A Biblical Theology of Sprinkling in Isaiah 52:15

“Sprinkling as Signifying Legal Reconciliation in Isaiah 52:15”

The Suffering Servant: Remnant Israel Sprinkles the Nations:

This paper will define the meaning and usage of the sprinkling language in the Prophetic literature, with a specific focus on Isaiah 52:15. Isaiah employed sprinkling to describe the application of vicarious atonement accomplished on behalf of the nations. He employed this language because of the priestly context which illumines the entire context (Isa 52:13-53:12).

History of Interpretation:

The church has seen several major views on the atonement. For example, the Eastern Orthodox Christus Victor view is that sees Jesus as having ransomed his people from the devil.  The view of great moral example was propounded by Peter Abelard, and later by the Socinians. It was not until Anselm that the judicial began to come back into view. Prior to Anselm the question of atonement was couched in terms of the “fittingness” for the fixing of man, but not absolutely necessary. It was a way, not the way of salvation.

According to Hermen Bavinck, Anselm recaptured the legal categories of the Bible, and the ancient church fathers of both east and west.[1] After Anselm, with the Advent of the Reformation ad fontes, the there was renewed support for seeing Biblical atonement in terms of legal necessity, for sinful man was in desperate need for legal justification. The reformation based the argument for forensic reconciliation on the cause of sinfulness of man, not only the effect. Medieval scholasticism expressed in Abelard and the Socinians only treated the effects of the fall, not the cause; namely, legal transgression requires reconciliation. Not only this rational argument, but the exegetical argument undergirded the Reformer’s view of the Atonement. Therefore, this essay will seek to defend that this traditional view of the atonement as a legal sacrifice for sinners, is the view propounded throughout scripture.

Traditional View of the Phrase, “Sprinkle”

The objective of this section is to defend that the yazzah should be translated sprinkle, rather than startle. The reason for this defense is that some call into question that the context of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has to do with legal substitution, but rather is about “startling” suffering. The interpretation of the whole section really turns on this one emendation to the text that some commentators and translators teach. The NET, RSV, and JPS translations follow the “startle” translation.

They make it read,

“his form was so marred he no longer looked human—

      so nowhe will startle many nations.

      Kings will be shocked by his exaltation

      for they will witness something unannounced to them,

      and they will understand something they had not heard about.” (Isa 52:15, NET, emphasis mine)

 The NET translators defend their translation based on the problem they perceive with not having a preposition. Thus they amend the text to read “startle” as a result of the physical disfigurement.[2] John D.W. Watts argued that the context suggest the temple rebuilding as the context for the starling the nations for they were “not told” the thing would happen.[3] This also seems to follow the sense in the LXX which says, thaumasonatai, “they marvel.” Those who hold this position follow the work of a few older commentators (Duhm, J.A. Alexander, Karl Marti, Moore). E.J. Young argued that they had little footing to stand on since the meanings they espoused from cognate language, Arabic, were not really the right cognates.[4] Further, there is evidence for the use of the term yazzeh in other priestly and propitiatory contexts in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Leviticus 6:20 and 16:14 both use sprinkling in similar context. Importing similar words from another language and emending the text where no Masoretic deviance is found leads one to the traditional view as a conclusion. The “burden of proof” remains in the lap of those who hold to an emendation or retranslation.[5] So, in short, the more difficult reading here is preferred, i.e. sprinkle.

Topic, Thesis, and Argument:

This paper will argue for this traditional interpretation of the atonement, specifically in the Prophetic literature of the Bible. The prophets employed the language of sprinkling in order to express legal reconciliation by vicarious suffering. This is the meaning of atonement in the Old Testament because Levitical law gives meaning to the expression. Specifically, Isaiah 52:15 employed yazzah (to sprinkle) to describe the kind of ministry which Israel would have for the Gentile nations. This would in turn explain the means by which the Abrahamic promise to make Abraham’s seed “a blessing… to those who bless you” (Gen 12:3) would come about. Namely, the remnant Israel would suffer for the nations. This is a priestly rite. Ultimately, Christ would be that vicarious sin bearer who would “sprinkle many nations.”

