What Is It You Don’t Understand? Isaiah 52:13-53:12


Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Text Comment

What we are about to read is the fourth and the last of Isaiah’s famous “servant songs,” his prophesies of the coming one he refers to as “the servant of the Lord.” The chapter division, remember, is not an original part of the Bible, having been added a thousand years after the writing of the New Testament and so nearly 2,000 years after Isaiah wrote this text in the first place. Here it is clearly in the wrong place and the last three verses of chapter 52 obviously belong with chapter 53.

What we have here, as you know, is one of the most programmatic texts in the entire Bible. This account of the suffering servant and the salvation that he would gain for the world has left its mark not only on the remainder of the Old Testament but on the entirety of the New Testament. It is not too much to say that the four Gospels of the New Testament are the Bible’s commentary on Isaiah 53. And not the Gospels only. There are 46 references to Isa. 52:13-53:12 in the index of citations of and allusions to OT texts in the Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament. And those 46 references are scattered among 12 separate books of the NT. Isaiah 53 has left its mark everywhere.
52:13   “raised and lifted up” is several times in Isaiah a description of Yahweh himself. The Servant of the Lord is the Lord!

v.15     In the imagery of the Bible to sprinkle the nations is to make them clean before God.

53:1   “Arm of the Lord,” as also in 51:9, is a periphrasis – a literary device in which a longer phrase is substituted for a shorter one – for Yahweh himself. The Lord’s arm, in other words, is the Lord in his strength.

A few weeks ago I preached from Isaiah 53 at St. Stephen’s Church of Uganda in Kampala. I had told Palmer Robertson, at whose home Florence and I were staying on the campus of African Bible University, that I was to preach on that text and we fell to talking about this wonderful passage. In the course of our conversation he told me a story of a Jewish friend of his who had been raised in a Bible reading – or, at least, Old Testament reading – home. His father would read to his family quite often from the prophecy of Isaiah, but he would never read Isaiah 53. When his son asked him, “Why do you never read chapter 53?” His father replied, “That is for the Christians.” I was talking with Sandy Milton after the first service today, and she said that was exactly what her grandfather used to say. “Isaiah 53 is for the Christians.” In other words, here was an observant Jew who realized that this text spoke a Christian message, not a Jewish one.

And, of course, Christians have long thought it perfectly obvious that no honest reader of this text could possibly deny that it was a prophesy of no one other than the individual who was introduced to us in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the Lord Jesus Christ who came to suffer and die for our sins and who accomplished precisely what this text said he would accomplish when he came, some 700 years before the Son of God entered the world as the baby son of Mary.

I have told you before of Richard Ganz. Richard Ganz, a former Jewish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and now a Reformed Presbyterian minister became a Christian at L’abri in Holland. Richard was converted through the realization of this simple fact about Isaiah 53. He was an atheist as most disciples of Sigmund Freud and, alas, as most Jews now are, and his wife was as well. Indeed, when her parents expressed concern about her marrying a Jew and asked her, “He’s a Jew. You’re a Christian. How will you raise your children?” Her reply had been, “That’s no problem. We’re both atheists.” For his wife, who also became a Christian at L’abri in Holland, it was the discovery of the Old Testament background of the New Testament teaching that she had learned as a child in her Anglican home that made her realize that the NT Gospel was true. For the first time she understood what John the Baptist had meant when he cried out, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
For Richard, however, it was a single encounter with Isaiah 53. One day at Dutch L’abri – the term is French for “shelter” and was the name given to the communities and study centers founded by the late Francis Schaeffer – someone read Isaiah 53 in his hearing. He didn’t know the Bible. He was completely ignorant of the Bible, in fact. A few days before he had read something and seen a reference to “Gal. 5:22-23.” He had actually wondered to what gal the writer was referring to! So when Isaiah 53 was read it meant nothing to Richard Ganz. He didn’t know Isaiah; he didn’t know where it was in the Bible. He didn’t know that it was Isaiah that was being read. Well after the reading was over and someone attempted to explain that all of this was about Jesus Christ, Ganz had replied to the effect that such a passage didn’t prove anything because anyone could describe and interpret the Lord’s death that way after the fact. It didn’t prove anything. But the fellow who had been reading the passage handed him the Bible and showed him that what had been read was from the prophet Isaiah, who wrote 700 years before the birth of Christ. The argument from fulfilled prophecy was powerful proof for him and he believed.
