Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 Commentary2017-03-22T04:46:07+00:00

Biblical Commentary

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

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Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

COMMENTARY:

THE SERVANT SONGS:

Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs.  The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world.

• The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).

• The second song (49:1-6), further defines the Servant’s mission.  The Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a).  Furthermore, God says, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth” (49:6b).

• The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the work and tenacious faith of the Servant.  God has given the Servant a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5).  While the Servant experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help me” (50:7, 9), so the Servant sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).

• The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering.  This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:4).  “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.  As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he didn’t open his mouth” (53:7).  “They made his grave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).

The identity of the Servant, who seems to be an individual in some places and a group in others, has been a subject of scholarly debate—with little consensus.  Jewish people tend to think of the Servant as Israel, and it is probable that the prophet thought in those terms—although the prophet might have had an individual in mind.

“The writer of the Servant Songs was looking for an individual who represented both Israel and the Lord, and whose work would bring salvation through suffering.  This figure carries a sense of the ideal, but also a sense of theological importance that demands historical enactment.  Whether or not the writer viewed this figure as messianic, the historical person who most fulfilled this idea was Jesus.  In the New Testament the servant is, indeed, identified with Christ (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 15:21).  The Servant Songs do not identify the servant with messianic concepts found elsewhere in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 9, 11), but the identification of the servant with Christ allowed the Church to develop a concept of a suffering Messiah, a concept essentially foreign to Judaism” (Myers, 928).

Chapters 54 and 55 continue to flesh out the work of the Servant.  They call the people to rejoice, because “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (54:5).  They promise that God’s “loving kindness shall not depart from you” (54:10).  They invite those who thirst, “Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1).  They counsel, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6).  They promise, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace (55:12).

ISAIAH 52:13 – 53:12.  OVERVIEW

This passage presents us with challenges typical of poetry.  It uses words and phrases rich in meaning but capable of more than one interpretation.  “My servant” is a case in point.  Is this servant the nation Israel—or the prophet—or the messiah?  Does the word “servant” mean one thing in one place and something else in another place?  Did God intend Israel to understand “my servant” one way in its original context and the church to understand it another way?  How did the author understand it?  How does God intend us to understand it?

Another challenge is to determine who is speaking.  When the prophet writes, “See, my servant shall deal wisely,” is this the prophet’s voice or God’s voice?  Is the voice that we hear in 52:12 the same voice that we hear throughout this passage—throughout the book?

Scholars differ considerably on these matters.  Because of the poetic nature of this passage, scholars have debated and written at length over the centuries about such questions.  “It is one of the great oddities of Old Testament studies that the very text that is taken to be abundantly rich and theologically suggestive is at the same time undeniably inaccessible and without clear meaning (Brueggemann, 141).

ISAIAH 52:13-15:  BEHOLD, MY SERVANT SHALL DEAL WISELY

13Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

14Like as many were astonished at you (his appearance was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men),

15so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they understand.

“Behold, my servant shall deal wisely” (v. 13).  Who is speaking here?  Most scholars would agree that it is the voice of Yahweh.  Who is the servant about whom Yahweh is speaking?  There is far less agreement on that question.

As an example of diversity of interpretation, Watts identifies the servant of 52:13 with “the emperors chosen to do YHWH’s work, from Tiglath-Pilesar through Cyrus.”  He identifies the marred figure of 52:14 with Darius, who surprised people by becoming king of Persia even though he “was not in direct line to the throne” and occupied a relatively modest position prior to assuming the throne.  He sees the one who “was despised and rejected” (53:3ff.) as Zerubabbel, one of the better kings of Judah (Watts, 786-790).  But the other scholars listed in the bibliography below see it differently.

Jewish rabbis would identify the servant as Israel or the Jewish people.  There is some justification for this.  Innocent Jewish people have been subjected to persecution in many settings, the Holocaust being only the best known.  However, in the Isaian context, the people of Judah were not innocent.  God allowed the Babylonians to take them into exile as punishment for their sins.  Therefore, their exile can hardly qualify as “a perversion of justice” (53:8)—nor would they qualify as “the righteous servant” (53:11).

