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The Servant of the Lord
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Dennis Bratcher

Guidelines to Interpretation

This is one of the most well known passages in the entire Old Testament. Yet, when we interpret this passage we need to be careful precisely because we are so familiar with it.

The interpreter should keep three things in mind in studying this passage. First, we should not invert the Bible by working backward through history and using the events of the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament. God worked through historical events, not apart from them.

Second, we need to view this passage in the literary context of Isaiah 40-55 (see The Turn Toward Hope: Isaiah 40:1-15). This passage reflects the major concerns of this part of the book of Isaiah, not our concerns.

Third, we need to overcome the common misconception that prophets simply predicted the future. The future did concern the prophets, but predicting it was not their primary mission. Prophecy served two functions: 1) to proclaim God’s will to the people and 2) to interpret events in light of God’s will. In this passage, we are "listening in" as the prophet addressed events of his day and brought God’s new word to despairing exiles.

This splendid poetic passage has three major parts. It opens with a declaration by God contrasting the servant’s external appearance with his true status (52:13-15). The report concerning the servant’s sufferings and their purpose follows (53:1-11a). The passage concludes with a renewed declaration by God of the servant’s triumph (53:11b-12).

The Text

1. God’s Servant Will Be Exalted (Isaiah 52:13-15)

13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him-- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness-- 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

13. It is important to understand how the author uses servant in this section of Isaiah. In all nine occurrences in the first 39 chapters the word simply means "one who serves" in various senses (slave, 14:2; a king’s official, 36:9; a messenger, 37:24, 20:3; a term of respect, 36:11).

There is an unmistakable shift in how the word is used in the rest of the book. "Servant" occurs 31 times in Isaiah 40-66. Only twice is it used as in chapters 1-39 (44:26, 50:10). In all the remaining occurrences, "servant" is used in a figurative sense. The "servant" is usually the collective nation of Israel as the chosen people of God. "But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen . . .you are my servant, I have chosen you . . .for I am your God" (41:8-9).

The book continues to use this imagery. In chapter 44, God promises the community of Israel, in the figure of the servant, forgiveness and a day of new things. In chapter 49, the community speaks as a servant commissioned to bear witness of God’s deliverance "to the ends of the earth" (49:1-13; note v.3). In Isaiah 56-66, "servant," usually occurring in the plural, always depicts the restored community of God’s people who will faithfully follow Him (65:9-15).

In only two passages is the servant not clearly identified as the nation of Israel (chs. 42 and 53). But the context suggests that the imagery is the same in these as well. The servant is a poetic symbol to describe the community of God’s people.

However, one additional feature must be noted. In the first part of the book of Isaiah, the anticipation of a new king who will help God’s people respond faithfully to Him gradually comes to the foreground (9:2-7, 11:1-16). Israel’s past kings had miserably failed. So the people longed for a new intervention by God. God had raised David to establish the nation. Now the people yearned for a righteous and just king like David (11:3-5) who would teach them how to be God’s people (note Psalm 72). The hopes for the future of the people rested largely on the anticipation of this godly ruler. This idealized king personified Israel as the true people of God (note Romans 5).

These two symbols come together here. The figure of the coming ideal Davidic king represented the new act of God by which He would teach His people how to obey. The figure of the servant represented the new act of God by which He would restore the people of Israel from exile. It is likely that my servant here represents the community of Israel in exile with overtones of the Coming One who would represent the true people of God (note Romans 5).

The primary focus, then, is not on the specific identity of the servant. It is on the new act of God symbolized by the servant. That focus on God’s new action in history allowed the New Testament writers to see the servant of Isaiah 53 in a new light as God acted yet again in Jesus.

act wisely This word also can mean "succeed" or "prosper" and probably has that meaning here (as RSV, NEB).

14. appalled at him Jeremiah and Ezekiel often use this term to describe the horror of cities and nations devastated because God has allowed his judgment to fall on them (Jeremiah 18:16; Ezekiel 26:16).

disfigured . . .marred These two verses draw a sharp contrast. By all appearances the servant, the nation of Israel, had been humiliated and defeated (Lamentations 2:13-15). In exile in Babylon, the servant no longer appeared to be chosen by God. But appearances are not everything! Although the servant appears finished, the message of God is that he will not stay down! God will raise the servant to a new position of responsibility before the very ones who had celebrated his end (v.15; NT writers use this contrast: John 13:12-17, Philippians 2:6-11).

15. sprinkle does not really fit here. The word’s meaning is uncertain, although "startle" (RSV) is better. Those who were appalled by the servant’s downfall will be equally astonished by his exaltation.

2. The Report of the Servant’s Sufferings (Isaiah 53:1-11a)

1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11a After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light and be satisfied;

1. our message The Hebrew here is "what we have heard." It contrasts directly with 52:15. It is not clear to whom our refers. Most likely the "us" throughout the chapter represents the community itself struggling to understand its own past, its precarious relationship to God, and His new actions of deliverance. The servant may refer more narrowly to the Israelite exiles in Babylon, while "us" refers to the later community who had not experienced exile (note Jeremiah 24:4-7). In either case, even the ones to whom the proclamation of newness comes have trouble believing it!

The arm of the Lord signifies God’s power and His willingness to use that power to accomplish His purposes in the world (Deut 4:34; Psa. 136:10-12).

2. The language used in the following verses is very similar to that in lament psalms. Laments are prayers in which pain and grief are expressed to God (Psa. 22, 13, 88; see Lament in Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms; see also Where Is God? Isaiah 59:1-21).