Later as a Christian he found himself working in a state psychiatric hospital. He was already in trouble with the authorities for bringing his faith into what they thought was a strictly secular setting, no matter that his approach had wonderfully delivered several patients to sanity. And he was eventually given the option: stop talking about Christ or get another job. He chose the latter.
“…during my final thirty days at the medical center, a middle-aged orthodox Jew came to my attention on the ward. He spent most of his time in a fetal position, doing nothing. I went over to him and commanded him to get up ‘in the name of Jesus Christ.’ He stood up, enraged, informing me that he was a Jew. I explained that everything he longed and hoped for as an individual and as a Jew could be found in the Messiah, Jesus. He rushed from the room, assuring me that he would prove me wrong. He went and got a Bible, and we began to discuss what the Old Testament had to say about Jesus. I never saw him again in a fetal position. Rather, he bent over his Bible, intent on proving that I was wrong about Jesus. One day I took him to lunch. To my amazement he said, ‘I want to become a Christian now!’ His studies had brought him to Christ. Over a hamburger and French fries, I led him to the place of mercy and living waters, from which he eagerly drank. [R. Ganz, PsychoBabble, 18-21]
When Richard Ganz left the hospital for good, the Jewish man, now a Christian, left with him. The predictions of the Messiah, such as we have here in Isaiah 53, convinced him too that long before Jesus appeared, what he would be and do was foretold by the prophets of God and foretold so precisely that Jesus had to be the servant of the Lord; he had to be the Messiah; and he had, therefore, to be the savior of sinners.
You see, this text, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is like Cinderella’s slipper. Only one historical person fits it or ever could fit it. You may know that after the Christian interpretation of this text became widespread Jewish interpreters naturally began to look for ways around what seems to be a rather obvious fact: that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of the same Jesus Christ we encounter in the Gospels. They couldn’t accept that conclusion so the rabbis began to favor interpretations that took the passage to refer to something else than a personal Messiah. Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, introduced the interpretation that the Servant of the Lord was the nation of Israel herself. But there is little question that such contrivances have about them the air of desperation. Maimonides was the 12th century Jewish biblical scholar and philosopher, also known as Rambam, a Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides full and proper name. We discovered two years ago that lots of things have the name Rambam on them in Jerusalem today for he has sometimes been called the Jews’ “second Moses.” I mention all of that because Rambam called Rashi’s interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a reference to Israel “preposterous.”
The individuality of the servant of the Lord is highlighted everywhere in this section of Isaiah, but is strongly emphasized in the fourth song in 52:13-53:12. Here, for example, we find not only someone with a particular life history, but a man who committed no sin (as we read in v. 9)! As verse 6 indicates, this servant could not be Israel, for Israel needs the forgiveness this Servant provides. And, as v. 8 indicates, he cannot be God’s people because he was stricken for the transgression of God’s people. Israel couldn’t fit this description. There is only one who can and he fits it precisely!
Challenge anyone to read Isaiah 53 and find a faithful interpretation of the words that does not have them forecasting the life and suffering and saving power of Jesus of Nazareth, all the more when this prophesy is added to so many others in the OT that foretell the coming of the Lamb of God, the King of Kings, and the child to be born who would sit forever on David’s throne.
But what makes all of this so fascinating is this: strange to say, clearly as Isaiah 53 seems to describe the life, death, resurrection and salvation of the Servant of the Lord, almost no one in Judaism in the centuries before the birth of Christ or in his own day thought that the Messiah would suffer, die, and rise again. This was not, in fact the expectation of the very people who had long read Isaiah 53 as the Word of God.
