“Yhwh’s Servant, Part 3: The Servant’s Substitution” – Isaiah 53:4-6

Updated: Apr 16

We are now knee deep in this fourth Servant song as we begin our study of Isaiah 53:4-6. Before diving into the text at hand, let’s take just a few minutes to review what we have learned so far. We discovered that the Servant first mentioned in 52:13 is none other than Messiah, the One we know to be Jesus of Nazareth. We determined that the only possible source producing all of the first-person pronouns (our report…He grew up before us…that we should look on Him…etc.) is a future generation of Israel who has come to know and believe that Jesus is the Christ. This final Servant song is a song of confession from those who have looked upon Him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12:10) and now trust in Him.


As we orient ourselves to the form of the song itself, we remember that 52:13-15 serves as an introductory stanza that declares the Servant's ultimate victory and that 53:10-12 functions as a conclusion. The nine verses in between consist of Israel’s confession regarding this suffering Servant. The body of this song begins (vv. 1-3) with Israel’s confession that they did not recognize the Servant when He came. The stanza before us builds on that misunderstanding to explain the ultimate purpose of His suffering. The Servant suffers as a substitute for the nation.


This stanza (vv. 4-6) is constructed with continuing exchanges of confessions and explanations. Israel explains their misunderstanding of the Servant’s role as well as explaining what they now know to be true. Intermixed with these explanations are confessions of their misunderstanding as well as confessions of guilt. By confessing their realization of the Servant’s purpose in suffering, Israel explains two key aspects of the Servant as a substitute for the nation.


The Servant as Representative (v. 4)

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted.


If you recall from our study of 52:13-15 there is an enigma regarding this Servant that is slowly developed into understanding. There are many things stated early on in this song that require further explanation. This stanza reaches back to several of these mysteries and offers to shed light upon them. We should expect to see many connections between this stanza and the two which preceded it.


Explanation: The Servant is an appropriate representative (v. 4ab) – The stanza begins with an explanation. As soon as we see the terms “griefs” (חֱלִי – sickness/illness/grief) and “sorrows” (מַכְאֹב – pains/sorrows/suffering) our eyes should immediately return to v. 3. It was there that the Servant was described as a man of sorrows (מַכְאֹב) who was known by grief (חֱלִי). Now, Israel explains that He was a man of sorrows and grief, not because these pains and sufferings were His, but because He bore the grief and sorrow of the nation. It was their grief and their sorrow that He carried. It is here where the nations lightbulb of Messiah as a substitute for the nation winks on.


The verb translated “he bore” (נשא) is an important term in this conversation, for it is heavily used in other texts that describe how God deals with the sins of people. This verb is used some 22x in the book of Leviticus and always within the context of bearing guilt or the result of uncleanliness. Whether it is the guilt one incurs through sinful actions (Lev. 5:1, 7; 7:18; 17:16; 19:8, 17; 20:17, 19, 20; 22:9, 16; 24:15) or the guilt that a substitute bears (16:22), this term is always there to describe how guilt and uncleanliness is carried. Within this song, the theology of substitution begins here.


But there is something more important than mere substitution. Leviticus goes into great detail how Israel is to slaughter specific animals for specific reasons at specific times and all of these sacrifices are obviously in substitution for the people who are actually guilty. Why not simply continue with this format? Because none of those animals can accurately represent the people for which the stand in as substitutes. The nation needs an accurate representative. Enter Jesus, the perfect Israelite King.


The Apostle Matthew quotes this very verse in his inspired and authoritative gospel (8:17) as he attributes this passage to Jesus. The context is in conclusion to several miraculous healings that Jesus performed. These healings were physical in nature, yet every physical malady has a spiritual realization at its root. Every disease, deformity, and death is a result of the curse. We get sick and die because we are fallen human beings. If One is going to be provided to take our place and stand as our substitute, then that One must also be a human being, though not a fallen one. He must be a perfect representative of the human race and, as the nation of Israel are speaking, a perfect representative of the nation of Israel.


These two lines explain that it was not His own sorrows and grief that plagued Him, but the sorrows and grief of the nation for whom He represents and stands as substitute. But these terms (sorrows and grief) directly relate to the result of sin and do not necessarily get to the root matter of sin itself. Before Israel explains that part, there is another confession to make.


