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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 53

2. Announcement of salvation 52:13-53:12

The second segment of the section in Isaiah dealing with God’s atonement of Israel (chs. 49-55), after the anticipation of salvation (Isaiah 49:1 to Isaiah 52:12), is the announcement of salvation. This is the fourth and most famous Servant Song.

"The profoundest thoughts in the Old Testament revelation are to be found in this section. It is a vindication of the Servant, so clear and so true, and wrought out with such a pathos and potency, that it holds first place in Messianic prophecy." [Note: Robinson, p. 145.]

"The exaltation of the Servant of Jehovah is the theme of the prophecy which follows." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:304.]

The reader of the promises that God would redeem His people with His mighty arm (cf. Isaiah 50:2; Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 52:10) could reasonably expect that redemption to come with a great display of overwhelming power. But the careful reader of the previous Servant Songs has picked up some hints that the Servant would not fit the mold of the traditional action hero. In this passage, Isaiah filled out the previously sketchy picture of the Servant with more detail concerning His work, character, and nature. God’s greatest power is evident in His ability to return love and forgiveness for hatred and injustice, not in His ability to crush all opposition.

"No subject connected with the Old Testament has been more discussed than the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah." [Note: H. H. Rowley, "The Servant of the Lord in the Light of Three Decades of Criticism," in The Servant of the Lord and other Essays on the Old Testament, p. 3.]

This Song consists of five stanzas of three verses each. The first and last stanzas record God’s commendation of the Servant, and the middle three describe the Servant’s commitment to God’s will. The central one focuses on His substitute death. Two key contrasts mark the passage: the contrast between the Servant’s humiliation and His exaltation, and the contrast between the reader’s expectations of the Servant and reality. [Note: For a study of the rhetorical variations that stress the Servant’s sufferings and exaltation, see Ronald Bergey, "The Rhetorical Role of Reiteration in the Suffering Servant Poem (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40:2 (June 1997):177-88.]

Verse 1

Isaiah marveled at the message that the Lord had revealed to him, that he and the Israelites were to declare to the world as lights to the nations (Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 43:10-12; cf. Isaiah 53:3-6; Isaiah 16:6; Isaiah 24:16; Isaiah 42:24; Isaiah 52:15; Isaiah 64:5-6; John 12:38; Romans 10:16). It was almost unbelievable.

"It [the rhetorical question, "Who has believed our report?"] does not demand a negative answer, but is designed simply to call attention to the paucity of true believers in the world and especially among the Jews." [Note: Young, 3:340.]

The prophet also was amazed that the Lord had revealed His arm to His people. When the Lord would bare His arm to save humankind (Isaiah 51:9-10; Isaiah 52:10; Isaiah 63:12), that manifestation of His strength was not at all impressive. We might say that when God rolled up His sleeve, the arm that He exposed was not the powerful arm of a weight lifter but a very ordinary looking arm. Nevertheless that arm would prove to be stronger than any other arm. The Arm of the Lord appears here as a person distinct from the Lord Himself, namely, the Servant of the Lord.

"When God made the universe, He used His fingers (Psalms 8:3), and when He delivered Israel from Egypt, it was by His strong hand (Exodus 13:3). But to save lost sinners, He had to bare His mighty arm!" [Note: Wiersbe, p. 60.]

Verses 1-3

The Servant despised 53:1-3

Expositors have called this chapter the holy of holies of Isaiah. It is also the middle chapter in part two of the book (chs. 40-66). Most of the approximately 80 references to Isaiah in the New Testament come from this chapter. [Note: A. Martin, Christ in . . ., part 2, p. 12] It is the most quoted or alluded to Old Testament chapter in the New Testament.

"Beyond question, this chapter is the heart of the Hebrew prophetic writings." [Note: Baron, p. 4. For a history of the ancient and modern Jewish and the rationalistic Christian interpretations of this chapter, with rebuttals, see ibid., pp. 16-47, 143-58.]

Verse 2

This verse elaborates on the humble nature of the Servant’s person and ministry (cf. Isaiah 52:14). Instead of appearing as a mighty oak or a flourishing fruit tree, the Servant would grow up before the Lord as a sucker, a normally unwanted shoot that sprouts up from a root (cf. Isaiah 11:1; 1 Samuel 16:5-13). The Hebrew word, yoneq, literally means a "suckling," but Isaiah used it figuratively here in a horticultural sense to describe a tender sucker. [Note: Baron, p. 70.] Gardeners usually snip off such shoots as soon as they appear because they rob nourishment from the main plant. A parallel figure is a sprig that sprouts up in a barren landscape. Usually these little sprigs die very quickly from lack of moisture. The synonymous descriptions point to the apparently earthly, natural origin of the Servant, with a family tree, and to the arid spiritual environment in which He grew up.

