 10 the inhabitants of the new Israel are described as “the ransomed.” Here they are described as “the redeemed.” We know how those words are used when we think of Christ’s atonement, but how will those who know righteousness be ransomed and redeemed in the last days?

Verses 12-16: The Lord reminds Jerusalem of who he is, namely the Creator. He will not allow captive Israel to die in captivity, and he will make Israel his messenger to all other nations, the foundation for his redeeming work. In verse 12, he asks Israel, “Who are you that you are afraid?” rather than “Why are you afraid?” What do you make of that difference? What is the Lord asking Israel when he asks “Who are you?” What is he saying when, in verse 16, he says “Thou art my people”? What does that imply about them? About their future?

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 her, and portrays her as a widow whose sons are too weak to help her. Baltzer points out that the word Jerusalem is a feminine word in Hebrew, so verse 17 portrays Jerusalem as a drunken old woman—rather than as the virtuous young goddesses that personify other cities, as Athena personifies the city of Athens (365-66). Why does the Lord make this implicit comparison of Jerusalem to other cities in the way that he does?

Verses 21-23: Jerusalem’s troubles will be transferred to those who oppress it. If Jerusalem is not drunk with wine, with what is she drunk?

Chapter 52

Verses 1-12 continue the drama in 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 her redemption by putting on new clothing, getting up from her seat on the ground, and taking her proper place on a throne. The Lord will redeem her, 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 Lord’s people and they have blasphemed the Lord’s name, presumably by boasting that they have overpowered his people and, therefore, must be stronger than he. But the Lord’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 with beautiful or appropriate feet 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 Lord’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. If we think of the Exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylon as the two end points of a chiasmus, what might be its middle point? Obviously, Isaiah and other scriptures take the two as parallel to one another. To what else might they be parallel?

Verses 13-15: The word translated “deal prudently” (“prosper” and “succeed” in other translations) suggests an act done wisely, with understanding, intelligently. The Lord’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.

Chapter 53

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 hadn’t seemed like anyone to be admired, but he came forth like a tree growing miraculously in the desert (verse 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 (verses 3-6); though he suffered, he did not complain (verse 7); in the end he was executed and buried with the wicked and the rich (verses 8-9); all this in spite of the fact that he had done nothing violent or deceitful (verse 9). Suppose you were an Israelite living several hundred years before the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. How might you have understood these verses?

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. How do these verses fit the life of the Savior? In particular, was his life lengthened for the Lord’s purposes?


It is not difficult to see that these chapters are 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?

14 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson 39: Isaiah 50-53”

  1. […] comment on this post, go to Feast upon the Word. 0 people like this […]

  2. I have been using your notes in my preparation for teaching the GD class in my ward. Thanks for the help.

  3. DKL said

    Regarding the 4th Song of the Servant, (52:13-53:2) The Oxford Bible Commentary cites DJA Clines as saying, “historical-critical scholarship is bound to mistreat a cryptic poetic text when it regards it as a puzzle to be solved.”

    But in answer to your question about that passage, If I were a Jew living in exile during the 6th century, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t read deutero-Isaiah and come away with the impression that at some point in the distant future some guy would be born half-man/half-god as the son of Yahweh and a female descendant of David, and that this guy would suffer for the sins of all mortals and conquer death to boot. In fact, if I were a Jew living in exile during the 6th century, and I felt like Isaiah had spent all that time writing about some half-man/half-god to be born several centuries hence, I’d be pretty pissed off. And I think I’d conclude that God’s gift of prophecy really didn’t amount to anything useful to the lives of real people. There’s no record or tradition of deutero-Isaiah being persecuted or martyred, but if he were, then this could perhaps count as evidence that his writings were, in fact, both Christian and messianic in orientation.

    • Jim F. said

      DKL, that tells us what you wouldn’t understand them to mean, and what you say is sensible, but not what you would.

      • DKL said

        I’d probably understand the Suffering Servant of Song #4 to be the actual city of Jerusalem, the divorced Mother of Ch50, where the temple was. (I’m not convinced that Isaiah necessarily envisioned a single servant consistent across all 4 of the “servant songs.”)

        Who would you think it applied to?

  4. Jim F. said

    DKL: Given the problem you pointed out in your first post–the cryptic character of the poem–I’d be hesitant to give a final answer, but I think your general take on the original meaning is pretty much the same as mine.

  5. Robert C. said

    I strongly recommend John Oswalt’s commentary on these passages for a responsible interpretation that is sensitive to both historical issues and context, as well as textual and structural issues, and yet argues for the centrality of these messianic/atonement themes throughout (1st, 2nd and 3rd) Isaiah.

    My own take, building on Oswalt, is that this messianic theme has to do with a disruption of the natural/worldly order of things. Thus, there are various messianic types (like Jerusalem itself, and various messianic figures) that can bring about genuinely creative acts that effect a disruptive/messianic kind of fulfillment and satisfaction (on “satisfaction,” see the Hebrew roots that occur in Isaiah saba` and sab`ah, 1:11; 9:20; 23:18; 44:16; 53:11; 55:2; 56:11; 58:10-11; 66;11).

    Although as latter-day saints we now see Jesus Christ as the central figure in effecting fulfillment and satisfaction—just as the Nephites also made this connection between Isaianic passages and Jesus Christ, because of various visions and prophetic declarations (e.g., Nephi, Jacob, Mosiah)—I don’t think this Jesu-centric reading is theologically very distinct from the intentionality of Isaiah’s text itself (read carefully and in historical context).

