Lesson 8: Isaiah 53 (A Song of Suffering)

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Isaiah Lesson 8 Audio File

In 1741, Englishman Charles Jennens[1] compiled an impressive list of Scriptures telling the true story of the Christ child. To shape his story, Jennens selected 73 verses spanning both the Old and New Testaments. Twenty-two of those verses came from the book of Isaiah.[2] Jennens then sent this collection of Scriptures to his good friend, George Fredric Handel.[3]

And when Handel read the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Savior of the world – woven together from the threads of Scripture compiled by his friend Charles Jennens – he sat down and in just 24 days composed one of the most beloved and most revered oratorios in musical history. You might have heard it: Handel’s Messiah.

The book of Isaiah is all over Handel’s Messiah. In fact the oratorio opens with the words of Is. 40.

Click to listen to Handel’s Messiah #2 (Is. 40:1-4)

But specifically, one chapter surfaces again and again in Handel’s three-part concert – Isaiah 53. Yet, Isaiah 53 is iconic for weightier reasons than Handel’s exalted music. Isaiah 53 is iconic because it foretells the suffering and death of the Messiah, God’s anointed Servant.

This Song of Suffering is the fourth and final Servant Song in the book of Isaiah. In fact, I believe it is the climax of the entire book of Isaiah. It is the chapter the biblical author has been driving toward and leading us to concerning this special individual we’ve come to know as the Ideal Servant. The Servant, who through his suffering, delivers the world from the bondage of sin.

Last week, we ended our lesson with the advent of the King, who battled victoriously for our deliverance from bondage and returned to reclaim his throne. And we learned that he did this all through his powerful, holy Arm – the Arm of the Lord that turned out to be none other than this Servant. Isaiah tells us it is this Servant who is the means of our salvation from sin.

I. AN UNEXPECTED DEFENDANT (IS. 53:1-3)

Yet we also learned that the mode of that salvation was unexpected. Because Isaiah describes the Ideal Servant as ‘high and lifted up, exalted,’ yet at the same time, he is humbled beyond appearance, mocked, ridiculed, and spit upon (Is. 50; Is. 52:13-15). And this was our key from last week: the Arm of the Lord procures victory not through power and might, but through great personal agony and pain.

Read Is. 53

In this Song of Suffering, the Ideal Servant is described as an Unexpected Defendant – unexpected because the image painted by Isaiah is an image of a man who is: powerless, plain, put-down, and passed-by. This is not the colorful and bright image of a conquering king.

A. The Servant is powerless (Is. 53:1)

Read verse 1: “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” Isaiah is speaking as the narrator, and admitting that this individual, who is the mighty Arm of the Lord, does not fit the expected image of mighty conqueror.  After 52 chapters of expectation and hope for deliverance from sin, Isaiah lays a great shock on us – the powerful, holy Arm of the Lord who is promised to procure our deliverance is seemingly powerless.

B. The Servant is plain (Is. 53:2)

But the confusion continues because the Servant is unexpectedly plain, Isaiah says. Look at vs. 2: For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him.”

He is like a “tender plant” or “root out of dry ground.” As a weak or tender sprout, Isaiah is saying the Servant seems incapable of accomplishing deliverance. What could have been more unexpected, more startling, that the thought of a weak, defenseless baby, asleep in a manager, overthrowing the foundations of the world?

Isaiah also says the Servant was not handsome: “He has no form or comeliness. And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. So, not only does he appear weak, but there is nothing about his physical representation that draws people to him. Anointed and effective leaders typically attract people to them through their charisma.[4] But here, Isaiah tells us the Servant is unexpected, because he is plain; he appears both weak and ineffective.

C. The Servant is put down (despised) (Is. 53:3a)

Isaiah also tells us that the Servant is unexpected, because he is not accepted by the people he was called to deliver. The Servant is put down. The beginning of verse 3 says: He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

Isaiah tells us the Servant is put down; he is ‘despised.’ And the sense here in the Hebrew is not only is this man ‘hated and rejected,’ but he is also ‘considered to be worthless, valueless.’ And so, Isaiah is saying the unexpected nature of the Servant has caused his very own people to determine that he is worthless. They put him down, they reject him and despise him.

