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The Suffering Servant Isaiah 52:13—53:12


For this important chapter it will be helpful to work through the passage first and observe the material to be interpreted. So the notes will first offer the findings of these observations and then draw them together into an exposition.

Exegetical Notes

13 Behold, my Servant shall prosper;

he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

The verb yaskil (pronounced yas-keel; s.v. sakal) calls for the most attention here; the word is from the wisdom vocabulary. Some versions translate it “prosper” and some “deal wisely”; it means both. The Servant will have been wise in life so that in the final analysis He prospers with God. I should think that the context of this verse would be looking at the final aspect—”prosper” or “be successful.” The word needs some study, but given the many words and ideas in this passage that need study, I would not spend a great amount of time on it.

14 Like as many were astonished at you

(his visage was so marred more than any other man,

and his form more than the sons of man),

The verse requires no special attention, which is good because the passage has much that does. The parenthesis offers a nice parallelism to underscore how the suffering disfigured him.

15 so shall he startle many nations

kings shall shut their mouths at him;

for that which had not been told them shall they see,

and that which they had not heard shall they understand.

Here the main difficulty is the first verb, translated “startle” here, but “sprinkle” in some Bibles. The latter is the reading in the Vulgate and in Aquila and Theodotian, carrying the sense of purify by his life—blood, that is. But there are several things problematic with that view. The verb nazah is used throughout the Law for “spread, splatter, sprinkle”; but as Delitzsch shows in his commentary it always has the liquid as the object, and never the object of the sprinkling (see Lev. 16:19 and Num. 19:18). Moreover, that rendering is competing against the context which describes the amazement of leaders at the exaltation of the Lord. The reading “startle” is better (but note the Greek which has “many nations shall tremble”). With all due respect to Young’s commentary, I do not think that the Greek translation can be easily discarded. The Hebrew term is difficult. The idea of the word, supported by the cognate in Arabic, is to “leap up”; then in the causative, “cause to leap, spurt, splatter.” So here the idea may simply be “start (or startle) with astonishment.” To see a sprinkling here in order to suggest Gentile conversions and purifications is out of harmony with the stanza, and certainly not well founded with such a problematic verb.

The point of the passage is that kings will be absolutely amazed to discover that this one actually is the King of Glory. The idea of “shut their mouths” is a metonymy of effect (or adjunct) for the surprise that they will have.

Note that in this verse we have the second use of “many” (rabbim) in the passage. Keep track of this, starting with verse 14, for it will be important for Christology at the end of the song.

1 Who has believed our report?

and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

The question is rhetorical—who could have imagined such a thing, and who would have believed what we would say. The question (erotesis) expresses amazement over the matter, as if to say no one, or very few, believed it.

Note that Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10. His argument is wonderfully contextual. In the chapter he speaks of his desire that Israel might be saved. He then shows that the Gospel is in Deuteronomy. The message is that if anyone calls on the name of the LORD he will be saved. How can they hear? The messengers will bring good tidings—this was from Isaiah 52, our last study. But not many believed, Paul says, and so then quotes this verse to show that.

The “arm of the LORD” again is anthropomorphic for divine power. Who could have divined such a unique manifestation of God’s power as that which this song describes, that the Son of Man who was rejected and crucified would triumph in this as King of Glory!

2 For he grew up before him as a tender plant,

and as a root out of a dry ground;

he has no form nor comeliness,

and when we see him, there is no beauty

that we should desire him.

“Before him” means that the growth and the development of the Servant was with full awareness of and by the divine will of God.

The first half of the verse uses two similes to capture the idea of simplicity. The “tender plant” in the simile is actually a “sucker” from the stock. The “dry ground” could at first describe the troubled existence of the people under Gentile domination, or perhaps the effects of such devastation that left the land and the people unprofitable—not flourishing and rich and healthy. There was nothing appealing here if one were looking for a man who was “every inch a king.”

3 He was despised and rejected of men,

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised,

and we esteemed him not.

The verb “despised” (bazah) occurs twice in this verse. It means to look down the nose with contempt; it means to consider something worthless and of no value, and then treat it accordingly.

The genitive “sorrows” needs to be classified—what is “a man of sorrows”? It probably is an attributive genitive, “sorrows” modifying the kind of man he was, a man filled with sorrows, a sorrowful man. “Acquainted” sounds like a polite understatement; but the Hebrew language uses the verb “to know” to say that he has the experiential knowledge of grief (holi [pronounced khuh-lee] is “sickness, grief”).

The last line of the verse uses the verb hasab [khah-shav], “to reckon, account, consider.” It is the main verb in Psalm 32 for God’s not reckoning sin to us; and in Genesis 15:6 it is used for reckoning righteousness to the believer Abram. Here the people confess, “we” did not consider him”—we wrote him off as a poor wretch, we did not give him a second thought, we made no note of him. Someone this ordinary (v. 2) and this despised (v. 3) could hardly be significant—they say. What an irony in the word in Scripture—we are worthless and God reckons us righteous; the suffering Servant appeared worthless, and they did not reckon him—they wrote him off.

4 Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows;

yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God,

and afflicted.

The lines are chronologically reversed: we did think that God was punishing him, and now we know he was—but for our sins.

