“Yhwh’s Servant, Part 2: The Servant Misunderstood” – Isaiah 53:1-3

Isaiah 53 (52:13-53:12) is a text of massive importance and I pray that by the conclusion of our study the reader will have gained fresh appreciation for this Servant song. Having already come through the reassuring introduction (52:13-15) we now arrive at a new section. The whole song is divided evenly into five, three-verse stanzas. The first (52:13-15) and the last (53:10-12) serve as introduction and conclusion. What remains (53:1-9) makes up the body of the song, yet even this body can be broken down into three, three-verse stanzas.


As a whole, 53:1-9 reveal the total image of Yhwh’s suffering Servant. But this suffering is viewed from three different angles. First, we are told the Servant’s suffering was misunderstood (vv. 1-3). Next, the purpose of the Servant’s suffering is explained (vv. 4-6). And finally, the voluntary nature of the Servant’s suffering is revealed (vv. 7-9). While we understand that 53:1-9 form a cohesive unit within the song’s structure, we will examine each of these sub-sections individually.


Before diving into this text, we are forced to answer at least one question. Who is speaking? This Servant song is riddled with first person pronouns like “we” (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5), “our” (vv. 1, 4, 5), and “us” (v. 6), but to whom do these pronouns refer? There are only three possibilities.


Our first option is to consider that they refer to the Gentiles just mentioned (52:15), yet they responded to what they had never before been told with reverent silence. Whoever is speaking is giving a report rather than receiving one. Also, the speaker(s) at one time derided and rejected this Servant.


A second option is to understand them as referring to the prophet and to his followers, thus explaining the plural. Yet vv. 4-6 speak of the atonement that was made for these plural speakers. Are we to believe that this Servant suffered only for the sake of the prophet and his few disciples? Also, there is no indication that Isaiah derided and rejected the Servant of Yhwh. Obviously, there are several implications with identifying the Servant of Yhwh with Messiah.


The final option is to understand all first-person plurals as referring to the nation of Israel at a time future from Isaiah’s day when they can look back on their rejection of Messiah. This is the only explanation that makes sense within the near context of this song as well as the larger biblical context. As he identifies a future repentant Israel as the speaker of these words one commentator writes, “We must not overlook the fact that his golden ‘passional’ is also one of the greatest prophecies of the future conversion of the nation, which has rejected the servant of God, and allowed the Gentiles to be the first to recognize him…when this shall once take place, then and not till then will this chapter…receive its complete historical fulfilment.[1]


This is important to our current discussion because this stanza contains the explanation from a future believing Israel as to why they mistook Yhwh’s Servant for someone of little consequence. There is a sequential chain that ultimately ends with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah, but that chain begins with the God-given ability to see and to hear. Isaiah’s prophecy begins with Yhwh proclaiming that Israel will be deaf and blind to all that Isaiah will write (Is. 6:9-10), at least for a time (Is. 6:11-13). Without God’s divinely given ability to comprehend His revelation, there is an inevitable three-tiered degression which always ends in rejection.


Revelation is Necessary for Belief (v. 1)

Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?


Having already stated that this is a future repentant and believing Israel who is speaking, we must now note that the main body of the song begins with two questions. There is a connection back to 52:15, as the Hebrew term for message/report (לִשְׁמֻעָתֵנוּ) shares the same root as what the Gentiles did not hear (שָׁמְעוּ) before and yet now understand. The message which Israel only now (in the future) proclaims is the message that the Gentiles have long held (from this future perspective) in awe.


A Question of Belief – As we already stated, it is a future and repentant generation of Israel who speaks these words and asks this question. It seems to be a rhetorical question, for as we read deeper into this song, we see that the same group at one time did not believe and in fact utterly rejected this report. In short, the answer to this question is “no one.” Of course, the biblical record shows that there has always been a remnant of believing Israel, and even in the NT there were many Israelites who repented and believed in the risen Messiah. But in comparison to the nation at large, these were very few individuals indeed. Why did Israel not believe this report? The answer to this question is tied to the next question.