Far from being a man of charisma, power, ability, leadership – he appears to be a man of sorrow and grief, a man of suffering. That word ‘grief’ (or in the NIV ‘suffering’) is really the word for sickness, affliction, or disease. So, this Ideal Servant is a man of suffering and grief, yes, but primarily because his life is associated with sickness and disease.

Today, we are more “politically correct” concerning physical shortcomings, right? But in previous times, if you were diseased you were often ostracized from society. Consider some of the biblical accounts of individuals suffering from leprosy (Lev. 13-14). They were considered ‘unclean’ and segregated from the rest of the population. They would not have been up front in the crowd, giving speeches, or leading an army to victory on the battlefield. And because the people did not expect their conquering Messiah to be “A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” or sickness, they “despise” him (consider him worthless) and reject him as their Deliverer.

D. The Servant is passed by (overlooked) (Is. 53:3b)

And as a result, the people of God pass by the Servant. Look at the end of verse 3. “And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”

There is an active sense in this verse. Isaiah says the people are actively turning their faces from this individual. We do that a lot, do we not, with respect to sickness or handicap? Sometimes it is difficult for us to look upon people in difficult life situations. When we lived overseas, it was not uncommon to see individuals, especially children, who were handicapped begging for money on bridges or roads. My first instinct was to avoid them. I always groaned a little internally when I realized crossing paths with them with unavoidable. And even if I stopped to give them money, it killed me to make eye contact with them. Not because I was being callous, but because of the darkness of their situation. Their great need was overwhelming, and it was difficult to look upon them.

And Isaiah says “we hid our faces from him.” Isaiah, the great prophet, is including himself in this statement. And the reason the people avoided the Servant? Because the Servant was unexpected in appearance (powerless and plain) and unexpected in ability (full of grief and sickness).

Scripture tells us that the way our salvation works is indeed very unexpected. God chose the way of the unexpected to restore you from sin back to a life of joy with Him. Why did he choose this unexpected path? One reason is so that you and I would have a Savior who knows our suffering, our pain, our sickness, our rejection, our helplessness.

We are told in Hebrews 4:15-16 that our salvation comes from One who knows our sorrows. It says: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Already, in this Song of Suffering, we see that our Savior: knows how it feels to be dismissed (v. 1); knows how it feels to be undesirable (v. 2); knows how it feels to be deemed unworthy, to be rejected, to be well-acquainted with pain and sickness (v. 3); and knows how it feels to be ignored and avoided (v. 4).

Who hasn’t experienced some of those forms of suffering in their life at one point or another?  In friendships, in marriages, in family relationships, in work arrangements, in any life situation. And that, ladies, is the paradox that is unique to the claims of Christianity.  Our God is transcendent (meaning he is stands outside and over his creation), but he willingly humbled himself to become acquainted with the very griefs, sorrows, and pains that burden us.

Click to listen to Handel’s Messiah #23 (Is. 53:3)

Your salvation comes from One who knows your sorrows. Your Savior is unexpected, indeed.

II. AN UNEXPECTED EXCHANGE (IS. 53:4-6)

And then in verses 4-6, an unexpected exchange that takes place: through his suffering, the Servant becomes our salvation. And we learn that it is the suffering of this individual that enables him to be powerful for our sakes. And Isaiah tells us that in unexpected exchange, the Servant acts very powerfully on our behalf in four ways.

A. The Servant carries away effects of sin (Is. 53:4)

First, Isaiah says the Servant carries away the effects of our sins. Verse 4 says: Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.”

