The Suffering Servant: An Exposition on Isaiah 52:13-53:12

suffering-servant

The fourth Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is poetic in its literary structure, characterized by figurative language, wordplay and rhythm which purpose is to extrapolate an emotional response from its reader. This oracle or prophetic announcement is Yahweh’s intent and power to redeem and restore Israel. The song can be divided into three sections: 52:13-15, the first divine speech; 53:1-11a, the confession of the “we”; and 53:11b-12, the second divine speech. Another alteration in the breakdown of the poem can be constructed into five stanzas of three verses each (52:13-15; 53:1-3,4-6,7-9,10-12). The form and content of the poem form a traditional standpoint that gives the scope of this text a psalmic convention that lies in its background. It is suggested that the humble servant which is spoken here by the prophet Isaiah is that of Christ and its varies vindication themes are found throughout the narratives. The section follows from the previous four chapters (49-52) which dealt largely with the disconnection of Israel from God and His arm (50:2) that doesn’t crush the enemy (sin) but the power when the enemy has crushed the servant in order to provide love and mercy.[1]

The Oracle of God begins with the presentation of the servant (52:13) who will usher in worldwide salvation and be exalted yet suffer due to the consequences. The actor in this drama is  Christ and there are two shocks concerning his appearance (52:14) and again with his exaltation (52:15) for the many who will be shocked yet benefit from his suffering. The attractiveness that some weigh heavily over others will come not solely in a physical form but will encompass all aspects of one’s person and this will startle many nations. These two verses summaries the Messiah’s history as a battered king who will succeed in his mission and the nations will witness his glory. This concludes the first divine speech and connects into the confessions of the “we” that will assert the truth about the Servant as the arm of the Lord and his humanity.

The second stanza begins with the identification of we, as some critics have suggested, who represents the nation of Israel. This confession is divinely delivered by the arm of the Lord (53:1) to God’s people who have heard of the news but refuse to adhere to it (Rom.10:16). This carries into the demeanor of the Servant and the actual humiliation that will take place. Reading this portion of the text we see not just the descriptive nature of the Servant on display, but the language suggests a critical response from others towards him. The significance of who the Servant is has no bearing and doesn’t fit the prescription or stereotype of the Messiah according to the people. His suffering would be observed but misunderstood and for that, he will be just another unfortunate and ordinary person among them.

The third stanza of the poem (53:4-6) explains the substitutionary suffering that the Servant will endure alone but one in which the community recognizes and acknowledges. The punishment was laid upon him (53:5) and He becomes the source of the suffering because of our sin. The stricken Servant takes on our disease, destroying the infections of our depravity and corrects the wrong of the first Adam in order to reconcile us to the Father (Rom. 5:1). The vicarious suffering He bore in our place is dealing with the sinful creature and forms the center of the divine plan for the redemption of his people.[2]We as sheep have gone astray and the Lord has laid on him our iniquity (53:6). This is the beautiful antithesis of what John Calvin states; “In ourselves we were scattered; in Christ we are collected together; by nature we wander, driven headlong to destruction; in Christ we find the way to the gate of life.”[3]

His suffering would be observed but misunderstood and for that, he will be just another unfortunate and ordinary person among them.

The oppression of the unjustly punished Servant continues with the sheep metaphor in comparison to the Lamb who was innocent, willing to submit to the injustice that would befall him. Isaiah records the procession to the place of execution and the burial that would culminate as a result of his voluntary acceptance of death.[4]The actor accepts His fate without objection, taken away and cut off. The relationship in the natural seems to be severed as the stanza draws to a close with the mouth of the Servant. The silence of His suffering is like a musical instrumental that doesn’t rely on the lyrics to deliver its beautiful melody but through the chords of the crucifixion, we find its meaning.

The Servant is crushed, as was the will of the Father (John 6:38), becoming the architect of his suffering which was no accident but predestined. This burden of guilt is placed on him in order that Israel may be forgiven. The Servant becomes the remedy by which we can receive absolution from our sins and justification because of his resurrection (Rom 4:25). The promise is laid out in the second divine speech and the accomplishment of making his people righteous whom the Father has given him (John 6:27). Here we see the spoils of war are shared and enjoyed (53:12) with the Servant who not only identifies with the transgressors but died their death so the many could live.[5]

The silence of His suffering is like a musical instrumental that doesn’t rely on the lyrics to deliver its beautiful melody but through the chords of the crucifixion, we find its meaning.

The power of this powerless Servant shares in the suffering that was meant for us and his life are episodes in the Father’s providential care of the entire world.[6]Life has meaning and a cause and we’re not cut off from its benefits. Isaiah’s depiction of the suffering servant wouldn’t register with many who don’t read it with the lenses of faith. The nature of Christ’s intercession is found in our understanding that our advocacy is Jesus Christ who secures our salvation in his name. The ending of this dramatic scene assures us a hope and future from the decay of death and the promise of eternity. The problem of partition has been rectified through the person of Christ and peace between the world and the Father can now be enjoyed.

 

 

Bibliography

            [1]Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

            [2]Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah: A Commentary. Edited by William P. Brown, Carol A. Newsom, and Brent A. Strawn. 1st ed. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

            [3]Haroutunian, Joseph, and Louise Pettibone Smith. Calvin: Commentaries. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958.

            [4]Motyer, J. Alec. Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 20. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

[5]Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

            [6]Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40–66. Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995.

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