The Messiah Shall SPRINKLE Many Nations

Isaiah 52:15 Promises a High Priestly Messiah

For lovers of the Messiah, Isaiah 52:15 is one of the most beautiful and precious promises pointing to the Anointed Lord. In it, we see the role of the High Priest being filled by the Servant whom God was (at that time) to send. The promise is that the Messiah would "sprinkle" many nations, making a clear allusion to the expiatory foreshadowing shown to Israel in the Law through the blood-shedding sacrifices. The Messiah, having had His visage marred (52:14) and having been wounded for our transgressions (53:5), so that He might serve as the sin-bearer for His people (53:12), would shed His blood to sprinkle and cleans the nations. The Law clearly indicated that atonement for sin was made by blood (Leviticus 17:11), and it was His own blood which the marred, beaten, yet triumphant Messiah would use to sprinkle the nations and cleanse their sins from them.

However, in the zeal to obscure the truth of Jesus Christ's Messiahship, some "anti-missionaries" have sought to deny that this prophecy says that the Messiah would "sprinkle" the nations, and thus they try to deny that Christ fulfilled this prophecy when He shed His blood on the cross by removing from this passage the reference to the sprinkling. The purpose is so that the connexion between this prophecy and Christ's fulfillment and the observance in the Law of the shedding and sprinkling of the blood for the atonement of the people will be severed. This effort on the part of the rabbis is advanced by one of the many "convenient" mistranslations which appears in the Hebrew Scriptures as translated by the Jewish Publication Society. Isaiah 52:15 in the JPS translation reads,

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

Thus, the translation of the Scriptures used throughout English-speaking Judaism completely removes the idea of the Servant "sprinkling" the nations, removes the idea of atonement, and replaces it with His "startling" the nations. This, however, is an illegitimate translation (which also appears in many Christian Bibles as well) whose result is the obscuring of plain scriptural truth on the matter of the Messiah.

The first and foremost point that needs to be made concerning this passage deals with the word itself in the Hebrew. The term alternately translated "sprinkle" and "startle" is a form of the Hebrew verb nazah. Nazah is used 24 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and each and every other place where the word is used, it clearly denotes the idea of sprinkling a liquid, whether it be blood, water, or oil. The word nazah has the primitive meaning "to spurt", and differs slightly from the other word in the Hebrew scriptures which also denotes sprinkling (zaraq) in that it has more the idea of flinging or spreading a liquid out through sprinkling, while zaraq is used in many places to denote pouring something out or gently sprinkling it (e.g. Ex. 29:16, Job 2:12). Nazah seems to be used exclusively with liquids. Thus, from the straightforward meaning of the word alone, "sprinkle" should be the favoured reading. The word is most often used in passages dealing with ritual cleansing and purifying. Indeed, the Arabic cognate root of this word has the meaning of "honesty, purity, integrity, blamelessness, or being above reproach".

But, many would differ with this assessment. The basis for arguments against understanding nazah in this passage as referring to sprinkling lies with the reading found in the Septuagint. The LXX translation at Isaiah 52:15 uses the word thaumasontai to translated nazah. Thaumasontai is a Greek word which means "admire, startle, wonder at". On the strength of this reading, from a translation which is reputed to have been made in the last two centuries BC, the argument is built in favour of "startle". However, it must be understood that the Septuagint is not necessarily reliable as an accurate translation, and the weight of a reading found in the LXX is not sufficient to overturn the clear meaning of a word in the Hebrew which is uniformly understood every other place it appears in the Scriptures (as is nazah). Further, the insufficiency of the LXX when dealing with nazah is shown elsewhere, in Isaiah 63:3, where nazah is translated as kategegon (meaning "brought down"), even though the clear and natural understanding of the passage is quite obviously that of sprinkling.

