by William M. Banks, Scotland
THE CONTEXT OF THE SERVANT SONGS
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT OF ISAIAH CHAPTER 53
The book of Isaiah is really a miniature Bible with the 66 chapters corresponding to the 66 books of our Bible. The first major section comprises the first 39 chapters, paralleling the Old Testament, and the second section comprises 27 chapters, paralleling the New Testament. The subject matter is also parallel. The first part, for the main, is concerned with judgment – note, for example, the six “woes” in chapter 5. The second section introduces a message of comfort: “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins” 40.1,2.
The second section has three subsections of 9 chapters each: 40-48; 49-57 and 58-66. These deal respectively in general terms with restoration (from captivity); the basis of restoration and the climax of restoration in “… new heavens and a new earth” 65.17, in this case outlining the glory of the millennial kingdom when all flesh shall “… come to worship before Me, saith the LORD” 66.23. This is in anticipation of the features being enjoyed eternally. In this connection it has been suggested by McClain1 that “… nothing in the whole field of Old Testament prophecy could possibly surpass the brilliance and grandeur of the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah; its central theme is the restoration and world supremacy of the nation of Israel.” It begins “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee” 60.1. Thus Jerusalem, which knew the cup of the Lord’s fury in 51.17, will then know days of glory and splendour. What has made the difference? How can fury resulting in “… desolation and destruction” 51.19, be changed to brilliance and grandeur leading to worship? The answer lies in the middle subsection of the second part of Isaiah, namely chapters 49-57. What is the central burden of these chapters? – none other than Isaiah chapter 53!
- 1. McClain, A. J., “The Greatness of the Kingdom”, B.M.H. Books, 1976.
The only righteous basis for sins to be removed is Calvary. Our chapter depicts in detail the substitutionary work of the suffering Messiah. This alone can account for the change in the nation’s history and the consequent transforming power of God being experienced in their midst; not now a cup of fury but a cup of blessing! Isaiah chapter 53 (actually beginning with Isa.52.13) is, of course, one of the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah and its context in the development of the Songs is interesting and important. The Servant Songs are so called because they highlight the Lord Jesus as the perfect Servant of Jehovah.
THE CONTEXT OF THE SERVANT SONGS
It is important to know both the general and particular context in which the Servant Songs are found.
The General Song Context
The four Songs may be summarised as follows:
- The Servant delighting the heart of God, 42.1-9
- The Servant communicating the mind of God, 49.1-13
- The Servant listening to the voice of God, 50.4-11
- The Servant fulfilling the programme of God, 52.13-53.12
It is not surprising that each Song ends with a song!
- “Sing unto the LORD a new song, and His praise from the end of the earth” 42.10
- “Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted His people, and will have mercy upon His afflicted” 49.13
- “Hearken…the LORD shall comfort Zion: He will comfort all her waste places; and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody” 51.1,3
- “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD” 54.1
It is surely fitting that such a Servant should cause a paean of praise, not only from animate creation, but from inanimate creation as well. What a difference from the minor key being struck now from a groaning creation, Rom.8.22,23! The context of the last three Songs should also be noted. They fall in the section of the second half of Isaiah, chapters 49-57, dealing with the gracious basis of restoration. It is only the One Who delighted the heart of God, 42.1-9, and delights the people of God, Who could lay the righteous foundation upon which His God could act in grace.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT OF ISAIAH CHAPTER 53
There are three calls to awake in the immediate context of the fourth Servant Song, 51.9; 51.17 and 52.1. Indeed in each case it is “Awake, awake”. There is urgency, awareness that time is short, action must be taken!
The first urgent call is for God to demonstrate His power as He did previously at the Exodus. “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away” 51.9-11. Thus Jerusalem would be transformed; no longer waste and like a wilderness, 51.3, as being under enemy control. It would become “like Eden … like the garden of the LORD”. To bring about this change God would need to intervene with dramatic effect; the “arm of the LORD” in all its transforming and dramatic power would need to be experienced. Gladness and joy would replace sorrow and mourning. This of course has a prophetic application; it has still to be implemented in its fulness.
How could gladness and joy be known apart from the enemy being routed? This is the subject of the next urgent appeal, 51.17-23. The call this time does not come from the nation of Israel, but from God Himself. He answers their cry, and that in dramatic fashion. “Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the LORD the cup of His fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out … thy sons have fainted … they are full of the fury of the LORD, the rebuke of thy God. Therefore hear now this, thou afflicted, and drunken, but not with wine: Thus saith thy Lord the LORD, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of His people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of My fury; thou shalt no more drink it again: But I will put it into the hand of them that afflict thee” 51.17-23. Thus the fury of the LORD will be transferred from Jerusalem to the nations which afflicted her, leaving the nation to enjoy the quietness and blessing that come from the presence of the Lord in her midst. Again, the prophetic fulfilment awaits a future day, when the last great battle takes place at Armageddon immediately prior to the establishment of the millennial kingdom, Rev.19.11-21, foreshadowed in the next appeal, 52.7, when it will be said “Thy God reigneth”.