Outline:

This paper will be in two parts. The first section will describe and defend the canonical context of sprinkling as a sign for atonement by vicarious suffering. The second section will describe how Isaiah employs this motif; which in his context referred to the suffering Servant.

1. The Levitical Context

The prophets employed the language of sprinkling to describe atonement by vicarious suffering. This is the case because Levitical law used the term for such. Sprinkling and being sprinkled carries the meaning of having one’s own sins transferred one to a sacrificial victim.

Legal Atonement:

This “sprinkling” motif comes up a few times in the prophets. There are at least three occurrences, each with different meanings. See for example Ezekiel’s use of consecration,

“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.” (Eze 36:25)

Isaiah’s other use of judgment. Wrath is not poured out on victims, but on the criminal himself.

“I have trodden the wine trough alone, And from the peoples there was no man with Me. I also trod them in My anger And trampled them in My wrath; And their lifeblood is sprinkled on My garments, And I stained all My raiment.” (Isa 63:3)

And our text’s usage of sprinkle means judgment, but it is vicarious/priestly judgment. Thus it averts God’s wrath and brings legal reconciliation.

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. (Isa 52:15, emphases added)

This motif has its roots in the Levitical law. The Levitical use of the term accounts for the expressions of “sprinkling” in the prophets. Further, it accounts for the meaning here, and the releases the tension of the context of the Suffering Servant in the midst of the nations.

First, in the case of consecration, there is a relation of water, oil, and blood as the elements sprinkled upon something which brought the effect of making it holy.  Oil, water, and blood were used for consecration. For example “Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on.” (Lev 6:27), and, “He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times and anointed the altar and all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, to consecrate them.” (Lev 8:11). In both of these cases the act of sprinkling results in the sanctifying (קדשׁ) of the element. The same process was done to prepare Aaron for priestly service (Exodus 29:21).

The same procedure “sprinkling” was done with oil (Lev 14:16) and with water (Num 19:18-19). This usage seems to account for the Ezekiel passage about (Ezek 36:25). It does not necessarily give the meaning for the Isaiah 52 passage. It does link the act of sprinkling to Levitical rites. In this way it is helpful as a first consideration of the context, but does not illumine the specific meaning of our text.

Secondly, bloodshed signified the satisfaction of God’s wrath. In this way, Moses sprinkled blood on the altar (Exo 29:16, 20, 21)- which was the place of death of the sacrifice itself. There, wrath was poured out. This accounts for the use of Isaiah 63:3, “I have trodden the wine trough alone, And from the peoples there was no man with Me. I also trod them in My anger And trampled them in My wrath; And their lifeblood is sprinkled on My garments, And I stained all My raiment.” IN this case their blood was on their own hands. It was not poured out on a victim. There is a possible analogy of usage to be drawn 2Kings 9:33, where jezebels blood sprinkled on the wall. At its most base level then, sprinkling is the act of ceremonially pouring out wrath, but it is closely linked to the actual death of a victim. One must kill an ox, ram, goat, of dove in order to sprinkle its blood. Again, this is not the full meaning of our context, but comes closer to the significance.

Third, the meaning may be a mixture of the two above. It carries the meaning of wrath poured out, and of cleansing consecration. The Levitical context that fits this meaning is in a vicarious sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. The effect of sprinkling was propitiation for sins. Notice how the procedure was performed in Lev 4:6 “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.” The sprinkling was done toward God. Thus the victim was slain, and the offended party, Yahweh, was recognized in the rite. This rite is repeated throughout many other chapters in Leviticus. The result is forgiveness. “He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.” (Lev 4:20). The Priest both makes atonement before God, and the offender is forgiven.

Vicarious:

This atonement is done vicariously by the death of a sacrificial victim. For a striking example of this, notice the procedure of the rite in Leviticus 14:51-53

“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. “He shall thus cleanse the house with the blood of the bird and with the running water, along with the live bird and with the cedar wood and with the hyssop and with the scarlet string. “However, he shall let the live bird go free outside the city into the open field. So he shall make atonement for the house, and it will be clean.” (Lev 14:51-53)

Vicariously, one bird was “set free” after having been dipped in the blood of another, and then sprinkling the blood upon the holy place. The result of this rite was for the cleansing of a house, but the method seems to show the concept of imputation.