The Servant, moreover, would have no striking appearance that would draw the attention of people and make them think, Wow, look at him! There would be nothing about His appearance or His conduct that would attract people to Him as a distinctive, special person (cf. David, 1 Samuel 16:18). [Note: See Delitzsch, 2:307, n. 1.]

"Deliverers are dominating, forceful, attractive people, who by their personal magnetism draw people to themselves and convince people to do what they want them to do. People who refuse to follow that leadership frequently find themselves crushed and tossed aside. This man does not fit that picture at all." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 382.]

Jesus entered the world as a baby, not a king. He was born in a stable, not a palace. He asked the great preacher of His day to baptize Him; He did not announce the beginning of His ministry publicly and summon everyone to come to Him for baptism. Even John the Baptist did not recognize Jesus for who He was at first; He blended into the crowd and was not outstanding.

"While there is reason to believe from other passages of Scripture that the winsome character of the Lord Jesus appealed even to some of the most hopeless of men, yet this prophecy makes clear that which some Christians have not fully comprehended, that the Lord Jesus Christ did not appear in such a way as to attract the natural man. While the power of His deity was evident on occasion, and His presence was no doubt always commanding, there was no mere glamour about Him." [Note: A. Martin, Christ in . . ., part 2, page 15.]

Verse 3

The English word "despised" carries strong emotional overtones, but its Hebrew source means to be considered worthless and unworthy of attention. The Servant would not be the object of scorn, Isaiah meant, though He was that (Mark 10:33-34; Luke 18:31-33), as much as He would be hastily dismissed. One writer believed the primary meaning is that the Servant would provoke abhorrence.

"No person in the history of the Jews has provoked such deep-seated abhorrence as He who came only to bless them, and who even on the cross prayed, ’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ . . . And all through the centuries no name has provoked such intense abhorrence among the Jews as the name of Jesus." [Note: Baron, p. 74.]

People would reject Him because they would not see Him as having any significance for them (Isaiah 6:10; John 1:10-11; John 12:37-41). They would not give Him a second look.

"The chief men of His nation who towered above the multitude, the great men of this world, withdrew their hands from Him, drew back from Him: He had none of the men of any distinction at His side." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:314.]

People would also avoid the Servant because He would appear to them as one who had His own problems. Since He knew pain and grief, others would conclude that He was not in a position to help them. He would appear to them as a loser, and who goes to a loser for help or looks to one for leadership? This description does not mean that the Servant would always be sickly and morose (cf. Isaiah 1:5-6). It means that the way He presented Himself would not lead people to look to Him for strength.

"When all that the human eye saw and the human mind apprehended was added up the result was zero." [Note: Motyer, p. 429.]

"Thus the revelation of the arm of the Lord that will deliver the Lord’s people is met with shock, astonishment, distaste, dismissal, and avoidance. Such a one as this can hardly be the one who can set us free from that most pervasive of all human bondages: sin, and all its consequences. To a world blinded by selfishness and power, he does not even merit a second thought." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 384.]

People typically disregard those who suffer as they serve the Lord, as they continue to despise and reject the Servant.

Verse 4

The Servant’s humble appearance and unattractiveness were for the benefit of humankind. It was the consequences of our sins that He would bear, not those of His own sins (cf. Matthew 8:17). Yet onlookers would consider that God was striking, smiting, and afflicting Him for His own sins. This is a typical response to suffering. People often conclude that a person is suffering because he or she has done something bad, and God is punishing him or her. This was the viewpoint of Job’s friends. Because the Hebrew word for stricken, nagua’, refers to smiting with leprosy in 2 Kings 15:5, a tradition arose among the Jews that Messiah would be a leper. This view also appears in some of the ancient Greek versions. [Note: Young, 3:346.] The Servant did not just suffer with His people but for them. His atonement was substitutionary.

Who were the people that Isaiah had in mind when He described the benefits of the Servant’s work? Were they only those who would become the people of God by faith in the Servant, or were they all people? Isaiah did not make this distinction in His prophecy. He did not contribute to the debate about limited and unlimited atonement. What he wrote does not enable us to solve the question of for whom Christ died.