    One way of seeing this is through a careful study of this theme of satisfaction in the passages above, and in thinking about how this theme is similar to the effects of Christ’s atonement as we understand them from other prophets. Thus, if atonement and satisfaction imply being at one with oneself, with one’s world/surroundings, and with God, then there is a strong poetic and theological strand that connects each of the servant songs, and various other key messianic motifs in Isaiah.

    [I just noticed that Jim does reference Oswalt in his original post—good-on-ya’ Jim!]

    • joespencer said

      Robert says: “just as the Nephites also made this connection between Isaianic passages and Jesus Christ,” etc.

      I respond: I think this is actually a far, far more complicated question than it first appears. In the end, it is arguably only Abinadi who actually connects Isaiah with Christ, and that connection issues in an immensely complex context….

    • Robert C. said

      Joe, I agree this is a complex issue, but the strength of your claim intrigues me (i.e., strains credulity for me): “it is arguably only Abinadi who actually connects Isaiah with Christ.” Perhaps it is my liberal understanding of the term “connects” here that is key. If you mean “directly connects,” I suppose I am in agreement.

      I concede that there is perhaps not a very strong connection for Nephi, as I was just remembering Nephi quoting 2nd Isaiah and prophesying about Jesus Christ, but I can’t think of any really direct connection.

      However, Jacob quotes 2nd Isaiah (Isa 52) in 2 Nephi 8 and Isa 55 in 2 Nephi 9, and talks prophetically about Jesus Christ in 2 Nephi 9. This seems to be a fairly clear and strong, albeit indirect, connection.

      I look forward to you expounding on this more sometime (I recall at least some related discussion of this in a draft of your forthcoming book).

      • joespencer said

        Actually, it’s arguably the whole argument of my book in the final draft. :)

        I’m fine with saying that other Nephites indirectly connected Isaiah to Christ, if all you’ve got in mind is Jacob using a few Isaianic lines to invite people to repent/come to Christ. My point is that it seems to have been only Abinadi who understood Isaiah to have been prophesying of Christ, or who took Isaiah’s writings to be typologically related to Christ.

        Obviously, I have a good deal to say on this, and the argument is as long as my book….

      • Tom D said


        I agree with Robert. Jacob and Nephi saw a much stronger connection between Christ and the prophecies of Isaiah than Joe seems to admit. I agree that Abinadi makes the most amazing exposition of Christ via Isaiah. I am awed by it every time I read Mosiah. However, it’s pretty hard to read 2nd Nephi 11 without thinking that the primary reason that Nephi quoted Isaiah (and Jacob for that matter) was the prophecy and testimony of Christ therein. Perhaps Joe is just being rather narrow in his interpretation of what constitutes Messianic prophecy, but Nephi clearly gives his testimony of Christ in 2 Nephi 25 as a compliment to Isaiah’s quoted prophecies in 2 Ne 12-24 and also to Jacob’s teachings of Christ in 2 Ne 9-10. In my opinion 2nd Nephi 25-30 is Nephi’s prophetic riff on the quoted prophecies of Isaiah. His testimony is quite clearly Christ-centered though it does go way beyond the mortal ministry and sacrifice of the Savior. Then as if concerned that Isaiah’s prophecies may still go over the heads of his people, Nephi goes on in chapters 31-33 with yet more teaching of Christ and His gospel in the simplest terms he can manage.

  6. joespencer said

    Hi Tom,

    If we’re speaking very broadly, I agree with everything you say here. I’m pointing to rather subtle distinctions though. Nephi’s emphasis in 2 Nephi 11 is on the Redeemer rather than on Christ. Of course, those are the same Person, but the two titles point to very different aspects of Christ’s work. As I read Nephi, I see him taking Isaiah to be speaking of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in the time following the emergence of the Book of Mormon. My point, in other words, is that Nephi and Jacob do not seem to read Isaiah as prophesying of Christ’s mortal ministry, but of His interventions in the fulfillment of of the covenant. Look again at 2 Nephi 25. Nephi’s emphasis, when he clarifies his understanding of Isaiah there, is clearly on the fulfillment of the covenant, and not on the atonement. He does mention the death and resurrection of Christ there, but he says nothing concerning the “individual” effect of those events, instead fitting them into a much larger covenantal picture.

    In short, my point is not to suggest that Christ isn’t a part of the story Nephi has to tell. My point is that Nephi sees Isaiah as focused on (or really as likenable to) events other than the mortal ministry of Christ. Abinadi, on the other hand, sees Isaiah to be talking about nothing but that mortal ministry. It would not be surprising to find Abinadi banking on “a virgin shall conceive,” on “unto us a child is born,” on “I gave my back to the smiters,” or on “I have graven you on the palms of my hands” to talk about prophecies of Christ’s mortal ministry. But Nephi and Jacob never make such connections in their quotations/discussions of these passages. Instead, they always talk about how Isaiah points us to the fulfillment of the covenant—focusing on phrases like “king shall be their nursing fathers, and queens their nursing mothers,” “proceed to do a marvelous work,” “make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations,” “those who fight against Zion,” “gathered in from the four quarters of the earth,” “the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea,” “the Lord will set his hand again the second time to restore his people,” “the anger of the Lord shall be kindled against them,” “their voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit,” “hiss forth unto the ends of the earth,” and so on. Indeed, I see no moment whether either Nephi or Jacob explicitly takes any passage from Isaiah to be a prophecy of the mortal ministry of Christ, or to explain in any theological way the atonement.

    So, anyway, I hope this clarifies things. :)

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