God Promises the Messiah

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you speak with greater confidence about Jesus as the promised Messiah.

The Messiah Became One of Us:  Isaiah 53:2-3.

[2]  For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. [3]  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  [ESV]

[2-3]  The three central stanzas of the poem review the Servant’s life from his early days (grew up) to his death (his grave [9]), focusing in particular on the way in which he had been rejected and mistreated [1-3, 7-9], and in the middle stanza [4-6] explaining the significance of his sufferings. Looking back to the beginning of the Servant’s life, the speakers explain their previous attitude to him, and also the continuing dismissal of the Servant by others. He had been an implausible figure for Yahweh to work through. It is by faith that they now report that he grew up before him – that is, before Yahweh – an expression which conveys Yahweh’s superintendence of his life and his care for him. Nevertheless it was as a young plant, not a figure of vigor, but of weakness, a growth that appears from the root of a tree and derives its strength from it. The earthly circumstances of the Servant are further highlighted in the simile like a root out of dry ground. This figure of speech conveys an undistinguished start in unpromising circumstances. The retrospective description of the Servant’s life continues with an emphasis on the evaluation others had of him. No form or majesty implies that a messianic Servant born in a royal palace, majestically attired and with imposing presence, would have attracted their attention and commanded their loyalty. That was the sort of deliverer that they and their generation expected from Yahweh. The statements do not imply that the Servant was physically disfigured, simply that he was ordinary and easily ignored. Applying the outward criteria of their age, they saw not a king, but an untutored Galilean peasant of dubious parentage. The use of despised in the first and last lines to verse 3 portrays an attitude which advances beyond ignoring the Servant as merely insignificant to contemptuous dismissal, along with scorn and disparagement. He therefore came to be rejected by men. Even so, the Servant was not unaffected by the treatment he received from others. General rejection left the Servant an isolated and misunderstood figure for whom no one had sympathy, and the impact of this rendered him a man of sorrows. This phrase goes beyond implying that he was one who associated with others who were sorrowful, to specify that he was one who personally experienced sorrow. Acquainted with grief (or sickness) asserts a further reason for the rejection of the Servant. He did not frequent the palaces of the mighty, but the haunts of the needy, and he did so with the tenderness of a physician’s heart, who by his own choice sought to relieve their distress. However, this led to his being shunned by those who wanted nothing to do with one who lived in this way, and so he became as one from whom men hide their faces. Through their total misapprehension of the significance of his actions, they turned from and rejected him. The speakers confess that they too formerly shared this consensus view when they esteemed him not.

The Messiah Suffered for Us:  Isaiah 53:4-9.

[4]  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. [5]  But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. [6]  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. [7]  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not 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, stricken for the transgression of my people? [9]  And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.  [ESV]

[4-6]  This is the central stanza in the five-stanza structure of the poem. It presents the key to understanding the events of the Servant’s career as confessed by the speakers, who acknowledge how completely they had misunderstood the situation [4]. What the Servant had to endure was undertaken on behalf of others, even of those who totally failed to grasp what was occurring. His suffering was not a matter of some accident, or of divine infliction for his own sin. It was the deliberate act of Yahweh as regards one who bore the sicknesses of others and endured the penalty of their rebellious acts so that they might enjoy peace with God. Surely introduces a strong affirmation which reverses or restricts what has gone before in an unexpected way. In spite of all that had been said, there in fact remained another significant aspect of the situation. There is a clear contrast between the individual Servant (he) and those who benefited from his actions (we). Griefs and … sorrows are the same words as in verse 3, though here presented in reverse order, and they constitute a link with the previous stanza. What is in view now, however, is the fact that these griefs and sorrows, in all their variety, properly belonged to the speakers, and only secondarily became those of the Servant because of the mission he had undertaken. The statement that he has borne … and carried does not just imply the identification of the Servant with fallen humanity and his sharing of their lot. The verb borne can be used in the sense of “bearing guilt”, and here it combines two ideas: taking on an obligation that was not his own, and conveying that burden away and disposing of it. Carried implies putting a load on one’s shoulder. He acted mediatorially with respect to what is confessed to be rightfully that of the speakers (our). The language makes very clear that the Servant’s role is that of a representative and surrogate. In the second half of verse 4 the speakers lament the misapprehension that they had been under. Even though the Servant had been acting in their best interests, they had failed to see this and had esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. The use of these three phrases to describe the Servant’s condition shows that it was unmistakably clear that he suffered greatly. Undoubtedly God was behind the blows that came on the Servant, although not in the way they imagined. Smitten by God identifies the source of his anguish as divinely imposed, and afflicted points to the pain involved. The speakers confess that they had despised the Servant because of what was inflicted on him. Now, however, they see that in its origin the burden was not his; it was theirs. Therefore they will not need to suffer in that way. But again introduces a contrast in the thinking of the speakers, as they reappraise the situation and set out what had really been happening, as distinct from their previous false evaluation. Again the reason for what happened to him is traced to our transgressions, not merely failures in right conduct through human weakness or deficiency, but deliberately perverse deeds, consciously engaged in even though known to be contrary to Yahweh’s will. Crushed is a strong metaphor of being ground to dust by the circumstances that befell him – a situation which had arisen due to our iniquities. This refers to conduct twisted out of the true that brings guilt upon fallen humanity. Now the Servant is shown to have been subject to violent assaults, though it is not stated through whom they were inflicted. The passive description of the Servant continues to reinforce his victim status. Then the positive consequences of the situation are outlined. The penalty (chastisement) that ought to have fallen on the speakers was borne by the Servant, and in this way he procured peace for them. This peace describes the removal of all that obstructs a harmonious relationship with God, and is not available to the wicked. However, the Servant’s work removes the sin and guilt of those for whom he acted. With his stripes points to the price in terms of the suffering of the Servant which had to be paid to effect the change in the speakers’ condition to one where healing became available. What is in view is not merely curing physical illness, but complete recovery from spiritual estrangement from God, the total restorative work of the Servant. In verse 6 the contrast continues between the speakers’ conduct and what the Servant endured. All we … us all begins and ends the verse to show that the solution coincides in extent with the problem. None of them was exempt from the charge of being wayward and unresponsive in conduct. They acknowledge that they like sheep have gone astray, leaving the path and pasture which Yahweh had provided for them and, in a spirit of autonomy, turning every one to his own way, to go and do what seemed right in his own eyes. Each individually had acted selfishly, without thinking through the consequences, and as a result each had become lost. Nevertheless Yahweh sovereignly intervened to save His scattered and disoriented flock. He laid on him the iniquity of us all. It is with Yahweh’s purpose and control in the matter that the final element in the explanation of the Servant’s career lies. This is the provision Yahweh had ordained: He made the Servant the target towards which the consequences of the community’s guilt was directed.


