A Bible study prepared by Paul Beasley-Murray to supplement Comfortable Words – A Call to Restoration: Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF 2021) by Steven Croft.
This is the fourth and final servant song. In a way which the prophet could never have foreseen, these words were fulfilled in the death of Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29). For that reason I propose to look at what these verses tell us about the Cross of Christ, recognizing that ultimately we shall never fully understand what took place at Calvary. As Max Warren, a distinguished former General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, once wrote:
There is only one place and one attitude in which even an attempt at a doctrine of the Atonement should be made – and that is on one’s knees in the (lit. that) darkness. It is a pity that so much has been written about the Atonement in broad daylight. But Paul was right. It is out of darkness that the light shines and it was out of darkness that God ‘caused his light to shine within us, to give the light of revelation – the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor 4.6).
In this regard I find it significant that the one chapter in the OT which speaks most clearly about the death of Jesus is one of the most obscure and difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible. Many of the Hebrew words are uncommon. What is more the way the words fit together is often unclear. It is this which explains why our English translations vary. But then is this not appropriate? There is a depth and a mystery concerning Jesus, the suffering servant of the Lord, the suffering Lamb of God.
- A SURPRISING SAVIOUR (52.13-15)
The servant song begins with these words: “See my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted high” (52.13). NIV: “See my servant will act wisely [note: or ‘prosper’]; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted”. GNB: “The Lord says, ‘My servant will succeed in his task; he will be highly honoured’”. So far, so good. There is nothing surprising about that. You would expect God’s Servant, the Messiah, to “prosper” (NRSV) or “succeed” (GNB), and to “be highly honoured” GNB).
But then, all of a sudden, the song takes an unusual twist. “Many… were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance” (52.14). NIV: “Many were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being”. GNB: “Many people were shocked when they saw him; he was so disfigured that he hardly looked human”. God’s Servant was a ‘Surprising Saviour’. He was not the sort of person people would have expected him to be.
It is interesting to see the way in which the Jews have interpreted this passage. They understood Is 52.13 of the Messiah – for he was to be a successful and highly honoured person. But the rest of the passage they interpreted of Israel, the people of God. So in a Jewish commentary on Is 53.3 found in the Targum of Jonathan we read: “The people… will be made weak and sorrowing like a man of grief who is familiar with sickness. As if God had turned his face from them, so are we to be despised and mocked.”
Yet. surprising as it may seem, we discover in Jesus that suffering and pain need not be futile – they can be redemptive in the purposes of God.
- A REJECTED SAVIOUR (53.1-3)
This second section develops the theme of the unexpected. “Who has believed what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53.1). NIV: “Who has believed our message….”.
When God acts, he normally acts in power. In the OT the expression the “arm” or “hand” of the Lord is a frequent synonym for ‘the power of the Lord’. Time and again in the OT we read of God’s “arm” or “hand” putting Israel’s enemies to rout. But here God’s power (his “arm” or “hand”) is seen in weakness: “Who would have believed what we now report? Who could have seen God’s hand in this?” (GNB) The answer is nobody!
In the first place he was an unimpressive figure: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (53.1b). NIV: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us…”. GNB: “He had no dignity or beauty to make us take notice of him. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing that would draw us to him”. He was no Saul or David, both of him were 6 feet tall and stunningly attractive. Rather he was like “a plant out of dry ground” – a miserable specimen of a plant – a stunted plant which had failed to reach its true potential.
Secondly, he was a repulsive figure: “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity [NIV “familiar with pain”]. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (53.3). GNB: “We despised him and rejected him; he endured suffering and pain. No one would even look at him – we ignored him as if he were nothing.” REB: “pain racked and afflicted by disease”. Some have suggested that what is here being described is a case of leprosy. Leprosy can eat away people’s limbs and features – that’s why people tended to shut leprosy sufferers away – their sight was too much to cope with. It is unlikely that the prophet actually had leprosy in mind – and yet this interpretation is helpful in so far as it underlines that this is a man from whom others recoil. He was a man without friends. A man who was alone.
Clearly, we mustn’t press the details. We are dealing here with poetry – with a prophetic vision. And yet these words are amazingly applicable to Jesus. There were, of course, times when Jesus proved to be amazingly attractive – crowds flocked to hear him. Yet at the end of his life he was “rejected” (NRSV/NIV) – “shunned by all” (REB) – “we esteemed him not” (NIV). As he hung on the Cross he cut no pretty figure. If ever there was a grotesque Saviour, then it was Jesus on that first Good Friday.
