Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is a lesson about a piece of Isaiah’s prophecy that precedes the 4th “Servant Song.” In the short run, it probably had reference to the return of the nation of Judah from captivity in Babylon. Remember that as Isaiah is given and speaks this prophecy, it’s more than 100 years until the captivity, let alone the release from it. The Assyrians have done away with the northern kingdom, but Judah and Jerusalem are still intact politically speaking. In the long run, this surely points to Christ’s deliverance of His people, the church.
Isaiah 52:1 Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion; put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for there shall no more come into you the uncircumcised and the unclean.
God speaks to His people Judah and tells them to shake off their lethargy and put on their “strength.” That can only refer to what God provides. He provides both strength and “beautiful garments.” The allusion is likely to the robes of the priests. Jerusalem is the home of the temple of God and is the “holy” city because of God’s presence with His people. God promises that ultimately His people will no longer be run over or influenced by those with no regard for the God of the Universe. Israel has been laid waste by the Assyrians and Babylon will sack Judah. But ultimately, God’s people will be set apart to Him, righteous and undisturbed.
2 Shake yourself from the dust and arise; be seated, O Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
The picture is one of the people of Judah slaves in chains, captives of a conquering nation. They are to see themselves punished, but now redeemed, not sitting in the dirt but rising to sit in a proper chair and freed from bondage.
3 For thus says the LORD: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.”
Neither Israel nor Judah were given into the hands of conquering nations because those nations had made some proper deal with God and somehow paid Him off. God’s people don’t belong to others. They belong to God. Despite any human appearance, it was the work of God alone that brought judgment through conquering nations. And God then has every right to reverse the situation and grant relief to His people. “Redeemed” often has the connotation of paying a proper price. Here it does not. This instead says clearly that God simply claims (and has every right to do so) those who are His.
4 For thus says the Lord GOD: “My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there, and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing.
The experience of God’s people to this point includes oppression both by the Egyptians, and then most recently by the Assyrians. These things happened in the great plan and providence of God, not because He was defeated or somehow bribed.
5 Now therefore what have I here,” declares the LORD, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the LORD, “and continually all the day my name is despised.
This is a great mystery in the grand salvation plan of God. In His inscrutable ways, He’s willing for a time to suffer indignity and reproach for the long term good of His people and the eternal glory of His name. The misery in Egypt, the destruction of Israel, the captivity in Babylon, the crucifixion of the Son of God, all stand as parts of the amazing redemptive plan of God. At the time, who knew what eternal weight of glory was being worked as the soldiers and crowds abused and mocked and killed the Savior of the world? Indeed, as the first part of the verse essentially asks … “What in the world is going on?”
But God’s promise is that in the end, it will all be clear who is who and what is what.
6 Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”
In that day … God’s people will in eternity truly know Him, have fellowship with Him, and see His awesome glory. In the short run, captives from Babylon will see His saving deliverance from exile. In the long run, at the end of time, the whole universe will wonder at His merciful redemption of the church from sin, hell, and the grave. It’s the I AM who speaks! Here He is.
This is cause for great rejoicing.
7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Most likely, here is a runner carrying news of freedom from captivity in Babylon back to the remnant left Jerusalem. But more profoundly, here is the evangelist, the preacher of Christ proclaiming that contrary to all foolish human expectation and judgment, the King reigns and His apparent “foolishness” is great wisdom. Here’s the Gospel preacher bringing the good news of peace with God in Christ, bringing news of salvation.
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion.
Those who are watching, who care about the things that matter, see the runner and hear the news, lift up their voices and sing. The idiom “eye to eye” is not our English idiom. It’s not about agreement, but rather means that they see it as clearly as if they were staring the runner in the eye. They understand and rejoice at the coming of the Kingdom of God.
9 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Life is tough and full of misery. Believing people can faint and begin to lose heart. I’m sure that before Cyrus completely unexpectedly declared the release of the Babylonian exiles, the remnant of Judah considered themselves “waste places of Jerusalem” abandoned by God. But not so. The LORD comforts His people, and in the long run all is well.
10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
The astonishing works of God in the Exodus, in the return from Babylon, and in the resurrection of Christ are known not only to His people, but to the ends of the earth. The humiliation of Christ and the despising of the God of the Jews was public. But His final triumph and glory will be universally known and acknowledged. It may be mourned by God’s enemies, but it will be seen by all.
11 Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.
Speaking ahead to the returning Babylonian exiles, they are admonished to bring home with them none of the pagan influence of where they’ve lived. Cyrus sends them home with articles from the temple. It would simply be incongruous to carry both the utensils of the temple of the one true and living God, and baggage of paganism. That was true for the Jews living in Babylon, it’s true for Christian people awaiting the consummation of the Kingdom of God, the return of Christ the King.
12 For you shall not go out in haste, and you shall not go in flight, for the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.
Return from Babylon wasn’t like the flight from Egypt. It wasn’t a hasty getting on the road before Pharaoh changed his mind. There was dignity and even ceremony in it. So too the final redemption of Christ’s church. But just as WAS true in the Exodus, He who guarantees it is God alone. He stands at the front and the rear. It is the LORD’s doing, all of it. Indeed, as in verse 6: “Here I AM.”