[7-9]  The fourth stanza of the poem continues the report regarding the Servant, not now in the speech of the remnant, but in a third voice, probably that of Isaiah as he comments on the scene brought before his inner vision – the suffering [7], death [8] and burial of the Servant [9]. The prophet emphasizes the voluntary submission of the Servant, even though what was perpetrated against him was a gross miscarriage of justice. His contemporaries neither understood nor cared about what was happening to him [8]. However, he was given an honorable burial, no matter what his enemies thought of him [9]. The first line of verse 7 sets out Isaiah’s main observation, which he then illustrates. He was oppressed and afflicted, but he did not retaliate, as might have been expected, but he opened not his mouth. Unlike the sheep of verse 6 which had strayed from the path, the Servant was like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. The principal point of comparison here is the compliant submission of the sheep being led to its death. Verse 8 clearly teaches that the Servant’s life ended through judicial process. By oppression and judgment is a straightforward narrative indicating “after arrest and sentence”, or “from prison and lawcourt”, he was taken away, led off to execution and death. His generation refers to the Servant’s contemporaries, who did not ponder the significance of the Servant or of the events associated with his death, and so remained unaware of what had really happened. The speaker then indicates the principal gap that would arise in the understanding of those who would be eyewitnesses of the Servant’s life and death. He was cut off, a term which conveys a note of violence and abruptness. The Servant’s death befell him because he was the substitute suffering on account of the transgression of the covenant people of God. The Servant’s burial is described in verse 9. A question of interpretations arises concerning the relationship between the wicked and a rich man. Are they referring to the same group or to different groups. The thought seems to be that, while it was his enemies’ intention to heap shame upon him by casting his corpse into the common pit used for the remains of paupers or criminals and so to deny him an honorable burial, their plan was frustrated. The use of the singular indicates that it is a rich individual in view in this verse. Thus, in the overruling providence of Yahweh, it was not to a criminal’s grave that his corpse was taken; on the contrary, he was buried in circumstances of some honor and distinction. Violence points to active, planned deeds of violence against people. By attaching the negative to the noun, the meaning is not simply that he did not in fact commit such deeds of violence; rather, it is that he had pursued a positive policy of avoiding such conduct. Deceit is deliberate deception through word or action so as to mislead or trick another. The Servant was totally guiltless. There is only one to whom such a description may justly be applied.

The Messiah Rescues Us:  Isaiah 53:10-12.

[10]  Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. [11]  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. [12]  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.  [ESV]

