Recognizing the Savior

Biblical Truth: Centuries before Jesus was born, God revealed that His messianic Servant would suffer and die to fulfill God’s plan to provide salvation for sinners.

Considered Unacceptable:  Isaiah 53:1-3.

[1]  Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

[2]  For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. [3]  He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.   [NASU]

[1]  Here the prophet pauses, as it were, in the middle of his discourse. Having previously said that the name of Christ would be everywhere proclaimed, and would be revealed to unknown nations [52:13-15], he breaks off his discourse, and exclaims Who has believed our message? At the same time, he describes his grief, that men are so unbelieving as to reject their salvation. The reason he gives for this is that no one can come to God but by an extraordinary revelation of the Spirit. They cannot attain their salvation by the wisdom of their own understanding but only by the revealing work of the arm of the Lord. Both John [John 12:37,38] and Paul [Romans 10:16] quote this verse to indicate the inability of mankind to believe the Gospel message apart from the work of God. These words refute the ignorance of those who think that faith is in the power of every person. Though it is sufficiently evident that all are called to salvation, yet the prophet expressly states that the external voice is of no avail, if it be not accompanied by a special gift of the Spirit.

[2]  Christ will, at first, have no outward display among men, but before God he will nevertheless be highly exalted. Hence we see that we must not judge the glory of Christ by human view, but must discern by faith what is taught us concerning him in Scripture. Like a root out of parched ground means that Christ’s power of springing up will not be derived from the sap of the earth like ordinary plants. Thus Isaiah shows by what means the kingdom of Christ must be set up and established, that we may not judge it by human standards.

[3]  Despised simply signifies that men have rejected the servant and thus despised him. The word is repeated at the end of the verse which sets the sad note for the entire verse. The entire life of the servant was filled with griefs; these involved bodily suffering, but they were also spiritual. Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief indicates that various types of suffering was his chief characteristic. His life was one of constant painful endurance caused by bearing our griefs [4]. We found him so revolting to look upon, because of the griefs and sufferings, that we turned our faces away from him as though he were stricken with some repulsive disease.

As the verse began so it concludes; hence Isaiah again employs the word despised, and adds to it the tragic statement, and we did not esteem Him. Perhaps the purpose is to make even sharper the strong contrast in the following verse. The unbelief that Isaiah here depicts is the same unbelief found all about us today. Men say pleasant and complimentary things about the Lord of Glory. They will praise His ethics, His teaching, declare that He was a good man and a great prophet, the only one who has answers to the social problems that today confront the world. They will not, however, acknowledge that they are sinners, deserving of everlasting punishment, and that the death of Christ was a vicarious sacrifice, designed to satisfy the justice of God and to reconcile an offended God to the sinner. Today also, the Servant is despised and rejected of men, and men do not esteem Him.

Punished for Others’ Sins:  Isaiah 53:4-6.

[4]  Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. [5]  But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. [6]  All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.  [NASU]

[4]  With this verse the prophet sets forth the true state of the case. The servant is indeed characterized by griefs and sorrows, but they were not his own. The sorrows and grief of verse 3 is now reversed with griefs coming first. Also note the juxtaposition of our and he; now it is our griefs and our sorrows instead of his sorrows and his grief. He Himself bore brings to the fore the idea of substitution, which characterizes this section of the chapter. Emphasis falls upon the pronoun he (He Himself bore, He carried). The verb bore means more than to take away. The thought rather is of a lifting up and carrying. This is shown by the parallel with the following verb (carried) and by the general context, as well as by the usages of the verb. The servant takes the griefs that belong to us and lifts them upon himself, thus carrying them. The second verb perhaps does exhibit a gradation, for it definitely refers to the carrying upon oneself of sorrows and griefs. It should be noted that the consequences of sin and not sin itself are mentioned. Nevertheless, when it is said that he bore our sorrows, what is meant is not that he became a fellow sufferer with us, but that he bore the sin that is the cause of the evil consequences, and thus became our substitute. In the last line the prophet gives emphasis to we, for instead of understanding the true reason for his suffering, we regarded him as one punished by God with a loathsome and hateful disease. Actually, the reverse should have been the case. We should have been horror-struck at ourselves, the guilty ones, and filled with loving admiration for him, the innocent sinbearer.

