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