Originally published on Apr 2015
For convenience I shall refer to this text as ‘Isaiah 53’. This text comes from a section of Isaiah’s prophecy, cc. 40–55, which reflects the circumstances of the Babylonian exile, the period when the remnants of the former kingdom of Judah were in exile in Babylon.
Isaiah 53 is an amazing text. It is hardly surprising that 53:1 begins, ‘Who has believed our message?’ The Hebrew of Isaiah 53 is difficult at points, and the translation of some phrases is disputed. But in spite of textual uncertainties, some points come across clearly.
God acknowledges the one spoken of in this chapter as ‘my servant’. This servant was innocent: he did no harm; he spoke no word (either against others or in his own defence); yet he faced rejection and hostility, injustice and violence. He was not himself guilty of wrongdoing, but he suffered for the wrongdoings of others, and brought peace for those who had gone astray.
The servant died, but text speaks of his vindication after death, of how he will ‘see the light of life and be satisfied’ with what he has accomplished. The Servant’s death is seen as sin-bearing: as he lays his life down that life becomes a guilt-offering, a means of atonement. Consequently his death brings acquittal for many, brings forgiveness for those who have offended against God.
This is an astonishing text: a vision of the future, apparently. No other text in the Old Testament suggests that a human being can die on behalf of others and secure their forgiveness by his death. But that is what Isaiah 53 seems to describe. \
We naturally find ourselves asking the same question about Isaiah 53 as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8: “About whom… does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” It is a fair question, and one to which the New Testament gives the clear answer: ‘Jesus’. Isaiah 53, the New Testament writers tell us, was a vision of Jesus’ saving work on the cross.
Thus Paul at Phil. 2:5–11 speaks of how Jesus ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’; of how ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’; and of how God has ‘highly exalted him’ and given him ‘the name that is above every name’. Note how in speaking of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul both takes up the key term ‘servant’ and follows the pattern of Isaiah 53, in which the Servant is first humiliated and then exalted.
Jesus himself understood his own coming death along the lines of the Servant in Isaiah 53, as in his famous saying that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). He fulfilled the vision of Isaiah 53: as we read this chapter alongside the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, we cannot but notice the many points at which Isaiah 53 seems to anticipate the Gospels.
We Christians naturally follow the lead of New Testament and interpret Isaiah 53 as a prediction of Jesus’ death. Yet let us not be too quick to jump forward from Isaiah 53 to the New Testament. Before we do we should first ask: What sense would this text have made to an Israelite living long before Christ?
After all, Isaiah 53 was written many centuries before Christ: surely it would have meant something to its first Israelite readers hundreds of years before the cross. Why else would God have given this revelation to them? How would an Israelite reader centuries before Christ have attempted to understand this mysterious text? I hope that asking this question will help us to see more in Isaiah 53 than if we simply leap straight from this text to the Gospels, that it will give us a better and fuller sense of Jesus’ achievement ‘once and for all’.
1. Similarities with Other Individuals in the OT?
How, then, might an Israelite reader have read Isaiah 53? In particular, how might he have understood the Servant of the LORD, this strange individual described in Isaiah 53? I suggest that such a reader would have been reminded of other individual figures from Israel’s history: first, of Israel’s kings; second, of Israel’s prophets; and, third and finally, of the figure of Moses. Let us take each of those three in turn.
Kings: David was Israel’s first true king: he is referred to more than once as God’s servant. And David, like many of Israel’s kings after him, suffered for his calling; suffered because, as Israel’s king, he carried the fortunes of the nation on his shoulders.
This aspect of the suffering of Israel’s king comes across particularly in some of the Psalms, where we read of how Israel’s king comes close to death, endures rejection and scorn, undergoes affliction; and all for the sake of God’s people, whose leader he is. Read Psalm 18, or Psalm 22, or Psalm 41, or Psalm 69. In some ways Isaiah 53 would have reminded an Israelite reader of Israel’s kings, particularly of David and the righteous kings of David’s line, and how these men suffered precisely because God had called them to rule his people.
