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Acts 8:26-40 & Isaiah 52:13-15 by Robert Dean
From Isaiah 52 we have eliminated two of the possibilities in answer to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question, “of whom does the prophet speak,” which leaves us with the third possibility, the future Messiah. What group is looking back to report these things about Messiah? Look closely to determine the focus of these verses – suffering or exaltation? Compare and contrast the New King James translation with those of 20th century Jewish translations to see where they differ and the theology those differences affect. Understand the considerations in translating the word “sprinkle,” and the possibility of the influence of theology on translation instead of correct translation of the particular word on one’s theology.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:58 mins 26 secs

The Exaltation of the Servant. Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 52:13-15


We are taking a side track into Isaiah because of the conversation that Philip had with the Ethiopian eunuch, recorded in Acts chapter eight. In a passage like Isaiah 52 and 53 it is always important to identify who the speaker is, and that is not always easy. The speaker in Isaiah 52:13-15 is God, and God is the one speaking at the end of this section in Isaiah 53:10. Sandwiched in between the opening and the closing where God is the speaker there is a report (typically vv. 1-9) from somebody. It is important to identify who that somebody is and because the verbs that we find in chapter 53:1-9 are for the most part past tense verbs—the speaker is looking back on something that has happened in past time—and it is likely that the speaker here refers to future regenerate Jews, the future saved remnant who look back historically on what happened to the servant. This is their report in 53:1-9.

This opening passage in 52:13-15 gives an overview of what this whole servant psalm is going to talk about. The focus here is on exultation and glorification of the Servant. So often we come to this passage and look at it as the suffering servant because there is so much in chapter 53 that talks about the substitutionary suffering of the servant. But the focal point isn't really on His suffering; the focal point is on His exaltation and glorification. We see this in 52:13 which is a sort of topical sentence.  

Isaiah 52:13 NASB "Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted." What is that verse saying? It is saying that the servant is going to be successful, and so successful that He will be exalted above everything. That sets the tone for this whole section.

Isaiah 52:14 NASB "Just as many were astonished at you, {My people,} So His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men. [15] Thus He will sprinkle many nations, Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what had not been told them they will see, And what they had not heard they will understand."


Jewish Publication Soc. 1917

Tanakh 1985

Is 52:13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.

Is 52:14 Just as many were astonished at you, So His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men

Is 52:15 So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, And what they had not heard they shall consider

Is 52:13 Behold, My Servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

Is 52:14 According as many were appalled at thee—so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike the sons of men— 

Is 52:15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.

Is 52:13 Indeed, My servant shall prosper, Be exalted and raised to great heights


Is 52:14 Just as the many were appalled at him—So marred was his appearance, unlike that of man, His form beyond human semblance—

Is 52:15 Just so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall be silenced because of him, For they shall see what has not been told them, Shall behold what they never have heard.

Significant distinctions between the translations have been underlined. In the first verse we see in the left column that the NKJV translates "prudently," and both the JPS and the Tanakh translate "prosper"—the same idea as "success." Prosper is the result of dealing wisely. The verb used there is used not just for the act of being wise or dealing wisely or prudently with someone but the result of that which is success or prosperity. So the JPS and the Tenakh are more in line with some more modern Christian English translations and are more accurate in their rendering. Basically all three agree in the second half of that verse that the servant will be exalted, extolled and be very high. The idea is that He is elevated above everything.

The name Tenakh is an acronym formed from the initial Hebrew letters of the Masoretic Text's three traditional subdivisions: The Torah ("Teaching", also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings")—hence TaNaKh. The name "Miqra" (????), meaning "that which is read", is an alternative Hebrew term for the Tanakh.

Then in verse 14 the NKJV says, "Just as many were astonished." Astonished communicates the idea of surprise, taken aback. The JPS and Tenakh both translate that as "many were appalled" and are much more accurate. The Hebrew word is often used of observing God's terrible judgment on people. The rest of the verse is very similar between the three.

The major difference is in verse 15. The NKJV translates, "So shall He sprinkle many nations." The JPS and the Tenakh both translate that verb, "So shall he startle many nations." If we were involved in a discussion with someone Jewish about Isaiah 52 and they pull out their Bible and we pull out ours … their Bible says something different.

