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Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Wounded for Our Transgressions

Summary

God again introduces the servant, now despised and rejected, carrying the punishment that is due others. When the servant has faithfully performed his mission, God will crown him with honor.

Analysis

This fourth servant song follows directly on the announcement of victory and homecoming in 52:7-12. God's work will be done, but there will be a cost to God's servant.

As in the first servant song (42:1-4), God introduces the servant (52:13-15)--and God returns at the end of the song in an epilogue (53:12). Both the beginning and ending verses contain a summary of the entire message: the mystery of one who was marred and unattractive, an unlikely hero who comes to an untimely death, but who surprises kings and gains divine favor because of his message and sacrifice.

We hear different voices in the heart of the song, but it is not always clear who is speaking. In 53:1, "we" begin describing the despised and rejected servant, in whom, surprisingly, "has the arm of the LORD been revealed." If this is a reference back to 52:7, then those identified only as "we" might be the nations who see in an apparently defeated Israel (God's servant) the unexpected work of God on their behalf. Other readers understand the "we" to be Israel, and the servant to be one among them who suffers for their sins.

In any case, the speakers take no account of the servant because of his appearance and infirmity. Nothing commends him. In the popular theology of the day, someone diseased or disabled would be thought to be rejected by God, no doubt struck down because of his own sins. The voices would be like Job's friends, eager to point out that this must be his own fault.

There is a sudden turn, however, at 53:4 with the recognition that the servant suffers not for his own sins but for "ours"--for the faults of the speakers. This is a remarkable move in biblical theology. Now, suffering can be given positive significance as a service one does for another rather than seen only negatively as the consequences of bad actions. Old Testament tradition had already seen Moses in this role, to some degree--prevented from entering the "good land" because of the sins of the people (Deuteronomy 4:21-24). Since, as we have seen, Isaiah often plays off of themes from the exodus, many over the years have seen Isaiah's servant, especially in this passage, as a new Moses. This text in Isaiah, however, makes much clearer that the servant suffers not only because of the sins of others but for the sake of their forgiveness and healing. Christian readers are reminded of Jesus' words, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).

According to the text, it was "the will of the LORD to crush him with pain" (53:10). What does this mean? Does God delight in pain? One key to understanding this verse is the use throughout Second Isaiah of the term here translated "will" (Hebrew khafets). More often the word is translated "purpose" or "intention," and it appears in several key texts, including the reference to God's word that will not return empty, but will accomplish God's purpose (55:11). That purpose is clear in these chapters: Cyrus, says God, "shall carry out all my purpose," namely, that Jerusalem "shall be rebuilt" (44:28). That purpose will be accomplished through God's servant, even though blind and deaf, for it "pleases" God (using the same Hebrew root) to magnify the servant's teaching "and make it glorious" (42:19-21). In other words, in Second Isaiah, from beginning to end, it is God's purpose or intention or pleasure or will to free the captives, bring them home, and rebuild Jerusalem. The surprise of the servant songs is how that will occur--not, as we have seen, through the kind of power that destroyed Pharaoh's armies in the first exodus (compare 42:3 and 43:17), but through the servant, whose gentle justice and teaching goes out to all the earth (42:1-9), who brings a light to the nations (49:6), and who, finally, in this fourth song gives himself fully for the sake of Israel and the nations. God's purpose, we learn, leads now to salvation through the path of suffering rather than through the path of power.

The New Testament refers this passage first to Jesus' healing ministry, taking seriously the text's assertion that "by his bruises we are healed" (53:5; see Matthew 8:17; 12:17-21). Later, the song is used to describe the atonement won by Jesus at the cross: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Peter 2:24). In healing others and suffering for them, Jesus fulfills the "purpose" of God to save "all the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 45:22).

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant


13 See, my servant shall prosper;
   he shall be exalted and lifted up,
   and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him*
   —so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
   and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle* many nations;
   kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
   and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

53Who has believed what we have heard?
   And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
   and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces*
   he was despised, and we held him of no account.


4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
   and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
   struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But 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.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
   we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.


7 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 shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth.
8 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 transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
   and his tomb* with the rich,*
although he had done no violence,
   and there was no deceit in his mouth.


10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.*
When you make his life an offering for sin,*
   he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11   Out of his anguish he shall see light;*
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
   The righteous one,* my servant, shall make many righteous,
   and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
   and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
   and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
   and made intercession for the transgressors.

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10 February 2011

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