The Servant – who was just pictured as bearing ‘griefs’ and ‘sorrows’ – is now pictured as “bearing our griefs” and “carrying our sorrows.” In the Hebrew, all those third-person possessive pronouns “our sickness/“our pains” – are in the emphatic position. That just means they come first in the word order of the sentence. Why is that a big deal? Well, in ancient Greek or Hebrew, if an author wanted to emphasize something he would stack it at the beginning of the sentence.[6] So, Isaiah is emphasizing that the Servant is not just experiencing suffering along with us, but rather, the Servant is suffering from the effects of OUR sin. What should have been our destiny has been assigned to the Servant.

The language here of ‘carrying’ and ‘bearing’ is language used of the sacrifices in the Old Testament. In the Mosaic Law, God gave the people specific regulations for how the people were to atone for their sin so they might be able to worship Him unencumbered. The people were to offer daily and yearly sacrifices. And while the animal sacrifices did not ‘save’ the people (Heb. 9:7-14), they served as a reminder as to the penalty for sin (death) and the requirement of blood for atonement (Lev. 17:11).

And then once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) the High Priest would offer two goats as a corporate sacrifice on behalf of all the people – one goat served as a blood sacrifice and a second goat served as a ‘scapegoat.’ We can see the imagery of this scapegoat in Is. 53:4. Because once the people’s sin was ‘covered’ with the blood of the innocent animal (the first goat), their sins were confessed over the head of the scapegoat and it was released into a field, “carrying” and “bearing” the sins of the people far from them (Ps. 103:12).

This language of the Servant “carrying” and “bearing” is not just figurative. Isaiah is elaborating on a chair doctrine of Christianity – the biblical concept of substitutionary atonement.

First, we see that atonement is God’s work. It is not our work. God is the one who covers our sins. He sent His Servant to bear our sins on our behalf and carry the effects of our sins far from us.

Second, God atones for our sins by providing us with a vicarious sacrifice. Simply put, he provided a substitute sacrifice for our sins.[7] We were the ones marked to bear our own sins. We were the ones marked for death. But God, in his great love and mercy, provided that sacrifice out of his own self to bodily bear God’s wrath (our punishment for sin which is death).

So, Isaiah is calling the Ideal Servant the scapegoat who bears our sorrows and sickness and sin far from us.[8] The Servant is our substitute sacrifice.[9] And it is through the Servant suffering in our place and carrying away the effect of our sins that we are freed from sin and restored back to God.

B. The Servant bears punishment for sin (Is. 53:5a)

Isaiah continues with the language of substitution into verse 5. He says: “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.”

But what is the Servant ‘wounded’ and ‘bruised’ for? Our ‘transgressions’ and ‘iniquities’– sin. John Stott says this verse means the penalty for sin has already been carried out.[10] The guilt of our sin is transferred to the substitute, and he is one who bears the guilt and punishment of sin on our behalf. Isaiah is painting a picture of the Servant standing in our place of judgment. If the Servant had not been pierced to death and crushed to death on the cross, then we would be.[11] He bears the guilt of our sin and the penalty of our sin – death.[12]

Click to listen to Handel’s Messiah #24 (Is. 53:4-5a)

When you adequately grasp the work of the cross, how can you not marvel? God in Christ desired to experience the heinous punishment that should have been ours.[13] How can you not marvel at the majesty of His love?

C. The Servant secures our well-being (53:5b)

But look at the language in the rest of verse 5, because just as the Servant unexpectedly carries away our sin and unexpectedly bears our punishment for our sin, thirdly, he unexpectedly secures our well-being. Vs. 5 says: “The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”

Isaiah uses an interesting phrase here – “the chastisement for our peace” The NIV clarifies that phrase a little in rendering it: the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.

However, I prefer the translation ‘chastisement,’ because it conveys the sense of a child-parent relationship where a child has rebelled and the parent lovingly disciplines them. Sometimes that discipline includes ‘punishment’ (as the NIV translates it), but hopefully that discipline would include more. Hopefully it would also include: correction, justice (rebellion requires justice be applied), and restoration of the relationship.