Prophets: The same reader would also have been reminded of Israel’s prophets. The prophets, too, were God’s servants: ‘my servants the prophets’, as Amos 3:7 puts it. Israel’s prophets suffered for the sake of the people: they faced rejection; they experienced grief and humiliation. The prophet Jeremiah comes particularly to mind, Jeremiah who once complained to God that he had been led to his calling ‘like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter’ (Jer. 11:19), the same image as found in Isa. 53:7.
You could even say that Israel’s prophets suffered because of the sins of the people: had the people not fallen into serious sin, the ministry of the prophets, and all the hardship that caused them, would not have been necessary.
Moses: Moses, like the Servant in Isaiah 53, brought deliverance to the people: he led the people out of Egypt, just as the exiles in Isaiah 40–55 were called to leave Babylon. There are many echoes of the exodus from Egypt in Isaiah 40–55; and many echoes of the figure of Moses in Isaiah 53.
Moses, too, suffered for the sake of God’s people, because of his calling to lead Israel. He once complained to God in these terms: ‘Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?… I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.’ (Numbers 11).
So yes, Isaiah 53 reminds us of previous individuals in Israel’s history, of representative figures who each in different ways took Israel’s calling upon their own shoulders. Isaiah 53 reminds us of Israel’s kings, of Israel’s prophet’s, and of the unique figure of Moses. And yet, what is said of the Servant in Isaiah 53 goes beyond what is said of each of these three figures. These figures all suffer because of their calling, yes; but where in the Old Testament is it said that Israel’s kings or Israel’s prophets or Moses himself made atonement for sins by their deaths?
2. Israel/Jacob as the Servant of the LORD
If we take surrounding chapters in Isaiah into account, another possible identification for the Servant suggests itself; and this time not an identification with a single individual. Previous chapters in Isaiah have spoken of the nation Israel as God’s Servant: ‘Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen…You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.” (41:8–9). ‘You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen’ (43:10).
This text from Isaiah 43 brings together the ideas of Israel as God’s servant and Israel as God’s witnesses. Israel serves God by acting as his witnesses. But to whom does Israel bear witness, and how? Israel was meant to bear witness to surrounding nations: witness to the truth that the LORD alone is God.
They were to do this by worshipping the LORD alone, and by following the teaching that God gave through Moses. That is why the law was given: so that as the Israelites kept the law and followed God’s teaching, they would become a people whose behaviour, both individual and collective, would reflect God’s righteous, gracious and loving character to the surrounding nations, and thus draw the nations to God.
That was how they were to bear witness; and this witness was meant to be the means of fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, the promise that through Abraham’s descendants blessing would come to the nations. But Israel had not borne a good witness; they had been disobedient; they had worshipped other gods and ignored Moses’ teaching. They had failed in their calling; that was why they were in exile.
And as we read through Isaiah 40–48, we get a sense of a people still far from God: unable or unwilling to understand why they were in exile; responding with unbelief and obstinacy in the face of God’s call to them to return to him. Even in exile, Israel is not ready to respond to God’s call, not willing to accept the role of Servant of the LORD.
And so in Isaiah 49 the calling of Servant of the LORD is narrowed down and focussed upon a single individual. God calls this individual to take Israel’s calling on himself. He tells this individual: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (49:3). And further (49:5): “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The Servant in Isaiah 49 is called to minister to the exiles in Babylon, to ‘restore the survivors of Israel’. But he is also called to take up the role of ‘light to the nations’, the role that had belonged to the nation Israel as a whole, but which Israel had failed to carry out.
So when we read Isaiah 53 in the context of the developing argument in Isaiah 40–55, we can see that in some sense all of Israel’s history has come to focus on this one figure. He seems to be the only faithful Israelite left; the only one still responsive to God’s call. And so he takes upon himself Israel’s role, and the task that Israel through disobedience left unfinished. That task, Isaiah 53 seems to tell us, includes dying, bearing the sins of many.
3. The Servant’s Ministry in Isaiah 53
We should take note of the context in which Isaiah 53 is set, how this chapter relates to the chapters on either side. Isa. 52:1–12 has ended with a call to the exiles to leave Babylon. Then comes Isaiah 53. Then in Isaiah 54 we read of Zion being rebuilt and of the returned exiles re- establishing themselves in the land: ‘you will spread out to the right and to the left’ (54:3). And in Isaiah 55 we read of Israel fulfilling its original role as a witness to the nations: ‘See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.’