“Griefs” and “sorrows” are repeated here now from the last verse; this means that they were our griefs and our sorrows that were transferred to him, with which he was acquainted. “Esteem” is repeated here as well; in the last verse “we did not esteem him” but in this verse “we esteemed him” punished by God. The three verbs of the penal nature of the suffering are “strike” (naga’), “smite” (nakah) and “afflict” (‘anah in the Piel/Pual).

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,

he was bruised for our iniquities;

the chastisement of our peace was upon him,

and with his stripes we are healed.

This verse calls for a clear definition of each of the key words. For him are the “wounds” (meholal) and also the “bruises” (medukka’), “chastisement” (musar) and “stripes” (haburah). These are all punishing blows.

On our side are the “transgressions” (pesha’im) and “iniquities” (‘awonot) that caused his sufferings. And also on our side are the benefits of “peace” (shalom) and “healing” (rape’ [rah-fay]). The word “peace” is an objective genitive—the chastening produced or brought the peace.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray,

we have turned every one to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Here is the confession required of anyone seeking salvation; and it is required of Israel to find salvation in Christ today. The verses use the simile of sheep that go astray, meaning people who turn away from God and sin. “Go astray” means “to wander aimlessly.”

The verb “has laid” on him is the verb paga’ (hipgia’); this verb will be an important one to study because it will be repeated at the end of the song as the summation—”he made intercession” for the transgressors. It is a word that means “to intercede, interpose.” In places in the Bible it is used to describe prayer, an intercession that is burdensome. But here it is substitutionary suffering that will divert the punishment—interposed.

The allusion of the verse is to the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. In that event the sins of the people were placed on the Scapegoat. In fact, many have seen this passage not only as a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus, but the national confession of sin by Israel on the Day of Atonement—to be fulfilled at the end of the age when all Israel will be saved.

7 He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted

he opened not his mouth;

as a lamb that is led to the slaughter

and as a sheep that is dumb before its shearers,

so he opened not his mouth.

The idea “opened not his mouth” is a metonymy of cause—he did not complain or protest; neither did he confess sin (which people often have to do when they suffer)! This idea is then developed by the simile of a lamb silently going to its death—he did not open his mouth. The suffering was willingly accepted.

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away

and as for his generation

who considered that he was cut off

from the land of the living

for the transgression of my people

to whom the stroke was due?

The verse are now beginning to get longer as the song continues. The verse has some difficult Hebrew in it. But the general idea is that his death was unjust in the way that it was carried out (perhaps a hendiadys, “by oppressive judgment”), and that it was for the “rebellions” of other people.

9 And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death;

although he had done no violence,

neither was any deceit in his mouth.

The “wicked” (resha’im) are those who are not members of the covenant and who are guilty, deserving to die. To say “he made (literally, “he gave”) his grave with the wicked” is a metonymy of effect or adjunct—he died with wicked criminals. The “rich” would be seen here as the oppressors since the parallelism works with the “wicked.”

“Violence” is hamas (khah-mas), social injustices, oppression, general public evil. There was no crime by him that deserved death. Moreover, there was no “guile/deceit” (mirmah) in his mouth—he spoke the truth, concealing nothing that should be confessed or brought to light, and expressing no deception or revenge.

10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him;

he has put him to grief;

when you shall make his soul an offering for sin,

he shall see his seed,

he shall prolong his days,

and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in the land.

The word “pleased” is hapes (khah-fates); it does not signify that God received some morbid pleasure out of the afflicting of pain; rather, it simply means that this act of sacrifice was the will of God, it was what he desired to be done. The word is repeated at the end of the verse.

The word for “grief” is again repeated in this verse.

The key word that needs to be studied here is ‘asham, the “offering for sin.” This is the reparation offering of Leviticus 5; it takes care of the sin and guilt and also makes reparation or restitution for what was wronged, lost, defrauded, or spoiled by sin. Here is the first place where one of Israel’s sacrifices is applied to a person, the Servant of the LORD. The word interprets all the previous intimations of vicarious, substitutionary, redemptive suffering. It opens the way for John the Baptist to say, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

11 He shall see of the travail of his soul,

and shall be satisfied;

by the knowledge of him shall my righteous servant

justify many,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

The teaching of justification through the personal knowledge of and belief in this Servant is now stated clearly. The term “justify” is a declarative use of the Hiphil of the verb sadaq (tsah-dak), meaning he will declare righteous (not make righteous), as he himself is righteous (Peter: He is just and the justifier).

Note the repetition of the word “many” here and in the next verse. Jesus in the Upper Room alludes to this passage in the eucharistic sayings about his blood being poured out for the remission of the sins of many. (For a discussion of what he meant by “many,” see Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Sayings of Jesus).

12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;

because he poured out his soul unto death,

and he was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many

and made intercession for the transgressors.

In this passage I would stress the verb “made intercession” (discussed above). Theologians have correctly used the theme of interposing of the blood of Christ for salvation, his blood/wounds pleading for us. Here is one of Wesley’s solid hymns: “Five bleeding wounds he bears, for me to intercede; they pour effectual prayers, they strongly pleads for me; forgive him, O, forgive they cry, nor let that ransomed sinner die, nor let that ransomed sinner die.”

I think that the song ends where it began, with the exaltation of the suffering servant. There is the hint in here of the conquering hero who divides the spoil and gives gifts to his people. His honor comes because he bore the sins of many—the center of the Christian faith.

Related Topics: Christology, Prophecy/Revelation