Yhwh’s Servant, Part 4: The Servant’s Silent & Submissive Suffering – Isaiah 53:7-9
Of the five stanzas in this Servant song, this may be the most interesting. On the one hand there are many questions that are undeniably answered. Here it is confirmed that Yhwh’s Servant is most certainly not the nation of Israel and that this Servant will certainly die. Yet, on the other hand, the enigma and mystery swirling around this Servant only grows. Why is there emphasis on His silence? Why is He compared to a sheep? Who is speaking in v. 8? Why is there a debate regarding His burial site?
As with all prophecy, there is an element of mystery until the fulfillment. It is nearly impossible as 21st century Christians to read this stanza without our minds immediately running to the gospel accounts that record our Lord’s final day before His death. Jesus’ arrest, trials, death, and burial are clearly seen by those who are blessed to live this side of Pentecost. In fact, one commentator states that it is nearly impossible to understand these verses without the benefit of the gospel accounts. Yet this is the way prophecy works. When the actual fulfillment arrives, all of the pieces fall into place and everything becomes clear.
This stanza, which is the clearest picture of the historical event of Jesus’ arrest, trials, death, and burial, is the capstone of the body of Isaiah’s final Servant Song. Placed side-by-side of Jesus’ final day, we see a final three-step progression of the Servant’s suffering.
The Servant’s Silent Submission: Christ’s Arrest (v. 7)
“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.”
From the very onset there is an emphasis on the Servant’s silence. Notice the repeated line, “He did not open His mouth” at the beginning and the end of this verse. The point is not that Yhwh’s Servant is a pacifist, but that He is a submissive servant. This is not only seen in the text here, but also in the fulfillment of this text in Christ’s arrest in the garden.
The Servant’s Conduct – As soon as we read that the Servant is “oppressed” and “afflicted” we may be tempted to tune out. Haven’t we covered this territory already? It’s not that we want to make light of the Servant’s suffering but we’re not sure how this advances Isaiah’s thought. Rest assured, Isaiah is not rehashing old material and is advancing this revelation.
Let’s take note of a few things. First, “oppressed” (נגשׂ) is a term that has not yet been used in this Servant song. On this bit of information alone we must assume that either (a) there is a nuance here that must be added to what we’ve already been told or (b) Isaiah is communicating something altogether different from what he has already said. To render this term as “oppressed” is not at all incorrect so long as we understand that this oppression is always within the context of restriction. It is used in Exodus to describe the “taskmasters” that Pharaoh placed over the Israelites (Ex. 5). The term is also used to describe the extortion prohibited of debt collectors among the Israelite nation (Deut. 15:2). The point is that this sort of oppression describes the pressure that one can apply to another due to a restrained relationship. A debtor cannot escape his creditor nor can a slave escape his taskmaster. By saying that Yhwh’s Servant is oppressed Isaiah is saying that this Servant is somehow being restricted and confined. It is almost as if He has been placed under arrest.
Second, we should note that there is some debate on how to translate the next description of the Servant’s circumstance. The NASB translates the Hebrew participle נַעֲנֶה as “He was afflicted.” Note that this is the same root as “afflicted” in v. 4. If you recall, we preferred the idea of humiliation or degradation when translating the verb from ענה. The same is true here. But the real question is what voice to use when translating this term. Should the Niphal participle be translated with a passive voice (He was humiliated)? Or should we use the reciprocal/middle voice (He humiliated/humbled Himself)? Either one is possible grammatically and syntactically. But as we gaze upon the context of the rest of the verse and the rest of the stanza, it seems that this is the beginning of the Servant’s response to His oppression or restraint. He humbled Himself and submitted to this restraint. The very next line makes this point clear.
He did not open His mouth in objection or defense. He remained quiet and kept His peace. When men came to place Him under restraint, Yhwh’s Servant humbled Himself to that restraint and went without speaking a word. What comes next is an illustration of this very point.
The Servant’s Comparison – Even to the casual reader it is obvious that Isaiah mentions both the lamb and the sheep to illustrate the Servant’s compliance and peaceful submission. The question is not so much “what do these word pictures mean?” so much as “how far should we press these images?” Both of these images communicate humble and silent submission yet they take slightly different angles.
It is impossible to read the line “like a lamb that is lead to slaughter” without our minds jumping to the sacrificial Passover lamb and the connection to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29). This is an appropriate and necessary connection. We have already been told in vv. 4-6 that the Servant died as a replacement for the nation of Israel. The connection there was with the Day of Atonement rather than the Passover, yet both are necessary connections. Passover celebrates the price of redemption, the purchase price of a people enslaved to be Yhwh’s possession. The Day of Atonement anticipates final propitiation and expiation of sin. The former looks to the making of a people for Yhwh while the latter looks to the path of relationship enabled by Yhwh through the atonement. Just as a lamb is mutely and submissively lead to its death, so Yhwh’s Servant went with His oppressors.
The image of a sheep or, more specifically a ewe (רָחֵל) is different for two reasons. (1) Nowhere in the Levitical system was a ewe called for as a sacrifice and (2) the simile is not speaking of something fatal. The purpose of shearing is for the sheep’s benefit and is hardly lethal. So why does Isaiah use this second image?
This second simile is used to highlight two things. (1) It reenforces the idea of the Servant’s quiet and submissive conduct while at the same time (2) hints at His perspective of the whole scene. While it is true that He is literally walking to His death, He knows that this is not the end. While it is true that He will die on behalf of the nation and bear the full weight of Yhwh’s wrath on their account, He walks on as if He is about to undergo a simple shearing.
The Servant’s Confirmation – The final line of the verse reaffirms the point of this silent submission. He did not open His mouth. If we know nothing else about this Servant, we now know that He went willingly, silently, and submissively. He understands this situation better than anyone and everyone else involved.