A Question of Revelation – There is great significance in this phrase “the arm of Yhwh.” The reverence itself speaks of Yhwh’s power and might as personified by His arm. But Isaiah has been developing this term in recent chapters. Isaiah 51:9 connects the arm of Yhwh with Yhwh’s actual person. He is not speaking of a person or separate entity that will act powerfully in Yhwh’s name, but is referring to Yhwh Himself acting mightily on His own behalf. According to Isaiah, the arm of Yhwh refers to Yhwh’s personal actions. Only a few verses later, in 52:6-10, we see this theme developed even further. In 52:6-8 Yhwh promises His personal presence and that He will physically visit Zion (Jerusalem). By the time we get to v. 10 we read that Yhwh will “bare His holy arm” for the purpose of bringing salvation. If we put all of this together, we see that “the arm of Yhwh” refers to Yhwh’s physical and powerful presence in Jerusalem for the purpose of salvation.


With that in mind, what is the question really asking? The future redeemed Israelite nation is asking “who has Yhwh revealed Himself to in a saving manner?” or better still, “who has seen the person of Yhwh bringing salvation and was granted the ability to recognize Him?” The answer to this question is the same as the previous one; no one.


Yet this question provides us with a necessary connection between revelation and belief. The reason that Israel did not believe the message that Jesus of Nazareth is Yhwh’s Messiah come to suffer for the sins of the nation Israel, as well as the Gentile nations, was because they were not given eyes to see nor ears to hear and thus did not have hearts to believe. There is an important connection between belief and divine enablement. Unless God grants men a heart to believe, they will never believe (Deut. 29:4). The arm of Yhwh came to Zion for salvation, yet Yhwh did not reveal Him, for they certainly did not recognize Him. So, is God to blame for Israel’s rejection? Not at all. By all accounts, Israel should have recognized their Messiah.


Belief Prioritized over Wrong Expectations (v. 2)

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.


Here the nation explains why they did not recognize Jesus as their Messiah. But this is not a defense. Rather, it’s a confession. We see their confession of prioritizing their wrong expectations of Messiah above what they should have known and trusted. Their evaluation of Jesus was based on erroneous and sinful expectations rather than the expectations God had already laid out for them in His Word.


What They Saw – They knew that Messiah would come as a powerful king (Ps. 2; 72) from David’s line (2 Sam. 7). A natural, though not necessarily biblical, assumption would be that Messiah would come in all the splendor and glory of a king. Yet this Jesus grew up like a tender shoot or a sucker branch. While there is splendor and beauty in a fully mature tree, none of this splendor is seen in a sucker branch.


The verse continues to flesh this out as the nation confesses that Yhwh’s Servant/the arm of Yhwh possessed no form and no majesty. The term form (תאר) links back to 52:14 and the disfigured form of Yhwh’s Servant who was rendered unrecognizable as a human being. When combined with majesty/splendor (הדר) we note that this is how Moses described the beauty of Rachel (Gen. 29:17). The idea here is that Yhwh’s Servant/the arm of Yhwh did not possess any physical beauty or physical attraction and thus the nation was not drawn to Him.


If we follow the accents of the Hebrew text, there is a break here. To help illustrate the significance of the punctuation, allow me to introduce an alternative translation of this verse.


“For He grew up like a tender shoot before Him, even as a root from dry ground;

He had no form and no majesty.

So we saw Him, yet there was nothing in His appearance to make us desire Him.”


This final line is the confession of Israel as to their assessment of Yhwh’s Servant. They saw Him with their own eyes, yet they found nothing in His physical appearance that attracted them to Him.


What They Should Have Seen – The sad irony of all that they witnessed is that what they saw with their eyes should have confirmed that this One is indeed Yhwh’s Messiah. To compare Him to a sucker branch coming from a root confirms His identity as the Davidic king. Early in Isaiah’s prophecy he announced the coming shoot or sucker branch that will come from the root of Jesse (Is. 11:1, 10). The mighty tree of the Davidic dynasty fell in 586 BC, though Yhwh has kept the root alive and well. From that stump will arise a shoot and it is on Him whom Yhwh’s Spirit will rest. They should have expected this! Their king is not going to come with the splendor of Solomon or as a mighty cedar. Rather He will come as a humble sucker branch that proves there is still life in the root. The promise to David is secure.


The reference to this root coming from parched/dry ground could be a reference to the poverty that this Servant will arrive in, but I think there is something more going on. The Bible has ever equated the blessing of God upon Israel with the state of the land. When there is abundant rainfall and plentiful harvest it is known that God’s blessing is upon the nation because they are living in obedience to Him (Lev. 26:1-13; Deut. 11:11-14; 28:10-14; 1 Kings 8:35-36). Likewise, when the rains cease it is an indication that God’s face is set against the nation due to their disobedience (Lev. 26:14-39; Deut. 2815:24). This root will come when the nation is far from Yhwh, in a time of national distress due to disobedience. If the nation had eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have recognized that this One came to them when they, as a nation, were utterly apostate. This sucker branch was the only sign of life in a barren land.