Confession: Details on Israel’s mistaking the role of representative (v. 4cd) – Now that we understand that Yhwh’s Servant was marked by the grief and sorrows of others (those whom He represented; i.e., Israel) we now read a fuller confession that explains Israel’s estimation of Him.


The term translated “we esteemed” is the exact some term used in v. 3 (חשׁב). Earlier the nation confessed that they calculated or estimated Him as adding up to nothing. Here we receive a more detailed accounting. Three terms are used to summarize their accounting. (1) Stricken (נגע – to touch)be used in a variety of contexts though here it is best understood as a violent blow. (2) Smitten of God (מֻכֵּה אֱלֹהִים) both increases the intensity of the picture and reveals the perceived source of the Servant’s affliction. While “stricken” (נגע) describes a violent blow, “smitten” (נכה) describes a strike/blow that usually results in death. The construct state reveals God (אֱלֹהִים) as the source of this death blow, or at least that’s what Israel assumed. (3) Afflicted (ענה II – humiliation/degradation) is the other side of the coin. Having been beaten the Servant is now utterly humiliated. The nation just assumed and calculated that this was His just reward from the hand of God.


It is worth noticing how this verse is framed by emphasizing both the Servant and the nation. It was He Himself that bore the sorrows of the nation. At the same time the nation confesses that we ourselves estimated wrongly that He suffered justly. Now that realization has set in, both parties are emphasized. This is their confession as they now understand just how wrong they were.


The Servant as Replacement (vv. 5-6)


The pattern of explanation/confession continues throughout the rest of this stanza. Having just confessed that they completely misunderstood the Servant’s suffering, Israel will go on to explain what they now know to be true. Namely, that this Servant was punished so that they might have peace with God.


Punishment for Peace (v. 5) – “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.


There’s a lot going on in this verse, so much so that we should agree on a plan of attack. First, we will divide the verse according to the ancient accent marks. Then, we will answer the same two questions for each half of the verse: (1) what is happening to the Servant? (2) Why is it happening?


He was Pierced and Crushed

This is clearly a violent scene, and thus we have the explanation that follows Israel’s confession of miscalculation. In other words, we are now receiving a more detailed account of what it meant that the Servant was stricken, smitten, and afflicted.


The term “pierced” is not an overly common term (חלל) and Isaiah used this only once prior to the verse in question (51:9). The translation is perfectly accurate and thus implies a significant wound but given the context a wound that likely results in death. The same conclusion is drawn from “crushed” (דכא). “Pulverized” would not be an overly zealous translation. The overarching point is that the Servant was brutally killed. But why?


On Account of Our Transgressions and Guilt

The brutal piercing and crushing of the Servant are linked with the nation’s own “transgressions” (פֶּשַׁע) and “iniquities” (עָוֹן). The term “transgressions” is a general term that indicates wrong doings. When one transgresses the law/rules (whether these laws are that of man or God) he is by definition a lawbreaker and a criminal. The term looks at the action itself. “Iniquities” (עָָוֹן) on the other hand does not speak to the act itself so much as the guilt that comes along with the action (Lev. 5:1, 17; 7:18; 17:16; 18:25; 19:8; 20:17, 19; 22:16; 26:39, 40, 41, 43). This is a tremendously important term in the book of Leviticus as it is the guilt/iniquity that must be atoned for. The action itself is not ceremoniously placed upon the animal to be sacrifice but the guilt that comes with the action (Lev. 16:21, 22). But what is the connection between the wrong doings and their associated guilt with the Servant’s brutal death?


There is a very important exegetical decision that must be made here. The Hebrew preposition מִן (min) usually indicates source and is accordingly translated as “from.” We have already seen this preposition at work in 52:14 when Isaiah wrote that the Servant’s appearance was marred from (מִן) that of an individual and His form from (מִן) that of being recognized as a human being. But that is not the only manner in which this preposition is used. מִן can also indicate the cause or source of an action. In this sense it is translated “because of” or “on account of.” That is exactly the sense here.


Why do we care so much about the authorial intention of a single preposition? Because it is important to understand that it was not Israel’s wrongdoings and guilt that pierced Yhwh’s Servant. He was not pierced by them but on account of them. Given the numerous connections to Leviticus (particularly chapter 16 which addresses the Day of Atonement) we begin to see a development of this Servant’s role as representative. He is substitution that bears the guilt of the nation and therefore must die.