The Servant, very unexpectedly, bears that discipline (correction, justice) on our behalf so that we might be restored to God, so that we might grab hold of “peace.” Remember, we learned that the word ‘peace’ (shalom) in the Hebrew meant more than simply the absence of strife. In its biblical sense, true peace meant harmony and well-being. The Servant secures our well-being.[14]

Verse 6 adds a nuance here: “and by His stripes we are healed.” It is not merely that the Servant’s suffering in itself produces healing, but the suffering born by this specific, special, unexpected Servant produces healing for our benefit and well-being.

That means that you and I cannot suffer for our own well-being. In the very first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet tells us we already bear stripes, welts, wounds from sin. But they certainly don’t produce healing, rather they are like festering open, sores, Isaiah says (Is. 1:5-10). This is our present situation: we need help. We have wounds that are growing foul and festering because of our folly – our sin. And we are incapable of healing those wounds, sores on our own.

D. The Servant secures our restoration to God (Is. 53:6)

We cannot deliver ourselves from sin. We cannot heal ourselves from the effects of sin. Those wounds are going to fester until they result in our death. And the last point in verse 6 is this: we cannot restore ourselves back to God. It reads: All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

Verse 6 brings everything back home, because it refers to “all of us.”  “All we” are like sheep – ignorant, one-minded, stubborn, and easily misled. Isaiah is speaking of a problem universal to all men and women.  The great prophet even includes himself in this lot. He opens and closes verse 6 with this reality: all men and women need to be restored back to God.

And the answer to this problem of sin is the Servant. Isaiah says: “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The word “iniquity basically means sin, but it can also mean the guilt of sin and the consequences of sin.[15] And this is the point. All of our sin, every last bit of it (the wrongdoings, the guilt, even the consequences), have been laid on the shoulders of the Ideal Servant.

Click to listen to Handel’s Messiah #26 (Is. 53:6).

Did you notice the contrast in this song – how is begins and ends? In the first part of the song, the tone is joyful and buoyant. Handel beautifully captures the truth of this verse: Sheep will be content (happy even) to aimlessly wander and stumble along a path, even if that path leads to destruction. Sheep will not find their way back to their Shepherd on their own. They need guidance in order to return to the right path. The second part of the song relates the work of Shepherd, and Handel captures the agonizing detail with which this work was fleshed out. The tone of this part of the song is somber, painful, and wretched. The Shepherd sought out his sheep at great price.

The point is this: not only does our salvation come from One who knows our sorrows, but our salvation comes with an entire relationship in view.

God not only delivers us from sin, but he delivers us back to him! Sin damages our relationship with God. Even if we do one good deed starting today for the rest of our lives, we still need outside help. We cannot say enough prayers, go to church enough, get involved in enough ministries, deny ourselves enough pleasures, or think of others enough to span the gulf between us and God.

It is as if we a sheep standing on one mountain top and God is on the other, and we are separated by a great valley. And the Ideal Servant, as the Good Shepherd, carries us down one mountain and guides us back to God. So, we aren’t merely saved from the effects of sin, but the Servant bears our sins on our behalf so that we might be restored to the original purpose for which we were created – for worship and service. And Isaiah tells us this is the unexpected exchange – through the Servant we are exchanging a broken relationship for a healed relationship. Our salvation comes with an entire relationship in view.

III. AN UNEXPECTED TRIAL (IS. 53:7-9)

Verses 7-9 unfold as a court case. Isaiah is going to put the Servant on the witness stand, and the jury will hear the three pieces of testimony concerning the qualifications of the Servant to serve as our substitute sacrifice. The jury will hear about: the Servant’s submissiveness, the Servant’s injustice, and the Servant’s innocence.

A. The Servant is submissiveness (Is. 53:7)

First, Isaiah tells us that the Servant willingly submits to this task of suffering. Look at verse 7: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.”

The Servant is led like a lamb to the slaughter. And whereas you and I were compared to sheep in verse 6, now Isaiah is likening the Ideal Servant to a sheep or lamb. But there is a contrast here – whereas you and I as sheep are belligerent and foolish, the Servant as a lamb is submissive.

