April 21, 2008

The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 52:13-53:12


Today we look at the fourth of what are called the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, which are poems or songs that told the Israelites some details of the coming Messiah. The servant songs are poems or chants that Isaiah recited or chanted, probably in the temple court.

The first servant song we discussed is in Isaiah 42:1-9, in which the Father calls the future Messiah “My Servant.” This song prophesies that the Messiah would have a quiet and patient demeanor, would offer comfort to the weak and oppressed, would bring truth and justice, would be a light to the gentiles and open mankind’s eyes. The first song ends with Yahweh assuring that the Messiah’s advent is sure.

The second servant song is in Isaiah 49:1-13. In that song, the Lord prophesied that the Messiah would come in human form, would be an effective teacher and glorify the Father, that He would be sent to save Israel but Israel would reject Him, that He would save all mankind, that those who despised Him will one day worship Him (a prophecy of His second coming), and that He represents a covenant to all people.

In the third servant song, Isaiah 50:4-9, we read prophecies that the Messiah would be obedient in speaking and teaching, in listening to the Father, in His suffering, and in accomplishing His purpose.

Throughout the servant songs, we have run into a characteristic of the Messiah that the Israelites found hard to accept: that He would be a light to the gentiles. They expected a Messiah that would free them from foreign domination and reinforce their rigid legalistic practices. The people who heard Isaiah learned instead that their Messiah would come to save all people, and His message would not be one of political and national dominance, but one of restoration to the Father and righteous thinking and living.

The fourth servant song is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It describes the Messiah as the Suffering Servant and is perhaps one of the best known passages in the Old Testament:

13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently;
He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.
14 Just as many were astonished at you,
So His visage was marred more than any man,
And His form more than the sons of men;
15 So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.
53:1 Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness;
And when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
3 He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
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 bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by 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;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
9 And they[a] made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul,[b]and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.

The Suffering Servant

The exalted destiny of the Servant (52:13-15)

“Behold, My Servant shall . . .” (NIV: “See My Servant . . .”). This song opens with the Lord calling special attention: look at, fix your eyes on, or observe with care and understanding. This is a common way in the Bible to draw attention to what the Lord is about to tell us. We find the same emphasis in the New Testament, as in John 1:29, when John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

“He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” This is a prophecy of both His first and second advent. He is exalted now; after His resurrection and ascension, He is now at the right hand of the Father. At His second coming, He will be exalted in the sight of the entire world, which He will rule.

Nothing about His physical appearance in His first advent would cause people to exalt Him. In fact, His appearance would be marred (52:14, disfigured). This description could refer to both His physical stature and appearance, but more likely to His appearance at the crucifixion (in the last part of verse 14, the Lord points out “And His form more [marred] than the sons of men”). In other words, His disfigured appearance would be notable, event astonishing or surprising at the extent of His disfigurement. (“Just as many were astonished at You [the boldness and impact of His teachings?], So His visage was marred . . .”; that is, His marred appearance just as astonishing as His bold teaching.) This is a prophecy of His first advent: before He is exalted, He will suffer.

“So shall He sprinkle many nations” (15). This verse refers to salvation the Messiah would bring for all mankind. The “sprinkling” may be a remembrance of the sprinkling of blood on the door posts and lentil on the night in Egypt when the Lord spared the firstborn of the Israelites (Exodus 12). It is the blood of Christ, His death on the cross in payment for our sin, that enables all mankind to enter into communion with the Father. There is one other similar biblical tradition to which this sprinkling may refer. Leviticus 14 describes the ceremonial cleansing of a person healed of infectious disease, a ceremony in which the priest sprinkles water and blood on the healed person to pronounce him or her clean. In this sense, the sprinkling of the Messiah over many nations would be consistent with both His first advent, in which His atoning death make it possible for all who trust Him to be reconciled to the Father, and to His second advent, when He will rule over the nations and cleanse them from their sin.

At His second advent, governments (kings) will not resist; “kings shall shut their mouths” because they will understand and submit to His rule.

The Life of the Servant (53:1-3)

These verses are a brief summary of the Messiah’s life during His first advent. “Who has believed our report (message)? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The implication is that in spite of these and other prophecies, few would recognize the Messiah, although the prophecies clearly describe Him and his life and purpose.

Isaiah 53:2 tells us, “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant” (literally, “tender shoot”). Take a look at Isaiah 11:1 (NIV): “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots, a branch will bear fruit.” The term refers to the growth that sprouts from the stump of a tree after it has been cut down or died. Most of us have seen the shoots that grow from the stump of a fallen tree. The tree, which was cut down, often still has life in it. So it was by the first century, when the ruling house of David had been cut off, dead for centuries. Yet, just as prophesied, the Messiah came, a descendant of David.

The passage gives us a good description of how things were when Jesus first came to earth. It was a dark time in history for the Israelites, a dark time spiritually, a dark time politically after centuries of foreign dominance and occupation, a time of poverty; the nation of Israel was all but dead. But then came the Messiah, in humble circumstances and with no particular personal charisma or especially pleasant or appealing physical stature: “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him.” Jesus was born to a poor, working family and probably had an average appearance. There was nothing special in His circumstances or appearance that would tend to set Him apart as a leader or prophet. It was His message alone that was so compelling.

Even in adulthood, when He taught as the Son of God, He was despised and rejected: “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” The Messiah was rejected by the religious leaders, who cursed Him, falsely accused Him, and in many ways expressed their hatred and disgust for Him. Although a few saw Him for Who He is, most “did not esteem Him.”

His suffering for our sin (53:4-9)

The Messiah is described in these verses as substitutionary atonement for our sin in one of the most intense passages in the Bible. Christ was our substitute in receiving the judgment due for our sin. Note how this is emphasized in this passage (“He has borne our griefs . . . He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities; . . .”). He paid the price for us, so that we would not have to and so that we could live in communion with the Father.

This doctrine of the atonement for our sin is repeated often in the New Testament:

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13, NIV).

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18, NIV).

He suffered and died in without protest (7-9), and in verse 9 we read “And they made His grave with the wicked—But with the rich at His death,” a prophetic detail that literally occurred. Jesus died with the wicked (crucified between two criminals) and was buried in a rich man’s tomb (Matthew 27:57-60).

His ultimate victory (10-12)

The Messiah’s ministry on earth did not end with His death. Even in death He was victorious: He defeated death in His resurrection and now is at the right hand of the Father. (Romans 6:9 [NIV]: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.”)

And He is coming again. “He shall see His seed” (literally, “gaze at,” emphasizing being present with). “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied” (be filled, content, even “enriched” in our presence). “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong”: He will return to rule, and we will rule with Him.

“And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors”: a concluding reminder of the substitutionary atonement that has made it all possible for us: both our present communion with the Father and the Messiah’s future return to rule with us.


The Lord’s words opening this song are “Behold, My Servant.” He has given us a good look at our Savior in this servant song. I read an story a long time ago that illustrates what God is trying to do for us in giving us these glimpses of the Messiah in the servant songs in Isaiah. I don’t know whether the story is literally true or not; perhaps it was invented by an imaginative preacher to illustrate the atonement. The story goes something like this: After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, a special train carried his body back to Illinois for burial. It stopped in many towns so people could get a glimpse of the casket of the great emancipator. In one town, a black woman picked up her young son and held him up to the window of the railroad car carrying Lincoln’s casket and said “Take a long look, son. He died for you.”

Likewise, we need to take a long look at the prophecies of the Messiah, at the gospels that record Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and at the epistles, in which God fills in a lot of the details. We need to take a long look, because He died for us.

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