[10-12]  The final stanza of the song is closely linked to the rest of the poem, but it looks at matters from the viewpoint of Yahweh. Again employing a reversal technique to bring out the difference between what was perceived regarding the Servant and what was actually the case, these verses emphasize that misunderstanding, perversion of justice and a cruel death will not have the last word on the Servant’s destiny. Nor is it simply the case that at his death he will leave an enduring legacy to be enjoyed by others. The astounding truth announced in these verses is that after death the Servant will be divinely vindicated, will resume his life and will enjoy the fruit of the victory he has achieved. Moreover, in all this he will also provide benefits for others. By his sacrificial offering he effects the removal of sin and gains for them the verdict of a right standing with Yahweh. Yet draws aside the veil from our earth-bound perception, and focuses attention on the will of the Lord, which is referred to at the beginning and end of verse 10. Will does not imply divine enjoyment of the Servant’s suffering, but points to the Lord’s determination and volition that these events should occur. It was in this way that he had decided to effect the deliverance of his people. There is no blurring of the fact that what came on the Servant was divinely imposed. Crush him denotes intense emotional and spiritual pressure. He has put him to grief moves beyond physical pain and weakness to describe the total experience of the Servant. There was no mitigation of the agony with which the Servant was divinely afflicted. However, there was another side to the matter, as the clause, when his soul makes an offering for guilt, indicates. It is difficult to determine how this clause ought to be translated because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew verb. A better translation may be “when you make his soul an offering for guilt” (see footnote in ESV). The context seems to favor taking “you” as addressed to the Lord, which then fits in with the prevailing emphasis of this verse on what Yahweh wills and does. His soul emphasizes that the Servant’s whole person was involved in this offering. The guilt offering was an animal, either a ram without blemish, a lamb or a goat, offered for sacrifice as a means of expiating certain kinds of involuntary, and especially voluntary sins, such as theft, fraud, or swearing of false oaths. While the guilt offering retained the ideas of propitiation and expiation involved in burnt offerings and sin offerings, it added the need to make restitution or compensation to those who had been wronged, so as to restore a right relationship. It may be that what this term highlights here is either the breach of faith involved in the people’s violation of the covenant or, more probably, the element of reparation for guilt incurred. Where it goes beyond the Levitical law is that the payment was not made by the party who had undermined the relationship, but by another. Because Yahweh had been pleased to institute and accept this offering from and by the Servant, it is promised that he shall see his offspring. While this does not explicitly set out the doctrine of the resurrection, it does point to a decisive, after-death reversal of the Servant’s fortunes in which he personally participates. The reference here is to spiritual descendants of the Servant, who benefit from his work. Prolong his days, though elsewhere used of earthly life, must refer in this context to enjoyment of life after death, though the details are not spelled out. Given the distinction maintained in the perspective of the Song, which reveals a time when the Servant’s suffering is past but his reward is still in the future, the statement that the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand relates to a life of resumed fulfillment of the will of Yahweh, bringing His purposes through to a successful conclusion, rather than referring to what he has already undergone. The Servant does indeed first experience anguish of his soul, toil and pain of earthly endeavor, which affects every aspect of his person. But, as a consequence of all that he submits himself to, he receives a reward. He shall see probably refers back to verse 10 where the Servant sees his offspring. The thought of the Servant’s conscious awareness of all those for whom he has procured life is now reinforced with the statement that he will be satisfied with all that his suffering has achieved. The second part of verse 11 focuses on the benefits the Servant will bestow on others. As the righteous one, the Servant stands in a right relationship with Yahweh. His obedience has been perfect throughout his life and in the way he endured the burden of sinbearing, and so there is no flaw to mar his fellowship with Yahweh. Furthermore, his achievement is such that he is in a position to extend that relationship to others, to make many to be accounted righteous. The many are the remnant who have revised their estimation of the Servant and accepted the divine verdict on his status and work [cf. Mark 10:45; Rom. 5:15]. They, and all who similarly put their trust in the Servant, are on that account accepted by Yahweh. By the knowledge bestowed on him of God’s will and his understanding of what is required for divine acceptance of sinners, he is able to discharge his duties with perfection born of insight into what he is doing. The last line of the verse begins with and, used to introduce an explanation of how this status of righteousness is conferred. Bear repeats the verb for shouldering a burden found in verse 4. It is only by his work, which has taken away guilt and iniquity, that there is the possibility of the provision of righteousness for the many. Therefore [12] shows Yahweh as granting to the Servant his rightful, well-earned reward for a task successfully completed. By divine decree he is allotted as his inheritance the many, those whose iniquity he has carried away and who put their trust in him. They become his people. The verb rendered poured out conveys the thought of unrestrained exposure, carried through to the uttermost; to death. Furthermore, this was done voluntarily, without compulsion from others: he poured out. Yet all the while there was another side to what was happening – he was engaged in the task of sinbearing for the many, the solitary substitute for all those whom he would deliver from the slavery of sin, and for whom he makes intercession. This is not to be thought of only as engaging in prayer. The verb is the same as that rendered laid on him in 53:6. Here is one who placed himself between the rebels and the punishment they deserved, taking it on himself. The verb form suggests that more is involved than the past definitive act of sin-bearing. This intercession is open-ended and continuing.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why was the servant despised and forsaken of men? How is he despised and forsaken today? Verses 2-3 teach us about the danger of using our expectations as the criteria for judging the qualifications of our Christian leaders. Instead, what criteria should we use?

2.         What are the griefs and sorrows that he bore and carried? Why did the Lord cause our iniquity to fall upon him? Why was it necessary for God to provide a substitute to act on our behalf?

3.         What did the Servant’s violent death accomplish for his people? Why was it necessary that the servant had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth?

4.         Why was it the will of the Lord to crush him [10]? What was the Lord’s purpose in sending His servant to suffer and die? What happens to the Servant after his death?


Isaiah, John Mackay, Evangelical Press.

The Prophecy of Isaiah, J. Alec Motyer, Inter Varsity Press.

The Book of Isaiah, Edward Young, Eerdmans.

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