Very early in the life of the church, Christians identified the servant as Jesus Christ—the messiah—the one who “took our infirmities, and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17).  Matthew specifically identifies Jesus as the one who fulfills this Isaian prophecy (Matthew 12:17-21).  In the book of Acts, Philip, “beginning from this scripture, …preached to (the Ethiopian eunuch) Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

We should acknowledge that it is possible—even probable—that the prophet thought of the servant in one way but that God intended the church to reinterpret the prophet’s words in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ.  As noted above, the poetic quality of this passage lends itself to a variety of meanings.  It stands to reason that God would inspire the prophet to write in such a manner so that his words could be reinterpreted to reveal Jesus at the appropriate time.

But whoever the servant is, the promise is that he shall prosper.  He shall accomplish that which he has set out to do.

“he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (v. 13b).  The New Testament uses these phrases, “exalted” and “lifted up,” with reference to Jesus.  It uses “lifted up” to speak of his crucifixion (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34; Acts 1:9) and “exalted” to speak of the honor due him because of his obedience to the will of the Father (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Hebrews 7:26).  Most significantly, it speaks of Jesus:

“who, existing in the form of God,
didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him,
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

“Like as many were astonished at you” (v. 14a).  The “many” are emphasized both in these opening verses (vv. 14-15) and the closing verses (vv. 11-12).  “The many are contrasted with the one, the solitary, righteous, suffering, and finally victorious servant, and prepare the way for the sharp contrasts between the singular and plural of the lament” (Muilenburg, 617).

“his appearance was marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (v. 14b).  The servant is a singularly unattractive person—hardly the popular choice as “Most likely to succeed.”  “He is a loser, an outsider from whom no one expects anything” (Newsome, 258).

But God often choses unlikely people to do his work.  The boy, David, is one example.  Moses, who lacked eloquent speech, is another.  Gideon with his tiny army is another.

Rabbis could point to the Jewish exiles as fitting this description.  They were a subjugated people—powerless—unimpressive.

For Christians, this verse describes the crucified Christ.  How could anyone be less attractive than a helpless, naked, bleeding man hanging from a cross—or a battered corpse?

A marred appearance also describes many of the great saints of the church.  Mother Teresa comes to mind—a woman in a man’s world—small of stature—doing her work among the sick and dying in India.  If we were looking for a person of great influence, we would not be inclined to search the mean streets of India to find her.  Even if we had seen her at work among the poor and needy, there would have been nothing in her appearance to suggest that she might be influential or powerful.

“so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them they shall see; and that which they had not heard shall they understand” (v. 15).  The word “nations” is a code word for Gentiles.  God’s servant will have a great effect, not only on the Jewish people, but on all people.

“so shall he sprinkle many nations” (v. 15a).  Just imagine how startled the Philistines must have been to see little David bring down giant Goliath with a slingshot.  Just imagine how astonished Pharaoh might have been to find Moses such a formidable foe.  Just imagine how startled the Midianites were when Gideon and his little band blew their trumpets and smashed their jars and routed the Midian army.

In like manner, powerful people will be astonished to see the Jewish exiles return to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple.

In like manner, powerful people will be rendered speechless when they see the resurrected Christ.

In like manner, powerful people will be astonished to see poor and humble servants of the Lord succeed where governments and powerful interests have failed.

ISAIAH 53:1-3.  HE WAS DESPISED AND REJECTED

1Who has believed our message?
To whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed?
2For he grew up before him as a tender plant,
and as a root out of dry ground.
He has no good looks or majesty.
When we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3He was despised,
and rejected by men;
a man of suffering,
and acquainted with disease.
He was despised as one from whom men hide their face;
and we didn’t respect him.