Our culture has a nasty idea of submission – as if submission means being a doormat or being forced into doing something. That’s not biblical submission, that’s oppression. Biblical submission includes a willingness to defer to the wishes and plans of others. Isaiah wants to be clarify that the Servant’s testimony is not the testimony of a victim. Rather the Servant possesses full knowledge of the slaughter to come. Twice in the text it says “he did not open his mouth” in protest or complaint.[16]

B. The Servant’s is unjustly accused (Is. 53:8)

But the trial is not over, because Isaiah reveals that the Servant’s suffering, to which he submits voluntarily, is unjust. This is really important because it sets the suffering of the Lamb of God apart from the suffering of the other sheep in the world. Read verse 8: “He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.”

In the Ancient Near East there was a sense in which suffering was a form of divine punishment.[17] Yet, Isaiah is saying that even though the Servant willingly submits to this suffering – has been unjustly accused.[18] And he unjustly suffers physical pain and emotional pain – “being cut off from the land of the living.” [19]

But lest you lay blame for this injustice at the feet of an unjust judicial system, Isaiah is careful to point out the Servant is carried off into judgment and separated from the living because of the transgressions of the people. It always comes back to us and our sins. The Servant is unjustly accused.

C. The Servant is innocent (Is. 53:9)

But this unexpected trial also reveals that the Servant is innocent. This is the last point in this section, and it is perhaps the most important one. Read vs. 9: And they made His grave with the wicked—But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.

Millions of people throughout the course of history have endured great suffered. Many men and women have willingly given their lives over to the hands of oppressors and received unjust sentences. But this is the key difference between the suffering of others and the suffering of the Servant. Those men and women might not have committed the specific crime for which they were sentenced, but were they completely innocent? Were they perfectly holy? Were they without sin? Scripture says that no man or woman is without sin.[20]

This is why the life and death and suffering of the Servant is significant: only the Ideal Servant was unjustly sentenced in complete innocence. Isaiah tells us in vs. 9: “He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth. This means that the mouth of the Servant only speaks truth.  So, this is the key: not only did this Servant not deserve punishment, but he did not deserve any punishment at all, ever.

Because the Servant was completely and perfectly innocent, Isaiah tells us our salvation comes from an innocent sacrifice bearing our punishment for sin. This means that the Ideal Servant of Is. 53 is the only One qualified to serve as your substitute sacrifice.

Other people have been submissive throughout history, other people have been unjustly accused of crimes throughout history, and other people have been innocent of certain charges brought against them. But even they cannot affect salvation for you – bearing away your sins as a scapegoat, bearing the punishment of your sins, and bearing your well-being. Only the Servant can do that![21]

IV. AN UNEXPECTED VERDICT (IS. 53:10-12)

This brings us to our last section in our lesson where Isaiah tells us an unexpected verdict comes from the trial of the Servant. And the jury discovers why the Servant suffered on their behalf. The Servant suffers for God’s purpose. The Servant suffers for our justification, and the Servant suffers for his own exaltation.

A. The Servant suffers for His purpose (Is. 53:10)

First, the Servant suffers for God’s purpose. Look at verse 10: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.”

Isaiah tells us that the Lord ‘desired’ or ‘was pleased to bruise the Servant, and to ‘put him to grief.’ This is a really difficult statement to get our heads around, thinking that the suffering of this person (much less any person) brings God’s pleasure. But these words do not describe the whims of God; they describe the plans and purposes of God.[22] God’s purpose is not to inflict pain and suffering on others. Rather, God has purposed pain in His own life (the life of the Servant), so that you and I might be freed from it.