[5]  But emphasizes the contrast between the erroneous opinion of those who regarded the servant and the real reason for his suffering. Another emphasis is found in that the pronoun he is placed first, thus to show that in contrast to those who really had deserved the punishment, he bore the sins of the guilty. Pierced through usually means a piercing through unto death. Perhaps there is also included the idea of a violent death. The thought is that because we had transgressed, he was pierced through unto the death. The parallel expression, crushed for our iniquities, means that because we had sinned, he was crushed or bruised. The verb suggests the complete destruction of the person involved. Both the expressions in the first part of this verse are to be taken with the statements concerning the servant in verse 4.

The sins we had committed were borne by the servant. Inasmuch as sin, however, is something immaterial, how can one be said to bear it? The answer is that sin involves not merely an inward corruption of the heart but also guilt before God. In saying that the servant bore our sins, therefore, Isaiah is in reality declaring that he bore the guilt of our sins. Yet even guilt is intangible; but guilt involves liability both to censure and to punishment, and with this we meet the heart of the matter. When the servant bore the guilt of our sins, we are saying that he bore the punishment that was due to us because of those sins, and that is to say that he was our substitute. His punishment was vicarious. At the same time, if we merely say that the servant bore the punishment of our sins, we have not done justice to the scriptural teaching. We must insist that in their fullness he bore our sins. Because we had transgressed, he was pierced to death; and being pierced and crushed was the punishment that he bore in our stead. The main thrust is that as our substitute he bore the penalty that was rightfully ours. If, however, the language is to have meaning, the servant must be one who was himself utterly free of transgression and iniquity, else his vicarious suffering could be of no avail. If one who himself was iniquitous bore the sins of another, then there is a travesty upon justice, for the sinbearer in this case would have need that his own sins be borne by another. Inasmuch as the vicarious suffering is for those who had transgressed God’s holy law, and inasmuch as the vicarious punishment of the servant actually sets us free in the sight of a holy God, we may say with assurance that there is only One of whom these words may be spoken, namely Jesus Christ.

The statement is next made that the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him like a pressing burden. Because of our sins God was not at peace with us. If He was to be at peace with us, there must be chastisement. In our place he was punished, and inasmuch as he was punished, God was at peace with us. If peace refers only to well-being or to material prosperity it is difficult to perceive why the death of the servant was necessary to procure that peace. Rather, this peace is the peace of God that passeth understanding. It is the peace that results from our reconciliation to God by having His wrath against our sin removed. Finally, Isaiah declares that for us there is healing, and this healing is procured by his stripes. For us there is now a complete freedom from all those things that caused the servant to die.

[6]  With this verse the prophet injects a new factor into the picture, namely the reason why the servant had to suffer. The first half of the verse sets forth the reason for the servant’s suffering, and the second asserts that the Lord Himself made the servant suffer by placing on him the iniquity that belonged to us all. The verb describing the latter act is in the causative stem and means “to hit or strike violently”. The iniquity of which we are guilty does not come back to us to meet and strike us as we might rightly expect, but rather strikes him in our stead. The Lord caused our guilt to strike him not merely in the soul but in the whole person. He, as our substitute, bore the punishment that the guilt of our sins required. Those for whom he served as substitute are designated all of us which signifies members of the covenant community.

Silent in His own Defense:  Isaiah 53:7-9.

7]  He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. [8]  By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? [9]  His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death, because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.    [NASU]

[7]  The words he was oppressed form the main sentence and sum up the content of verse 6. The remainder of the verse expresses the conditions under which the servant was afflicted. The servant has been afflicted as though by a cruel taskmaster but does not cry out: yet He did not open His mouth. No self-defense or protest issued from his mouth. Isaiah enlarges upon the words He did not open His mouth by comparing the servant with a lamb. Men bring the sheep to slaughter to sacrifice it, and as men shear the lamb it stands dumb. Isaiah repeats the clause to emphasize the wondrous and strange conduct of the servant in his affliction. It is the patience of the lamb that is here stressed.

[8]  Having stressed the patience of the servant in his suffering, the prophet now enters upon a more detailed description of that suffering. In connection with judgment, the word oppression indicates a judgment involved in confinement and one that is unjust. As in the actual fulfillment with respect to Jesus Christ, the hatred of the servant’s enemies worked within the sphere and limits of judicial procedure. But the human judgment in itself had no real power over the servant, for behind it was the judgment of God, which punished the servant as he suffered for his people. God does carry out His judgments in the midst of His people, and the supreme manifestation of His judgment was that which fell upon the servant. It is best to understand He was taken as referring to a being taken away by death from the unjust trial. This is supported by the parallel He was cut off out of the land of the living. From the midst of his suffering he was taken away by death. The verb considered implies meditation or giving serious thought to something. The stroke fell not on behalf of all men but on behalf of my people. Again Isaiah gives the reason for that death, namely its substitutionary, propitiatory character.