In this third, urgent appeal, 52.1-12, the result of the first two cries is consolidated and Zion will be the centre of universal dominion taking the “good tidings” with “beautiful feet” to “all the ends of the earth”. What a call to God’s people: “Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem … How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth! … The LORD hath made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” 52.1,7,10. It will be a great day for the nation and for the world.
We might wonder how it is possible for a nation which has known the outpouring of the cup of the fury of Divine wrath because of their sin, and had been overrun by strong and powerful enemies, to become the centre of blessing for the whole earth. The answer, of course, lies in the context in which chapters 51 and 52 are found. They come immediately after the third Servant Song and immediately prior to the fourth! Both of these focus on the severity of the suffering of the Servant. In the one case, the altogether voluntary aspect of it is emphasised: “The Lord GOD hath opened Mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not My face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help Me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set My face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed” 50.5-7. In the other case, 52.13-53.12, the focus is on the vicarious nature of the suffering; for example: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed” 53.5. The righteous foundation for Divine activity is thus emphasised: the voluntary and vicarious nature of the death of Christ is the only basis upon which the sin of an individual can be forgiven and, by extension, upon which the transformation of a nation can take place based on the acknowledgement of their sin, on the one hand, and an accomplished atonement seen by a satisfied throne, on the other.
THE OUTLINE OF ISAIAH 53
As indicated above, the fourth Servant Song really comprises chapter 52.13-53.12. There are therefore 15 verses which divide neatly into 5 stanzas of 3 verses each, with the last 3 verses of chapter 52 comprising the first stanza. It is possible to see these first three verses as a summary of the remaining 12 verses in chapter 53. However, it is probably better to take each stanza as independent and covering different subjects in its own right. Using this approach the following is a suggested outline:
- The exaltation of the suffering Servant receiving the acclamation of purified Gentile nations, 52.13-15
- The contrite cry of the believing remnant of Israel in the future as they remember their nation’s treatment of the Messiah leading to His rejection, 53.1-3
- The acknowledgement of the vicarious nature of the Servant’s death and the nation’s cry of repentance, 53.4-6. (This is the central paragraph of chapters 40-66, with v.5 being the central verse!)
- The history (as the nation looks back) or prophecy (as Isaiah looks forward) of the detailed suffering and submission of the sinless Servant, His trial, death and burial, 53.7-9
- The final satisfaction and exaltation of the Servant based on an accomplished work resulting in a glorious seed, 53.10-12.
A more succinct outline could be as follows:
- Suffering and Supremacy – greatest suffering leads to highest glory
- Remembrance and Rejection – preaching and power but failure to respond
- Confession and Contrition – “He … for our” v.5
- Silence and Submission – man’s worst to heaven’s best
- Satisfaction and Seed – the Lord pleased and man blessed
An even more succinct outline can be obtained by combining the middle three stanzas as the heart cry of the restored remnant of a future day:
- Universal provision of salvation in the suffering but exalted Christ, initially only accepted by Gentile nations, 52.13-15
- Awareness of the provision of salvation by Israel, followed by repentance and acceptance of the value of the vicarious sacrifice of their Messiah, 53.1-9
- The victorious dominion of the satisfied and exalted Christ, 53.10-12
THE DETAILED CONSIDERATION
Each stanza will be considered in turn and it is necessary to determine who the speaker is in each case, to obtain a correct interpretation. In some cases this is straightforward and in others a little more difficult. The many New Testament references help in understanding the details of this Song. There are times in Isaiah when the “Servant” refers to Israel. However, the fact that the Lord Jesus is in view here is unequivocally demonstrated in Acts chapter 8, where the Ethiopian chancellor is reading from this passage, and Philip beginning “… at the same scripture … preached unto him Jesus” v.35.
Stanza 1 – 52.13-15
The speaker in this case presents no problem. Jehovah is asking us to stop and ponder the only One Who can produce the righteous basis upon which the future regathering of the nation of Israel can be accomplished and with that, the corresponding blessing flowing to the nations of the world. There are three things considered in these verses: namely the Servant’s unrivalled glory, v.13, His unparalleled suffering, v.14, and His universal worship, v.15. It is well known that Hebrew poetry consists of couplets with the second line of the couplet mirroring the first and usually giving some important additional and confirmatory material. The whole of this Song is written in poetry (see for example Newberry’s presentation) and the first two lines illustrate this:
- “Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently
- He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high”.
It can be seen that “He” parallels “My Servant”, and “exalted and extolled, and be very high” parallels “deal prudently”, and “exalted and extolled” expand on what issues from dealing prudently. The reason for introducing this at this stage is to indicate the necessity of linking the “as many … at Thee” of v.14 with the “so … many … at Him” of v.15. These verses can thus be summarised as follows:
- The great Prophet, v.13a – the Conveyer of God’s Word
- The great King, v.13b – the Controller of God’s World
- The great Priest, vv.14,15 – the Conductor of God’s Worship
The Great Prophet – v.13a
There are two things indicated, namely, Who He is and what He does. The prophet is so taken up with the greatness of the Person and the effect of His ministry that he begins with an expression of wonder, “Behold”!