Verses 4-6

The Servant wounded 53:4-6

It becomes clear in this stanza of the song that the Servant’s sufferings were not His own fault, as onlookers thought. They were for the sins of humankind and resulted in our healing. Furthermore, He would not merely suffer because of the sins of the people, because He was one of them. He would suffer in their place. The substitute nature of His sufferings is clear in the descriptions Isaiah presented, in the context of the arm of the Lord references, and in view of the nature of sin. Since sin is against a holy God it does not just require physical suffering, which Israel had experienced in abundance, but spiritual suffering: separation from God. Animal sacrifices covered human sin only temporarily, but a perfect sinless human sacrifice was necessary to remove the sin of humanity (cf. Hebrews 9:13-14).

Verse 5

"But" continues the contrast between the Servant and the rest of humankind. He would not only experience affliction for us but injury as well. "Pierced through" and "crushed" describe extreme distress resulting in death (cf. Isaiah 51:9; Job 26:13; Psalms 109:22; Lamentations 3:34). The Hebrew words behind these terms are the strongest ones in that language for violent and excruciating death. [Note: Delitzsch, 2:318.] Transgressions are willful and rebellious sins, and iniquities are sins that result from the perverted quality of human nature due to the continuing effects of the Fall.

"Thus, Isaiah 53:4 demands the noun ’substitution’, and Isaiah 53:5 adds the adjective ’penal’." [Note: Motyer, p. 430.]

Looking back from the Cross, we can see how appropriate these terms were in view of the death Jesus died, death by crucifixion. It was God who was behind the piercing and crushing of the Servant (Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 53:10). It was as though the Servant took the whipping that we deserved for being rebellious children (cf. Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3; Hebrews 5:8; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24-25).

"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 incomplete justice is satisfied." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 388.]

"What else, we ask again, can these words mean than that He suffered vicariously? Not merely with, but for others? By no exegesis is it possible to escape this conclusion." [Note: Baron, p. 89.]

What the Servant would do in bearing the consequences of humankind’s sins would bring about positive results for many people. This shows again that the Servant’s sufferings were not just with His people but for them. He would bear away sins so people could experience healing and well-being (Heb. shalom, the fullness of God’s blessing). This is far more than just physical healing; the whole passage is dealing with redemption from sin. [Note: See Bruce R. Reichenback, "’By His Stripes We Are Healed,’" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:4 (December 1998):551-60, for a helpful study of how the Old Testament views the linkage between sin, sickness, suffering, and death, contrasted with modern views.]

But does it include physical healing? Is there healing in the atonement? Does what the Servant did guarantee physical healing for every believer? Ultimately it does. Eventually we will experience good health since poor health is one effect of sin. But immediately it does not in every case. We have yet to enter into all the benefits of Christ’s death for us, and must continue to struggle with some of the consequences of the Fall until we see the Lord. [Note: See Baron, p. 86.]

Verse 6

A simile now reinforces the point just made. Sheep are notoriously shortsighted; they go after the next clump of grass without regard to where their feet may lead them. They are also self-centered; their only thought is how they can satisfy themselves with no concern for the welfare of other sheep. Consequently sheep often get lost. Humans are the same.

"Sheep tend to travel together, so if the leading sheep turns aside from the path for grass or some other purpose, usually all the sheep do so. They tend to follow the lead sheep which is often dangerous. Similarly all Israel [even all people] had turned aside (cf. 1 Peter 2:25) from following the Lord, from keeping His commandments." [Note: J. Martin, p. 1108.]

But Yahweh would cause the consequences of our natural sheep-like tendencies to fall on the Servant. Rather than every person having to bear the consequences of sin himself or herself, as Job’s friends argued he or she must, God would make His Servant suffer for the iniquity of all sinners (cf. Leviticus 16; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22-25).

"Under the Law of Moses, the sheep died for the shepherd; but under grace, the Good Shepherd died for the sheep (John 10:1-18)." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 61.]

Suffering in God’s service is frequently vicarious. It often involves suffering because of the sins of others as well as for our own sins.

Verse 7

In spite of God’s punishment for sin, the Servant would bear it without defending Himself (cf. Isaiah 42:2-3; Isaiah 49:4-9; Isaiah 50:5-7; Jeremiah 11:18-20; Jeremiah 12:1-3; Matthew 26:63; Matthew 27:12-14; Mark 14:61; Mark 15:5; Luke 23:9; John 19:9). He would allow others to "fleece" Him and even kill him without even protesting (cf. Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 1:18-19). Israel protested God’s shearing of her (Isaiah 40:27; Isaiah 49:14; Isaiah 63:15). He would not be a helpless victim but one who knowingly and willingly submitted to death (cf. Luke 9:51). Jeremiah used the same figure to describe himself-but as a naive person who did not know what would happen to him (Jeremiah 11:19). The sheep metaphor is apt because the Israelites used lambs as sacrificial animals to cover their sins (cf. Genesis 22:7-8; Exodus 12:3; Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 5:7; John 1:29).