He was Chastised and Scourged

The role of substitutionary sacrifice becomes clear in these next two lines. “Chastisement” is not a word that we use very often in today’s vernacular, though it is a fine translation here. To chastise is to punish, but the punishment is designed to correct or discipline. In fact the verbal cognate (יסר) means to instruct though some of that instruction may be through discipline, punishment or chastisement. This is an interesting term thrown into this context of violence and death, but it has its place.


The final line speaks of the Servant’s “scourging” or wounds. The term from חַבּוּרָה describe lacerations or gashes, the kind of wounds you would expect to find on a flogging victim. This term is more consistent with the picture we’ve been painting, but now let’s examine what these punishments are linked to.


For Our Peace and Healing

Everything comes to a head right here. The translation “for our well-being” (NASB) is a most unfortunate way to translate the Hebrew term שָׁלוֹם (shalom) usually translated as “peace.” Peace indicates so much more than a cessation of hostilities between two parties, but rather describes a state of harmony in which individuals can thrive. A sister term in OT language would be rest (נוֹחַ) as hoped for by Lamech (Gen. 5:29) and promised to Israel by Yhwh (Ex. 33:14). Peace was secured for the nation. Peace between the nation and their God. But what secured this peace? Their substitute was chastised and punished in order to bring about this peace. He received punishment so that the nation might enjoy peace.


We notice a similar situation with the nation’s healing. This healing links us back to our discussion in v. 4 where there may be some question as to whether the author is speaking of the effects of the curse (disease and death) or the root of the curse (sin). The answer of course is, “yes.” But through the irony of ironies, this healing comes through the wounding of Yhwh’s Servant. His lacerations are the means by which the nation is healed. When v. 4 states that Yhwh’s Servant bore the sorrow and grief of the nation, this is what is meant.


Guilt Atoned for (v. 6) – “All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.


Confession of Guilt

Israel turns from explanation back to confession in these first two lines. The nation compares itself to witless and fickle sheep who go astray. If you want to see chaos in slow motion, turn an unaccompanied band of sheep onto pasture and then just observe from a distance for several days. They will scatter to the four points of the compass without rhyme or reason. Corporately, Israel confesses that they have scattered and gone in every direction except the one path of righteousness in which they were directed.


This confession is more than a corporate one. The second line makes it clear that each individual person within the nation bears his own guilt. The phrase “each of us turned to his own way” is eerily similar to “each man did what was right in his own eyes” (Jud, 17:6; 21:25). While no one is going to argue the point of Israel’s guilt, how does this get us back to the point where they have peace? What is to be done with their guilt?


Explanation of Atonement

As we’ve come to expect, an explanation follows this confession. This single line carries the whole weight of the argument from this stanza and really could be accurately called the summary of vv. 4-6. Yhwh placed Israel’s guilt upon His Servant. The term translated as “to fall on” (פגע) means to meet/encounter/to fall upon. It can describe the meeting of two parties (Ex. 5:3) or even the attack of one person by another (1 Kings 2:25). But as we read this line, we need to understand what met with Yhwh’s Servant and who caused the meeting. Israel’s iniquity (עָוֹן – guilt) met Yhwh’s Servant and Yhwh caused the meeting.


As the next stanza will make perfectly clear, Yhwh’s Servant did not die for His own guilt. This was one of the many mistaken assumptions that Israel would later confess. He died in order to take on the guilt of His nation. He acted as both sin offering (Lev. 16:5-10, 15-19) and scapegoat (Lev. 16:20-22). Israel did the sinning (vv. 4ab, 6ab) while He took on their guilt (v. 6c). The very One whom they rejected secured their peace. The One whom they scourged healed them. The nation’s perfect representative died in their place.


Conclusion


Let the reader understand that there is only two possible positions one can have in relation to Almighty God. We are all either at peace with Him or we are at war with Him. This peace comes at a price that no man can pay. Our inherited sin nature from Adam, added to the sins which we have already committed demand our physical and eternal death. No amount of pious words or works can alter that righteous verdict. We are in need of such a representative and replacement as Israel is. We need a righteous replacement to take the guilt which we have incurred or else we will pay this price ourselves. But there is no reason to despair for such a price has been paid!


Yhwh’s Servant, Jesus Christ, bore the wrath of God on account of His people’s guilt. He atoned for the guilt incurred by His elect. Trust in Him today! Lest you be overtaken by His wrath tomorrow. Soli Deo Gloria!

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