The Suffering Servant

1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
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,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
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.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
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;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:1-12 ESV

This is, arguably, one of the most significant chapters in the entire Bible. It actually extends from verse 13 of the previous chapter and provides an amazing portrait of the suffering servant: Jesus Christ. Chapter 53 of Isaiah is quoted by the New Testament authors more than any other section of Scripture. And you can see why they aligned themselves with this remarkable section of God’s Word, because in it is contained the quinticential description of Jesus as the suffering servant of God.

For anyone familiar with the New Testament account of Jesus’s life, it would be difficult to read this chapter in Isaiah and not see a clear and compelling portrait of the Jesus and His crucifixion. He is described as being marred in appearance, despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, wounded, oppressed, afflicted, and burdened with the sins of mankind. The amount of detail provided in these verses is difficult to fathom, when you consider that Isaiah penned these words more than seven centuries before Jesus appeared on the scene.

The descriptions of Jesus in this passage are far from flattering. He is portrayed as a yowneq, which is the Hebrew word for a small shoot or suckling. It refers to a small sprout that appears after a tree has been cut down. It is an unexpected shoot that appears out of nowhere in dry ground because of the presence on an unseen root. Isaiah referred to this aspect of Jesus earlier in his book.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. – Isaiah 11:1 ESV

In that chapter, Isaiah describes Jesus, the shoot, as having power and authority. He will come as a conquering King, not a suffering servant.

…and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins. – Isaiah 11:4-5 ESV

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people. – Isaiah 11:10-11 ESV

But the Jesus of Isaiah 53 is quite different. The Jesus who came to earth as a man, in His incarnate form, was anything but beautiful and physically impressive. In fact, Isaiah says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2 NLT). He didn’t have a charismatic personality, come from an influential family or wield  a lot of power.  Born in relative obscurity in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus spent His childhood in the backwater town of Nazareth. He was the adopted son of a lowly tradesman, and spent the early years of His adulthood living at home and working alongside His father.

And even when Jesus began His earthly ministry, He would do so without a lot of fanfare or noteriety. And while He received the glowing endorsement of His Heavenly Father at the commencement of His ministry, things did not end well for Him. Isaiah describes Him as “despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT). During the 3-1/2 years of His earthly ministry, Jesus encountered far more rejection than He did acceptance. The Jewish religious leaders hated Him with a passion. The majority of the Jewish nation, while enamored with His miracles and amazed by His teaching, would end up rejecting His claims to be their long-awaited Messish.

And Isaiah fast-forwards into the closing days of Jesus’ earthly existence, describing events associated with His eventual trials and crucifixion. Speaking in the past-tense, Isaiah says the suffering servant, “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV). The Jewish people believed that Jesus died for His own sins. He was accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy because He had claimed to be God. And the Jews “thought his troubles were a punishment from God” (Isaiah 53:4 NLT). But Isaiah clears up the confusion, declaring that Jesus “was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NLT). Don’t miss the significance of this verse. It was written hundreds of years before Jesus was even born and yet, it perfectly describes the details associated with the crucifixion of Jesus.

And, just in case we miss his point, Isaiah stresses that Jesus died because of our sins, not His own.

Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all. – Isaiah 53:6 ESV

Men were the ones guilty of straying from God, walking away from His love and faithfulness. And yet, Jesus was the one who died in their place. And like an innocent sheep being led to the slaughter, Jesus didn’t utter a word in His own defense. Mark describes the fulfillment of this prophecy in his gospel account.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus would end up unjustly condemned, sentenced to death, and stripped of life, without a single descendant. His life was cut short, having done nothing to deserve the death He suffered. And He would suffer the ignominy of having to be buried in a borrowed tomb. The gospel writers provide us with the fulfillment of this prophecy when they describe Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the right to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb.

And Isaiah delivers the amazing part of this entire story. The death of the suffering servant was all the plan of God Almighty. It had been the will of God from the very beginning.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him – Isaiah 53:10 ESV

None of what happened to Jesus took place outside the divine will of God. It had all been a part of His sovereign plan. God had a method to His seeming madness. What Isaiah is describing had to have sounded farfetched and difficult to understand from the perspectives of the Jews in his audience. Why in the world would God do something so heinous to His own servant? What could be remotely redeeming about any of this? And the answer would be, “Everything.” The suffering servant would eventually recognize the wisdom behind God’s plan.

When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
    he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
    my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
    for he will bear all their sins. – Isaiah 53:11 ESV

One of the truly amazing things about this passage is its undeniable accuracy. So much of what we read in these verses was fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. He lived out these verses to the smallest detail. And because of His obedience to the will of God, Jesus was exalted.

I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier,
    because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels.
    He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. – Isaiah 53:12 NLT

Jesus hung on the cross, bracketed by the two “rebels” who were crucified on either side of Him. And Jesus went to that cross willingly, not begrudgingly. The apostle Paul describes what happened because of Jesus’ willing submission to His Father’s redemptive plan for mankind.

…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 NLT

The people of Judah were facing the prospect of some intense suffering, all as a part of God’s will concerning them. And God wants them to realize that this plan was to be embraced, not rejected. Like the suffering servant, they were to trust God for their future and submit to His will. If they would only listen, they would be exalted at just the right time. God’s will for Jesus included suffering and, eventually, death. But it also included exaltation and glory. God always has a purpose behind His actions. And while the people of Judah were having a difficult time understanding why God was bringing His judgment on them, He wanted them to rest in His sovereign will for them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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