The sacrifice of the Servant did not come about as an after-thought, as damage control to ward off sin. Since the foundations of the world, this Servant was appointed for this task. And it is in this sense that God is pleased to strike the Servant, because it means his mission to eradicate sin completely and perfectly has been fulfilled.[23]

But this doesn’t mean that you and I are bystanders observing God’s hand crush the Servant from the distance. Look at the wording of verse 10, because it appears as though God’s plans are only fully realized based on our response. The text says “when (or if) you make his soul a guilt offering.”

Although, the NIV/NASB applies this activity to Go (“…the LORD makes his life an offering for sin.”), the NKJV retains the original wording of the Hebrew (when you make his soul a guilt offering.”)

I prefer the translation “if you make his soul a guilt offering.” Because, this is clearly an allusion to the sacrificial system– the system God created for the atonement of sins. The purpose of the sacrificial system was only fulfilled when the people responded by sacrificing animals for the guilt of their sin. The people bore a responsibility in the matter. The only atoned for their sin when they responded. Isaiah is saying the same thing: although we can’t save ourselves, we still bear a responsibility in our atonement. We are to offer up the Servant as a “guilt offering.”[24]

John Oswalt says you and I should get really uncomfortable at this point. Because we are no longer reading about a man who suffered, but a man who will not see anything come out of his suffering unless you and I act. Oswalt writes: “If the Servant’s ministry is to have any validity for me, I must take the broken self he offers me and in turn offer it back to God in my place.”[25]

It’s as if you and I are transported back to Ancient Israel. And we are standing outside the temple with an animal to offer up as a guilt offering for the sins that we’ve committed. And you can imagine whatever animal you like – a lamb, a goat, a dove – it doesn’t matter. And it is hot, and it is dusty, and the animal with you is probably really difficult to herd in the right direction. And the priest comes to you and you solemnly hand over your unblemished sacrifice into his strong hands. But this time, when you hand that sacrifice over, it is as if you are holding the broken body of the Servant – the unblemished Lamb of God who was beaten, ridiculed, crushed, afflicted, stricken with sickness for you.

And look at the results, Isaiah says. When you hand over the Servant as your guilt offering, the suffering and death of the Servant is imbued with meaning and colored with significance. The rest of verse 10 says: “he will see seed, he will lengthen his days.”[26] Isaiah is using figurative language to convey that the life of the Servant will be highly fruitful – God’s purposes are fulfilled in him.

B. The Servant suffers for our justification (Is. 53:11)

So, the Servant suffers to see God’s purposes fulfilled, but the Servant also suffers for our justification. Look at verse 11: “He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities.”

Verse 11 says when we offer up the body of the Servant as our sacrifice for our sins, the result is we are justified. This word ‘justify[27] means “to bring justice” (in administering law), but it can also mean to declare righteous or to make righteous.  The Righteous One (the Ideal Servant) who is completely innocent with “no deceit in his mouth” will make others righteous. When we offer up this Righteous One as our perfect unblemished sacrifice, God is allowing us to place all our sins and all the guilt from our sins on his innocent head. And then the Righteous One bears the wages of that sin on our behalf – the crushing, piercing, pain, sickness – all of it that should have been our punishment is placed on Him.

And the result is this: we are justified. That means we are forgiven, we are cleansed, and we are reconciled to God. And this cleansing ends the need for all further cleansing.  We are justified and declared righteous despite sins committed in the past, present, and future.  We stand righteous before the Lord eternally, because our sacrifice is eternal. Heb. 9:12-14 it explains the superiority of offering the Servant as a sacrifice over any type of animal.

This is the key: the Servant suffered on our behalf according to the good purposes of God so that we might be justified and declared righteous forever.

And what’s the big deal with being declared righteous? Besides the fact that this is the only way we can know and fellowship with God (reconciled to him), there is a greater reason. Righteousness is the very purpose for which you and I were created. We are to reflect the King’s righteousness to a watching world, so that all may know him. And we find this righteousness only through the Ideal Servant.

C. The Servant suffers for His exaltation (Is. 53:12)

And lastly, look at verse 12. The Servant suffers for His exaltation. “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.”