            The author of Hebrews used the term sprinkle to describe an analogous meaning to the vicarious suffering of Jesus on behalf of the sinner. He wrote, “let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb 10:22). He mentioned water, which is a parallel element used for similar purposes. In the nature of the water mode of consecration, the accent seems upon cleansing. But as he nearly equated the two, so did Isaiah. Notice that Isaiah 44:3 reads, “For I will pour out water on the thirsty land And streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring And My blessing on your descendants” (Isa 44:3). The word יָצַק “pour” is practically synonymous with sprinkle in the Levitical law, but seems to just refer to the amount of blood on hand (putting, sprinkling, and pouring, all occur throughout Leviticus in close contexts. There are far too many to number here). They all have at least in common the application of the blood of a victim for the sake of the sinner brought to bear before the Lord who is offended at sin. The mode differs with the amount of blood, but the signification greatly overlaps.

2. The Priest Becomes the Sacrificial Lamb

This section will bring these contexts to bear on the specifically usage in Isaiah 52:15. Here, Isaiah employed yazzah (Hiphil Perfect 3ms, from, “נזה” to spurt, sputter, sprinkle) to describe the kind of relationship which remnant Israel would have toward the Gentile nations. In short, sprinkling was used as a symbol for suffering vicariously for the nations’ sake.  

Structure:

Young Argued that the structure of Isaiah 52:14-15, in sum, that “sprinkling many nations” is the end result of suffering in v 14b. The means is in 14b “Thus His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men.” And the end is in 15a, “Thus He will sprinkle many nations.” This makes sense of the use of the word “כּן” which would make the action of “sprinkling” an explanatory statement of the intended result of the action in verse 14b. It would carry the meaning, “in this way he will sprinkle many nations upon him.” Young argues that this is the work of a priest for the nations.[6]  

The subjects of the verbs changed from 14a to 15b. In 14a the subject was many who were astonished at “You,” i.e. remnant Israel. Isaiah then draws analogy to remnant Israel and applied it to the servant (singular) in verse 15b, “At him the kings shall shut their mouths.” The chiastic form here also lends to this interpretation. The structure thus goes, “[As] They are astonished… at you… (14a) [So] At him… they shut (15b).”

Argument of the Passage:

The Servant’s Ministry as priest to the nations meant that the priest became the sacrifice. The beaten servant sprinkled his own blood upon the nations. Throught the passage the Servant suffers on behalf of others. Some ways that this is expressed are, “He is the one upon whom YHWH has bared YHWH’s arm” (53:1), which likely related to punishment.  He “carries our pains” (53:4). He was “pierced for our transgressions.” (53:5). He was the one bearing “the iniquity of us all” (53:6), and “He was stricken for the transgressions of his people” (53:8). He himself served as the offering, and so could besprinkle many nations with his own blood (53:10). The end result is that he brings legal justification, i.e. he “will make many righteous” (53:11) through his suffering. This context is full of Levitical allusions and analogies applied to this Servant. The argument of the passage is that the Servant is a priest who offers his own blood and cleanses the nations with it.

Conclusion:

In sum, we have seen that the prophet Isaiah employed priestly language of sprinkling in order to express the wrath of God poured out upon the Servant, and the resultant consecration of the nations. This is because the context of the term sprinkle regards the appeasement of God’s wrath, and the forgiveness of sins.


[1] See Herman Bavinck, Dogmatics, vol 3, 343

[2] NET Translation Notes, (Kindle Edition, 2006) www.Bible.org  

[3] John D.W. Watts, WBC. 230

[4] Edward J. Young, “The interpretation of YZH in Isaiah 52:15,” WTJ 3/2 (May 1941): 128

[5] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 425-426

[6] E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah. 336-338. Also, Young takes the following preposition, on him, as “at him” as introduction the next phrase, to be translated, “At him the mouths of kings shall close.” This parallels nicely verse 14a, “Just as many were astonished at you

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