"The servant . . . does nothing and says nothing but lets everything happen to him." [Note: David J. A. Clines, I, He, We and They: A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53, pp. 64-65.]

"All the references in the New Testament to the Lamb of God (with which the corresponding allusions to the passover are interwoven) spring from this passage in the book of Isaiah." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:323.]

Verses 7-9

The Servant cast off 53:7-9

Isaiah continued the sheep metaphor, but applied it to the Servant, to contrast sinful people and their innocent substitute. Here it is not the sheep’s tendency to get lost but its non-defensive nature that is the characteristic feature. The prophet stressed the Servant’s submissiveness, His innocence, and the injustice that others would deal Him.

Verse 8

The Servant’s treatment at the hands of others would be unjust from start to finish. Oppressive legal treatment and twisted justice would result in His being taken away to suffer and die (cf. Matthew 26:59-61; Luke 23:2-4; Luke 23:13-16). This was not the case in Israel’s suffering in captivity. That suffering was in harmony with what justice prescribed. However, it was for the transgressions of the prophet’s people that the Servant would suffer a fatal blow (cf. Genesis 9:11; Exodus 12:15; Daniel 9:26; Philippians 2:5-8; Colossians 1:13-14; Colossians 1:19-20). This does not rule out His dying for Gentiles as well. Perhaps Isaiah identified Israel as the beneficiary of the Servant’s death here because Israel’s sins had been so great and Isaiah’s ministry was to Israel. Miscarried justice would be only the means to that end.

It is quite clear that the Servant did not just die for the Israelites. Some of what Isaiah wrote about "my people" might lead the reader to this conclusion. However, the testimony of Scripture, which statements in Isaiah support, is that the Servant paid for the sins of all humanity (e.g., 1 John 2:2). Note that the Servant referred to here cannot be the Israelites since He would die for the transgression of "my people," namely, the Israelites.

Those of the Servant’s generation who observed Him dying would not appreciate that He was dying as a substitute (cf. Isaiah 53:1-3). The Hebrew of this verse may point to a meaning beyond this. The Hebrew word dor, translated "generation," also means "line." If that is the meaning (or one of the meanings) of this word here, Isaiah may also have meant that no one would consider that the Servant died childless. Childlessness in His culture suggested a futile existence and a curse from God. People would conclude that He died cursed by God rather than as a substitute sacrifice.

". . . the language of the fourth song certainly allows for the servant’s suffering to be vicarious (note esp. ’he will justify many’), but it does not demand such an interpretation in and of itself. The full import of the language awaits clarification by subsequent revelation . . ." [Note: Chisholm, A Theology . . ., p. 331.]

Verse 9

The final insult to the Servant would be that people would plan to bury Him among the wicked, implying His own wickedness. Likewise, burial among the rich-instead of among the humble-would cast doubt on His righteousness, since the rich were often oppressors of the poor (cf. Psalms 49:5-6; Psalms 52:7; Proverbs 18:23; Proverbs 28:6; Proverbs 28:20; Jeremiah 17:11; Micah 6:12). Yet, in another sense, since Jesus’ corpse received honorable treatment after His death, this suggested that He was unworthy of such an ignominious martyrdom. Isaiah seems to have meant that somehow wicked people and a rich man would be involved in the Servant’s burial (cf. Matthew 27:57-60). This is somewhat paradoxical.

". . . without the commentary supplied by the fulfilment [sic], it would be impossible to understand Isaiah 53:9 a at all." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:327.]

"Like the other enigmas of this Song, this too is written so that when the turn of events provides the explanation we shall know for certain that we stand in the presence of the Servant of the Lord." [Note: Motyer, p. 436.]

The Servant would not defend Himself (Isaiah 53:7), but neither would He be guilty of anything worthy of death (cf. 1 Peter 2:22). Lack of "violence" and "deceit" represents total guiltlessness. The Servant would always speak the truth. Truly, the Servant would have to be more than a sinful human (cf. John 8:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

Those who suffer as God’s servants should do so willingly, knowing that they are fulfilling their calling.

Verse 10

The apparent miscarriage of justice just described (Isaiah 53:9) would not be what it would appear to be. It would be the deliberate act of Yahweh. It would please Yahweh to crush His Servant and to put Him to grief. The Father did not find the sufferings and death of His Son something pleasurable (or enjoyable) to behold, but they pleased (satisfied) Him because they fulfilled His great purpose of providing redemption for humankind.