The fact of the wonder has been helpfully expanded by Baron2:
- “Behold My Servant” Isa.52.13 – cf. Mark, for the Roman
- “Behold the Man” Zech.6.12 – cf. Luke, for the Greek
- “Behold thy King” Zech.9.9 – cf. Matthew, for the Jew
- “Behold your God” Isa. 40.9 – cf. John, for the Church.
- 2. Baron, D. “The servant of Jehovah”. Morgan & Scott Ltd., 1922.
The ministry of the Servant is then emphasised: He “… shall deal prudently”. The idea behind dealing prudently is to ‘act wisely’, to ‘instruct’, to ‘teach’, to ‘prosper’. It is used of David in 1Sam.18.5,14,15,30 when he “behaved himself wisely” under the gaze of the threatening Saul, and also used of the aged Israel in Gen.48.14, “… guiding his hands wittingly”, knowing right well in his spiritual wisdom to whom the blessing of the firstborn should be given in spite of the protestation of Joseph. Of course, acting wisely inevitably leads to prosperity as indicated in Jer.23.5: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper [same word], and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.” The same idea is found in Deut. 29.9: “Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper [same word] in all that ye do.”
The idea is thus clearly indicated that the Servant is a great Prophet. By implementing the ministry of the prophet in instructing and teaching, and doing it wisely, He is going to cause His people to prosper. This was the case during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. Those who listened to His upper room ministry, for example, were enabled to prosper from that teaching after His resurrection and ascension. It will be the case, too, with the nation of Israel in the future, when unparalleled prosperity for that nation will be known by adhering to the communications of their Messiah. The evidence of prosperity under the preaching of the great Prophet is articulated in detail in Isa.61.1-3 in relation to the nation: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me; because the LORD hath anointed Me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He might be glorified.” The same passage is quoted in Lk.4.17-19 (with the omission of any reference to vengeance) to emphasise the prosperity resulting from the Lord’s earthly ministry. Of course, in the case of the nation, vengeance will be necessary to take account of their enemies before the blessing of prosperity can flow to the needy.
The Great King – v.13b
The balance of v.13 focuses on the supreme exaltation of the Servant as a King. According to Baron3, the Midrash (the exposition of the Hebrew text by the Rabbis) has an interesting series of references in this verse. It indicates in relation to the Servant that He shall be exalted above Abraham the father of the faithful; extolled above Moses the mediator of the Law; and be high above angels who are never told “Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool” Ps.110.1. The word “very” is indicative of the height of the exaltation, having in it the idea of exceedingly or abundantly or mightily.
- 3. Baron, ibid.
Keil and Delitzsch4 are undoubtedly right to indicate that there is a gradation in the three verbs used: “exalted”, “extolled” and “high”. “The three verbs … denote the commencement, the continuation and the result or climax of the exaltation.” They concur with Stier5 in indicating that there is reference to “… the three principal steps of the exaltatio in the historical fulfilment, namely the resurrection, the ascension, and the sitting down at the right hand of God.” The Servant thus reaches an immeasurable height, towering above every other potentate and awaiting the final display of His sovereignty as the great King. The pictures and positions depicted in Phil.2.9, “highly exalted” and Eph.1.21, “far above”, are entirely apposite to this passage.
- 4. Keil, C. F. and Delitzsch, F, “Commentary on the Old Testament: Vol. 7, Isaiah”. William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted 1976.
5. Stier, R.E. “Commentary on Isaiah”, 1850.
The Great Priest – vv.14,15
There are three couplets in these verses corresponding to the format of Hebrew poetry as indicated earlier. They may be summarised as follows:
Astonishment turned to silence – based on sprinkling by the great Priest – universal worship:
- “As many were astonied at Thee
- So shall He sprinkle many nations;
- the kings shall shut their mouths at Him.”
The basis of the astonishment – unparalleled suffering:
- “His visage was so marred more than any man
- and His form more than the sons of men.”
The reason for the silence – unrivalled glory:
- “For that which had not been told them shall they see
- and that which they had not heard shall they consider.”
The astonishment in the second couplet is evident because of the intensity of the suffering. Marring is indicative of disfigurement, particularly of the face. Who can begin to imagine the sight that must have met the gaze of those at Calvary? “I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not My face from shame and spitting” Isa.50.6. This verse presents a back subjected to the scourging, a face with hair and skin plucked off, a crown of thorns, the spittle, the stripping:
- “O make me understand it,
- Help me to take it in,
- What it meant to Thee, the Holy One,
- To bear away my sin!”
- (Katharine A. M. Kelly)
We bow in silent worship. Keil and Delitzsch6 have described the conditions as “… a distortion that destroys all likeness to a man.” Little wonder there was astonishment.
- 6. Keil and Delitzsch ibid
But who are involved in the change from open-mouthed astonishment to silent wonder? (The wonder is even more amazing since it comes from nations, and kings who are the leaders of the nations.) Not here the nation of Israel; they certainly will wonder, but it is the Gentile nations (of the millennial kingdom) and their leaders. But were they not responsible with the Jews for the suffering and death of Christ, Acts 4.27? The quotation of this verse in the New Testament, Rom.15.21, makes it abundantly clear that the nations envisaged are those who heretofore have not been believers in the Messiah. The message is coming to them, as did Paul’s, with power and impact. They shall “see”, meaning they shall perceive what previously had been hidden, and shall “consider” i.e. understand, discern what they had previously failed to obey because they were not listening with attention and interest.
