3 For thus says the LORD: You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money. 4 For thus says the Lord GOD: Long ago, my people went down into Egypt to reside there as aliens; the Assyrian, too, has oppressed them without cause. 5 Now therefore what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers defame me continually, all day long, my name is despised. 6 Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I.
The exile of the people of Judah to Babylon was a difficult time in the life of the nation. The exile brought about the need for an agonizing reappraisal and refinement of the religious traditions that held the nation together. The monarchy had ceased to be. The end of kingship challenged God’s promise that David’s dynasty would continue forever. There was a crisis of credibility in Israel’s God. The temple was burned, when most people thought it to be inviolable. The Babylonians shattered that theology. How could God be worshiped without a temple?
The land, which was considered holy, had been a unifying factor in Israel. Because of the exile, Yahwism had been torn from its nation, cult, and land. As a result, some people in Israel began to believe that the gods of Babylon were more powerful than the God of Israel.
According to the prophet Habakkuk, God used the Babylonians as his agents to bring judgment upon his people for their idolatry and rebellion against him: “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own” (Habakkuk 1:6).
The people of Israel were taken into exile in stages. During the reign of Pekah, king of Israel (734 BC), Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria, invaded the Northern kingdom and captured the cities of Ijon, Abel-beth-maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor, Gilead, Galilee, and all the land of Naphtali and took the people captive to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29).
In 722 BC, Sargon, the king of Assyria, captured Samaria and carried the Israelites away to Assyria. Sargon deported 27,290 inhabitants to other parts of the Assyrian empire and placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes (2 Kings 17:6).
The people of Judah also went into exile in stages. The first deportation of Judah occurred in 597 BC. According to 2 Kings 24:12-16, 10,000 people were taken into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon. The second deportation took place in 587 BC. According to Jeremiah 52:29, 832 people were taken to Babylon. The third deportation of Judah occurred in 582 BC. According to Jeremiah 52:30 the total number of people taken in the 23rd year of Nebuchadnezzar was 745 people.
The Profanation of God’s Name
Isaiah 52:3-6 speaks about the oppressive situation the people of Israel were facing in Babylon. This text, however, comes after a message of restoration in Isaiah 52:1-2. According to Deutero-Isaiah, the time of redemption and restoration had arrived. When Israel went into exile, their captors put the nation to shame by removing its garments: “They shall also strip you of your clothes and take away your fine jewels” (Ezekiel 23:26). But now that God is redeeming his people, Jerusalem is urged to put on her garments: “Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city” (Isaiah 52:1).
The story of Israel’s oppressive life began when the people of Israel lived under the cruel hands of the Egyptians. Deutero-Isaiah is comparing the oppression of Israel in Babylon with Israel’s oppressive situation in Egypt and Assyria. Israel went to Egypt by its own will to sojourn there because of the famine in Canaan, but the Assyrians oppressed them heavily, deporting them twice. The Babylonian took Israel to exile against their will. The Septuagint says that the people “were taken by force.”
In 52:3 Deutero-Isaiah says that the people of Israel were deported to Babylon, for nothing: “For thus says the LORD: You were sold for nothing.” The Psalmist held the same view: “You sell Your people for no fortune, You set no high price on them” (Psalm 44:13).
What Deutero-Isaiah is saying is that God was not forced to send his people into exile; they went into exile because of their rebellion: “because of your sins you were sold” (Isaiah 50:1). According to the prophet, the redemption of Israel will be a reversal of Israel’s previous condition; they will be redeemed not for a price: “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward, says the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 45:13).
Israel’s exile affects God’s reputation. As Blank wrote, “God is disgraced because of the disgraceful condition of his people” (1954:6). In light of the condition the people were experiencing in Babylon, the Lord asks himself: “Now therefore what am I doing here, says the LORD” (Isaiah 52:5). The Lord is asking himself why should he remain in Babylon with his people since in Babylon God’s name was continually blasphemed by Israel’s oppressors.
Commentators disagree about whether the rulers mentioned in verse 5 are the rulers of Israel or the rulers of Babylon. The translation of verse 5 adopted above follows the proposal by Blank which identifies the rulers as the Babylonian rulers who exulted in Judah’s downfall.