Delitzsch in his commentary1 argues that, everywhere else that nazah is used, it has the liquid as the object of the verb, not the object being sprinkled (e.g. Lev. 16:19, Num. 19:18). Yet it seems somewhat non sequitur to deny the plain meaning of a word in a passage on this basis, especially as the usage in Isaiah 52:15 is not substantially different from the passages Delitzsch uses as support for his argument. The primary difference is simply that the liquid in Isaiah 52:15 which is being nazah-ed would be understood as having that action performed on it, rather than this being explicitly stated, if one were to go by the plain and uniform meaning of nazah as it is used elsewhere.

Further, that "sprinkle" is the historical understanding of those familiar with this passage in the Hebrew is shown from several sources. In the Vulgate translation of Jerome, the verse in question appears as follows:

"Iste asperget gentes multas super ipsum continebunt reges os suum quia quibus non est narratum de eo viderunt et qui non audierunt contemplati sunt."

The word asperget is the Latin "sprinkle". As an explicitly Christian translation, the Vulgate would not normally carry any weight in this discussion, except for two reasons. One, Jerome translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin from Hebrew, not from the Septuagint Greek. He did this, against much criticism, because he felt the Septuagint to be imperfect and uninspired, and wanted to make the translation from the original language. Second, Jerome's translation was done largely as he was tutored in Hebrew by a Jew who is said to have come to him secretly by night, fearing persecution2. It seems unlikely that Jerome would not have engaged in at least some consultation as to the meaning of nazah in this passage, especially given the disparity between the usual meaning of the word, and the meaning of thaumasontai into which it is translated in the LXX.

Other historical sources can be seen which support "sprinkle" as the legitimate understanding at this point. The Aramaic targum of Isaiah says at this point "he will scatter many people". This reading, similar to "sprinkle" in the sense that something is being spread about by some sort of physical action (indeed, sprinkling usually involves scattering), suggests that the Jewish commentator on Isaiah who prepared this targum sometime in the first two centuries before Christ understood the word which he translated this from to be a reference to spreading something out (such as would be done in sprinkling), not startling or amazing someone. Further, John Gill notes that Rabbi Ibn Ezra (c.1089-1164) interpretated this clause to be suggesting that the Servant will pour out the blood of the nations as he takes vengeance upon them3. Again, this seems to weigh in favour of a Hebrew understanding this passage as speaking of "sprinkling" more so than "startling". Further, the Syraic translation of this passage, according to Delitzsch, also follows "sprinkle"4.

The argument from the LXX is supported, however, by a contextual argument which attempts to draw a parallel structure between "as many were astonied at thee" in v. 14 and "So shall he *startle* many nations" in v. 15. It is argued that "startle" fits the context and harmony of the passage better than "sprinkle".

However, this argument is less than convincing. There is no real reason to assume that there must be a parallel structure between this verse and its predecessor. There is no readily obvious parallel structure between verses in this portion of scripture. Indeed, to draw a parallel structure between "astonied" and "sprinkle/startle" implies logically that the parallelism be further extended to "visage was so marred...." and "kings shall shut their mouths at him". Yet, this sort of a parallelism, taken to its logical conclusion between verses, then speaks to the exact opposite of the intention of v. 15. In verse 15, the kings shut their mouths (qaphats, with the meaning of "drawing together" or "contraction") as a sign that they have been put to quietness by the wonder and glory of what they are witnessing in the Servant. Yet, if the parallelism is drawn to its conclusion, then they are being put to quietness by the witnessing of the marring and corruption of the Servant, not His triumphant position which was first lain out in v. 13, which does not fit the tenor of the passage.

Further, "sprinkle" fits the context of the Servant's Song better, as well as the overall understanding of the place which the Messiah will fill. The whole passage of Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 is about atonement, even if modern Judaism wishes to ignore this truth (which is why many synagogues skip over the passage in their yearly readings of the Tanach). It was understood this way, and as applying to the Messiah, by practically all of the rabbinical scholars before and during the formative period of Talmudic Judaism5. The interpretation of this passage as referring to the nation of Israel itself has only been widely accepted among Jewish theologians in relatively modern times6.

