Isaiah 52:13-53:12-The Suffering Servant
According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, this ‘passage speaks so eloquently of the work of Christ that even the inclusion of his name could add but little more to the extent of its disclosure of him’.
It is this song that we will focus in the greatest detail. The verses build up an atmosphere of great excitement as it is a revelation of special significance. We also see a vivid, priestly language in these verses.
This is the longest servant song, which is why we will discuss in 2 sections.
“See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.”
The Hebrew word for ‘act wisely’ is יַשְׂכִּ֖יל which can also mean ‘prosper’. Thus ‘my servant will prosper’, as maintained by the PBS Urdu Bible. Like the first servant song, God is drawing attention to the servant (cf. 42:1).
In verse 14, the Hebrew literally reads ‘appalled at you’ עָלֶ֙יךָ֙. This has been changed to ‘at him’ in line with the Syriac OT and the Targum. Notice the paradox of the servant being exalted and also being appalled at.
This paradox can only be explained with the reference to the cross of Christ that displayed God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18). Christ’s crucifixion paints a picture of senseless violence, yet was the pathway for the exaltation of God’s son.
The servant is marred beyond human likeness, yet he ‘sprinkles’ יַזֶּה֙ the nations, which refers to atonement (Exodus 29:20-21, Leviticus 16:14-15). Also notice here that this atonement extends beyond Israel to all the nations. In fact, Paul uses this passage to describe his own mission in Romans 15:21.
Let us now turn to the second section:
An outline will be helpful at this point, since we have the whole chapter in front of us:
· 1-3: Physical affliction
· 4-5: Atonement
· 6: Human ignorance and the deliverance of the Lamb
· 7-10: The Suffering Servant
· 11: Exaltation
· 12: Intercession 
Once again, the identity of the servant is debatable in this passage. According to 52:3, it seems that Israel went into slavery for no sin of its own. And indeed it looks plausible, considering the fact that slavery and captivity were a natural phenomena in the ancient world.
However, even though Israel was oppressed by Babylon, it was by no means sinless. (Isaiah 1:16-18). The servant, on the other hand, suffers not for his own sin (as people mistakenly assume in verse 4), but for the sins of others. In fact, most scholars agree that verse 5 is referring to penal substitution.
Who is the “we” in verse 5? If we make the connection with the ‘nations and kinds’ of 52:15, then perhaps this refers to the gentiles.
From verse 7 onwards, we find striking similarities with the Gospel. Jesus Christ, knowing God’s will, remained quiet in front Pilate, Herod, and the High Priest. This is in staunch comparison to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:18-20, 12:1-3).
‘..he was cut off from the land of the living’’ refers to Christ’s death, and then we also find a remarkable prophecy about Christ’s burial in verse 9. The ‘wicked’ and the ‘rich’ are not synonyms. In fact, this is a contrast between how people perceived Christ and how he was vindicated by God through the divine provision of Joseph’s grave (Matthew 27:57-60).
The fact that he will ‘see his offspring’ implies an existence beyond the grave, which is literally fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection. In verse 11, the NIV adds ‘he will see the light of life’ based on the LXX. It is also interesting to note that ‘by his knowledge’ can also be translated as ‘by knowledge of him’, which means faith in Christ.
Finally, the exaltation of verse 12 reminds us of what Paul wrote in Philippians, that Christ ‘made himself nothing’, which echoes Isaiah 53:12. To sum up, the fact that Isaiah 53 predicts the death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ in such great detail is simply remarkable, and one of the evidences of the divine inspiration of scripture.
The study of the 4 servant songs revealed to us the layers of meaning that we often overlook in our reading of the text and preaching from it. There are at least 5 different layers that we tried to uncover in this paper:
1. The theological understanding of the text
2. The characteristics of the servant in each passage
3. The role of the servant in each passage
4. The inter-relation of the servant songs
5. The place of the servant in its historical context, its application to Jesus Christ, and to the church
The writer has genuinely attempted to discuss each servant song from these different angles. The material presented will help us answer 2 criticisms; one against predictive prophecy, and one against the application of these songs to Christ.
The first criticism is put up by those who do not believe in God, or at least a God a who communicates with mankind. In their world-view, there is no such thing as predictive prophecy, and so any such text has to be explained away.
This is usually done by offering alternative meanings, and most commonly, but ascribing a late date to the writing of the text. In the case of Isaiah, we have seen that all the prophecies were put into writing at least a 100 years before Jesus was born. Also, the clear wording of texts like Isaiah 53 don’t need a revised interpretation that denies the atoning work of Christ.
The second criticism is put by Jews, with some justification. We cannot disregard the Biblical association of the servant with Israel. We also cannot ignore the suffering of the Jewish nation, especially during World War II during the Holocaust. We all due respect, we need to understand that the servant of the Lord suffers for the sins of others and not of his own. This simply cannot be applied to the nation of Israel historically.
Hence, Christians are justified in applying these passages, not only to Christ, but to the church as well.
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Gaebelein, Frank. E. ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986.
Harrison, R.K. Introduction to the Old Testament. USA:William B.Eardmans, 1969.
Sultan, Pervaiz. “OT Prophets: Class Notes”. St. Thomas’ Theological College, April-June 2017.
Sultan, Pervaiz. River of God. Karachi: Fact Publications, 2013.
Web, Barry. The Message of Isaiah. Leicester, England: IVP, 1996.