These rulers were blaspheming the name of God: “How long, O God, will the adversary hurl insults? Will the enemy blaspheme your name forever?” (Psalm 74:10). The Babylonian oppressors have mocked Yahweh and have insulted his name (Psalm 74:18).
God’s name was being reviled because Israel’s oppressor believed that their gods were more powerful than the God of Israel, that is, their captors believed that their gods forced Yahweh to give his people to them. Mocking Yahweh and the people of Israel, the leaders of Babylon said: “These are the people of the LORD, yet they had to leave His land” (Ezekiel 36:20).
God’s reputation and God’s name was being held in contempt because the Babylonian oppressors believed that the God of Israel was unable to save his people. The contempt for God’s name and the attack on God’s honor was ongoing. As the Lord said, “constantly, and all the day my name is always being insulted.”
Paul’s Use of Isaiah 52:5
The translators of the Septuagint expanded the end of Isaiah 52:5. Instead of following the MT reading, “all day long, my name is despised.” The Septuagint translates: “On account of you my name is continually blasphemed among the Gentiles.” The reading of the Septuagint is an interpretation of the original text of Deutero-Isaiah.
When Paul cited Isaiah 52:5 in Romans 2:24, Paul was not citing the text from the Hebrew Bible (MT), but from the Septuagint (LXX). Paul wrote: “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” Paul was saying that the name of God was profaned among the Gentiles because of the people’s reprehensible behavior.
Paul’s view is expressed in full in Romans 2:22-24: “You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’”
If Paul had used the Hebrew text, he would be unable to make the same emphasis to his readers. According to Paul, God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the disgraceful conduct of his people, it is “because of you.” This view, which is derived from the Septuagint, is not supported by the Hebrew Text.
The Hebrew text reads: “Now therefore what am I doing here, says the LORD, seeing that my people are taken away without cause? Their rulers defame me continually, all day long, my name is despised.” The issue Deutero-Isaiah is raising in verse 5 is the condition of the people in Babylon. The rulers of Babylon defame God’s name because of their belief that Yahweh was unable to deliver his people from the power of their gods.
In evaluating Paul’s use of Isaiah 52:5, Fitzmyer wrote: “Paul, writing frequently in the rhetorical style of a preacher, often fails to take into consideration the original context of the Old Testament and twists the quotation which he uses for his own purpose. . . . Paul is here quoting the fuller text of the Septuagint; but in any case the meaning of the original is that at the time of the Babylonian captivity God’s name was despised among the Gentiles because fortune had turned against the Israelites, and it looked as though Israel’s God was impotent to help or rescue them” (1974:44-45).
Thus, it is clear from the context of Isaiah 52:3-6, that the author was referring to the situation of the people in Babylon and not to the behavior of the people. Paul’s usage of the Septuagint to address the Jews of his time may provide some justification for his statement because the Old Testament shows that God’s name was profaned many times because of the behavior of his people. However, as Blank wrote, “God does not here reprimand the people for their misconduct; he regrets their misery for which he holds himself responsible” (1954:6).
The prophet is declaring that God has come to affirm to Israel that the accusations leveled against him are false. God was not powerless when compared with the gods of Babylon. God has not failed to deliver his people; in allowing his people to go to Babylon, God was not forced to give his people up. Through their liberation from Babylon Israel will know that it was Yahweh who was redeeming them, for the sake of his honor.
The way God will show his commitment to Israel is expressed by two therefores in verse 6. First, “therefore my people shall know my name” (Isaiah 52:6). Deutero-Isaiah is declaring that God will reveal himself in all his glory to deliver his people from their captivity. To know God’s name means that the people will know what kind of God their God is, they will know the true character and nature of the God who will redeem them. The people in exile will see God’s power and his faithfulness when he delivers them from their oppressors.
Second, “therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here am I” (Isaiah 52:6). God will defend the honor of his name by showing the people that he, Yahweh, and no other, is the God who is redeeming his people from their oppressive situation.
When Yahweh liberates the people from their oppressive situation, Israel will discover a great truth, that in their hopeless situation in exile, God reveals himself with a message of hope and salvation: “here I am.” The great I Am is present and ready to deliver his people.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Fitzmyer, Joseph A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament. Missoula: Scholars Press, 1974.
Sheldon, Blank H. “Isaiah 52:5 and the Profanation of the Name.” Hebrew Union College Annual 25 (1954): 1-8.