In the context of the passage, the Servant makes atonement by His suffering for the sins of the people, taking them upon Himself and pouring out His own soul as an offering for their sins. In Isaiah 53, the Servant is depicted as being "wounded for our transgressions....bruised for our iniquities" (v. 5), giving us peace through His chastisement and healing us with His stripes (v. 5), having all our iniquity laid upon Him by God (v. 6), being stricken for the transgression of the people (v. 8), His soul is given as an offering for our sin (v. 10), justifying many (v. 11), bearing our iniquities (v. 11), bearing the sin of many (v. 12), and making intercession for the transgressors (v. 12). Note that in this passage, the Messiah is depicted both as the sacrifice AND the one offering the sacrifice. He is giving Himself to bear the sins of the people, to make expiation for their sins so as to *justify* them before God. The Law, of course, says that no remission of sin can be had without the shedding of blood (Leviticus 17:11). Hence, this passage is teaching that the Servant, the Messiah, makes atonement for the sins of the people, which justifies them before God as foreshadowed by the sacrifice of the lamb on the Day of Atonement. He obviously is shedding His blood if he is beaten, bruised for our iniquities, and is striped (lit. whipped) for our healing and salvation (the terms being more or less interchangeable in Hebrew).

Yet, in addition to being the sacrifice, the Messiah also serves as the one offering the sacrifice, for we see again in verse 12 that He makes intercession for the transgressors. Not only is His blood being shed to make intercession between God and man, but He Himself is making this intercession. To make intercession between the nation of Israel and God was the province of the High Priest, which he did once a year on Yowm Kippuwr. The Hebrew scriptures elsewhere teach that the Messiah was to fulfill the role not only of a King, but also of a Priest. In Psalm 110:4, the Messiah is given the position of being a priest "after the order of Melchisedek". This indicates, as seen from the role of Melchisedek in Genesis 14:18, that the Messiah will be both a King and Priest, fulfilling a dual role. This truth is reiterated in Zechariah 6:12-13, where the BRANCH (uniformly understood to be a reference to the Messiah) would fill the roles of both King and Priest.

Understanding all this, then, it seems less likely that "sprinkle" in Isaiah 52:15 is out of context and harmony with the passage. Indeed, it fits more perfectly the understanding of the Messiah as one who will be smitten and disfigured ("marred" literally means "corrupted", as by bearing the sins which are abomination in God's sight), yet who will also fill the role of a priest making intercession and atoning for the sins of the people. That He would do so for all nations, and not just Israel, is understood then in passages such as Isaiah 11:10, 49:6, and 60:1-3. Indeed, what will cause the kings to shut their mouths at Him is the fact that this one who was marred, corrupted, is yet the one who will stand up and serve as this priestly king, sprinkling the nations. There will be nothing they can say against Him, no more can they do to Him than was already done, and yet this Servant is exalted and extolled by God to the position of priest and king such as they have never heard or seen done before.

Thus, it seems most logical to understand that this passage concerning the Suffering Servant is speaking to the priestly role which the Messiah would (and does) fulfill. The translation of "startle" has little substantial support, and has both historical, theological, and contextual evidence against it. Instead, the fact that the Servant will "sprinkle" many nations completes the beautiful picture of the Messiah as both sin-bearing sacrifice and sin-purging maker of the atonement!

End Notes

(1) - F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. VII, Isaiah, p. 308
(2) - H.S. Miller, General Biblical Introduction, p. 241
(3) - J. Gill, Exposition of the Entire Bible, at Isaiah 52:15
(4) - F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. VII, Isaiah, p.308
(5) - see, for example, M Eastman and C. Smith, The Search for Messiah, p. 17 and The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, trans. S.R. Driver and A.D. Neubauer, p. 374-375, also see A. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, whose compilation of rabbinical quotes concerning the Messiah includes many that refer to this set of verses
(6) - see for a more in-depth analysis of why this interpretation is not correct