Isaiah closes this passage with language of a victory parade. This is the image of the Servant marching into a city as a conqueror with all the spoils of battle trailing behind.[29] This image is quite a jump from the suffering and sick, plain and powerless Servant we’ve seen in the last two chapters. But Isaiah is using figurative language to indicate the honor the Conqueror will receive – the honor due him because of his courageous activity on the battlefield.

And what did his actions on the battlefield look like? The Servant poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors.I like the HCSB rendering of transgressors with ‘rebels,’ because you see the degree of self-subordination that took place here. The Servant (the rightful ruler of the throne) listed himself with those who rebelled against the throne. Yet, because of the Servant’s willingness to be labeled as an enemy of his very throne, he is exalted back to his rightful position.

When we began looking at this fourth Servant Song, we started (last week) with Is. 52:13. Let me remind you of that verse: “Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” And the paradox is that through suffering, the Servant is returned and exalted again to his rightful place.[30]

Oswalt says: “The servant will be exalted to the highest heaven not because he was humiliated (although he was), not because he suffered unjustly (although he did), not because he did it voluntarily (although he did), but because it was all in order to carry the sin of the world away to permit God’s children to come home to him. He is exalted because he fulfilled God’s purpose for his ministry, and that purpose was redemption.” [31]

And look at the results of the redemption procured for us by Isaiah’s Suffering Servant!

  1. Our salvation comes from One who knows our sorrows.
  2. Our salvation comes with an entire relationship in view.
  3. Our salvation comes from an innocent sacrifice bearing our punishment for sin. The servant is the substitute sacrifice for us.

But we can only experience that salvation when we respond. Isaiah tells us that we can only find forgiveness, cleansing, and restoration “when we make the Servant’s soul an offering” for our transgressions.

And making that offering is as easy as admitting that we are sinners and that we need help, and looking to God for that help through his Servant. This is what all human history is driving toward – that God in His great love sent His Servant to seek and save us – to search us out on those mountain roads like lost, wandering sheep, and return us to the Shepherd.

Who is the Servant? Scripture tell us it is none other than the person of Jesus Christ. Sent by the Father, Jesus broke into human history for you. He lived a sinless life and died an unjust death on the cross, so that you might enjoy peace and reconciliation with God. Jesus Christ is your substitute sacrifice.


[1] Charles Jennens wrote the English language books of some of Handel’s most successful pieces, including Saul, L’Allegro, and Belshazzar, along with compiling the text sources for Handel’s Messiah. Mark Brummitt, “Hand(e)ling the Messiah” in The Expository Times, Volume 117 No. 3, 95-99.

[2] Daniel Block, “Handel’s Messiah: Biblical and Theological Perspectives” in Didaskalia, Volume 12, No. 2, Spring 2001, pg. 2. Jennens pulls from Isaiah 7; 9; 35; 40; 50; 52; 53; and 60. Article located at http://www.sbts.edu/documents/icw/messiah.pdf

[3] On July 10, 1741 Charles Jennens wrote: “I hope to persuade [Handel] to set another Scripture Collection I have made for him, and perform it for his own Benefit in Passion week. I hope he will lay out his whole Genius and Skill upon it, and that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject. The Subject is Messiah.”  Brummitt, 96. As quoted in Donald Burrows, ‘A Fine entertainment’, in Messiah CD Audio (Berlin: Archiv Production, 1988), 14-21 (15).

[4] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), pg. 382.

[6] The NASB is the only translation that keeps the personal pronouns in their emphatic position.

[7] Hernando, Dictionary of Hermeneutics, 152. Vicarious “describes something performed or suffered by one person as a substitute for another, or in their place.”

[8] John Stott defines the notion of substitution as one person taking “the place of another, especially in order to bear that person’s pain and so save him or her from it.” John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2006), pg. 136.

[9] Hebrews 9:28 says: “so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many.”

