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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 52

 

 

Verses 1-12

CHAPTER XXI

DOUBTS IN THE WAY

Isaiah 49:1-26 - Isaiah 52:12

CHAPTERS 49-53 are, as we have seen, a series of more or less closely joined passages, in which the prophet, having already made the political redemption of Israel certain through Cyrus, and having dismissed Cyrus from his thoughts, addresses himself to various difficulties in the way of restoration, chiefly moral and spiritual, and rising from Israel’s own feelings and character; exhorts the people in face of them by Jehovah’s faithfulness and power; but finds the chief solution of them in the Servant and his prophetic and expiatory work. We have already studied such of these passages as present the Servant to us, and we now take up those others, which meet the doubts and difficulties in the way of restoration by means of general considerations drawn from God’s character and power. Let it be noticed that, with one exception, [Isaiah 50:11] these passages are meant for earnest and pious minds in Israel, -for those Israelites, whose desires are towards Zion, but chill and heavy with doubts.

The form and the terms of these passages are in harmony with their purpose. They are a series of short, high-pitched exhortations, apostrophes and lyrics. One, Isaiah 52:9-12, calls upon the arm of Jehovah, but all the rest address Zion, -that is, the ideal people in the person of their mother, with whom they ever so fondly identified themselves; or "Zion’s children"; or "them that follow righteousness," or ye "that know righteousness"; or "my people, my nation"; or again Zion herself. This personification of the people under the name of their city, and under the aspect of a woman, whose children are the individual members of the people, will be before us till the end of our prophecy. It is, of course, a personification of Israel, which is complementary to Israel’s other personification under the name of the Servant. The Servant is Israel active, comforting, serving his own members and the nations; Zion, the Mother-City, is Israel passive, to be comforted, to be served by her own sons and by the kings of the peoples.

We may divide the passages into two groups. First, the songs of return, which rise out of the picture of the Servant and his redemption of the people in Isaiah 49:9 b, with the long promise and exhortation to Zion and her children, that lasts till the second picture of the Servant in Isaiah 52:4; and second, the short pieces which lie between the second picture of the Servant and the third, or from the beginning of champ, 51 to Isaiah 52:12.

I.

In Isaiah 49:9 b God’s promise of the return of the redeemed proceeds naturally from that of their ransom by the Servant. It is hailed by a song in Isaiah 49:13, and the rest of the section is the answer to three doubts, which, like sobs, interrupt the music. But the prophecy, stooping, as it were, to kiss the trembling lips through which these doubts break, immediately resumes its high flight of comfort and promise. Two of these doubts are: Isaiah 49:14, "But Zion hath said, Jehovah hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me"; and Isaiah 49:24, "Shall the prey be taken from the mighty or the captives of the terrible be delivered?" The third is implied in Isaiah 50:1.

The promise of return is as follows: "On roads shall they feed, and on all bare heights shall be their pasture. They shall not hunger nor thirst, nor shall the mirage nor the sun smite them: for He that yearneth over them shall lead them, even by springs of water shall He guide them. And I will set all My mountains for a way, and My high ways shall be exalted. Lo, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the North and from the West, and these from the land of Sinim. Sing forth, O heavens; and be glad, O earth; let the mountains break forth into singing: for Jehovah hath comforted His people, and over His afflicted He yearneth."

Now, do not let us imagine that this is the promise of a merely material miracle. It is the greater glory of a purely spiritual one, as the prophet indicates in describing its cause in the words, "because He that yearneth over them shall lead them." The desert is not to abate its immemorial rigours; in itself the way shall still be as hard as when the discredited and heartbroken exiles were driven down it from home to servitude. But their hearts are now changed, and that shall change the road. The new faith, which has made the difference, is a very simple one, that God is Power. and that God is Love. Notice the possessive pronouns used by God, and mark what they put into His possession: two kinds of things, -powerful things, "I will make all My mountains a way"; and sorrowful things, "Jehovah hath comforted His people, and will have compassion on His afflicted." If we will steadfastly believe that everything in the world which is in pain, and everything which has power, is God’s, and shall be used by Him, the one for the sake of the other, this shall surely change the way to our feet, and all the world around to our eyes.