But why the silent wonder? The supreme exaltation of the Sovereign previously despised and set at nought is something they could never have contemplated. Is this the same Servant Who knew such humiliation? His glory is now universal! “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” Hab.2.14. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” Isa.11.9. This knowledge and glory will cause universal worship from a wondering world.
But what has effected the change to make the wonder possible? Nothing less than the work of the great Priest! What has He done? What balances the “As many … at Thee” at the beginning of v.14? It is the “So … many … at Him” of v.15. (Note in passing the change of pronoun from direct address “Thee” to indirect “Him”. It has been well said that pronouns are to the books of the prophets of the Old Testament what prepositions are to the epistles of the New. There is a good deal of doctrine in both.) It is clear, then, that the “as” is balanced by the “so”. “So shall He sprinkle many nations.” The change has been effected by sprinkling! Some have taken this word to mean “startle”, but this is untenable, both in the context and in the meaning of the word.
F. Duane Lindsay7 has said: “This is a technical Mosaic word for the sprinkling of water, oil, or blood as a cleansing or purifying ceremony”. Fausset8 has recognised that [this word] ‘universally in the Old Testament means either to sprinkle (with blood); to atone for guilt — as the high priest makes an expiation, Lev.4.6; 16.14,19; or to sprinkle (with water), as synonymous with purifying, Num.19.18,21, or cleansing, cf. Ezek.36.25, where a different Hebrew word for sprinkle means ‘to cleanse’ … Both atoning for guilt and purifying by the Spirit are appropriate to Messiah, Jn.13.8; Heb.9.13,14; 10.22; 12.24; 1Pet.1.2.”
- 7. Lindsay, F.D. “The career of the Servant in Isaiah 52.13-53.12” in BibliothecaSacra, Vol.139: No.556: October – December, 1982.
8. Fausset, A.R. “Job – Isaiah”. William B. Erdmans Publishing Company. 1978.
Thus nations and kings will be purified or cleansed by the expiatory sufferings of the great Priest and come into the recognition of the great King in millennial blessedness as a result of the communication by the great Prophet.
Stanza 2 – 53.1-3
This stanza begins that part of the Song that focuses particularly on the earthly ministry of the Servant and the nation’s sadness at its treatment of their Messiah. As noted above, to have a correct interpretation we need to determine who is speaking. The New Testament references help in this regard. It has been suggested that Isaiah, or the Lord, or a combination of both, may be the communicator/s of the “report”. However, it is best to see the whole stanza as the confession of the believing remnant of Israel of the future when they appreciate their superficial assessment of the Servant and the fact that their mistaken moral judgement led to His unwarranted rejection. The report of v.1, unlike the communication of the previous verse, goes unheeded. The Gentiles of the future “see” and “consider”, 52.15; the nation of Israel in our Lord’s day refused to “believe” 53.1!
As before, this is Hebrew poetry with its parallelism. There are 10 lines of poetry encompassing 5 couplets. The tenses are what are called “prophetic perfects” and thus regarded as “past”. Many translations therefore use the past tense throughout. There are three subjects corresponding to the three verses.
The Sad Remembrance of a Rejected Message – v.1
V.1 is essentially a little ministry meeting with a speaker, an audience, a message (the content or doctrine) and a response. These four elements are common to any meeting. Each is considered in turn.
As indicated above, it is likely the speakers are the repentant nation of Israel of the future, looking back and considering the reaction of their nation to the earthly ministry of the Servant. Their eyes are now anointed by Jehovah in the language of Zech.12.10: “And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.” They will speak with “… the agony of a broken heart and contrite spirit.”9
- 9. Baron, ibid.
It is necessary to determine the audience to whom (“who … whom”) the message is given. The reference in the Gospel by John leaves us in no doubt who the initial audience was. “But though He had done so many miracles [signs] before them, yet they believed not on Him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, LORD, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw His glory, and spake of Him” Jn.12.37-41. The initial audience was thus the Jews of the Lord’s day among whom the confirmatory signs of His Messiahship were enacted. First they would not believe, then they “could not” v.39!
The context of these solemn verses is most enlightening. Seven signs had been completed. The evidence that the Messiah was in their midst was overwhelming, but they still failed to believe. The opportunity was now passing. The Lord is going to turn to His own, chapters 13-17, in the upper room ministry. “His own” 1.11, of the nation had rejected Him and He is now turning to “His own” 13.1, who embraced Him and who henceforth were going to be the foundation of the church, which is unique to this present dispensation. It was a climactic moment in the Gospel of John and in the history of the nation.
The reference in Rom.10.16: “For Esaias saith, LORD who hath believed our report?” is indicative of the small number who would respond to the preaching of “the gospel of peace” the “glad tidings of good things” v.15. They had heard, v.19, but were “a disobedient and gainsaying people” v.21. The apostle’s heart seems to be all but broken as he ponders his nation’s response to the “report”. The believing remnant of the future has the same feeling of sorrow!