In verse 13 the verb is s'akal which means to act wisely, to be understanding and discerning, and as a result to prosper. Eight English words are used in the Old Testament to translate this verb. It sometimes means instruct, to be prudent, to understand, to see, to make wise, to have success, or to act with insight or devotion. The focus in this verse is on acting wisely, i.e. bringing about success, accomplishing what you intended to accomplish, bringing your mission to a positive conclusion. The second line explains that that success is His exaltation. It parallels that. The second line explains the result of that success, that He is exalted, elevated to heaven. This is the theme verse for this whole section—the exaltation of the Servant. The whole section is not about the suffering servant but about the exalted servant. But He suffers to be exalted. That is the key to understanding this.

Notice the words used here to describe His exaltation: He is exalted, He is extolled, and He will be lifted up very high. This is one of those passages where language is too limiting upon the prophet. He piles these verbs on top of each other to express the ultimate magnitude of what happens. He is not just honoured, not just glorified; these words are too weak. He uses these verbs to indicate the highest conceivable exaltation. Tow of these words are used in other passages in Isaiah as a description of the highest throne in heaven, the throne of God. In Isaiah 6:1 sees God in heaven "high and lifted up." These two words are used here to refer to the servant as well. He is elevated to the level of the throne of God. In Isaiah 57:15 he is called "the high and lofty [exalted] one." Same verbiage. So to use these verbs and apply them to the exaltation of the servant here indicates that He is elevated to the level of the throne of God.

This fits with the theology of Psalm 110. Psalm 110:1 NASB "The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at My right hand …'" Who are those two Lords? David is the one writing the psalm and he says, "The Lord"—Yahweh—"said to my Lord." So who is in authority, who is the Lord over David. The Lord over David can't be a human lord because David is the highest authority in Israel. The only authority over David must be a divine authority. The "my Lord" must be on the level with God, deity. "My right hand" is the position of honour at the highest throne in heaven. This is applied to Jesus in the New Testament in the passage that gives us the greatest picture of the exaltation of Jesus, Philippians 2:9-11 NASB "For this reason also, God highly exalted Him …" For what reason? Because Jesus humbled Himself to the point of obedience in going to the cross. "… and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord [statement of deity], to the glory of God the Father."

Isaiah 52:14 NASB "Just as many were astonished at you, {My people,} So His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men." This verse begins a very interesting kind of construction. It is an unusual constructions in the Hebrew but it is one of those constructions that involves three comparisons, or possibly two comparisons and one contrast. We have to work through each possibility to figure out how it would play out in terms of every word and phrase in the sentence. It starts out, "Just as many were astonished at you, So His appearance was marred." We have "just as" and "so," and then verse 14 begins "so." What is that all about? What does it communicate? Part of our understanding of that is to understand the identification of the pronouns here, terms like "many" and "you." Who is the "you"? Then "His visage." It shifts from referring to the servant as a second person singular, the "you." Now he is talking about the servant with a third person singular pronoun, "his." Confused yet? "Just as you" as if God is speaking initially to the servant and then and then He turns and is speaking to a different audience, and now is referring to the servant at His side as in the third person singular, "So His appearance."

First of all, who are the many? There are those who think that the many is just a general non-specific term referring to all of humanity. In the next verse, "Thus He will sprinkle many nations," the many refers to all the nations on the earth apart from Israel. In Isaiah 53:11 when once again God is the speaker, "As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see {it and} be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many…" To whom does that "many" refer? If refers not just to the Gentiles but to the Jews as well. So it is a non-specific term referring to all of humanity. In verse 12 God says, "Yet He Himself bore the sin of many," again a non-specific pronoun referring to the mass of humanity. So it is just referring to an unspecified group of people. These are the people who are observing the servant and the ones who are addressed in 52:14, "Just as many were astonished at you." There is this group of people who are astonished at what happens to the servant.

The verb here translated "astonished" is the Hebrew shmm, which means to be desolate, to be appalled, amazed, shocked, aghast, horrified at something. It is as if you were looking at something that is the most appalling, frightening, horrifying thing you have ever seen. There is now going to be an explanation in the next two clauses in the last half of verse 14 and the first half of 15. They describe two different groups of people. Both are initially appalled as they see what has happened to this individual. The first, "So His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men." When we compare that with the JPS version and the Tenakh we see a similarity. In the JPS version "his visage [face] is unlike that of a man, his form unlike that of the sons of men." The Tenakh, "So marred was his appearance, unlike that of a man, His form, beyond human semblance." Both the JPS and the Tenakh understand/translate this to be an individual. Even if it allegedly refers to the nation it is something that is destroyed beyond description and no longer has the appearance that it once had and is no longer recognisable. This couldn't really be applied to the Jewish people even in light of the holocaust; they were still recognisable as the Jewish people afterwards. The image that is presented here is that the entirety of this individual is so disfigured that His humanity is no longer recognisable.