[9]  As verse 8 spoke of the servant’s death, so verse 9 speaks of his burial. What was to be given to the servant by men was dishonor and disgrace; what God would give him was honor in his burial. Men assigned the grave of the servant with the criminals. After he had died a painful death, however, he was with a rich man. In the second half of the verse Isaiah gives the reason for the turn in the servant’s fortunes. The servant was given an honorable burial after his dishonorable death because of his perfect innocence. Inasmuch, therefore, as he had not acted like his criminal enemies, he would not receive disgraceful burial with them, but honorable burial with the rich.

Willing to Fulfill God’s Plan:  Isaiah 53:10-12.

[10]  But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. [11]  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, as He will bear their iniquities. [12]  Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors. [NASU]

[10]  His death was not in the hands of wicked men but in the Lord’s hands. This does not absolve from responsibility those who put him to death, but they were not in control of the situation. They were doing only what the Lord permitted them to do. The pleasure that the Lord had in view was the accomplishing of the divine will. The language does not mean that the Lord took pleasure in the servant’s being bruised on the part of others, but rather that it was the Lord’s pleasure Himself to bruise the servant.

The results described in the last half of this verse occur only because the servant presents himself as a guilt offering. The first of these results is that He will see His offspring, those whom he by his vicarious suffering and expiatory sacrifice has redeemed from the guilt and the power of their sins. It is of importance also to note that the servant himself will see his offspring. If he were to die and remain dead, this would be impossible. Hence, this verb makes clear that death will not hold the servant, but rather, after his death he will again come to life and as a living one will see his offspring. The phrase, prolong His days, shows that the servant will live eternally. In the concluding clause Isaiah sums up the interpretation of the work of the servant. Through the hand of the servant, i.e. through his mediation, the thing that the Lord had pleasure in, namely the purpose that sinners should be redeemed and justified, will prosper. It is the servant who carries out and will carry out to its fullest extent what God has determined to accomplish. Thus, the suffering of the servant is the will of God, and not in vain. Furthermore, through this death the blessings of redemption and the fulfillment of the pleasure of God are brought to pass.

[11]  The introductory preposition, as a result, is causative and denotes the efficient cause of the exaltation. It thus expresses the same thought as verse 10. Because the servant has suffered such great anguish of soul, he shall have abundant satisfaction. No object is supplied to the verb He will see, but we are probably to understand as the object all the fruits and rewards of his Messianic suffering. As at the creation God exhibited satisfaction in His handiwork, so the servant sees the results of his death and is abundantly satisfied. His people are redeemed and justified. They are declared to be righteous, for they have received the righteousness of the servant and they are received and accepted by God Himself. Of them God says that they no longer have iniquities, but they do have the righteousness of the servant. 

[12]  Inasmuch as the servant has so willingly suffered, therefore the Lord will act. The servant appears as the primary agent who divides the spiritual victories and fruits with the mighty. Those who are here spoken of as the great and the strong are the spiritual seed mentioned in verse 10. His people participate in the enjoyment of the spoils of his victory. The chapter closes with a summary of the reasons why the servant is so gloriously exalted. He exposed his soul unto death; he voluntarily laid it bare even to death. No man took his life from him, but he laid it down of himself. Numbered with the transgressors is interpreted by the New Testament [see Luke 22:37; Matt. 26:54,56; Mark 15:28] as referring to Jesus dying on the cross with the two criminals. Finally, the servant will make intercession for the transgressors. Here again there is reflection upon a priestly work of the servant, who pleads before God the merit and virtue of his atoning work as the only ground of acceptance of the transgressors for whom he dies. The basis of the intercession is the substitutionary expiation of the servant.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why was the servant despised and forsaken of men? How is he despised and forsaken today?

2.         What are the griefs and sorrows that he bore and carried? Why did the Lord cause our iniquity to fall upon him?

3.         What did the Servant’s violent death accomplish for his people? Why did this give the Lord pleasure?


Isaiah, John Calvin.

The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, Eerdmans.

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