The Suffering Servant
God’s Servant reappears in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This passage is of great significance because in it the Holy Spirit puts emphasis not on the reign of Messiah (if I may at this place call Him that), but upon His sufferings. It is a singular fact that the Old Testament prophecies are more concerned with the reign of the coming Ruler than with his death. This point has even caused interpreters to question whether we are dealing with the same person or with two “servants”, a sufferer and a conqueror. This passage answers that question decisively I think.
It starts with the exaltation of the Servant (Isa. 52:13), but immediately the mood changes to His degradation (52:14ff.). Since Philip identifies the Suffering Servant as Jesus in Acts 8:35, and 52:13-15 is really part and parcel of that portion of the prophecy in chapter 53, we might look at these verses as a kind of prelude to it. Verse 13 certainly draws a parallel with what has been spoken of the great King to come in Isaiah 9:7 and 11:2-5. The exalted One who shall “deal with prudence” over the earth’s affairs will also have to undergo great humiliation in the earth. As we know that His reign will be eternal (Isa. 9:7), we are compelled to conclude that His degradation will occur prior to His being coronation (hinted at in Isa. 53:12a).
Even without seeing Jesus in the remarkable words of Isaiah 53 one feels sympathy for the man being described. Oppressed and afflicted, yet having the meekness not to object (53:7). A man despised by men (53:3) and “smitten and bruised by God (53:4, 10), and yet one who bears our iniquities so successfully (53:5, 6, 11, 12) that He can be made a sin offering to God (53:10), even making intercession on behalf of sinners in a way impossible for any mere animal (53:11). This again is the Servant (53:11), but it is not Israel by any stretch of the imagination! In no believable circumstances could Israel, who remember were under a complex sacrificial cultus, ever be thought of in this fashion. This impression is intensified when we consider that those justified by the Servant (who though afflicted by God was nevertheless serving God – 53:4, 10), included Israel (“My people” in 53:8).
While the Servant is subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of men the prophecy makes it clear that it is for mankind that the transaction was allowed to happen. No wonder then that after all He has to endure God exalts Him (53:12). What a wonderful verse is 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. – Isaiah 53:11
The righteous servant does all this not only for God but for Himself! “The labor of His soul” is such a beautiful phrase. Once we couple this together with the developing portrait of the Messiah and we recall His connection, in fact His identification with the New covenant, and we remember how the New covenant gives new vigor to the other covenants I think we begin to see how the covenantal Creation Project comes together in and through the Person of Christ.
Humiliation before Exaltation
We might do well to pause here for a moment to reflect on the remarkable fact that the Old Testament dwells far more upon the victorious ascendancy and rule of the Promised One than with His being dishonored and put to shame by His enemies before coming to the throne. Even in the first promise in Genesis 3:15 the serpent is said to crush the heel of the woman’s seed before He vanquishes the serpent. In Genesis 49:10 and Numbers 24:17 speak only of His glory, as does Micah 2:13 and 5:2. Psalm 22:1-21 is the only other passage so far in the progress of revelation where a similar shameful treatment is recorded, but there the specific individual remains prophetically uncertain until the death of Jesus. In Isaiah the prophecies in 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 32:1; 40:10 all refer to the reign of the Lord, there is no mention of any suffering. This will be the consistent theme of Isaiah from chapter 54 onward.
We shall observe the same phenomenon all the way through the Prophets. Zephaniah 3:15-17 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-16 teach us to expect someone who will usher in righteousness under His purview. The “smiting stone” of Daniel 2 and the great Ruler of Daniel 7:13-14 again draw the reader’s attention to the glory of the Coming One, not to His misery. Zechariah’s post-exilic visions do briefly mention that Yahweh will be valued at thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:13), and then there is the enigmatic pronouncement that “they will look on me whom they pierced” in Zechariah 12:10, but otherwise that writer’s more Messianic predictions follow the descriptions of splendor we find nearly everywhere else (e.g. Zech. 2:10; 3:8; 6:12-13; 8:3; 9:9; 14:3-5, 9, 16-17). Finally, Malachi 3:1-3 and 4:1-3 raise the same expectations. (more…)