In our last essay we studied Isaiah 51:9-52:12 in which the fundamental message was that Israel was to awaken and be delivered. In this essay we are studying the great “suffering Servant” poem found in 52:13-53:3. Although Isaiah has been preparing us for this revelation of how God will redeem his people, it still comes as something of a surprise. The ultimate enemy of Israel and all of us is sin and death. And this poem tells us that the power of God’s arm to redeem us is not the power to crush the enemy. Rather God’s Servant is crushed. He takes on himself the sin of Israel and the world. And like the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 (v. 22), he carries that sin away from us.
The first line of verse 13 has a translation problem. The NRSV translates it, “See, my servant shall prosper.” The NIV renders it, “See, my servant will act wisely.” And Oswalt translates it, “Behold, my servant will accomplish his purpose.” Oswalt says that neither “be wise” nor “prosper” gathers up the full sense of the context. Isaiah is not saying that the Servant will merely be a wise man, or that he will be a rich man. Rather he is saying that the Servant will wisely know and do the right things to accomplish the purpose for which he was called.
The rest of verse 13 expresses the coming exaltation of the divine Servant. The words, “high” and “lifted up,” appear in combination in three other places in Isaiah and nowhere else in the Old Testament (Is. 6:1; 33:10; 57:15). In each of those occurrences, the reference is to God. This proves that it is the divine Servant that is in view here. This is important, because some scholars deny that.
Verses 14-15 also present a couple of problems. Once again the translation of two words makes a difference. The NRSV renders the first line of verse 14, “Just as there were many who were astonished at him.” The NIV translates the last part “were appalled at him.” Oswalt prefers the NIV “appalled” here, though either is fine. The more serious translation difference is in the first line of verse 15. The NRSV reads, “so he shall startle many nations.” And the NIV reads, “so he will sprinkle many nations.” In this case Oswalt, in a very rare occasion of going against the Masoretic Text, prefers the NRSV “startle.” There is no parallel in the passage to “sprinkle,” and he asks, what would be sprinkled? Startle has a parallel, and it fits the context.
Although the imagery here in respect to the disfigurement of the Servant is not to be taken literally, it still expresses something of the experience of the messianic Servant. In respect to the overall meaning of verses 14-15, the general sense is quite clear. Many individuals, and even many nations, will be astonished, appalled or startled by what they see of the Servant and by his exaltation. Indeed the kings of the nations will be rendered speechless. We must remember what the Lord said back in 49:7. I am quoting the NIV:
This is what the Lord says—the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers, “Kings will see and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
The kings of the earth will be so stunned they will simply bow down to the exalted Redeemer. The idea that God’s messianic Servant can conquer all things by the loss of all things will be a totally new idea to them. Interestingly, the apostle Paul uses the last two lines of verse 15 to give biblical support to his missionary ministry in general, and his desire to take the gospel to those who have never had an opportunity to hear it in particular. That quotation is found in Romans 15:21.
The poem continues into chapter 53 with no break. If the nations will be shocked by the new idea to them that a deliverer would willingly fall so low before delivering them, what about those who had heard the message? Had any of them believed this?
The first question we need to answer is who are the “we,” or the “our,” (depending on the translation) in verse one? Oswalt tells us that scholars have offered three proposals: the nations mentioned in the previous verse, the nation of Israel through the voice of the prophet, and the collective voice of the prophets. The third is easy to refute, because it doesn’t fit the context of the next few verses. The other two depend on one’s view of the servant. Those who believe that the servant is Israel tend to believe that the “we” are the Gentile nations that are looking on. But those of us who believe that the servant is the messianic Servant believe that the “we” is Israel who fails to recognize the “arm of the Lord” when it is revealed to them.
Verse one is quoted twice in the New Testament, and both authors understand the verses in the way just outlined. For example, the apostle John says about Jesus’ ministry in John 12:37-38, quote, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed’” (NIV)?
Then the apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:16, “But not all have obeyed the good news, for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’” Thus we see that the New Testament authors agree that Isaiah was talking about those in Israel who had heard, but had not believed.
The shocking thing in this passage is the revelation of “the mighty arm of the Lord.” The people had been told time and time again that the mighty arm of the Lord would save them (40:10; 48:14; 51:5; 52:10). But they did not expect the “arm of the Lord” to look like he did, or to save them in the way that he did.
Verse two continues the description of the Servant that we saw in 52:14. He is the opposite of what they expected. They expected a strong, attractive, charismatic deliverer, one who would lead and convince people to do what he wanted them to do. But the messianic Servant not only is unattractive (52:14), he seems weak. He is like a little plant trying to grow in unwatered ground.
The word “despised” in Hebrew lacks the heavy emotion of the English word. It doesn’t carry the meaning of belittling or contempt. Rather it means “worthless,” “unworthy of attention.” Thus the Servant appears to be a loser who is given a hasty dismissal. After all, losers don’t deliver anyone. The Servant is a man of pain and suffering. He is the type of person people hide their faces from. As Oswalt puts it, thus we see why this, “revelation of the arm of the Lord that will deliver God’s people, is met with shock, astonishment, distaste, dismissal, and avoidance. Such a one as this can hardly be the one who can set us free from the most pervasive of all human bondages: sin, and all its consequences.” Or can he?