In our last essay we studied Isa. 52:13-53:3, which launched Isaiah’s famous Suffering Servant poem. In this essay we are studying 53:4-12, which concludes the Suffering Servant poem. At verse four we begin to see the Servant’s mission.
This passage is extremely important theologically. It not only is a prophecy of Christ’s death, it also points directly to a proper interpretation of Christ’s death. These verses make clear that the sorrows and sufferings of the divine Servant that were laid out in verse three, those that made people think he was of no account, are really our weakness and sin sickness that he is bearing on our behalf. In other words, the divine Servant takes on himself the suffering of our sinfulness so that we do not have to suffer the consequences of that sinfulness. “He has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” He was “wounded (literally pierced through) for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises (literally welts) we are healed.”
We must remember that in Jewish theology, if people suffered, it was because they deserved it. Their suffering was understood to be the result of their sinfulness, or perhaps their daddy’s sinfulness. But normally, they believed it was the sinfulness of the individual. Job’s so-called friends articulated this theology quite clearly.
However here it is revealed that the divine Servant suffers, not because he deserves it, but because he suffers the punishment for our sinfulness. It is clear that he is not suffering with us; he is suffering for us. He died as our substitute and thus fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial system.
In verse six Isaiah uses an extended simile to reinforce the point. Sheep graze simply by moving on the next clump of grass. They don’t pay any attention to where they are going. If they get frightened, they bolt in any direction. So they easily get lost. And we have acted that way in respect to sin. We went our own way and ended up lost. But God laid on the divine Servant “the iniquity of us all.” Praise the Lord!.
Verses 7-9 continue the theme of the unjust punishment of the Servant. The Servant was “oppressed and afflicted.” These terms imply mistreatment, but notice that the Servant remained silent. He was totally was submissive “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” You will recall that the people complained that God was doing nothing to help them (51:9-10). But the divine Servant, who legitimately is being wronged, remains silent.
This imagery is powerful. Notice that both the Servant’s people and the Servant are likened to sheep, but in a totally different way. In verse six the Servant’s people were likened to sheep that get lost in sin. Here in verse seven the Servant is likened to a silent, submissive “lamb that is led to the slaughter.” That immediately brings to mind John 1:29, where John the Baptist declared of Jesus, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
In verse eight we see the unjust suffering continue. However once again the translation is uncertain. The first sentence literally reads, “from oppression and judgment he was taken away.” According to Oswalt, there are several ways to interpret the opening preposition, “from.” And one’s interpretation of that preposition controls how one translates the verse. Without going into all of that, let me just give you Oswalt’s conclusion that the best interpretation of the preposition, “from,” is a causal one. That is, it was because of the oppression and judgment that the Servant was taken away to death. This accounts for the NRSV rendering, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away.” In other words the Servant was treated unjustly from the beginning to the end of the process.
There also is a translation problem with the second sentence of the verse. It literally reads, “And who shall consider his generation?” And that’s the way Oswalt translates it. I have no idea how the NRSV translators arrived at, “who could have imagined his future?” The NIV reading, “And who can speak of his descendents?” seems much better to me, because the idea in mind is the fact that the divine Servant dies childless. In that culture, having no children was considered a curse. It seems that Isaiah was reflecting on the Servant’s childlessness as an additional injustice.
The rest of the verse returns to the basic fact that the Servant’s suffering and death were because of the sins of the people. Indeed he suffered and died on behalf of the people.
Verse nine moves from the death of the Servant to his burial. “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich.” You may already be aware that a standard Hebrew poetry contains parallelism. Typically, two lines of Hebrew poetry either say the same thing, a contrasting thing, or the second builds on the first. Where they say the same thing, that’s synonymous parallelism. Where they say contrasting things, that’s antithetical parallelism. And where the second builds on the first, that’s called synthetic parallelism. Now some scholars believe that Isaiah intended the two lines to be antithetical rather than synonymous. Thus they would understand the two lines to be saying that it was intended that he be buried with the wicked, but he actually was buried with the rich. It is more likely that Isaiah intended the two lines to be synonymous, in which case he meant that the Servant would be buried with the wicked rich. Either way this suggests that the Servant suffered a final indignity of being buried with those whose sins he had carried, but who had not believed in him.
The second part of the verse is quite important: “although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Notice that the injustice of the treatment of the Servant still is at the forefront. Not only had the Servant kept silent in his own defense, as had been declared earlier in verse seven, he also said nothing deceitful. In addition he had done nothing violent. Thus does Isaiah press home the injustice of the treatment of the Servant. But he also emphasizes the innocence of the Servant. He deserved no punishment whatsoever.
Now then, we come to the last stanza of the poem, which brings it to a grand climax. The first thing we notice about this stanza is the declaration that God wanted this to happen: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” Isaiah wants his readers to know without doubt that the suffering and death of the divine Servant was part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
Now the second sentence once again raises a translation problem that can be seen in the differing translations of the NIV and the NRSV. The NIV reads, “and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,” and the NRSV reads, “When you make his life an offering for sin.” The NIV translates it from God’s perspective, and the NRSV translate it from our perspective. Thus we can safely say that however one decides to deal with the translation problem, both translations contain part of the truth. When the divine Servant died for our sins, from God’s perspective, the Servant made his life a guilt offering for us. On the other hand, from our perspective, we must offer the Servant’s broken self back as a guilt offering in our place. Either way the Servant becomes an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Verse 10, along with verse 11, goes on to explain that two things happen when we accept this sacrifice by the Servant. One of the two things benefits the Servant, and the other benefits us. First, the futility expressed about the Servant’s life in verses 8-9 is reversed. He who died childless will see his offspring. He who was cut off from the land of the living will live forever. And he who suffered and died unjustly will accomplish his purposes in life. And Isaiah tells us what those purposes are. The will of the Lord will prosper; the Servant will see the light; he will find satisfaction; and he will save his people from their sins. And that leads us to the second thing, the one that benefits us.
All right, second, at the end of verse 11, we see the benefit to us. It reads, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Here Isaiah once again emphasizes that the suffering and death of the divine Servant is a means of bearing our iniquities, our sins. He doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand the reason for that suffering.
Verse 12 summarizes what has gone before: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” In other words, the divine Servant will be exalted, and he will in turn share that exaltation with those who are in union with him. Then the last part of the verse summarizes the reasons: “because he poured out himself to death;” he “was numbered with the transgressors; . . . he bore the sin of many, and [he] made intersession for the transgressors.”
Once again we cannot miss the heart of the divine Servant’s mission. He died for our sin. As Oswalt so eloquently puts it, “the Servant will be exalted to the highest heaven (52:13) not because he was humiliated (although he was), not because he suffered unjustly (although he did), not because he did it voluntarily (although he did), but because it was all in order to carry the sin of the world away to permit God’s children to come home to him. He is exalted because he fulfilled God’s purpose for his ministry, and that purpose was redemption.”