The Message and Response
What is the “report”? The word “report” can mean “that which we hear”. In 52.15 the Gentiles had heard and believed. They had heard the message regarding the triumph and final exaltation of the Messiah. Alas, in spite of this same message being given to the nation of Israel they were unprepared to respond and believe. There was, however, an additional and parallel message for them: “the arm of the LORD”, indicative of the availability of Divine power for the nation. They had known this in the past at the Exodus, 51.9, and in gospel witness, “the salvation of our God” 52.10. Yet, in spite of such an exalted Person and such mighty power being available, the response is evidently extremely disappointing. “Who hath believed?” the answer is very few! “To whom … revealed”: only those who had been touched by the sovereign dealings of Jehovah!
The Early Movements of the Servant – v.2
No doubt much of the detail of this verse would encapsulate the substance of the report referenced in v.1. The language of the A.V. has Isaiah looking forward. The past tense of other versions (eg. R.V.) has the revived remnant looking back. Either way the details are clear. The development of the Servant in His early years is being emphasised, particularly His development before the eye of God. In addition, the disappointment of the nation is addressed in the closing details of the verse. Several features are noted.
“He shall grow up.” This is amazing in itself. The eternal Son, yet He grew up! It emphasises the reality of His manhood: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” Lk.2.52. It was not a dazzling display of growth like Jonah’s gourd; gourds that grow in a night usually disappear in a night! It was according to the law of God and the reality of manhood. He was aware that it was “before Him”. The eye of God was constantly upon Him, even in the obscurity of Nazareth. The opened heaven at His baptism is proof of this. The silence of centuries was broken – the heavens could remain silent no longer: “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” Matt.3.17.
He was as a “tender plant” and a “root”. The former is indicative of a plantlet or sapling – a twig. This is “the Rod out of the stem of Jesse” of Isa.11.1. It was not what the nation was expecting. The latter reference, a root, indicates prospective strength in spite of apparent weakness. Out of this, the branch can grow, Isa.11.1, and bear fruit for God and the nation.
The environment looked altogether unappealing for subsequent growth. It was “dry ground”; arid, waste with no apparent sustenance for the sapling. The picture is of the nation in which there was nothing for God. The corrupt character of the age is thus depicted. Today is no different. The increasing ungodliness and wickedness evident all around is a reminder of the conditions that are faced today. However, it gives no excuse for careless living. Enoch and Noah lived in dark days, but walked with God.
It might have been thought that such a One growing up and living distinctively in their midst would have been enthusiastically embraced. The opposite was the case! To them He had no form, that is no outward beauty as to His appearance, cf. Gen.39.6; 1Sam.16.18; no comeliness, meaning no external majesty, regal splendour, and excellence; no beauty, nothing appealing to the ideal of external power. The result was they had no desire for such a Servant, One in Whom they could take no pleasure. “They wanted a King but they got a carpenter.”10
- 10. Lindsay, F. D. ibid.
The Despising by the Nation and their Future Confession – v.3
There are two matters brought into prominence in this verse, namely the “Man of Sorrows” and the cry of sorrow from a contrite people. Consequent on the treatment meted out as detailed in v.2, the Lord was a “Man of Sorrows”. Twice over, at the beginning and the end of the verse, the emphasis is on being “despised”. The word is a strong one and its meaning can be ascertained to some extent by its use in 49.7, “Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and His Holy One, to Him whom man despiseth, to Him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and He shall choose Thee”. Thus there is in it the idea of abhorring, of contempt, of disdain (from the innermost being). It is the same word used of the evil Esau, who being insensible to spiritual values “despised his birthright” Gen.25.34. In addition, He was “rejected of men [that is, men of high rank]”. There appeared to be no men of distinction on His side, cf. 1Cor.1.26. He was “acquainted with grief.” The burden of the sin of the nation and the effect of sin in the lives of the nation weighed heavily on the holy Person of the Lord Jesus.
The confession of the nation is now fulsome. “We hid”: means to refrain from eye contact. They could not bear to be close to Him. An alternative and interesting reading (see Newberry) indicates that the Lord hid His face from them so as not to reveal His glory to a nation in rejection of their Messiah. The net result either way was “they esteemed Him as nothing”. Alas, their cry is too late, but their eyes are now opened to behold the reality detailed in succeeding verses.
Stanza 3 – 53.4-6
This strophe is the climax of the Song. It is central to this Song, to this second section of Isaiah and central to Divine purpose from eternity! It summarises the event to which all the past looked forward and to which all the future looks back. The death of Christ and the glory associated with that death is the climax of the ages. All of the Old Testament shadows and types prefigured it; the Gospels detail the historical facts; the epistles deliver the doctrine and the book of Revelation outlines the future prospects for the nation, the nations, the world, the church, but pre-eminently the Christ based on the triumph of Calvary!