The voice changes here from Yahweh to the people of the community. “The community mourns the suffering of the servant, giving an account of his life, his unfair trial, his suffering and death.  They are in awe of his innocence (53:9), his quiet acceptance of his fate (53:7), and the fact that his suffering was on their behalf (53:4, 5, 10).  Another aspect of the community’s response is extremely important:  In the presence of the suffering of this innocent one they are confronted by and confess their own sins (53:3, 4-6, 8)” (Tucker, 195).

“Who has believed our message? To whom has the arm of Yahweh been revealed?” (v. 1).  Who has believed?  “The expected answer is ‘no one'” (Muilenburg, 618).  Who could believe that a mere boy could defeat a giant?  No one!  That a man with no army could bring the Egyptians to heel?  No one!  That three hundred Israelites could defeat an army as “countless as the sand on the seashore” (Judges 7:12)?  No one!

Who could believe that God would raise up a Persian king (Cyrus) who would free the Jewish exiles and help to finance the rebuilding of their temple?  No one!

Who could believe that a man who died on a cross—his death attested by Roman soldiers and witnessed by crowds—would rise from the dead?  No one!

But those to whom the arm of the Lord has been revealed could believe!  Those who have seen the Lord God come with might (40:10) could believe!  Those who have seen the Lord use his arm against the Chaldeans (48:14) could believe!  Those who have seen the Lord rule the peoples with his arm (51:5) could believe!

As it turns out, the Lord has revealed the strength of his arm to people in every land under the sun—billions of people—over a period of many centuries.  Those billions of people have believed, and have done/are doing mighty deeds in the name of the Lord.

“For he grew up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.  He has no good looks or majesty.  When we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him” (v. 2).  There are certain characteristics that distinguish powerful leaders.  Many of them are physically imposing—tall, strong, handsome.  If they are not physically imposing, we expect to see some compelling aspect in them—a sense of presence, a riveting glance, a sonorous voice, a persuasive manner, a towering intellect.

But we aren’t impressed by a young plant that might or might not live through the day—that might or might not produce a harvest in some distant future.  We aren’t impressed with a root out of dry ground—struggling against the odds for survival—destined by circumstances never to amount to much.  We aren’t likely to expect much from a person from a poor and humble background.  We aren’t likely to desire someone with no desirable aspect to his appearance.  We would not have picked David or Moses or Gideon or Israel or Jesus or the church to be the instruments to carry out God’s work.  But “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

“He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease” (v. 3a).  He was despised in the sense that people considered him as having no prospects—worthless.  Having made that judgment, they placed him in the “reject” bin to prevent him from diluting the pool of more promising people.

“He was despised as one from whom men hide their face; and we didn’t respect him” (v. 3b).  Where possible, we avoid contact with no-prospect people.  We prefer that they live in ghettos where we won’t have to see them.  We avert our eyes as we pass them on the street.  We wish only that they would go away.  So it will be with this servant of God.  People will hide their faces from him—despise him—hold him to be of no account—judge him worthless.

ISAIAH 53:4-6.  HE HAS BORNE OUR SICKNESS

4Surely he has borne our sickness,
and carried our suffering;
yet we considered him plagued,
struck by God, and afflicted.
5But he was pierced for our transgressions.
He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought our peace was on him;
and by his wounds we are healed.
6All we like sheep have gone astray.
Everyone has turned to his own way;
and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering” (v. 4a).  But if this servant appears to be crushed and broken, it is because he “has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering.”  It isn’t his own poverty that grinds him down, but ours.  It isn’t his own brokenness that cripples him, but ours.  It isn’t his own illness that disfigures him, but ours.  It isn’t his own sins that damn him, but ours.

“yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted” (v. 4b).  But we have not returned the favor.  He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, but we have not acknowledged his help.  We see only the unattractive quality of his life and suppose that he has gotten what he deserved—God’s judgment for some terrible thing that he has done.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions.  He was crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5a).  This reiterates what was said in verse 4, but transforms illness language (infirmities and diseases) into sin language (transgressions and iniquities).  This is closer to the crux of the matter.  While we might or might not need help with a physical illness, we do need help with our spiritual sickness—our sins.