No wonder people have rejected him – “Who could have seen the Lord’s hand in this?” (53.1b GNB). Nobody! On that Good Friday God must have seemed totally absent. Yet God was there, working out his purposes.
- A CRUCIFIED SAVIOUR (53.7-9)
The theme of the suffering of the Servant of the Lord is further developed.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its hearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (53.7). GNB: “He was treated harshly but endured it humbly; he never said a word. Like a lamb about to be slaughtered, like a sheep about to be sheared, he never said a word.” The Gospels confirm that when Jesus suffered, he suffered in silence. At his trial “the high priest…. said: ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’. But Jesus was silent” (Matt 26.62,63a). The Apostle Peter later wrote of Jesus: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet 2.23). This silence of Jesus was and is unusual. Sir George Adam Smith: “Silence under suffering is a strange thing in the OT – a thing absolutely new – in the OT the sufferer is always either confessing his guilt to God, or, when he feels no guilt, challenging God in argument”. It is interesting to compare Jesus with the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah used similar language to describe his suffering: “I was like a gentle lamb led to slaughter” (Jer 11.19) – but unlike Jesus, the Lamb of God, Jeremiah bleated no end! Jesus, however, kept silent. He refused to hit back at God or man.
“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of his people” (53.8). NIV: “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.” GNB: “He was arrested, sentenced, and led off to die, and no one cared about his fate. He was put to death for the sins of our people”. No wonder Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34). This was no mere quotation from Psalm 22. Jesus, who had experienced such intimacy with God, now experienced God’s total absence!
“They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich” (53.9). Jesus died in the company of two criminals, and was buried in the tomb of a prosperous Jew, Joseph of Arimathea.
- A TRIUMPHANT SAVIOUR (53.10-12)
But the Suffering Saviour, proved to be a triumphant Saviour. The prophet brings out two aspects of this triumph.
First, it was no accident: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53.10) GNB “It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness”. It was all part of God’s plan. In the words of Peter to his fellow Jews on the Day of Pentecost: Jesus was “handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23). God may surprise us – but we never surprise him. God can be at work in even the darkest of times – amazing as it may seem, he can turn tragedy to triumph.
Secondly, his death was not the end. “He shall see his offspring and shall prolong his days. … Out of his anguish he shall see light” (53.10b,11a). NIV: “…. after he has suffered he will see the light of life”. GNB: “And so he will see his descendants… After a life of suffering, he will again have joy”. At this stage in Israel’s history there was no developed doctrine of resurrection. The prophet was only seeing through a glass darkly when he penned these words. All he knew was the death would not be the end. And so it proved to be: for on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.
“Through him the will of the Lord shall prosper… The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous and he shall bear their iniquities” (53.10c, 11bc). GNB: “Through him my purpose will succeed…. He will know that he did not suffer in vain. My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many and for his sake I will forgive them.” The prophet looked forward to the Saviour’s death achieving its stated purpose: viz. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed… The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”. (53.4-6). GNB: “But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne….. Because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did.”
Isaiah 53 is about something which affects us all. For we are all suffering from one common complaint, viz. the effects and consequences of sin. In the words of the prophet: “All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his (or her!) own way” (53.6a). Thank God there is a remedy. For as the prophet goes on to say: “The Lord made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved” (53.6b) I.e. when Jesus died on the Cross, he bore your sin and mine – he took our place – he endured the punishment that was due to you and me – he endured the necessary consequences of the sin of all of us.
As he comes to the end of his study on ‘The Lamb of God’ Steven Croft asks: “How are we to hear these words today afresh, as we reassess our lives, the life of the church and the life of the nation?” He offers three reflections:
- “The first is to return again to the centre of our faith… I hope that all Christians will return to a deeper appreciation of our faith and of the suffering and resurrection of Christ at its centre…..
- The second is to be reminded of our baptism [see Acts 8.37]… I pray that all of us will understand more fully the value of our baptism: that we have identified with the death and resurrecti0n of Jesus and that we might offer that gift to others…
- In the midst of so much that is difficult, I hope and pray that we will rereminded of the need to persevere….. See Hebs 10,23-25.