Repentance and Reflection – v.4
The section begins by an indication of full repentance, “Surely” or alternatively, “But He indeed …”. A change of heart is thus evidenced. Two words indicate their condition: “griefs” and “sorrows” and three words indicate their mistaken estimation of the Servant’s suffering, “stricken, smitten … afflicted”. They now recognise their griefs, (the same word as v.3), were borne and their sorrows, (again the same word as v.3), were carried by Him. The New Testament reference, Matt.8.17, is confirmation that this was done during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus. Sicknesses and pain endured by suffering humanity were the evidence of sin. As such they burdened the intrinsically holy Person of the Lord Jesus, and He bore these, neither substitutionally nor sacrificially, but sympathetically during His life.
The remnant now recognises belatedly the burden associated with the healing ministry of the Lord, as exemplified for example in Matthew chapter 8. In that chapter the Lord meets “infirmities” and “sicknesses” of a variety of kinds including the uncleanness of leprosy, the grievous paralysis produced by sickness, the uncontrollable activity produced by fever and demon possession. The intimacy of association with the effect of sin is also seen in John chapter 11. Campbell Morgan11 has put it succinctly and beautifully when considering the verse “Jesus wept”. He says “He took into His own heart all the agony, the reason for which moved Him with indignation [v.33b]. He made Himself responsible, and gathered up into His own personality all the misery resulting from sin, represented in a dead man and broken-hearted people round about Him. This was voluntary identification with the sorrow that issues from sin, and was the outcome of righteous wrath against the sin that caused the sorrow. It is a most remarkable unveiling of the heart of Jesus.”
- 11. Morgan, G. C. “The Gospel According to John”, Marshall, Morgan & Scott Ltd., 1956.
However, they go further in the balance of the verse and confess their mistaken assessment of the reasons for His suffering. “They assumed He was “stricken”, meaning to smite with disease, especially leprosy, often in punishment for sin … Num.12.10; 2Kgs.15.5; “smitten by God”; … the assumed Divine source of the suffering, [while] “afflicted” may carry the meaning of inflicted or humiliated with disease, Num.14.12; Deut.28.22″12. They now recognise He did it for them!
- 12. Lindsay, F. D. ibid.
The Vicarious Sacrifice of Christ – v.5
V.5 is central and climactic. The Hebrew parallelism almost speaks for itself:
- “But He was wounded for our transgressions,
- He was bruised for our iniquities”
“Wounding” paralleling “bruising”, and “transgressions” paralleling “iniquities”.
- “The chastisement of our peace was upon Him;
- and with His stripes [stripe, singular] we are healed”
“Chastisement” (punishment) paralleling “stripes”, and “peace” paralleling “healed”.
There are thus four references to suffering [wounding (or piercing), bruising (or crushing), chastising (or punishing) and stripes] with four corresponding effects, two negative and two positive (transgressions and iniquities taken account of, and peace and healing resulting). The suffering was experienced by the Servant, the blessings by the remnant and, by extension, by us!
The vicarious nature of the sufferings is clearly delineated: “He … for our; He … for our; our … upon Him; with His stripe we are healed”. Indeed, it has been helpfully pointed out by Davis13: “… that Isaiah chapter 53 explains the death of Christ as a vicarious sacrifice at least 6 times (vv.5,6,8,10,11,12), uniquely in the Old Testament, although the truth can be understood from the Levitical offerings as well.”
- 13. Davis, M. C. Private communication, 9 Dec. 2013.
The intensity of the suffering is likewise indicated. “The verbs ‘pierced’ [wounded] and ‘crushed’ [bruised] are two of the strongest words in the Hebrew language to describe a violent and painful death.”14 The horror and magnitude of the sufferings of the cross are thus detailed. It may be that the singular “stripe” is indicative of the forsaking by God thus encapsulating the totality and immensity of the suffering.
- 14. Lindsay, F. D. ibid.
The Wandering Sheep – v.6
Additional features of depravity are indicated in v.6. The comprehensiveness of the wandering is seen in the same word “all” opening and closing the verse, meaning all of us. Not only prone to wander collectively, “all”, but equally prone individually, “every one to his own way”. However, again the answer is in the vicarious sacrifice of Christ initiated by Jehovah: “The LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity [same word in vv.5,12, meaning the perversity or guilt] of us all.”
We can but bow in holy wonder as we consider the immensity of the suffering: bearing grief, carrying sorrow, wounded, bruised, chastised, knowing the stripe, iniquity being concentrated and converging upon (such is the meaning of the word “laid upon”; it is like a destroying foe overwhelming the opponent) the sinless Servant. On the contrary the glory associated with that death has meant release from burden, the experiencing of peace and healing and a welcome to the Shepherd’s flock!
Stanza 4 – 53.7-9
There are three important matters in these verses. Having summarised the details of the vicarious sacrifice in vv.4-6, the writer now wants to show the events leading to it and issuing from it. Thus there is the trial, v.7, the crucifixion, v.8, and the burial, v.9. The final stanza while highlighting His suffering, will reveal the glory that must follow.