In verse 4b, we noticed that the servant was stricken and afflicted, and we thought that he was getting what he deserved.  Now we learn that the truth is quite different.  The transgressions for which he was wounded are ours.  The iniquities for which he was crushed are ours.  We are the ones who deserve to be stricken, struck down, and afflicted (v. 4b).  We are the ones who deserve to be wounded and crushed (v. 5a).

Once we realize that “there but for the grace of God go I”—that if justice were rendered, we would be stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted like the servant—then the seriousness of our sinful condition becomes apparent, probably for the first time.  We have thought ourselves to be good citizens—not perfect, of course, but better than most.  The servant, however, gives us a God’s-eye view of our condition, allowing us to see the spiritual cancer at the core of our being.

“The punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed” (v. 5b).  “The servant did not submit to affliction through apathetic resignation but as a bold choice to participate with God in an act aimed at breaking the stranglehold that sin had maintained for countless ages over the human family” (Hanson, 159-160).

How can the servant, by taking our punishment, make us whole?  How can he, by accepting our bruises as his own, heal us?  Why would God not simply wave a wand over us and pronounce us whole?

Verses 7-12 will give us some poetic glimpses into the answers to these questions, but it will help to review here the idea of substitutionary atonement that pervades both Old and New Testaments.

Atonement has to do with making amends for sin or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sin.  It also has to do with restoring relationships that were broken by sin—in particular the relationship that we enjoyed with God prior to the introduction of sin into the world.  Our sin (our failure to do God’s will—our willful disobedience) broke that relationship, because God is holy (morally and spiritually perfect) and expects us to be holy as well (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15).

Our sin, therefore, creates a conflict for God.  On the one hand, God is repulsed by our sin, but on the other hand, he loves us.  On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to invite us into full fellowship while we are tainted with sin, but on the other hand, he cannot bring himself to dismiss us totally.

So, in keeping with his holiness (which demands that we be punished) and his love (which demands that we be reconciled), God devised a process by which he can make us holy once again so that he might receive us into full fellowship—a process known as substitutionary atonement—”substitutionary” meaning that God will accept a substitute to absorb the punishment for our sins and “atonement” meaning that we can be restored to full fellowship with God.

Christians sometimes speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” to convey the idea that atonement has to do with reconciling people to God.  This is in keeping with the Latin word, adunamentum, which has to do with establishing unity and is the Latin word behind our English word, atonement (Encarta).

In the Old Testament, atonement took the form of animal sacrifices.  God required Israelites to sacrifice animals in a sacred ritual to atone (make amends) for their sins (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 1:4; 4:20-21, etc.).  The idea was that people deserved to die for their sins, but God permitted them to sacrifice animals in their place.  The death of the animals satisfied God’s need for justice, which in turn made it possible for him to forgive the people’s sins.

This idea of substitutionary atonement is also prevalent in the New Testament, and is the rationale behind the death of Jesus:

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

• Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 36).

• “Being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).

• Christ is our “Passover”—our Paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).

• “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures,” a matter regarded by Paul as supremely important” (1 Corinthians 15:3).

• Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

• “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

• Christ “loved (us), and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2).

Substitutionary atonement not only satisfies God’s needs for both justice and mercy, but also dramatizes the dreadful nature of our sin and its consequences.  It helps us to see that our sins are not just minor mistakes for which a passing apology is all that is needed.  It helps us to understand that “the wages of sin is death” and that we are in desperate need of “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

“All we like sheep have gone astray.  Everyone has turned to his own way” (v. 6a).  In a pastoral economy, people raise sheep for meat, milk, hides, and wool.  Sheep are the opposite of street-smart—wandering at will—nibbling their way apart from the flock—unaware of potential danger—innocent but stupid.

Sheep are also used as sacrificial animals in Jewish temple worship.