They weren’t expecting anyone like Jesus of Nazareth proved to be. The Jewish scholar, S.W. Baron, in his Social and Religious History of the Jews, presents a detailed account of the “Messianic Expectations” at the time of Jesus. The Zealots, the activists, later turned guerrillas, expected a Savior to appear, sword in hand, to lead the people against Rome’s military power. The spiritual visionaries, on the other hand, looked for a Messiah who would usher in a cosmic cataclysm, out of which would emerge a new world order with the chosen people, the Jews, marching toward final salvation at the head of a transformed and renewed human race. Even those with less exalted expectations thought that the Messiah would bring back the remnants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, reunite Israel and Judah, and restore the nation to its former glory. None of those expectations were met by a Messiah who said, “My kingdom is not of this world” and none of them had anything to do with a Redeemer who would accomplish salvation by suffering and dying and, in that way, pay the penalty that the sins of his people deserved.
As Alfred Edersheim, the great 19th century Jewish Christian scholar wrote, “Assuredly, the most unlike thing to Christ were His times.” [In Montgomery, Where is History Going? 67.]
Now, this is remarkable really, because Jewish writers between Isaiah and Jesus did apply statements in Isaiah 53 and the other Servant Songs in this part of Isaiah to the Messiah. They regarded this passage as a prophecy of the coming Messiah. But, still, the notion that the Messiah would come into the world to suffer and die ignominiously in payment for the sins of the people – what Isaiah so plainly teaches here and what anybody can see who reads the passage today – somehow did not register with the Jews and did not become their expectation of the Messiah. By the time of Jesus, despite all the prophecies of the OT, despite the great ritual of blood sacrifice set up in the Law of Moses, very few Jews had any expectation of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world.
This is why, at the last, they crucified Jesus. He disappointed their expectations! When he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday they welcomed him excitedly and joyfully because they thought he was coming to be their King and lead them in victory against their enemies and bring in the reign of peace and prosperity they had so long prayed for. A few days later they turned on him because it was finally clear to them that he had no intention of doing any such thing. They had been waiting and longing for the Messiah, but when he came among them they rejected him because he didn’t match their profile of the coming king. They wanted an earthly king to make Israel great again, a King who would make Jerusalem once again the envy of the whole world. But he said that his kingdom was not of this world and he came not to conquer Rome but to give  his life a ransom for many! They resented him terribly because he had raised their expectations so high, only to dash them at the end. And, with regard to the resurrection, it was the same. Many Jews, for example, expected a general resurrection at the end of time, but, as one scholar puts it, No one [Jew or Gentile] expected to find a grave empty in the middle of history.” [John Robinson cited in Polkinghorne, p. 119]
But, you see, this blindness of the Jews to Jesus as the true Messiah, even though he came with every conceivable demonstration of his credentials as the servant of the Lord, this too was prophesied here in Isaiah 53. If 52:13-15 give us God’s estimation of the Servant and foretell his great achievement as the savior of the world, 53:1-3 give us man’s assessment of this same servant of the Lord, in fact, the people of God’s assessment of that servant. “Who has believed our report? It’s a rhetorical question, nobody did. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him… He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows… as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised…” Nowhere else in the Bible is this point made so clearly: that the Messiah would come among his own and they would not recognize him for whom and what he is, would not welcome him because he did not meet their expectations. In other words, Isaiah 53 prophesies the very mystery that the history of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels, confronts us with. So much was said in the ancient scriptures by the ancient prophets of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, of the suffering of the Messiah, but still no one was expecting that.
Why was that? Why was a prophecy so crystal clear so completely misunderstood by the very people who would have received it as the Word of God and the very people who would have seemed most likely to understand it, familiar with sacrifice and substitutionary atonement as they were? The deepest reason and the simplest is that men think far, far more highly of themselves than they ought to think and it offends their pride to be told that such desperate measures would be necessary to deliver them from themselves.
They are happy enough to hear that God is willing to offer them some help: spiritual wisdom and guidance, ethical instruction, a kindly willingness to overlook common faults, etc. But to say that nothing short of the incarnation of God the Son, his cruel and utterly unjust humiliation at the hands of his own creatures, and then his ignominious death on the cross would avail to satisfy for a man’s sins is equivalent to saying that we are genuinely bad, wicked people who are completely incapable of rescuing ourselves, utterly dependent upon the titanic achievement of the grace and mercy of the living God. Human beings have never accepted this message easily. They have always resisted it as they do today.
