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The Suffering Servant

The Old Testament is filled with faith-fortifying prophecies. Many Bible scholars have argued that there are over three-hundred Old Testament prophecies related to the Messiah and his administration alone.

But among the list of those Messianic prophecies, those which are found in Isaiah 53 perhaps stand out the most.

Significance of the Chapter

The chapter addresses the character, mission, and ultimate rejection of the "suffering servant" of God. Every aspect of this chapter finds fulfillment in the earthly life of Jesus the Nazarene (see below).

New Testament writers—even Jesus himself—who spoke the very "word" of God (cf. 1 Thess. 2.13), applied the many elements of this chapter to Jesus (cf. Lk. 22.37; Jn. 12.37-38; Rm. 10.16; Acts 8.32-35; 1 Pt. 2.21-25; etc...).

Modern Skepticism

However, it has become popular, especially among modernists and skeptics, to suggest that Isaiah 53 appertains to the Jewish people and not to a single "Messiah" figure. This simply does not comport with the facts.

In this chapter, the prophet repeatedly distinguishes between God's "people" (we/our) and the suffering "servant" (he/him) (cf. 53.2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12). Hence, the "servant" and the Jewish people are not the same.

On top of that, the "servant" suffered passively, refusing to inflict violence on others, but the Jewish people fought relentlessly for their survival (vv. 7, 9).

Nor can it be said that the Jewish nation died in innocence, let alone as a substitute for "sin" (vv. 8-10). Indeed, they were guilty of innumerable sins, contrary to the suffering servant (cf. Isa. 40.1; 42.24-25; 43.27-28; 50.1; 59.2-15).

Unequivocally, Isaiah 53 is a Messianic chapter — perhaps the most splendid — which could only be fulfilled by Christ Jesus seven hundred years later.

A Portrait of the Messiah

These riveting verses paint a vivid picture of Jesus. The specificity of this prescient portrait is thrilling indeed. Consider:

The Unbelief of His Own People (v. 1)

The servant wonders, "who has believed our report? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Will anyone accept his message?

The question is rhetorical. The people would not believe him, nor be willing to understand the Lord's power or plan (arm) (cf. Rm. 10.16-21; 11.7-10).

The Lord certainly gave his contemporaries every reason to believe him—miracle after miracle, healing after healing, etc. Yet, when he "came to his own…his own did not receive him" (Jn. 1.11). When the Jews failed to believe Jesus, even when he had done "so many signs before them," the inspired author suggests that their unbelief fulfilled this very prophecy (cf. Jn. 12.37-41; Lk. 10.16; Rm. 10.16).

His Lowliness Is Despised (vv. 2-3)

Instead of coming with the might of God, Christ would "grow up" as a lowly, fragile, mortal child (i.e., a "tender plant" — cf. Isa. 7.14f; Lk. 2.40).

Not only that, but he would be as a "root out of dry ground" — that is, just as the survival of a fragile plant would not be likely to succeed when coming out of dry ground, so the obscurity of Jesus' upbringing made his success a highly unlikely possibility ("can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Jn. 1.46).

What's more, the servant would not fit the physical "mold" which the people were expecting — "he has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (v. 2). Rather than "kingly" strength and regality (as the Jews had been expecting from their savior), the servant was a "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (v. 3).

Jesus, though a self-acclaimed king (cf. Jn. 18.37), was one who frequently uttered "vehement cries and tears to" the Father (Heb. 5.7), refusing even to threaten those who persecuted him unjustly (cf. 1 Pt. 2.23). These lowly characteristics did not endear him to his contemporaries; rather, they served to make him "despised" and "rejected by men," causing them to "hide" their "faces from him" out of contempt or shame (cf. "Is this not the carpenter/Joseph's son?…they were therefore offended at him" Mk. 6.1-4; Jn. 6.42).

His Vicarious Sacrifice (vv. 4-6)

The servant would remove the "griefs" and "sorrows" of the people, giving them a respite from pain and suffering. The original language hints at the alleviating of all sorts of earthly maladies and difficulties.