“and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6b).  Again, the prophet makes allusion to substitutionary atonement (see above on v. 5).  The Lord has laid our iniquity on the servant.

In the New Testament, Paul uses different words to express the idea that the prophet expresses here in verse 6:

“For there is no distinction,
for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
being justified freely by his grace,
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

ISAIAH 53:7-9. HE WAS OPPRESSED AND AFFLICTED

7He was oppressed,
yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.
As a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute,
so he didn’t open his mouth.
8He was taken away by oppression and judgment;
and as for his generation,
who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living
and stricken for the disobedience of my people?
9They made his grave with the wicked,
and with a rich man in his death;
although he had done no violence,
neither was any deceit in his mouth.

“He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.  As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he didn’t open his mouth” (v. 7).  A lamb is a young sheep, defenseless, the epitome of innocence, and therefore especially fitting for ritual sacrifice (Exodus 12:1-13; 29:38-42; Leviticus 9:3; 12:6, etc.).  The New Testament refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36).

This verse says that the servant is like a lamb and sheep—oppressed and afflicted—silent.  Twice it says, “He didn’t open his mouth.”  He neither protested his unjust punishment nor spoke in his own defense.  This description “is not characteristic of the O.T. sufferers.  Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Job…raise loud laments before the mystery and apparent injustice of their fate” (Muilenburg, 624).  However, Jesus in his trial before the high priest will remain silent when invited to defend himself (Matthew 26:62-63).

“He was taken away by oppression and judgment” (v. 8a).  The servant is innocent, so any oppression or affliction that he might suffer is inherently unjust.

“and as for his generation (Hebrew: dor – can mean generation)?” (v. 8b).  “The circle of his own generation did not perceive what the servants now perceive, as those ‘to whom the arm of the Lord has been revealed.’ The important point is that the death of the servant required illumination by God” (Seitz, 466).

“who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living” (v. 8c).  This could have several meanings, any or all of which could be intended here.  First, being cut off from the land of the living could mean that the servant is numbered among the transgressors and is therefore forced to live in isolation and is denied the spiritual comforts of religious practice.  Second, being cut off from the land of the living could refer to his death.  The mention of the servant’s grave in verse 9 confirms that this is one of the intended meanings.  Third, this could mean that “the Servant was left without children in a culture where to die childless was to have lived an utterly futile existence” (Oswalt, 395).

“and stricken for the disobedience of my people?” (v. 8d).  Again the prophet raises the issue of substitutionary atonement (see comments on v. 5 above).

“They made his grave with the wicked” (v. 9a).  Even if we have failed to honor people during their lifetimes, we seek to honor them when they die.  We speak nicely about them at their funerals and bury them with solemn ceremony.  People often choose to be buried in a military cemetery or a church burial ground as an expression of their identity or to be laid to rest with like-minded people.  We are careful not to disturb final resting place, whether in a formal cemetery, an ancient burial ground, or a sunken ship.

But the servant who has been oppressed and afflicted in life will be denied an honorable burial in death.  He will not be buried among honorable people, but among the wicked—a final affront—a last and lasting indignity.

“and with a rich man in his death” (v. 9b).  We aren’t certain of the meaning here, but the context makes it clear that it isn’t positive.  It probably refers to rich people who have come by their money dishonestly or by taking advantage of vulnerable people.  If this is the meaning, it is saying that the guiltless servant will be laid to rest with the guiltiest of the guilty.

“although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth” (v. 9c).  This reaffirms the servant’s innocence and the perversion of justice (v. 8) that led to his death.

ISAIAH 53:10-12.  I WILL DIVIDE HIM A PORTION WITH THE GREAT

10Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him.
He has caused him to suffer.
When you make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed.
He shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand.
11After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light and be satisfied.
My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself;
and he will bear their iniquities.
12Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,
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 made intercession for the transgressors.

The voice changes once again.  Now it is God who speaks.

“Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him” (v. 10a).  We would think that the Lord would be outraged at the perversion of justice visited upon the servant, but that isn’t the case.  Nor has the Lord been absent or disinterested, permitting an evil that should never have happened.  Instead, the Lord willed that the servant be crushed with pain.  The Lord willed it, and that is why it happened.  The Lord takes responsibility for what appears to be an evil deed, because he intends to make something good of it—something redemptive.

“He has caused him to suffer.  When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed.  He shall prolong his days” (v. 10b).  The Bible includes many divine reversals.  “Yahweh upholds the humble.  He brings the wicked down to the ground” (Psalm 147:6).  “But many will be last who are first; and first who are last” (Matthew 19:30).  “He has put down the princes from their thrones.  And exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:52; see also Matthew 5:3-9; Luke 6:25; 16:25).

Now the prophet promises that when the servant’s life is offered up as a sin offering (see Leviticus 5:1-13), the Lord will launch a great reversal where the servant will see his offspring and enjoy prolonged days.  This fulfills the promise of 52:13.

It isn’t immediately apparent how the Lord will accomplish that, because we have just now seen the servant’s grave (v. 9)—”Once dead, always dead,” they say.  But the Lord claims here that he will rectify the awful perversion of justice about which we have been reading, and we can be sure that the Lord will do what he has promised.

“and the pleasure of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand” (v. 10c).  In verse 10b, the promise was that the servant would prosper (see his offspring and enjoy prolonged days).  Now the promise is that, through the servant’s work, “the will of the Lord shall prosper.”  What is God’s will?  Jesus tells us that it is God’s will that the world might be saved (John 3:16-17)—“that everyone who sees the Son, and believes in him, should have eternal life” (John 6:40).

How can the perversion of justice about which we have been reading cause the will of the Lord to prosper?  The answer has to do with substitutionary atonement (see comments on v. 5).  The servant, though innocent, has borne the suffering of the guilty so that the guilty might be absolved of their sins. God has transformed an evil deed to achieve a good outcome.

“After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light and be satisfied” (v. 11a).  The servant will not remain in the darkness of anguish, but will see light.  He will know the good outcome of his suffering, and will find satisfaction in the knowledge of what he has accomplished.

“My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (v. 11b).  What the servant (now known as “my righteous servant”) has accomplished is the transformation of many from an unrighteous to a righteous state.  He has accomplished this by bearing their iniquities.  “Whoever he is, the Servant stands in the place of God, pronouncing a pardon that the Sinless One alone can offer (51:4-6)” (Oswalt, 405).  See also the comments on verse 5 about substitutionary atonement.

“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong”(v. 12a).  Paul expresses this same thought in the New Testament:  “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

As a consequence of the servant’s faithfulness, God will reward him.  Where the servant has been oppressed, afflicted, and cut off from the land of the living, he will now be given “a portion with the great” and “shall divide the spoil with the strong.”  These are poetic expressions that intend to describe the high and lofty estate that the servant will enjoy as a reward of his faithfulness.  “Yahweh intends the servant who gave all now to receive all” (Brueggemann, 148).

“because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (v. 12b).  This is the price that the servant paid to carry out God’s will.

“yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12c).  This is what the servant accomplished by pouring himself out to death and allowing himself to be numbered among the transgressors.  In that process, he saved many—made intercession for transgressors—delivered many from the consequences of their sins.  It is a great achievement—one that will bring the servant great satisfaction.

POSTSCRIPT:

While this text does not specifically mention the messiah, Christians have seen Jesus Christ as its obvious fulfillment.  On several occasions, Jesus made statements that link him to this text:

“For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

“This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; see also Luke 22:20).

“For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with transgressors.’ For that which concerns me had an end” (Luke 22:37).

• Matthew, Luke and Paul also link Jesus to this text (Matthew 8:17; 12:17-21; Acts 8:32-33; Romans 15:21).

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.  The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament.  The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion:  Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)

Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)

Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible:  Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1956)

Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C  (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)

Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)

Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)

Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge:  Trinity Press, 1994)

Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas:  Word Books, 1987)

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Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan