“The Triumph of the Suffering Servant” An Exposition of Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Down through history the sufferer has been the astonishment and the stumblingblock of humanity. The ancient barbarians simply got rid of sufferers in their societies. More civilized peoples have dealt more kindly with them; but sufferers remain a problem for philosophers and a severe test of the faith of religious people. It is not natural for people to see any profit in suffering; rather, mankind staggers over it, considering it a tragedy, a hindrance to progress, a fate to be avoided.
But for the Christian the Scripture presents a far different view of the sufferer, and of suffering. In summary, we may report from the Bible that it is the will of God that believers suffer. That is not a popular teaching; it is not a truth that we remember or hold dear to our hearts. We hate suffering and try to avoid it. Nevertheless, our LORD says that the world hated Him, and if it hated Him, it will hate us as well. The Bible says that all who live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3). Paul announces that it is given to us to believe and to suffer for Christ (Phil. 1:29). Peter explains that Christ’s death is a sample for us, that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example that we follow in His steps (1 Pet. 2:19-23). In fact, our Lord learned obedience through the things that He suffered; if that is true of the Son of God, how much more is it true of us?
We do not seek suffering. Some in the history of the Church have done that, considering martyrdom, no matter how contrived, to be the highest good. Nevertheless, God declares that suffering will be a part of the experience of the faithful believers in this world. It is inevitable. It is part of God’s plan for the development of our faith.
Suffering may come to the people of God in many forms—actual persecution from the world, malicious slander and mental cruelty because of our chosen piety, trials and testings from the Lord, suffering with and for others in the body, or the natural cost of serving the Lord in this sinful world. In such cases suffering is a service to God, a self-sacrificing service. It is when we do this that we take up our cross, that we have fellowship with his sufferings.
The picture of the suffering of our Lord is nowhere more poignantly displayed than in the prophecy of Isaiah, Chapter 52:13-53:12. What is described here is the ideal Sufferer, the Suffering Servant. The prophet himself does not identify him—that identification must await the fullness of time when Christ came and suffered, the just for the unjust. For us who know Christ we can see this as the prediction of His sufferings. This is the primary meaning of the text.
But secondarily, it is also exemplary for all suffering that is accomplished for others. Indeed, as Peter says, Jesus suffered, leaving us an example of how we should suffer to the glory of God.
The passage is divided into five stanzas of three verses each. The first line of each of the sections gives a summary of that section. In fact, the first stanza, 52:13-15, gives a summary of the whole section.
I. “My Servant shall prosper”—The suffering leads to glory. (Isaiah 52:13-15)
The first three verses give us an overview of the section: through the humiliation of suffering the Servant of the LORD will be exalted.
A. The Servant will be exalted (13).
This grand theme is announced in the first verse. The Servant will be exalted, be raised on high, will be very high. The significant means of this being accomplished is the fact that he will “deal wisely” or “prosper.” The verb used here describes prudent and practical wisdom. It means that he will live skillfully according to the plan of God so that he may be prosperous and have good success. Jeremiah associates this verb with the prophecy of the Messiah receiving the kingdom (23:5). This point then is that this Servant will prosper as God intends him to.
B. The exaltation will contrast the humiliation (14, 15).
The theme announced in the first verse is now developed: the exaltation follows humiliation. The humiliation is reported in v. 14: earlier, many were aghast at him. They were astonished because his form and his visage was so marred. “Marred” is mild. The term used describes a spoiling, a destruction, an appearance-changing affliction. The details of this will be discovered in 53:1-9.
The exaltation is reported in v. 15. Kings are astonished that he, of all people, should be so exalted. The contrast is staggering—he will startle kings (“startle” is preferable to the translation “sprinkle”). When they see God’s plan work out, when they look on him whom they pierced, they shall see what they had not been told, they shall understand what they had not heard. In that day, they shall realize what the wisdom of God teaches, that the suffering servant will be exalted.
The point we learn about suffering here is that the suffering Servant prospers with God because he deals wisely. He has insight. This is the point the prophecy makes about the Servant’s sufferings—they are practical. He endures them, not for his own sake, but for some practical end of which he is aware and to which they will bring him. The suffering, which seems to be misfortune, is here seen as the Servant’s wisdom which will issue in his glory. The first stanza, then, gives us the general theme. In contrast to human experience God reveals in his Servant that suffering is fruitful, that sacrifice is practical. Pain, in God’s service, shall lead to glory.
It is this that is at odds with the world. What is success with God is often failure in the eyes of the world. Success with God may not include fame and fortune, health and happiness—as the world knows them. What is success? Success is knowing the will of God an doing it. The Servant knows that suffering is in God’s plan the way to glory.
II. “Who has believed”—The suffering is offensive. (Isaiah 53:1-3)
The second stanza begins to trace the development of the theme of suffering, first showing that it raises disbelief and thoughtfulness in the people who observe it.
A. They did not believe the report (1).
If we paraphrase the first verse we would say something like, “No one ever imagined this.” The verse is expressed in the form of questions. The penitent would reflect on the suffering Servant and eventually come to realize God was at work. But that realization would take belief and revelation. For ages Israel did not believe such suffering was at the heart of God’s redemptive plan.
B. The suffering is observed (2, 3).
The response to the suffering Servant is so true to life. On the one hand his beginnings were thought to be insignificant, and on the other hand his sufferings were offensive.
Verse two describes his beginnings: like a tender plant in a parched ground. His beginnings were unlikely. Who would have thought that a “carpenter’s son” out of Nazareth would figure prominently in the divine plan. There was nothing appealing or attractive in his appearance that would make Israel rally to him.
Verse three reports that he was despised, that is, looked down on, held in contempt, as well as rejected. His life was filled with grief and sorrows, so that men turned away their faces from him. In short, they did not “esteem him,” they didn’t think much of him, especially in his condition.
These words illustrate vividly a habit we all share, the habit of letting the eye cheat the conscience, of letting the sight of suffering blind us to the meaning. We dislike pain and suffering; we turn away from it, forgetting that it has a reason, a future, and a God. We look on things so superficially. We make snap judgments about suffering on the surface. Everyday we allow the dulness of poverty, the ugliness of disease, the futility of misfortune, the disappointment of failure, to prevent us for realizing that we share the responsibility for them. We allow suffering in others or ourselves to blind us to the fact of the reasons and purposes for sufferings. We consider the sufferer an unlucky person who is falling by the way. The truth is that suffering is part of God’s p[an to remind us of the human predicament we share, to bring up out of ourselves in sympathy and patience, and to eventually fit us for glory. So it is reasonable that the suffering Servant himself share the suffering of the world to redeem the world.
III. “Surely our griefs”—The suffering is vicarious. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
If people at first make rash observations about the suffering of God’s Servant, they are soon led in their conscience to realize its purpose. In this section they realize that the suffering is vicarious.
A. The Servant’s suffering is punishment (4).
The earliest and most common moral judgment, which people pass on pain, is that which is implied in its name—that is penal. People suffer because God is angry with them. That is what Job’s visitors concluded about his suffering. Here, Israel says, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” That is, they saw the suffering Servant and thought God was striking him.
But now they knew they were wrong. The hand of God was indeed upon the Servant, and the reason was sin, yet the sin was not his, but theirs. Verse 4 makes this clear, and verses 5 and 6 amplify it.
B. The punishment of the Servant was redemptive (5, 6).
Note the parallelism of this fifth verse: “he was wounded for our transgressions” and “he was crushed for our iniquities.” The contrast is between “he” and “our.” All his suffering was because of our rebellions and sins.
The second set of expressions clarify the purpose of this vicarious or substitutionary suffering as redemptive: “The chastisement of our peace” and “by his stripes we are healed.” All interpreters of this verse agree that the peace, the healing, is ours in consequence of the chastisement and scourging. The pain was his in consequence of the sin that was ours—that is, the suffering was vicarious. And the pain brought spiritual healing and peace—that is, the suffering was redemptive.
That the suffering is vicarious and redemptive is confessed by Israel in verse 6: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. The verse begins and ends with “all.” Substitutionary suffering of this Servant touches all who have sinned—and we know that that is all of us.
In every family, in every nation, the innocent suffer for the guilty. Vicarious suffering is not arbitrary or accidental; it comes with our growth, it is of the very nature of life. It is that part of the service of humankind, to which we are all born, and of the reality of which we daily grow more aware.
Vicarious suffering is not a curse. It is service—service to God. It proves to be a power where every other moral force has failed. This is very intelligible, because it is based on love. Any parents who have suffered and sacrificed for their children can understand the impulse.
But people argue that vicarious suffering is unjust. They forget, however, that there are two reasons people endure suffering in this world—justice and love. We often suffer because we ourselves are not innocent. We share the cause of pain in the world. This is justice. But to suffer in service to God is a demonstration of love. The epitome of this is the suffering Servant. Not only is his suffering vicarious—it is voluntary. Human experience feels it has found its highest and holiest form of love when the innocent is willing to take the blame for others. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” and greater spiritual service can no one do for others, than to suffer with them and for them that they might be healed spiritually.
But, of course, the suffering of this Servant far outdistanced human vicarious suffering (and it is here the nature of the Servant begins to unfold): his suffering removes sin. We may observe a Moses interceding for the sinful people, asking God to take his life so that wrath could be averted from those worshiping the golden calf. That is noble; it’s magnificent. But it cannot remove sin. God himself had to carry the sins of his people. What all vicarious suffering had failed to do in Israel’s experience, the suffering of our Lord accomplished. Centuries after this oracle was written our divine Lord came and fulfilled to the letter the words of this prophecy. His vicarious suffering would strike the heart into penitence and lift it to peace with God.
IV. “Oppressed He humbled Himself”—The suffering is accepted. (Isaiah 53:7-9)
If the third stanza confessed that it was for the sins of the people the Servant suffered, the fourth stanza declares that he himself was sinless, and yet silently submitted to all which injustice laid on him.
A. The suffering Servant is silent (7).
What is so remarkable is that although he was afflicted and oppressed, he did not open his mouth. Such a thing is almost unheard of in the Old Testament. No one else could remain silent under pain. In the Old Testament sufferers broke out into one of two voices—the voice of guilt or the voice of doubt. The sufferer is either confessing his sin which the suffering has called to his attention or, when he feels no guilt, he is protesting his suffering, challenging God in argument. David, Jeremiah, Job, and countless others, including us we must confess, are not silent under pain. We confess that we deserve it, or complain that we do not.
Not so with the suffering Servant. He did not open his mouth, but was silent like a sheep led to the slaughter. Why was this Servant the unique sample of silence under suffering? Because he knew the truth. It had been said of him in 52:13: “My servant shall deal wisely.” He knew what he was about. He had no guilt of his own, and no doubts of God. He knew that is was not punishment he was enduring for himself, but that it was a service he was performing—a service laid on him by God, a service for man’s redemption, a service sure of results that were glorious. If anything will enable a person to accept silently his suffering it is this—the knowledge that the suffering was service to God.
B. The suffering Servant is innocent (8, 9).
The prophet reports that the Servant was innocent. He had done no violence; no guile was found in him. Yet he was taken to judgment by tyrannical powers. It was judicial murder. And when they considered that he was lawfully put to death, they consistently gave him a convict’s grave. On this note the stanza ends. He was innocent, but he willingly submitted to the oppression, an oppression that carried him to an ignominious burial. From all appearances, an innocent man’s life ended fruitlessly. But nothing could be further from the truth.
V. “The LORD was pleased”—The suffering was efficacious. (Isaiah 53:10-12)
It appeared to many that the death of this Servant was an awful tragedy. It was utterly a perversion of justice. Surely here passed into oblivion the fairest life that ever lived. People might see and say, God forsakes his own. On the contrary, the fifth stanza begins, God’s will and pleasure was in it.
A. The suffering was God’s will (10).
“It pleased the LORD to bruise him” begins the theological explanation of the suffering. The verb “pleased” does not mean enjoyment. It basically means that God willed the suffering. It is that kind of pleasure. This is the one message which can render any pain tolerable—God willed it—it is his pleasure. Thus, any that God calls to suffer for his service should make it their purpose to do his will, to please him. Therein is success with God.
B. The suffering was for our justification (10b, 11).
This suffering was efficacious, that is, it was powerful to effect its intended results: the justification of sinners. God made this Servant a sin (guilt) offering for many, so that by their knowledge of him they might be justified. In the Upper Room Jesus alluded to this passage by saying that the cup was His blood of the New Covenant “poured out for many.” That brought the remission of sins. So the effect of the suffering of our Lord is full atonement. Paul says that he made him to be sin (here, “sin offering”) for us that we might become righteous (here, “justify”) (2 Cor. 5). For those of us who have come to know him by faith this suffering will receive eternal praise. We, the guilty sinners, have been declared righteous before God.
C. The suffering will lead to exaltation (11, 12).
With this note the passage comes full circle. God was satisfied, yea, pleased with the obedient suffering of the Servant, whom we know to be our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Because he bore the sins of many, that is, because he made “intercession” for sinners in his self-sacrificing love, God appointed him to honor and glory. Using military terminology Isaiah declares that the Lord will divide the spoil.
And so it was at this point, according to the prophecy, that the Servant, though brought so low, was nearest his exaltation; though in death, yet nearest life, nearest the highest kind of life, the “seeing of a seed,” the finding himself in others; though despised, rejected, and forgotten of men, most certain of finding his place of exaltation with God. Before him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Isaiah, then, presents us with a picture of the ideal suffering Servant. He does not identify the Servant in his prophecy, but we who know the Lord Jesus Christ can see that it is He. The suffering of our Lord corresponds to the letter with the picture Isaiah draws. Nothing else can. The suffering of Jesus was vicarious in a way that no other has or ever could be—he took our sins on himself and made full atonement for them. While we were yet sinners, he died for us. He himself knew no sin, but suffered, the just for the unjust, that we, sinners, might become righteous before God.
Jesus knew full well the purpose of his suffering, and willingly submitted to it as his service to God the Father in order to provide for us salvation. There is no peace with God apart from the chastisement that he, the sinless Son of God, bore. We have no healing for our souls, no removal of our sins, no justification before God, apart from the penal suffering of Christ, the substitutionary death in which he took our sins upon himself. That is why the church worships and serves him—he brought to us eternal life. This 53rd chapter of Isaiah prophesied it, and Jesus fulfilled the prophecy in the fullness of time.
But in addition to this truth, there is an additional application, a secondary application that flows from this. Once we trust Christ as our Savior, we are made members of his mystical body, and are therefore called to follow him. It is the will of God that we demonstrate the same type of sacrificial love that he had. If we are to love one another in Christ, we must realize that it will cost something. If we are to bear one another’s burdens, it will mean that we will have to put ourselves out for others, to suffer with them, to give of our time, our talents, and our finances. We are called to a life of self-sacrificing love for others. And Christ shows us what that should look like.
The Lord may call on us to suffer and even perhaps to die. If that should be his will, then we must seek to suffer and to die well. It is far more important for us to do his will, to please him, than to have a comfortable, carefree life.
If we Christians have learned to see in sufferings the purpose of God, and in vicarious suffering God’s most holy service; if patience and self-sacrifice have come to be part of our spiritual life—the power to make this change in our faith has been Christ’s example. To submit to God’s will and to sacrifice self are the hardest things for us to do; to accept suffering and death without complaint or doubt demands a living faith that sees suffering and death as a prelude to glory. But if we submit to God’s will and sacrifice self for others, or for the building up of the faith of others, we shall then be living out the love of Christ in this world, and please our heavenly Father.
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132 The significant theological ideas of this song make the many alternative suggestions for its meaning highly unlikely. Up to now the servant has been Israel, the remnant, Cyrus, the prophet, and ultimately a prophecy of the Messiah. If here the servant is the remnant that was suffering because of the sins of the whole nation, then the passage could only in general terms be applied, for their suffering did not redeem the nation, their suffering did not justify. But there is the application of profitable vicarious suffering on a limited basis, as Peter himself suggests when applying this passage (but only after he states what it fully means). The view that the sufferer is Zerubbabel, and the speaker of most of the passage is King Darius giving a eulogy on a visit to Jerusalem is unconvincing.