The language of lament is highly poetic and expresses an emotion or frame of mind. This is not a literal description of events in the life of the servant. It is a highly figurative means of expressing the feeling of total alienation, rejection, and hopelessness felt by the servant.

He grew up This verse uses the imagery of a young plant springing up in a hostile environment. Such a plant would be blighted and would not grow to its full beauty or proper form. The emphasis here is on the utter helplessness of the servant.

3. despised and rejected A common theme in laments is rejection of the sufferer by the community (Psalm 22:6-8). In biblical times, people often considered prosperity and success as blessing from God. Misfortune or illness suggested that the person had sinned and God was punishing them (Job 4:7-9).

This points to a major issue at stake in the crisis of exile. Throughout the Old Testament there is the conviction that God had chosen the Israelites for a special purpose, as expressed in the promise to Abraham: "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3). The blessing and success of Israel were not just reward for right conduct. They were a witness to the world of the nature and character of Israel’s God (Numbers 14:11-19).

Part of the disturbing aspect of the exile was that the nations would look at the downfall of Israel and conclude that Israel’s God was not really God at all. The Israelites had not honored God themselves and so had caused the nations to scorn God and His people. If Israel remained a laughingstock, despised and loathed by the nations, then God’s people, and therefore God, would have no witness in the world. A major theme of this section of Isaiah is that the community would be restored to again fulfill its mission to the world as a "light to the nations" (42:6, 49:6; 60:1-7; note Ezekiel 20:9-22).

4. our infirmities . . .our sorrows These are the same Hebrew words as in verse three ("suffering," "sorrows"). The realization here is that the servant’s pain is not just his own. He is bearing the pain and grief of others. Jeremiah had touched on the idea that the exiles in Babylon were bearing the consequences of the past sins of the entire nation (Jeremiah 24). Isaiah 40:1 took the idea a step further. Individually the exiles were as sinful as other people. But as a group they were innocent (v.9). They should not have to withstand the pain of exile for the entire nation, past and present. Here the community begins to realize that if they have a future, it is because innocent people suffered the consequences of someone else’s sin.

5. for our transgressions . . .our iniquities This could be translated "because of our transgressions." Both words here imply deliberate violations of authority or law. Many understand this to mean that the servant is bearing the punishment of sins as a substitute for others. But, in context, it more likely means that he is suffering as a result of other’s sins (as also v.8).

peace The Hebrew word shalom means far more than simply absence of conflict. It means well-being, wholeness, or soundness in all aspects of life. To have shalom is to live a full, well-ordered life under God (RSV: "made us whole"). The term contrasts with "hard service" of 40:2.

we are healed In this verse is a strong answer to the questions raised by the exile. In the midst of pain and grief caused by their sin, God had spoken a word of forgiveness. He had brought healing to their guilt and restored peace to their lives. God had accepted the innocent suffering of the small group of exiles as atonement for the sins of hundreds of years! There was hope because of the servant!

6. The people responded to the realization of the preceding verse with a confession of guilt. The sins were not all of the past! The servant had not only taken to himself the consequences of past sins of the nation. He had also suffered for the future people of God who were equally sinful. All the people, past, present and future, deserved to suffer for their waywardness (note Romans 3:23). But at this point in history, the consequences fell only on the servant (exiles). As the people are confronted in exile with the magnitude of their sins and the consequences those sins had brought, they repent. So in the tragedy, Isaiah sees hope for the future. Ezekiel is careful to qualify this view. He emphasizes that individual responsibility is not eliminated (Ezekiel 18:1-32).

7-9. These verses continue the poetic report of the servant’s sufferings. Jeremiah uses the lamb imagery to describe his innocent suffering at the hands of others (Jeremiah 11:19).

8. his descendants The Hebrew word is singular. It means "generation" or "span of time." The singular never refers to a specific person’s descendants. The NEB is best: "who gave a thought to his fate . . .?"

9. the rich is not really appropriate in the context. Some scholars understand this to be a scribal misspelling and read a similar word, "rabble," here (NEB: "the refuse of mankind").

10. his life a guilt offering Chapter 40:2 implied that the suffering of the exiles would be accepted by God as a sacrifice for the nation’s sins (see The Turn Toward Hope, comments on 40:2).   Here it is the central theme. The guilt offering was normally a male ram sacrificed to symbolize the atonement for an offense against God or man (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7). The idea that the suffering of innocent people could provide the same symbol of atonement for the sins of others was a radically new idea. This is part of what was so unbelievable in the message the people were hearing!

LORD’s will does not imply God’s decree that it must be so. The word means "pleasure" or "delight." The implication is that God used the events for his purpose.

He will see his offspring This is a typical biblical way of referring to a secure future. Instead of dying in disgrace, the servant will survive and prosper in the future generations of the people.

11. soul The same word was translated "life" in verse 10. The phrase means "after all his suffering" (as NEB).

3. God’s Valuation of the Servant’s Sufferings (Isaiah 53:11b-12)

11b by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

11. This verse does not make clear sense in Hebrew. The intent seems that God has accepted the servant’s sacrifice and he is now vindicated as righteous or innocent.

12. In poetic language, as in 52:13-14 the servant is restored to a place of honor and responsibility. The last two statements evaluate what the servant has accomplished and summarize the entire passage.

We should not let the fact that the servant in this context most likely refers to the nation of Israel lessen its importance for us or diminish its truth. The New Testament writers understood this passage well. They saw that a new community of God’s people had arisen through the forgiveness of God because of the suffering of exiles in Babylon. As they witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, they grasped the truth that in Jesus God was again allowing The Innocent to bear the consequences of the guilty. Only this time it was on a far greater scale. And this time it was God in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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