Isaiah 53 (really beginning in 52:13) is one of the few chapters in this massive prophecy of which many Christians are familiar. Most of our Bibles title this chapter The Suffering Servant in nice bold letters so that we can’t miss the implications. Yet before we talk about the servant’s suffering, we have to gain a little perspective and understand the whole picture. Isaiah has already worked to present this servant of Yhwh to his audience in a particular fashion. In fact, this is the fourth “Servant Song” in Isaiah’s prophecy.
Necessary Background of Yhwh’s Servant
The Servant’s Task (Is. 42:1-5) – In this first Servant Song we read that Yhwh has tasked this person to “bring forth justice to the nations.” This is interesting because while the OT reader should immediately associate this justice with the promised king to come from David’s line (Ps. 72; Hos. 6:3; 10:12), the anticipation would be that this justice is to be a blessing to Israel. Yet the promised seed to come from Abraham and through David is to be a blessing for “all the tribes of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).
There is also a hint that this Servant will experience opposition to His task. He is described in v. 3 as a “bruised reed” though we are assured that “He will not break” and later in v. 4 that “He will not be disheartened or crushed.” The expectation is that this Servant will succeed, though not due to a lack of conflict.
The Servant’s Double Task (Is. 49:1-7) – This second Servant Song brings clarity to the Servant’s task. Here we read plainly that Yhwh’s purpose for the Servant extends beyond that of the redemption of Israel (though certainly not in exclusion of Israel’s salvation – v. 5) to include the salvation of the nations (v. 6).
Yet again we see that this salvation will not come without suffering for Yhwh’s Servant. There even seems to be a question regarding the success of the Servant’s mission in v. 4. This question grows more intense when we read in v. 7 that He will be despised and abhorred by the singular nation (likely a reference to the nation of Israel). Yet we are comforted but the plural kings and princes who will honor Him. His mission will be a success, but it seems that His own people, Israel, will be the ones to oppose Him.
The Servant’s Perspective (Is. 50:4-9) – The third Servant Song is sung by Yhwh’s Servant Himself. It is not until v. 10 that we understand that it was He, the Servant, who had been singing. The Servant sings that He understands His suffering and is pleased to do so because it is in accordance with Yhwh’s plan and purpose. He does not desire to avenge Himself on those who humiliate Him. He waits for Yhwh Himself to vindicate Him.
The Servant’s Success and Suffering (Is. 52:13-53:12) – The fourth and final Servant Song begins not in 53:1, but in 52:13. The chapter divisions were added much later and are by no means inspired. But the ancient scribes provided us with notations where section and paragraph breaks should be placed. There is a break inserted at the end of 52:12 and another placed after 53:12. Isaiah intended this section to be read as a whole and so it is best to read Isaiah 52:13-15 as the introductory stanza to this fourth and final Servant Song.
This stanza serves as an encouragement to the reader for what they will soon read. It is important to know, at least generally speaking, the end of the story before coming face to face with many of the details. This stanza provides the reader assurance of victory before continuing on to describe the suffering imputed upon Yhwh’s Servant. In three short verses, Isaiah provides his reader with three things that must be understood before venturing any further into this final Servant Song.
Success is Guaranteed (v. 13)
“Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted.”
In light of all that we have come to understand about this Servant, Isaiah wants his readers to know for certain that His mission will succeed. We know that this Servant will suffer (Is. 49:7) and we know that there may be doubt as to the success of His mission (Is. 49:4), yet from this single verse we can know for certain that His mission will be a success.
The Certainty of Success (v. 13a) – Isaiah begins this song with a call to pay attention. “Behold!” (הִנֵּה) is an interjection that should be read as if it were an imperative. The idea is something like, “Look at this!” or “Give this your full attention!” So, we should indeed give the prophet our attention, but we should also recognize that we have seen similar language to this before. This is how Isaiah began his first Servant Song back in 42:1. We are certainly speaking of the same Servant.
The first thing we are told is that Yhwh’s Servant will prosper or act wisely/prudently (ESV/NKJV). While there may seem to be a dispute between the English translations, the language actually conveys both success and wisdom. The term used here (from שׂכל) is used to describe prosperity or success as a result of one’s insight. The term is used throughout the OT to describe the prosperity that accompanies obedience to Yhwh’s law (Deut. 29:9; 32:29; Josh. 1:7, 8). This is also the term that describes David’s early success (1 Sam. 18:5, 14, 15, 30). When Yhwh says that His Servant will prosper, He is making a connection to the prosperity that comes with wisdom and in particular the wisdom of knowing and obeying Yhwh’s word and will.
The Supremacy of Success (v. 13b) – Three terms are used by our prophet to describe the greatness of this Servant’s success. These are more than simple synonyms being piled one on top of the other. There is a sequence of events being described.
The first description of the Servant’s success is that He will be “high” or perhaps a better translation would be “raised.” The Hebrew verb from רום is normally used of the literal raising or lifting of the hands (Gen. 14:22), a stone (Gen. 31:45), or even a staff (Ex. 7:20). The Servant’s success will first be marked by His being raised.
Next, we read that He will be “lifted up.” The idea often conveyed by נשׂא is that of exaltation. In order to avoid confusion with “raised” it may be better to translate this as “exalted.” He will first be raised and then He will be exalted.
The third and final term used to describe the Servant’s success is that He will be “greatly exalted” or (to again avoid confusion) that He will be “very high.” This verb is a cognate of the noun גָּבֹהַּ or “high [place]” and thus describes being highly placed with the idea of exaltation.