The Trial – v.7
The Lord Jesus remained silent, a fact that is emphasised twice in the verse, “He opened not His mouth” and this in spite of oppression and affliction, Matt.26.63; 27.12-14; Mk.15.5; Lk.23.9; Jn.19.9. “He answered never a word”! As a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers, the sinless Servant goes in total submission. The order is reversed in Acts chapter 8: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer” v.32. The fact that the words “lamb” and “sheep” are reversed in the quotation in Acts 8 is not without significance. The “lamb” being led to the slaughter in Isaiah is a further affirmation of the intensity of suffering being everywhere asserted in Isaiah 53. The silence in spite of the suffering is deafening; the result is glorious: “Behold the Lamb of God” Jn.1.29, His passion; Jn.1.35, His Person! What a sight!
The Crucifixion – v.8
“He was taken.” There is a mystery here that is unfathomable: “And they took Jesus, and led Him away and … they crucified Him” (Jn.19.16-18). They (dependent creatures) “took … led … crucified” the eternal Son of the eternal God, the Creator of flaming worlds and yet the submissive Servant. Due to the illegal trials both ecclesiastical and political, from prison (restraint) and from judgment, they thought both He and His name would perish, Ps.41.5, and so the question, “who shall declare His generation?” They thought His name would be cut off from the earth; but “He shall see His seed” v.10: “cut off in the prime of life … few … who lived then considering His death important.”15 The verb “cut off” has the meaning of a violent and unnatural death. However, the purpose is clear from the concluding phrase: “for the transgression of my people was He stricken”.
- 15. Martin, J. A. “Isaiah in The Bible Knowledge Commentary”. Editors J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck,. Chariot Victor Publishing,1999.
The Burial – v.9
The intention of those who crucified the Lord Jesus was to give Him a common burial, “with the wicked”. It is necessary to change the A.V. reading: “And [men] appointed His grave with the wicked [plural], but He was with the rich [singular] in His death [plural]” J.N.D. The singular “rich [man]” refers prophetically to Joseph of Arimathea, Jn.19.38, and the plural ‘deaths’ by Hebrew usage gives emphasis and intensity to the severity of the circumstances involved. God had different ideas from man! The One Who came in by way of the virgin womb would leave by way of the virgin tomb, Matt.27.57-60; Jn.20.1-10. The reason is given, that no further indignity could be perpetrated by man now that the work had been accomplished: “He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth”. From now on exaltation is in view.
STANZA 5 – 53.10-12
Vv.1-9 conclude the penitential cry of the believing remnant. The Song that began with the prospect of unrivalled glory for the Servant, 52.13-15, is going to conclude as it began, 53.10-12. Jehovah drew attention to His Servant at the beginning of the Song and Jehovah will equally draw attention to His Servant at the conclusion. The twin aspects of suffering and glory are again addressed. In these three verses there is a chiastic structure in which one subject (in this case glory) is sandwiched between another subject (in this case suffering). The suffering is the theme in vv.10a and 12b and the glory is in between from vv.10b to 12a.
The Guilt Offering – v.10a
The reflection at the opening of v.10 might be the words of the Spirit of God indicating the true source of all that has taken place: “… it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin.” At first, the language seems inexplicable. Was it only wicked men who were behind the death of the Lord Jesus? No: say Keil and Delitzsch,who have put it beautifully: “…the supreme causa efficiens was God Who made the sin of men subservient to His pleasure, His will and predetermined counsel.”16 However, the severity should not be missed. The word “bruise” has in it the idea of crushing and “putting to grief” that of afflicting with sickness. These are the same words used in vv.5,4 respectively. Thus “innocence is suffering at the hands of perfect love”.17 Mystery of mysteries!
- 16. Keil and Delitzsch, ibid.
17. Baron, ibid.
The effect of the above is that “His soul shall have made an offering for sin” (J.N.D. footnote). The offering in view is the guilt offering or the trespass offering, Lev.5.14-6.7. The fundamental idea in this offering is that of compensation rendered or satisfaction made; the offerer was making amends for what he had done. “And he shall make amends for the harm that he hath done in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto the priest: and the priest shall make an atonement for him with the ram of the trespass offering, and it shall be forgiven him” Lev.5.16. Of course, in the case of the sinless Lord Jesus there is no thought of wrong with Him. He was satisfying the throne of Divine justice and providing a righteous basis upon which God can deal with the guilt of His people.
In the words of Psalm 69, He was effectively saying prophetically: “… then I restored that which I took not away” v.4. While His enemies hated Him and wanted to destroy Him, the remainder of v.10 intimates that His guilt offering provided even for them the basis of reparation.
The Resurrection and Future Prosperity – v.10b
There are three things communicated in the balance of the verse. George Adam Smith’s translation gives the link well, it was in order that: “… through His soul making a guilt-offering, He might see a seed, prolong His days, and that the pleasure of the Lord might prosper in His hand.”18 Firstly then, “He shall see His seed.” It is clear that a spiritual progeny is in view. After all, it takes place after death! He is going to bring “many sons to glory” Heb.2.10; and Psalm 22 indicates that “a seed shall serve Him” v.30. A vast multitude of redeemed men and women will bow at His feet in adoring wonder and worshipful service as a result of the triumph of Calvary.
- 18. Smith, G. A. “The Book of Isaiah – Vol 2”, The Expositor’s Bible, 1903.