I read the other day of a couple in Great Britain who had cared for foster children for 25 yearsbut have recently been denied the right to foster any more children by the so-called Equalities and Human Rights Commission since, so the commission said, “Children in such families risk being ‘infected’ by Christian moral beliefs.” What beliefs? What beliefs is the commission so concerned about? That Jesus is God? No, they don’t care about that. That Jesus is the Savior? No, if you want to belief such nonsense that is perfectly alright with the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. [Truth Xchange, No. 77, April 2011] What beliefs? Britain does not want its children infected by Christian moral beliefs! What offends them is the Christian belief that certain human behaviors are sinful and that those who indulge in them are bad for doing so. We live in a culture that is defiantly unwilling to hear that message and so it is no surprise that comparatively few people are becoming Christians. But reality bites, it always does, it bites back to those who deny it. Fact is, honest people know their moral failures and their guilty conscience speaks into the cultural silence even when they feel compelled to defend themselves in public. Using other people, sex without love, the defiance of God’s order for the world, no society will ever be able to sustain itself on such a basis. Western society is not sustaining itself; it is disappearing as we speak based as it is on that foundation. No society ever has; no society ever will. Why? Because this whitewashing of human behavior, this denial of human moral failure is false; it is untrue.
It should not be difficult to see this for anyone who will be honest with himself or herself for just a single moment and admit how deeply you resent it when someone criticizes you for even a minor fault which you know very well you are guilty of; how quickly you get your hackles up at the suggestion that you are a bad person, bad in the deep sense of the term, bad in God’s sight. Even we Christians, who have been schooled in the truth of human guilt and sinfulness, have a very great deal of difficulty admitting it when it concerns ourselves! We know the truth about ourselves. We know it all too well. But we hate the truth and we deny it as long as we possibly can and as often as we possibly can. And so when we hear the Word of God say that saving people like ourselves took the titanic achievement, the unprecedented suffering of the Son of God come into the world as a man, men rise up in high dudgeon. They are offended!
Now this objection to the Gospel is seldom put this way, of course. Men are unlikely to say in public – I am so much better than that, you know I am so much better than that – they’d never say that because they are perfectly aware that nobody else does know that they are so much better than that. We may all think that of ourselves, but if we’ve lived long enough we know very well that nobody else, or very few think that we are noteworthy for the goodness of our lives. No, nowadays we are far more likely to hear that in the modern world it is impossible any longer to believe in such a theory of salvation as we find here in Isaiah 53: that the servant of the Lord must suffer the penalty of our sins in order to bring us to God. There is certainly no question as to what Isaiah says the Servant of the Lord would do.
He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…”
He was pierced for our transgressions…”
He was crushed for our iniquities…”
“The punishment that brought us peace was upon him…”
“By his wounds we are healed…”
“The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…”
“It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, though he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth…”
“The Lord makes his life a guilt offering…”
“He bore the sin of many…”
According to the British scholar, J. S. Whale, this Servant Song “makes twelve distinct and explicit statements that the Servant suffers the penalty of other men’s sins: not only vicarious suffering but penal substitution [carrying the penalty, the punishment of the sins of others in their place] is the plain meaning of its fourth, fifth, and sixth verses.” [Packer, What did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution, 34n.] We were guilty. We deserved punishment for our going astray – great punishment for our having gone greatly astray – and he bore that punishment in our place.
But nowadays we are told on all sides that substitutionary death, atonement through the death of a substitute is passé. This was the idea of more primitive times, we are told, but modern people have done with it, have moved beyond it. But, of course, this is not true at all. The idea of substitutionary atonement wasn’t popular in Jesus’ day. It wasn’t the theory of salvation you found in the ANE. It wasn’t even the theory of salvation you found most of the time among the Jews. No matter all the teaching about blood sacrifice in the Bible and no matter the continued practice of it at their temple in Jerusalem, the Jews had almost entirely abandoned the idea of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world, of salvation through a sacrifice made for you by another, bearing your punishment in your place so that you would not have to bear it yourself. That idea of salvation has never been popular; men and women have always resisted it.