As for His appearance, there is no reason to expect that this King would come in splendor and majesty, for the nation was already told that He would come lowly and humbly (Zech. 9:9) rather than in might and glory. They should have known better! When belief in the Scriptures is replaced by man-made expectations, rejection of truth is always the result.


Wrong Expectations Results in Rejection (v. 3)

He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”


Israel’s confession of willful ignorance (v. 2) is now followed by their confession of rejection. Based on their unbiblical and sinful expectations, the nation rejected her Savior.


Israel’s Expectations – Note that this verse begins and ends with the Servant spoken of as being despised. This was Israel’s response to her Messiah, and this is the confession of a future and believing generation. He was despised and forsaken of men. The idea here is that the Servant completely lacked any significant following. The pluralized form אִישִׁים (men) is a rare form in the OT (only found in Ps. 141:4 and Prov. 8:4). The emphasis in both of these other passages is more than to speak of men but men of a higher status. This Servant is lacking any audience or attention from the affluent and influential.


Not only is He easily dismissed due to His lack of status, but also due to His very nature. This next line is packed with implications. First, the singular man (אִישׁ) coming immediately after the same plural form of men (אִישִׁים) further emphasizes His isolation as well as His supposed inferiority. Second, by identifying Him as a man of sorrows (or suffering/pain) indicates that He is known by His suffering. Finally, He is One acquainted with grief/sickness or One who is known by grief/sickness. The idea is not that He has a weak constitution, but that He actually bears the mark of one born under the curse. How can a mere human who is able to die be Yhwh’s Messiah?


Israel expected a king who would come with a royal entourage full of important people. He would not stand as a lone reed (Is. 42:3), be despised (Is. 49:7), or rejected by His people (Is. 51:6). Israel expected all these things because they did not expect the Messiah that Yhwh actually promised. They made for themselves a god in their own image. Thus, their evaluation of Yhwh’s Messiah was less than positive.


Israel’s Evaluation – Upon looking at this One who stands alone and is despised, the nation hides their face from Him. The last line is the most telling but is also heart breaking when read in the correct context of a confession. We did not esteem Him. The term “esteem” (from חשׁב) is an accounting term. They looked upon Yhwh’s Servant, weighed Him, and calculated that He added up to nothing. As Martin Luther translated this phrase, “we estimated Him as nothing.[2]


This is the confession of the nation who has only now come to realize that they should have seen all along, they should have known, they should have believed. Never before them has the nation believed this grand report, because though He walked among them, Yhwh did not reveal Him to them…until now. Now they confess because now they believe. Now they believe because now their eyes are open.


Conclusion


It is difficult to find a fitting conclusion to this stanza as it is only the beginning of Israel’s confession. I would like to give the reader just two points to dwell on. The first is the necessity of understanding that this IS Israel’s future song of confession when Yhwh opens their eyes. Yes, the actual nation of Israel will repent and believe and be restored to their land exactly like the prophets foretold. Any alternative understanding of this text must divorce any significance that the author placed there but also robs this rich passage of any real value. This passage is Israel’s song of confession. Though it has not yet been sung, Yhwh has already recorded the lyrics.


Second, there is a plain implication written here which the church must understand. The gospel is a message that is impossible to believe unless God first acts. The whole argument from v. 1 is that no one of Israel has believed the message because God did not yet reveal His saving arm. While the Bible is rightly called God’s revelation, for in and through it He reveals Himself, the Word has zero effect on those who are spiritually dead (1 Cor. 1:18).


As we go and preach Jesus Christ as the risen and returning King of kings, don’t forget to pray that God will regenerate hearts. For no man will hear these words and repent unless God first acts and grants him a heart to believe. But as we preach and men continue to reject, we must remain faithful. Israel witnessed Messiah firsthand and rejected Him…until God opened their eyes to see and granted them a heart to believe. Pray for that miracle each and every time you proclaim our risen Savior. Soli Deo Gloria!



[1] F. Delitzsch, Isaiah, ed. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, trans. James Martin, vol. 7, 10 vols., Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 311. [2] Ibid, p. 315.

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