[10] Stott, 141. This concept is called “penal substitution.”  It means that in bearing our sins, the Servant does more than just sympathize with our sufferings – the Servant endures the penal consequences of sin and undergoes the penalty of sin on our behalf. Also see Stott, 143.

[11] Unexpectedly, God, through his holy Servant, carried out a plan on our behalf by which both our sins would be forgiven and justice would be satisfied. Scripture tells us that the penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23). It was for this reason that God instituted the blood sacrifices in the Old Testament. However inadequate, God allowed those animal sacrifices to illustrate the need for divine justice. Could God have simply overlooked or forgiven man’s sin? Of course. But he couldn’t have overlooked sin without marring his holy character. To simply forgive sin without the carrying out of justice means God would no longer be just.

[12] Stott states the OT clearly demonstrates ‘bearing of sin’ means ‘suffering the penalty of sin.’ See Lev. 5:1, 19:8.

[13] Stott points out that God in Christ suffers and dies on our behalf. There is still distinction between God the Father and God the Son in the work of the cross. See Stott, 156-162.

[14] Oswalt, 388. “This is not a matter of a raging tyrant who demands violence on someone to satisfy his fury. It is a God who wants a whole relationship with his people, but is prevented from having it until complete justice is satisfied. In the Servant he has found a way to gratify his love and satisfy his justice.”

[15] עון `avon

[16] We see this in the New Testament several times as Jesus Christ was led to the cross. We hear repeatedly that Jesus submitted to the will of the Father and to the slaughter to come (Phil 2:5-8). Luke 24:41-42 vividly recounts Christ’s struggle with these plans right before he was to be arrested and tried and killed. Additionally, this must be the imagery that lies behind the John the Baptist’s declaration in John 1:29 –“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When John penned those famous words he must have been meditating on Is. 53:7 “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.”

[17] Oswalt, 394. Israel rightly understood that the suffering they experienced at the hands of Babylon and Assyria in exile was a form of punishment of justice. The much-deserved suffering of Israel and Judah in Is. 1-39 is the backdrop of the undeserved suffering of the Ideal Servant in Is. 40-66.

[18] And centuries later we see this thought echoed in the mind of Pontius Pilate himself – who could find no fault with the person of Jesus Christ. Pilate perceived an injustice would be done if Jesus was accused of a crime (Matt. 26:59-61; Luke 23:2-4; 13-16).

[19] Being “cut off from the people of God” was a common penalty in the OT for specific sins (Lev. 19:5-8). See Owalt, 390: Isaiah could be saying the Servant is bearing a penalty for a sin he did not commit, and the penalty is being cut off from his people. But he could also be referencing childlessness or the appearance of a futile life that leads to death.

[20] 1 John 1:8, Psalm 14:2-3.

[21] Oswalt puts it like this: “Only someone who could say in absolute sincerity that he or she had never rebelled against God, could affect such reconciliation.”

[22] Consider Isaiah 55:11.

[23] The apostles give us greater clarity with respect to God’s purposes on the cross. See Acts 2:23.

[24] Stott, 137.

[25] Oswalt, 402.

[26] Ps. 21:5.

[27] צדק tsadaq

[28] Consider also Mt. 12:12 and 1 Pet. 1:18-21.

[29] Oswalt, 405.

[30] John picks up on this truth in his gospel as he chronicles an intense time of prayer prior to his arrest and betrayal in John 17:1-4.

[31] Oswalt, 407.

About the Author

Melissa Deming is a freelance writer transplanted from Texas to Pennsylvania with her husband of ten years, Jonathan, and two-year-old identical twins, Zacharias and Jonah. The family serves at a Southern Baptist church plant in Pittsburgh - Living Faith Community Church. Melissa is a regular correspondent for The Southern Baptist TEXAN newspaper and Crossroads magazine of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. She is also the creator and author of HiveResources.com - a site designed to sweeten a woman's walk with Christ through devotional articles, book reviews, and giveaways. Melissa holds a Masters of Divinity in Women’s Studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, and a B.A. in Journalism from Texas A&M University.