It never ceases to amaze me how the views of most men concerning salvation are so eerily disconnected from the world in which we live. We live in a world of violence, death, hatred and cruelty. It has always been so as it is today. My Latin class has recently been working its way through the history of the Roman republic and so has had to learn a large number of words that one might not expect to find in the basic vocabulary of a largely still introductory language course: treachery, murder, suicide, etc. But such is the history we are reading. And the history of the world has been no less violent in all the ages since: conflicts rage on every continent, violent crime is a problem of immense proportion in many places, large numbers of people are kept docile and servile by the threat of violent reprisal, the cruelest of people doing every kind of harm to others. We who lived in the 20th century – perhaps the most violent, the cruelest in the history of the world – can hardly claim that violence is not the reality of human life and or deny that there is but a thin veneer of civilization covering the top of that cauldron of hatred, cruelty and violence bubbling below. And the 21st century, if anything, has begun more violently than did the 20th.
When my late sister Bronwyn was four years of age, she spent the night with family friends, who had a daughter her age – her little girlfriend – as well as two other children. That very night, the husband and father of that family murdered his wife and three children, after putting my sister out on a sun porch, where my father found her the next morning. Mass murder was rarer in America in 1954 and our missionaries in Japan read the account of the murders and my sister’s name in the Tokyo newspapers. They wouldn’t read it today, so common are such stories now.
We live in a violent world because we live in a sinful world. And, actually it is far worse than we suppose. The Lord teaches us that he regards hateful, spiteful, mean-spirited, cruel, envious, jealous, haughty thoughts toward others – spiritually violent thoughts, in other words – as sins of the same kind, if not the same degree, as assault and murder. And so the world goes round every day: the violence of the heart, of the hand, of speech, unkind, cruel, unforgiving, thoughts darting from one heart against another, utter indifference being felt or shown by one heart toward another, one heart wishing another away, delighting in the troubles and sorrows of another, wishing another ill. A God who looks upon the heart, and who measures human life by the heart, sees a far more violent world than we see, even when we face with some honesty the measure of hatred and cruelty that swirls around us and through us every day.
No wonder then that there must be punishment, violent punishment for the lifetimes of such sins that untold multitudes of human beings have lived, violent punishment to balance the scales in a universe that belongs to a God of absolute justice.
Well, if Christ is going to be sin for us, the one thing that should not surprise us is that he suffered violence for it — that is what justice is, a balancing of the scales, like for like, a punishment that fits the crime. No wonder God required all of that animal sacrifice, that death and that blood, in that ancient epoch — lest anyone think that the redemption of sinners – sinners as inveterate and constant and foul and violent as human beings are sinners — was going to be some polite and dainty work. Carrying that universe of cruelty and violence away was going to be someone’s very dirty business – and because only one person could possibly do it, it was the exceedingly dirty business of the Son of God.
It was part and parcel of his suffering that, however clearly foretold in the scriptures of the prophets, almost no one appreciated what he was doing when he went willingly to his cruel death. As one scholar put it:
“There was no place in the whole world on the morning of the crucifixion which the human mind might have thought less likely to be the locus of the concentrated presence of our Redeeming God than the place called Golgotha.” [Macleod, The Humiliated and Exalted Lord, p. 34]
It was essential that it should be so. It was necessary that he be despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows. It was necessary that men esteemed him not and thought little of him even though he was the Son of God and the Savior of the world, the only name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. It was necessary that as clear a report as Isaiah gave of the work of the Messiah to come; almost no one should have believed it. This was the humiliation and the suffering that was required of the Lord when God laid on him the iniquity of us all. They didn’t applaud his sacrifice for them, their didn’t weep for the love he was showing them; his enemies mocked him and his friends stood by in benumbed confusion. No one understood, no one appreciated what he was doing and why.
So what is required of us except that we acknowledge from the heart that what Isaiah said would happen, seven hundred years before the fact, happened precisely as he had foretold it. He was crushed for our iniquities and, because he was, he has made untold multitudes of people, men and women, boys and girls, to be accounted righteous before God. Because he bore the sins of many he has and shall sprinkle many nations.
Did he bear your sins? Did he suffer for your iniquities? Are you sure that your sins, your own  sins, put some of his stripes there. When you know that to be true, your sins will be forgiven and you will be clean!