Secondly, “He shall prolong His days.” The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the evidence of His triumph in the realm of death. “I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” Rev.1.18. He lives for evermore – He shall prolong His days! See also Ps.16.10 and Heb.7.24.
Finally, in this connection: “The pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.” The pleasure of God has been referred to at the beginning of the verse, where even the mischief of men is subservient to His pleasure, but now the purpose and pleasure of Jehovah prosper, that is to be completely accomplished. This is seen in a variety of situations: for example, at the baptism of the Lord Jesus the heavens were opened: “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased” Matt.3.17; “For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell” Col.1.19; “Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself” Eph.1.9.
Satisfaction and Justification – v.11
Jehovah once more focuses our attention on the result of suffering. The Servant is going to see the result of His travail (“My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” Matt.26.38) and be abundantly satisfied, appreciating the fullest realisation of every expectation of His soul. But what does He see? Certainly “His seed” v.10, are involved but surely more. The world is waiting for the fullest display of His glory and during that coming kingdom, the fruit of Calvary will be universally manifested in the sovereign reign of the Lord Jesus.
However, in the immediate context, He is going to see the justification of “many”, having borne their iniquities and thus laid a righteous foundation. How is it going to be accomplished? “By His knowledge shall My righteous Servant justify many” or as Adam Smith translates it, “My Servant, righteous Himself, wins righteousness for many.”19
- 19. Smith, A. ibid.
There are two ways in which this passage has been understood. In the one case the righteous Servant is seen as undertaking the task of justifying. He does this “… by His knowledge”. This embraces His knowledge of the requirements of the Divine throne and the need of the “many”. In this case the passage is considered subjectively. In the other case the passage is looked at objectively and an alternative translation is given as “… by the knowledge of Him” justification comes to the many. In other words He becomes the object of faith. While this is true I rather think Smith’s translation as given above is more in keeping with the context. Thus, the subjective activity of the Servant, as a result of His knowledge of all the requirements of justification being communicated effectively to the many, is going to permit them to be declared righteous in the economy of God.
There is another question: who are the many? It is clear from v.6 that the value of the death of Christ is available to meet the need of all. It is equally clear from this verse and v.12 where there are two references to the word “many” (“great” and “many”) that “universalism” is not in view. The work of Christ becomes effective for the many who respond through the “obedience of faith” Rom.16.26, to the word of Christ in the gospel made known to them.
The New Testament doctrine is enunciated by the apostle in Romans chapter 5. “But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many … For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” vv.15,19.
A correct understanding of these verses depends on a correct interpretation of the many. A. Leckie20 has helpfully and accurately given the following definition: “‘Many’ in Scripture is never to do with offer, availability or direction but always to do with final analysis and ultimate classification.” In Rom.5.12-21 the great apostle deals with the absolute and delicate necessity of carefully distinguishing between “one”, “all” and “many”, and cannot be charged with confusing these terms. Under no circumstances can any of the four references to “many” in these two verses, 15 and 19 be construed as “all”. Thus “the many” of Isaiah chapter 53 are those referred to at the end of Rom.5.19, namely those who accept God’s offered righteousness as the gift of grace.
- 20. Leckie, A. “Romans – A Commentary on Chapters 1-8”, Precious Seed Publications, 2007.
Universal Dominion – v.12
The first couplet is based on the last two couplets. He will have victory and dominion as compensation for the voluntary work of the cross. In these last two couplets four things are predicated of the Servant. He “poured out His soul unto death.” The voluntary nature of His sacrifice, and His utter devotion are thus emphasised. Four times in John chapter 10 the Lord Jesus says, “I lay down my life” or its equivalent (vv.15,17,18, twice). Voluntarily “He was numbered with the transgressors”; not only in death, Mk.15.28, but in life also, Matt.12.24; Jn.9.16. Little did the authorities know they were fulfilling the Old Testament Scriptures in crucifying Him with criminals! “He bare the sin of many and made [maketh] intercession for the transgressors.” New Testament writers take up this theme, 1Pet.2.24; Heb.9.26-28. He did make intercession on the cross, Lk.23.34, but if the present tense is right, and it has authority, the verse is also telling of the present ministry of the Lord Jesus at the right hand of God, Heb.7.25; Rom.8.34!
What about the first couplet of v.12? The victorious Servant Sovereign will be honoured by kings and nations universally, 52.15; the heathen will be His inheritance, Ps.2.8: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea … and His enemies shall lick the dust” Ps.72.8,9. Yet He will not be alone: “… He shall divide the spoil with the strong.” His people will share with Him in the day of His glory. “When Christ, Who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory” Col.3.4. “When He shall come to be glorified in His saints, and to be admired in all them that believe (because our testimony among you was believed) in that day” 2Thess.1.10. Thus He will share His triumph with His own.
The main message of the Song is clear. The vicarious death of the Lord Jesus with its associated suffering has been answered in His glorious exaltation, and has permitted Jehovah to come out in salvation blessing to both Jew and Gentile. The glory associated with that death is going to be enjoyed by the Lord, and not by Him alone, but by all those who come into the benefit of accomplished atonement. We bow in wonder and worship as we ponder the price paid by the Servant and the blessings accruing to the sinner. Praise His Name!