"The faithful God of the Bible would certainly not visit bad things on innocent people, would he? Yes, he would if some greater good would be served (cf. Job)." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 400.]

The greater good in this case was that the Servant would be the perfect and final guilt (trespass) offering for sin thus taking away the sins of the world (John 1:29). The subject of this sentence, "He" or "His soul," may be Yahweh or the Servant. The point is moot, however, because both Yahweh and the Servant made the Servant an offering for sin. The guilt offering in Israel made reparation, compensation, and satisfaction (Leviticus 5:1-13). Rather than dying childless, Yahweh would bless the Servant with many spiritual children, future believers (cf. Isaiah 53:8). He would also prolong His days by resurrecting Him (cf. Isaiah 53:9).

"Only his bodily resurrection could serve to fulfill such a prediction as this." [Note: Archer, p. 647.]

"The Old Testament testifies uniformly that the dead are alive, and in this sense it is no surprise to find the Servant alive after death. But things are said about him after death that set him apart from all others." [Note: Motyer, p. 440.]

Seeing one’s offspring was a blessing on those whom God favored (cf. Psalms 127:3-5; Psalms 128:6; Proverbs 17:6), as was living a long life (cf. Psalms 21:4; Psalms 34:12; Proverbs 3:2). The Servant would also accomplish Yahweh’s good purpose for His life (cf. Isaiah 52:13; Isaiah 55:11; Joshua 1:7; 2 Chronicles 20:20; Psalms 1:3; John 17:4). Thus the Servant’s life would not be futile after all.

Verses 10-12

The Servant satisfied 53:10-12

This final stanza gives the explanation for the Servant’s submissive suffering for sinners and so completes the song.

Verse 11

After His sacrificial work had ended, the Servant would look back on it with satisfaction, as would Yahweh (cf. 1 John 2:2). The "many" would obtain justification through the knowledge of Him and His work. The "many" is a distinct group, numerous but not all-inclusive, namely: believers. No other work is required but believing what one comes to know, namely: to rely on Him and His work. It is possible that Isaiah meant that the Servant alone would possess knowledge regarding what God required in relation to sin and what He should do about that, but this seems unlikely. One scholar argued that it was the Servant’s knowledge of God, and of God’s unfolding purpose for the peoples of the world, that satisfied Him and ultimately made many righteous. [Note: James M. Ward, "The Servant’s Knowledge in Isaiah 40-55," in Israelite Wisdom: Theological and Literary Essays in Honor of Samuel Terrien, pp. 129, 135.] The one Righteous Servant would make many people righteous by bearing their iniquities, not His own (cf. Isaiah 53:4-6; John 10:14-18; Romans 5:18-19). As Cyrus was God’s anointed servant to restore the Israelites to their land, so the Servant would be God’s anointed Servant to restore humanity to Himself. He would accomplish what the Old Covenant sacrificial system prefigured and anticipated.

Verse 12

Because of His work and its results, God would exalt the Servant (cf. Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 5:12). He would give Him a reward with the many great ones whom He justified, and would divide this booty with the many who would become strong by virtue of His work for them (cf. Ephesians 4:8; Ephesians 6:10-17). Another interpretation sees Yahweh giving the Servant the many great ones (believers) as booty, specifically as a token of redemption completed. He would also give the Servant the strong ones (unbelievers) as spoil, which the Servant would dispose of at the proper time. [Note: See Motyer, pp. 442-43.]

"The thought is that the servant will be as successful and triumphant in his mission as other victors were in theirs. There are many who are victors and they will receive the spoils of their victory. Among them is the servant." [Note: Young, 3:358.]

The reason for the Servant’s exaltation is that He would surrender Himself to death (cf. Matthew 26:38-39; Matthew 26:42) and consent to being numbered among the rebels against God; He would take His place among sinful humans (cf. Matthew 26:50-54; Mark 15:27; Luke 22:37). Yet He would do more than simply identify with the rebels. He would bear their sin (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21) and intercede for them (cf. Hebrews 7:25). This intercession is more than prayer; it would also involve intervention (cf. Isaiah 59:16; Hebrews 9:12-14).

This final promise of exaltation returns to the thought with which this passage began (Isaiah 52:13). The Servant’s exaltation is for accomplishing redemption. [Note: See F. Duane Lindsey, "The Career of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12," Bibliotheca Sacra 139:556 (October-December 1982):312-29, and 140:557 (January-March 1983):21-39., for another exposition of this passage.]

Suffering in God’s service is pleasing to God.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 53". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.