When looking at this logical sequence of the Servant being raised, exalted, and placed on high, it is impossible not to immediately think of our Lord Christ Jesus who was raised, ascended, and exalted to the right hand of God. Make no mistake, regardless of what we will read in the verses to come, Yhwh’s Servant’s mission is a success.
Suffering is Expected (v. 14)
“Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men”
It is important that v. 13 comes before these words, for here we receive a sample of the suffering that Yhwh’s Servant will endure. There are a few things that we have to make note of. First, the first line is directed at the Servant Himself with Yhwh as the speaker. The words “My people” are not found in the Hebrew text and are wrongly inserted by the NASB.
Second, note the “many” (רַבִּים) here versus the “many nations” (גּוֹיִם רַבִּים) in the next verse. While there is a connection between the “many” and the “many nations” these are not pointing to the same entity. These “many” are the ones that are “astonished” or better yet “appalled/shuddered” on account of Yhwh’s Servant, yet the “many nations” have a very different reaction.
Third, there is a logical connection between the astonishment/shudder and the appearance of Yhwh’s Servant. Yet this connection is also made with the action of Yhwh’s Servant in the next verse. Here we read what caused the reaction of shuddering. The same appearance that caused “the many” to shudder will have a very different impact on “the many nations.”
Finally, there is some debate whether the preposition מִן should be translated as a comparative (more than) or to indicate separation (from). The preposition is normally used in this second manner and should be interpreted as such here. The point is not that this Servant has necessarily been marred more than any person that has come before or after Him, but that this marring is excessive. That His appearance is marred from that of a man (אִישׁ) reveals that He is marred beyond recognition as an individual. The prophet carries the excessive nature of His suffering a step further when he writes that the Servant’s form is marred from the sons of men (אָדָם) or beyond recognition as a human being. There will be suffering, and this suffering will be extreme.
There has been a growing enigma in this opening stanza. The first thing that we read is the certain success of this Servant and yet here we are faced with the fact that He will suffer to the point that He is no longer recognizable on an individual or corporate plane. How can this be? The enigma will continue to grow as the prophet continues to write.
Satisfaction will be Made (v. 15)
“Thus He will sprinkle many nations, Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what had not been told them they will see, And what they had not heard they will understand.”
This verse paints a very different picture from the previous one. The prophet transitions from the suffering Servant and the shuddering many to the sprinkling Servant and the silent many nations.
Sprinkling – The text makes a clear connection with this sprinkling and the suffering described in v. 14. The suffering is somehow connected this sprinkling. When we understand that this verb (נזה) is almost exclusively used in texts regarding the prescriptions of temple/tabernacle worship (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 4:6, 17; 5:9; 6:27; 8:11, 30 just to name a few) we start to understand that there is the possibility that the blood produced by the Servant’s suffering was meant to somehow purify the many nations. Yet there is enigma in this as well.
In every other text where this verb is used, we always are told what was sprinkled. That is to say, the liquid substance (blood) is the object of the verb (ex: “and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil of the sanctuary” Lev. 4:6). In this verse we know what the Servant sprinkled on (the many nations) but we are not actually told what He sprinkled. While there is a strong inference of blood from His suffering, Isaiah does not come out and say it. He is drawing the reader in, and it seems to be working.
Silence – Next, we read that a plurality of kings will shut their mouths on account of Him. The idea here is that the leaders of nations (obviously Gentile nations as represented by their kings) will be struck dumb in response to the suffering of Yhwh’s Servant. It is because of or on account of Yhwh’s Servant that they find themselves without words. While “the many” are appalled, these kings are rendered mute. The next clause tells us why.
Salvation – There has been a transaction of information that has been completed. Something that was never known to these kings has now been made clear. Something that they have never heard before is now readily understood. As a result, they have no response other than awestruck silence. But what is it that they now know?
Isaiah has been so careful to reassure the reader while at the same time to create mystery in this opening stanza. We know that Yhwh’s Servant will succeed. But we don’t know why He suffers so. Nor do we understand why the many, who are different from the many nations (and thus obviously pointing to the nation of Israel) are appalled while the many nations (the Gentiles) are granted understanding. We also are not certain at this point what these nations were sprinkled with and, though while it is heavily implied, we are not told the efficacy of this sprinkling. What is going on here?
There is a temptation here to simply say, “tune in next week” for the prophet will answer all of these questions and more in the text that follows. But it would be irresponsible of me not to take this opportunity to make clear what Isaiah has only now introduced.
This introduction looks to a specific event that is future to Isaiah’s point of view and yet has already occurred from ours. Yhwh’s Servant is none other than Jesus Christ. He was beaten beyond recognition and crucified to the shuddering and appalling cries of His countrymen. Yet it was by His death that God’s wrath against sin was satisfied. It is in this way that Jesus Himself purified the Gentile as the high priest would purify the people, yet with His own blood. This news, the good news that we call the gospel, leaves those who hear and believe in humble muted silence; for why would God redeem those who never knew Him? This mission was indeed successful, for Jesus did not remain in the grave. He lives! He rose, ascended, and was exalted!
From our perspective we can see that the Servant’s second task (the salvation of the nations – Is. 49:6) has indeed been successful. But what of His primary task of redeeming Israel (Is. 49:5)? Thus, the enigma is drawn out and for that, my dear reader, you will have to tune in for next week.
“Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” The redemption of Israel is addressed in 53:1-12. Soli Deo Gloria!