Jesus, who "went about doing good" (Acts 10.38), was renowned for his healing abilities, taking away the many afflictions of his people (cf. Mt. 9.35; Mk. 5.34). According to Matthew, this very prophecy was fulfilled as he traveled the land healing "all who were sick" and possessed by demons (cf. Mt. 8.16-17).

Yet, those very same people instead "esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted" (v. 4). Though he took away their earthly diseases, they regarded him as the one with many spiritual diseases ("do we not say rightly that you have a demon?…he is mad, etc…" Jn. 8.48ff; cf. Jn. 7.20; 10.20).

Furthermore, this servant would suffer immensely, not for his own deeds, but for the good of his oppressors—"he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed" (v. 5). The prophecy makes it clear that these wounds, bruises, chastisements, and stripes were not given to the servant because of anything he had done, but because of our own iniquities—"All we like sheep have gone astray (whereas, the servant had not); we have turned, every one, to his own way (yet, the servant had remained true)" (v. 6).

Despite his innocence and our guilt, "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." Here, employing the figure of speech known as, metonymy, the prophet puts the cause (i.e., iniquity) in place of the effect (i.e., punishment for iniquity). In other words, the Lord did not charge the servant with the sins of others, so that Jesus effectively became the "greatest transgressor…that ever was or could be in the world" (as Martin Luther affirmed in his commentary on Galatians 3.13). Jesus did not die a sinner.

Rather, he laid upon his servant the punishment which our own iniquities deserved. Although we are guilty and deserving of sacred punishment (cf. Rm. 6.23), Christ died for our iniquity, that we might, in turn, obtain "peace" (cf. 1 Pt. 2.24-25; Heb. 9.26; 2 Cor. 5.21).

His Innocent Pacifism (vv. 7-9)

Although Christ had done "no violence" nor spoken "deceit" (v. 9), he was "oppressed and…afflicted," ultimately being "cut off from the land of the living" (i.e., killed).

Though he was legally and morally declared "innocent" (cf. Jn. 18.38; 19.4-6), he was "taken from…judgment" (v. 8; i.e., that verdict was ignored—robbing him of justice/judgment—and a death sentence instead was issued, cf. Acts 8.33; v. 8). Even in the midst of this profound inequity, he passively endured the sentence, refusing even to open "his mouth" in protest (v. 7; cf. 1 Cor. 6.7).

Wondrously, the prophet informs us that the people "made his grave with the wicked" (v. 9). That is, the plan was to bury the servant with the wicked robbers who were crucified with him (cf. Mt. 27.38). However, that plan was providentially thwarted.

Instead, "at his death" (viz., when he finally died), he was actually buried in Joseph's tomb, a "rich" man from Arimathea (v. 9; cf. Mt. 27.57-60)— a most fitting burial for an innocent man!

His Triumph Over All Foes (vv. 10-12)

The servant of God "poured out his soul unto death" (v. 12), hinting at the extreme anguish with which he was slain (cf. Lk. 12.50; 22.44; Mt. 27.46). He was also "numbered with the transgressors" (v. 12), i.e., regarded as a common criminal generally (accused of sedition against Caesar, among other transgressions; cf. Jn. 19.12), and crucified between two robbers particularly (cf. Mk. 15.27-28; Lk. 22.37; Mt. 27.38).

Nevertheless, death was not the end for the suffering servant. Though he was "bruised" and "put…to grief" as an "offering for sin," yet the "righteous servant" would experience an extension of life after death (i.e., "prolong his days," vv. 10-11). Through this resurrection, the servant was able to "see his seed" (i.e., the fruit of all his toils—the salvation of his disciples, vv. 10-11; cf. Isa. 54.13; Heb. 2.13).

In the end, since Christ "bore the sin of many" (enduring the penalty that sin occasioned), "and made intercession for the transgressors" (pleading with the Father on their behalf, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do"; Lk. 23.34), God will therefore grant him a "portion with the great" and will confer upon him the "spoils" of victory (v. 12). Indeed, one day, every knee shall bow in homage to the suffering servant of God (cf. Phil. 2.5-11; Rev. 5.13)!

How wondrous these twelve verses are! Every believer deserves to scrutinize this chapter, word by word, with great frequency, consuming the marvelous faith-fortifying food it provides.


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