There is a powerful image offered in Isa.52.12 where God is portraying the return of His people from captivity. The context appears to begin with Isa.51.1 and offers encouragement to the faithful who are watching the approach of Assyria and impending captivity. In 52.1f, God calls upon his people to shake off their bonds and return to Jerusalem while all of the earth witnesses the power of God to redeem His people. As they trek back to the homeland, v.12 notes that “the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.” Doubtlessly God has in mind the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire which guided and protected the children of Israel on their original exodus from captivity (Ex.13-14). But rather than a physical phenomenon standing at the head and rear of the column of pilgrims, here it is God Himself leading and following. As v.10 notes that “God has made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations” I cannot help but imagine the Ancient of Days at the fore and aft of His people, robes girded about His waist, armor securely in place, silver hair blowing in the wind, with a powerful right arm wielding a gleaming and perhaps flaming sword, daring anyone to advance upon His people.
Immediately following this verse, Isaiah begins to describe the Servant of God Who suffers on behalf of His people (Isa.52.13-53.12). Most scholars note a contextual break here and discuss the suffering Servant section as if it stands alone. But what if the context does not break here? What if the image of God guarding His people as they return home is the backdrop for the description of God’s Servant? Note that the “arm of the Lord” (53.1) is introduced in 52.10. The “nations” of 52.15 have been noted in 52.10. The themes of redemption, salvation, righteousness and cleansing which are accomplished by the suffering Servant are the basis of hope in 51.1f. So, what if the picture of God guarding His people in 52.12 is actually painted in 52.13f? “Behold!” “Look!” And as we turn our focus from the procession of the redeemed to gaze upon the One in the lead and guarding the rear, we see the Servant – the One Who is to be extolled and exalted (52.13) while at the same time startling nations and kings (52.15) and prompting men to hide their faces from Him in disgust and despite (53.3). What if the LORD going before and behind IS the suffering Servant?
It becomes clear as one studies the life of Christ that He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa.52.13f. Philip confirms such as he teaches the Ethiopian nobleman in Acts 8.30f. Most disciples understand and accept such without question. So what’s the big deal about the connection between God protecting His people and the suffering Servant in the aforementioned passage? It is the juxtaposition of God in His glorious power – the pillar of cloud/fire surrounding His redeemed – and God in His sacrificial nature – the lamb led to the slaughter, bleeding, bruised, rejected. It is the character of our King that is the big deal.
The ordinary concept of a temporal king is fairly straightforward. He sits upon his throne and advances his kingdom. He formulates and enforces law; he governs political and economic affairs, both foreign and domestic; he defends his lands, possessions, and people; he directs his military; he judges those over whom he rules. He is at once the executive, legislative, and judicial director of his domain. And his legacy as a good king or a bad king is often measured in one of two ways: 1. his defense, cultivation, and advancement of his domain; and/or 2. his attention to, provision for, and advancement of his people. Some rulers are self-centered egoists who are concerned only for power, wealth, and glory and their subjects are merely a resource to be exploited. Others see themselves as servants of their people. History is replete with both kinds of kings and they are generally famous or infamous due to the nature of their rule.
Jesus affirmed His Kingship as He stood before Pilate in Jn.18.36-37, and He claimed “all authority… in heaven and on earth” in Mt.28:18. In the first century, the apostles proclaimed throughout the world both His enthronement and His kingdom (Acts). And given the multitude of OT prophecies concerning the Messiah, especially those like Isa.52-53, it should not surprise us that the Messiah King was to be God Himself. But what is surprising is the nature of our King. People sometimes conceive of God as some angry, domineering, egocentric, and demanding Being Who advances His cause through hatred, genocide, punishment, and violence. They see Him as some Zeus-like warrior, lightning bolts at hand and drawn back, awaiting our slightest mistake so that He can strike us down and condemn us to eternal misery. We make the mistake of thinking of God as we think of ourselves. Such is not the suffering Servant Who stands before and behind His people, guiding them to redemption and guarding them each step of the way.
Consider the nature of our King – the servant King. He is God, the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists (Col.1.15f; Heb.1.1-3). As God He is perfect, holy, omniscient, omnipotent. His power and wisdom are unlimited. Yet, with all of His power, glory, wisdom, and holiness, our King came to live as a common man (Jn.1.14; Phil.2.5-8). Our King exercised His divine power to relieve those in need and suffering (Mt.8-9; 14.14f; Jn.8-9). Our King patiently illuminated us, showing the lost and misguided our design, purpose, and destiny (Jn.1.1f; 8.12; 9.5,39f; 12.44f). Our holy, sinless, and divine King gave Himself as a willing sacrifice to forgive and redeem us (Rom.5.6f; Jn.10.10f). Our King re-entered and reanimated His body, rising from the dead to offer us hope and assurance of our own resurrection (1 Cor.15.19f; Rom.8.16f). Our King ascended to His throne to rule on behalf of His people, to bring about our ultimate redemption and reunion with God (1 Cor.15.21-28). Our King offers citizenship in His kingdom to any man who will repent and accept His rule (Jn.3.16; Mt.28.18f). Our King mediates as high priest for us, having offered Himself as a sacrifice to God and speaking for us on a daily basis (Heb.7.24f; 9.24f). Our King is our Advocate and Defender when Satan accuses us before God (1 Jn.2.1f; Rom.8.33f). Our King sits upon His throne and will judge us concerning our life (Mt.25.31f; 2 Cor.5.10) – the same One Who created us, loves us, died for us, raises us, mediates for us, defends us. Our King defends us from Satan’s attacks (1 Cor.10.13f; Heb.13.5-6). Our King will deliver us, along with His dominion, back to God at the culmination of His redemptive work (1 Cor.15.24f). Our King – with all of the power, glory, wisdom, and sovereignty of God Almighty – ever lives to serve us. What manner of King is this? And who are we to be blessed with such a monarch? Who would not want to serve such a King?
“…the LORD will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard. Behold, My Servant…!”