Promised Like No Other

| Isaiah 53:1-12

The Point:  Jesus is the promised Messiah.

The Suffering Servant:  Isaiah 53:1-12.

[1]  Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? [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. [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. [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]

[1-3]  Despised and rejected. The first three stanzas of the poem review the Servant’s life from his early days (grew up [2]) 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 second stanza [4-6] explaining the significance of his sufferings. This is not, however, a neutral, technical report. What Isaiah is permitted to overhear is the confession of those among whom the Servant had lived, as they look back and admit that they had completely misunderstood what was happening to him. They do not explain what it was that had induced them to revise their opinion of the Servant and the events of his life. They are content to set the record straight and to set out clearly what a true appraisal of the Servant entails. While the speakers are not identified, they were familiar with the Servant and with what had happened to him – but they had not understood its significance and so had not responded positively to him. It is in this way that Paul cites Isaiah 53:1 in Romans 10:16 as a complaint against the unbelieving attitude of Israel. However, the speakers are those who have changed their mind regarding the Servant. Given the past tenses used of the Servant’s work (as distinct from the future tenses used of his exaltation), it seems that the prophet has been drawn forward to envisage a scene in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion. The details of this were, of course, unknown to Isaiah and his original hearers. Even so, the speakers in the vision may be identified as the believing remnant of the people and, by using we, the prophet implicitly associates himself with their outlook and invites his hearers to do so also. The Servant who will come to effect Yahweh’s salvation is to be appraised in accordance with the divine verdict on him, not by outward appearances and merely human expectations. Isaiah relates the testimony of the group he is permitted to hear speaking. They begin by asking two questions. Having just appreciated what had really been happening in the career and death of the Servant, they had eagerly presented to their fellow countrymen the message regarding the Servant’s significance and work, but their question shows that their audience had not responded as they themselves had done. Their hearers had not believed by being prepared to accept the speakers’ interpretation of the facts set before them, and so they had not responded with faith in the one whose sufferings and death were Yahweh’s way of deliverance. The second question utters a similar challenge to the wider audience to whom the message regarding the Servant is now presented by the speakers. It is phrased in terms of the arm of the Lord – that is, the power of God exercised in salvation. Paradoxically, that power had not been revealed in an overwhelming, miraculous display, but in the work of the Servant. However, the question, to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?, shows that there is need for further divine action through the Holy Spirit before the full impact of the atoning work of the Servant is appreciated and accepted. Looking back to the beginning of the Servant’s life, the speakers in verse 2 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 unprepossessing earthly circumstances of the Servant are further highlighted in the simile like a root out of dry ground, which 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. He therefore came to be rejected by men. Through their total misapprehension of the significance of his actions, they despised and rejected him.

[4-6]  Radical reappraisal. This is the central stanza in the four-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. The statement that he was he has borne our griefs 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. The language in verse 4 makes very clear that the Servant’s role is that of a representative and surrogate. The use of three phrases (stricken, smitten … afflicted) 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. According to the common beliefs of the day, suffering was divine retribution for sin, and great suffering meant a great sinner, whose experience was an evident mark of divine displeasure. 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 (in verse 5) 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. The penalty 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. In verse 6 the contrast continues between the speakers’ conduct and what the Servant endured. None of them was exempt from the charge of being wayward and unresponsive in conduct. 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. The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

[7-9]  A lamb to the slaughter.  The third 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]. In the first line of verse 7 Isaiah sets out his main observation, which he then illustrates. The Servant was oppressed, however, he did not retaliate, as might have been expected, but kept on submitting to affliction because it was part of what he had been sent to do [cf. John 10:14-18]. Unlike the sheep of verse 6 which had strayed from the path, the Servant was like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. Here the principal point is the compliant submission of the Servant being led to his death. Verse 8 clearly teaches that the Servant’s life ended through judicial process resulting in judgment. 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. 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 others. While the description of the others as my people undoubtedly identifies them as the covenant people of Israel, it does raise problems as to who is speaking at this point. My might indicate that the last three lines of the verse are the speech of Yahweh Himself or of the prophet associating himself with his people. While the nature of the stanza as prophetic report favors this being Isaiah’s own comment, on either interpretation the Servant suffered on behalf of the people of God. The Servant’s burial is now described in verse 9. 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 (with the wicked), and so to deny him an honorable burial, their plan was frustrated. 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 in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid [Luke 23:53]. Although indicates that this did not happen by accident, but to signal Yahweh’s approval of the Servant’s life. 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.

[10-12]  He will be satisfied.  The final stanza of the song is closely linked to the rest of the poem (e.g. by references to bearing iniquities in 53:6,11; by references to the Servant’s death in 53:9,12; by the resumption from 52:13 of the Servant’s success and by the mention of the many in 53:11,12 linking back to 52:14-15), 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. 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 [10] 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 the verse. Will (purpose or pleasure) does not imply divine enjoyment of the Servant’s suffering, but points to Yahweh’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. 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. 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 shall see and be satisfied [11] 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 the Lord. 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. They, and all who similarly put their trust in the Servant, are on that account accepted by Yahweh. The last line of the verse begins with and, used to introduce an explanation of how this status of righteousness is conferred. 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 had carried away and who put their trust in him. They become his people. The parallel thought, he shall divide the spoil with the strong, may well refer to the conqueror’s action against those who had stoutly resisted him. This will occur because he poured out his soul to death. The verb rendered poured out conveys the thought of unrestrained exposure, carried through to the uttermost. Furthermore, this was done voluntarily – without compulsion from others. Transgressors are those who have defied the authority of Yahweh and have acted contrary to His will. He had not behaved in this way, but in his self-identification with those for whom he acted he did not spare his dignity or his good name. 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 thralldom of sin, and for whom he makes intercession. 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 sinbearing. This intercession is open-ended and continuing.”  [Mackay, pp. 340-357].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the main point of each of the four stanzas of Isaiah’s poem?

2.         What do these verses concerning the Suffering Servant teach us about the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ?

3.         List all the actions of God in these verses? From these verses, how would you explain the meaning of the will of the Lord?

References:

Isaiah, Volume 2, John Mackay, EP Publishing.

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

The Book of Isaiah, Volume 3, Edward Young, Eerdmans.

Isaiah, Geoffrey W. Grogan, EBC, Zondervan.