The word translated "marred" is the Hebrew word mishchat. There is some debate about the meaning of this word. This is the only place that this word is used in the entire Old Testament. It has the idea of being physically tortured or abused to the point of being unrecognisable. It talks about "his visage [appearance]" is the Hebrew word mareh which has been translated "face" or "visage, countenance, appearance." There are some scholars who try to make a distinction here that this just refers to His face, the other refers to His body, but that is pressing the distinctions a little too far. Both words refer to His general appearance; they are basically synonymous. The other word is toar which means "His form." Both describe His person, appearance. Remember, this was written in poetry. "His countenance was marred more than any man." He is so physically beaten up and defaced that it is more than any human being and is unrecognisable.

The next phrase says, "And His form more than the sons of men," and the Tenakh translates it "beyond human semblance." He is reduced to something that is less than human by this beating. When we go to the New Testament we see the description we have in the Gospels of what happened during the trial of Jesus. We have two accounts, one in Matthew and one in John.

Matthew 27:26-31 NASB "Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole {Roman} cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' They spat on Him, and took the reed and {began} to beat Him on the head." The idea here is that they continue to beat Him and pummel Him. He has already been whipped and scourged. "After they had mocked Him, they took the {scarlet} robe off Him and put His {own} garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him."

Roman scourging. As administered by the Romans there were three different types of scourging. There was the fustigatio, a less severe beating for minor crimes. Then there was the flagillatio which was a flogging. The worst form was the verberatio, a scourging which was the most terrible of all of the punishments by whipping. One writer describes it this way: "The criminal was stripped, bound to a post or a pillar, or sometimes simply thrown on the ground and beaten by a number of torturers until they grew tired of beating him, and they whipped him until his flesh would hang from his bones in bleeding shreds. In the provinces (e.g. Judea) this was the task of soldiers. Three different kinds of implements were customary. Rods were used on freemen, military punishments were inflicted with sticks, but for a slave scourges or whips were used and were comprised of leather thongs that were fitted with spikes or nails or bones or lead or glass to form a chain." This was the kind of instrument that was used on Jesus. He is beaten with this whip until the flesh is just hanging off of His bones, and then He is physically beaten and pummelled until He is just a bloody pulp. This is exactly what Isaiah is prophesying. He is beaten beyond all possible recognition.

Isaiah 52:14 NASB "Just as many were astonished [horrified] at you, {My people,} So His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men." So what are we talking about in those phrases? We are talking about His physical suffering before He went to the cross, before the actual crucifixion where God brought judgment upon sins. So at this point it is just the physical suffering leading up to the cross.

Then the text steps it up another notch in verse 15: "Thus He will sprinkle many nations…" This takes us from the physical suffering to the spiritual suffering. Remember this is not getting into a point by point detail—which is what we pick up in Isaiah 53:1-9—this is giving us a summary overview of what 53:1-9 will describe for us. But there is a debate now over what this initial verb "sprinkle" means. Again, up until the late 19th century this was predominantly translated by the word "sprinkle" or "spatter." But as we've seen in the JPS (1917) and the Tenakh it is "startled." Notice that in the latter two translations it doesn't translate as "astonish" but as "appalled." It is a very negative thing. This group is appalled and horrified. But "startle" isn't a negative word; it fits with "astonished," not with "horrified." So that is the first problem. If the tine is set by something negative and the word shmm is used in many passages to relate to the horror with which people view the judgment of God, then "appalled" is the right translation. But it doesn't fit with the idea of being startled. However, since the early 20th century more and more scholars have come along wanting to translate this word as "startled."

Most of the modern translations continue to translate as "sprinkle." What is the issue here? For some as the approach the translation they start with the assumption that this is not an individual, the Messiah, but this is the nation, and that sprinkle somehow doesn't fit the idea, so they started looking to see if there was some secondary meaning somewhere that they could find. They suggested that there was a second form of this word that is translated "sprinkle," another word spelled the same way but it has a different meaning. It is listed in one of the Hebrew lexicons, (Brown, Driver and Briggs—1918) as nazah2. Before giving the meaning it has in parenthesis "dubious." And the only citation it has for the meaning of "startle" is Isaiah 52:14. It seems a little odd that the only place you can find this meaning here where they identified it as a dubious meaning. But when we come to the 1990s and the publication of HALOT it doesn't even list that secondary meaning at all, and the subsequent lexicons that have been put out don't recognise this as a legitimate meaning. The interpretive idea was that as the first group is horrified by looking at what has happened to the servant, the second group seeing His exaltation is surprised by His exaltation. But the lexical data for that doesn't exist. You can't make up meanings just to fit your theology; you have to go with word usage. The word usage here for nazah is that it refers ultimately to an act that is ritually or literally indicative of a cleansing from sin. According to the Theological Word Book of the Old Testament its primary significance derives from a reference to blood sprinkling. This particular root is used with blood sprinklings which are lighter, both as to how much blood is sprinkled and as to what is expiated. So this is a word that is used for the sacrifice, the covering, the atonement, the forgiveness of sin.