How do we get from c. 52 to cc. 54 and 55? How do we get from a group of discouraged and rebellious exiles in Babylon to a restored people of Israel who act as a kind of magnet to the other nations, drawing them towards God? Somehow what happens to the Servant in Isaiah 53 bridges the gap: his death makes it possible for sins to be forgiven, and for the exiles to leave Babylon. Somehow the servant in Isaiah 53 puts the nation Israel back on track, so that the message about God may go out to the nations, in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham.
We have said that Isaiah 53 is a vision. Where was this vision fulfilled? Where in history did it become reality? In Jesus, of course. In Jesus God visited his people Israel. In Jesus God provided a sacrifice for his people’s sins. And because of Jesus’ death and resurrection the blessing finally goes out to the Gentiles, as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached first in Jerusalem and Judea, then in Samaria, and finally at the ends of the earth. All of this, mysteriously foretold in Isaiah 53, becomes a reality through the death and resurrection of Jesus centuries later.
But do you see how approaching this issue from the Old Testament, from the Israelite perspective, gives us a richer picture of Jesus’ work on the cross? Jesus did what neither Israel’s kings, nor Israel’s prophets, nor Moses himself was able to do. He brought deliverance in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham He defeated sin and death, establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus did what the nation Israel could not do: in him Israel’s mission was accomplished, and salvation made possible for both Jew and Gentile.
In Jesus all of God’s purposes of salvation came to their intended fulfilment; purposes which are much bigger than your salvation or my salvation; purposes which take in all the nations of the world; purposes which will end in a redeemed creation, in a new heavens and a new earth.
God’s people Israel needed to be put back on track. God’s purposes needed to move forward. A huge obstacle had to be removed from the way. Isaiah 53 shows that obstacle being removed in a vision. The gospel accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection show us that happening in historical reality.
All of God’s purposes are fulfilled in Jesus. Every promise finds its Amen in him. Think of Jesus as a kind of lens: every hope ever expressed in the Old Testament, every ray of light running through the Old Testament, passes through Jesus and emerges stronger and more focused on the other side.
Truly the Servant of the Lord has done all that was needed: once and for all. That is the vision of Isaiah 53. That is the reality which we, living the other side of Easter, can celebrate.
4. ‘He Calls us now to Follow him’
And that is the vision that we ourselves are called to live out. In the words of the chorus: ‘This is our God, the Servant King; he calls us now to follow him…’; and that means following Jesus in suffering, if need be.
Paul put it this way in Philippians: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.’ Paul knew plenty about suffering for the sake of the gospel.
The work of the servant in Isaiah is the model for our own service for God, for our own ministry. We are called to a ministry of building up and encouraging; to bring the light of God’s truth to those who are now in darkness; and, if necessary, to endure hardship and opposition for the sake of the gospel.
God’s kingdom is not established by force of arms or by triumphant displays of power. God’s kingdom often comes when his people experience weakness and discouragement, and by the path of humiliation and rejection. That’s how it was for the Servant in Isaiah 53; that’s how it was for Jesus; and that’s how it may well be for us who bear the name of Christ. Yes, Jesus paid the price for sins, once and for all.
But he also gave us a model, showing us by his own death and agony what it may mean to follow him. And that model was also given to us once and for all. As we read Isaiah 53 and as we reflect on the events of Calvary in which the vision of Isaiah 53 was fulfilled, let us rejoice in the finished work of Jesus, and in the fact that we can enjoy God’s salvation because of what he accomplished, as the faithful Servant of the Lord. But let us also remember that Isaiah 53 contains a challenge for us as followers of Jesus.
As we recommit ourselves to Jesus this Easter, let us resolve that if God calls us to walk in the paths of rejection and humiliation for the sake of the Gospel, or perhaps even to endure suffering and death, we will respond faithfully to that call, by God’s grace, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, the Servant of the Lord.
DR. PHILIP SATTERTHWAITE
Dr. Philip Satterthwaite Philip is the principal of BGST and Lecturer in Old Testament, Biblical Hebrew & Hermeneutics.