Christ’s Arrest (Matt. 26:55-63a) – “At that time Jesus said to the multitudes, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left Him and fled. And those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together. But Peter also was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome. Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the 1temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent.”
The Servant’s Judgment: Christ’s Trials (v. 8)
“By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?”
It would be a mistake to draw a direct connection from this “oppression” (עֹצֶר) to the fact that the Servant was “oppressed” (נגשׂ) in the previous verse. As you can see, a completely different root is being used. The term used here indicates pressure. When used alongside of judgment the two work together to form a single image of a trial or court of law. An alternative translation might read, “From confinement and judgement He was taken away.” If v. 7 addressed the arrest of Yhwh’s Servant, then this verse speaks to His trial.
Israel’s Verdict – The fact that the nation of Israel pronounces the verdict upon Yhwh’s Servant is implicit within the text if we’ve been paying attention. What is here translated as His generation (דּוֹרוֹ) refers to those people who lived in and around this Servant. Because we know that Yhwh’s Servant is an Israelite (Is. 49:3ff) it is natural to understand His contemporaries as fellow Israelites. The text also indicates that their verdict is not favorable.
To be taken away after judgment indicates a “guilty” verdict. If one is pronounced as innocent, then he would be released and not taken away. The nation had collectively pronounced a “guilty” verdict on Yhwh’s Servant.
Yhwh’s Verdict – This subtitle may be confusing to some readers for it is difficult to say that Yhwh has a verdict at all in this verse. To make this point clear, we must take a few things into consideration. First, we must understand that a question is being asked. The question mark (?) at the end of the verse is appropriate and accurate. Second, we must understand what the question is asking. Regarding the Servant’s generation or contemporaries, this question asks, “who considered?” The speaker is asking those Israelites who lived in and around Yhwh’s Servant, those same people who pronounced Him as “guilty,” if they every stopped and pondered what was really going on. Third, we should read the second half of this verse in quotation marks. The phrase “He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due” is what Israel should have considered. Finally, we must understand that Yhwh is the One asking this question. The reference to “My people” indicates those people who belong to Yhwh as His personal possession, the nation of Israel.
Here’s a slightly altered translation that makes this discussion clearer: “As for His contemporaries who pondered, ‘He was cut off from the land of the living on account of the transgression of My people for their punishment’?”
Yhwh does not count His Servant as “guilty” but as a substitution for the nation. He died, was cut off from the land of the living, not because He was guilty but because the nation was guilty. Among many other things, this verse makes two things abundantly clear: (1) Yhwh’s Servant cannot be the same as the nation of Israel, for they are seen as two separate parties. One dies for the guilt of the other. (2) Yhwh’s Servant most certainly died. There is no other way to understand the phrase “cut off from the land of the living.” Did anyone stop and consider what this meant?
Israel’s Silence – The answer to that question is a resounding, “no.” Not a single one of the Servant’s contemporaries considered that He was the Passover lamb and the sin offering to make atonement. Israel’s verdict of “guilty” was heard as a collective and cohesive cacophony of mob rule. Yet to this question, there was silence.
Christ’s Trial (Matt. 26:63:b-68; Jn. 19:13-16) – “And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the son of man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death!” Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?””
“When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” They therefore cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified.”
The Servant’s End: Christ’s Death and Burial (v. 9)
“His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.”
If there is any doubt that Yhwh’s Servant is Jesus of Nazareth and the very individual of whom Isaiah speaks, this verse must be dealt with. In fact, without the revelation of the gospel accounts we would struggle to make heads or tails of it. But, as always when a prophecy's fulfillment is revealed, everything becomes crystal clear.
The Servant Honored – The Servant has died and is now in need of burial. As a convicted (though certainly not guilty…for there is a difference) criminal it would be natural to bury Him with the wicked. He would be assigned an unmarked and likely mass grave with those who have been convicted and executed in like manner. And yet Yhwh’s Servant is not resigned to this fate. Though a criminal’s grave was chosen for Him, He resided in the grave of a rich man.
Here is a taste of things to come. Isaiah promised that there would be victory. He stated that Yhwh’s Servant would be raised, exalted, and lifted very high (Is. 52:13). How can this be if Yhwh’s Servant has just been executed like a common criminal? This humble act of an honorable burial is a first small step in that exaltation. For though He bore the punishment of a criminal, He was not guilty of any crime.
The Servant’s Testimony – The Servant’s innocence is what is on display here. The fact that He had done no violence speaks to His deeds objectively. He never did anything wrong. But it is not enough to abstain from law breaking if one’s heart is deceitfully sick. The final line makes it clear that He was pure of hands as well as heart. It is from the heart that the mouth speaks (Lk. 6:45), yet there was not found any deceit found in this One’s mouth. What He said, claimed, and proclaimed was all true. He was innocent of all charged.
Christ’s Death & Burial (Matt. 27:50-60) – “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” And many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, among whom was Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. And when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given over to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled aa large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.”
We must not miss the major point of this stanza. We cannot allow an emotional response at the injustice of our Lord’s illegal trials and brutal execution cloud our eyes from seeing the significance and purpose of it all. The point is this: Jesus went to the cross willingly and submissively. God the Son’s sovereignty was not suspended during this point in history. He was in perfect control of the whole situation and continued to hold all things together (Col. 1:17). Don’t feel sorry for Him. Worship Him.
The point is that His suffering was planned before the foundations of the earth and that Jesus Christ submitted to it in humble obedience to the Father. Praise be to Him! For without this silent and submissive sufferer, we all would be left without redemption and atonement. Soli Deo Gloria!
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. 327.