Exodus 29:20, 21 NASB "You shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put [sprinkle] {it} on the lobe of Aaron's right ear and on the lobes of his sons' right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet, and sprinkle the {rest of the} blood around on the altar. Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar and some of the anointing oil, and sprinkle {it} on Aaron and on his garments and on his sons and on his sons' garments with him; so he and his garments shall be consecrated, as well as his sons and his sons' garments with him."

What we will see in all of these verses and all of the verses that use this verb "sprinkle" in the Old Testament is that they always express what is sprinkled; there is always an object—except for Isaiah 52:15. That is why they raise this issue. There is no mention of a liquid in Isaiah 52:15.

Leviticus 4:6 NASB "and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary." 

Leviticus 5:9 NASB "He shall also sprinkle some of the blood of the sin offering on the side of the altar, while the rest of the blood shall be drained out at the base of the altar: it is a sin offering."

Leviticus 14:51 NASB "Then he shall take the cedar wood and the hyssop and the scarlet string, with the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the slain bird as well as in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times."

Leviticus 16:14 NASB "Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle {it} with his finger on the mercy seat on the east {side;} also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times….[19] With his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it."

Numbers 19:18 NASB "A clean person shall take hyssop and dip {it} in the water, and sprinkle {it} on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one slain or the one dying {naturally} or the grave…. [21] And he who sprinkles the water for impurity shall wash his clothes, and he who touches the water for impurity shall be unclean until evening."

Then a passage referring to a future time. Ezekiel 36:25 NASB "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols." This is referring to the beginning of the inauguration of the new covenant in the future messianic kingdom. 

So what do all these have in common? The sprinkling is the means to state purification. That is the end result. We look at Isaiah 52:15 and it says, "Thus He will sprinkle many nations." When they came up with this alternate thing they said let's see if we can find a cognate. We have to be careful with cognates. A cognate may help but just because a word is similar in another language there may be a whole different historical usage development and it can come up meaning something else. They found that in Arabic there was a cognate for this word, a word that means to startle. So said that must be the meaning. They said that this word nazah in the Hebrew Old Testament doesn't fit any of the other twenty or so uses of nazah in the Old Testament and we don't like that, we are going to pick the meaning from Arabic and bring that in because this avoids the atonement tones of the word "sprinkle." The word "sprinkle" in and of itself in this summary statement indicates that what is about to be described is how the nations will be cleansed and purified from sin. It doesn't say that per se but it has that tone, because everywhere else the word nazah is used that is what it describes.

So "startle" doesn't work. First of all it is not an attested meaning of the word anywhere else in the Scripture. Secondly, it doesn't fit the context here at all. It doesn't fit the concept of being appalled or horrified, v. 14. So it is best to conclude that the reason for the response of being horrified is the disfigurement of God's servant by mean, and the result of that disfigurement is His spiritual atoning work that takes place on the cross. So the "Just as" at the beginning of verse 14 describes the horror expressed by men as they see God's judgment t upon the servant. The first "so" talks about His physical suffering; the second "so"—"so shall He sprinkle many nations"—talks about the spiritual aspect of His suffering when He pays the penalty for sin. The result of this is then expressed in the last part: "Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what had not been told them they will see, And what they had not heard they will understand."

There are different ways in which people interpret this. The first is that they shut their mouths in despair because they have seen the truth and they are under judgment. The second view is astonishment. This second view is preferable. Their mouths are shut because they see what God has done in the exultation of the servant. This one who was so beaten and so abused physically that He looked like something less than human is raised to a level that elevates Him above the angels and above all humanity to something that is super-human at the right hand of God the Father. As a result they are standing in awe as they begin to comprehend the Father's plan of salvation.

So this whole passage is talking about the exaltation of the servant. But the servant is exalted, as Philippians 2 says, because He has been obedient to the Father and He has suffered for our sin. This sets up the introduction for us as we get into the next section, beginning in 53:1, where we see this report that is laid out from the lips of a future believing remnant which is proclaiming that no one has really listened to them.