1. Only it is so impossible to believe it when one looks at real fact; and however far and swiftly faith and hope may carry us for a time, we always come to ground again and face to face with fact. The prophet’s imagination speeding along that green and lifted highway of the Lord lights suddenly upon the end of it, -the still dismantled and desolate city. Fifty years Zion’s altar fires have been cold and her walls in ruin. Fifty years she has been bereaved of her children and left alone. The prophet hears the winds blow mournfully through her fact’s chill answer to faith. "But Zion said, Forsaken me hath Jehovah, and my Lord hath forgotten me!" Now let us remember that our prophet has Zion before him in the figure of a mother, and we shall feel the force of God’s reply. It is to a mother’s heart God appeals. "Doth a woman forget her sucking child so as not to yearn over the son of her womb? yea, such may forget, but I will not forget thee," desolate mother that thou art! Thy life is not what thou art in outward show and feeling, but what thou art in My love and in My sight. "Lo, upon both palms have I graven thee; thy walls are before Me continually." The custom, which to some extent prevails in all nations, of puncturing or tattooing upon the skin a dear name one wishes to keep in mind, is followed in the East chiefly for religious purposes, and men engrave the name of God or some holy text upon the hand or arm for a memorial or as a mark of consecration. It is this fashion which God attributes to Himself. Having measured His love by the love of a mother, He gives this second human pledge for His memory and devotion. But again He exceeds the human habit; for it is not only the name of Zion which is engraved on His hands, but her picture. And it is not her picture, as she lies in her present ruin and solitariness, but: her restored and perfect state: "thy walls are continually before Me." For this is faith’s answer to all the ruin and haggard contradiction of outward fact. Reality is not what we see: reality is what God sees. What a thing is in His sight and to His purpose, that it really is, and that it shall ultimately appear to men’s eyes. To make us believe this is the greatest service the Divine can do for the human. It was the service Christ was always doing, and nothing showed His divinity more. He took us men and He called us, unworthy as we were, His brethren, the sons of God. He took such a one as Simon, shifting and unstable, a quicksand of a man, and He said, "On this rock I will build My Church." A man’s reality is not what he is in his own feelings, or what he is to the world’s eyes; but what he is to God’s love, to God’s yearning, and in God’s plan. If he believe that, so in the end shall he feel it, so in the end shall: he show it to the eyes of the world.

2. Upon those great thoughts, that God’s are all strong things and all weak things, and that the real and the certain in life are His will, the prophecy breaks into a vision of multitudes in motion. There are a great stirring and hastening, crowds gather up through the verses, the land is lifted and thronged. "Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold: all of them gather together, they come unto thee. As I live, saith Jehovah, thou shalt surely clothe thyself with them all as with an ornament, and gird thyself with them, like a bride. For as for thy waste places and thy desolate ones and thy devastated land-yea, thou wilt now be too strait for the inhabitants, and far off shall be they that devour thee. Again shall they speak in thine ears, -the children of thy bereavement" (that is, those children who have been born away from Zion during her solitude), "Too strait for me is the place, make me room that I may dwell. And thou shalt say in thine heart, Who hath borne me these,"-not begotten, as our English version renders, because the question with Zion was not who was the father of the children, but who, in her own barrenness, could possibly be the mother, -"Who hath borne me these, seeing I was" first "bereft of my children, and" since then have been "barren, an exile and a castaway! And these, who hath brought them up! Lo, I was left by myself. These, -whence are they!" Our English version, which has blundered in the preceding verses, requires no correction in the following; and the first great Doubt in the Way being now answered, for "they that wait on the Lord shall not be ashamed," we pass to the second, in Isaiah 49:24.

2. "Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of the tyrant be delivered?" Even though God be full of love and thought for Zion, will these tyrants give up her children? "Yea, thus saith Jehovah, Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be delivered; and with him that quarreleth with thee will I quarrel, and thy children will I save. And I will make thine oppressors to eat their own flesh, and as with new wine with their blood shall they be drunken, that all flesh may know that I am Jehovah thy Saviour, and thy Redeemer the Mighty One of Jacob."

3. But now a third Doubt in the Way seems to have risen. Unlike the two others, it is not directly stated, but we may gather its substance from the reply which Jehovah makes to it. [Isaiah 50:1] "Thus saith Jehovah, What is this bill of divorce of your mother whom I have sent away, or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you?" The form, in which this challenge is put, assumes that the Israelites themselves had been thinking of Jehovah’s dismissal of Israel as an irrevocable divorce and a bankrupt sale into slavery.

"What now is this letter of divorce, -this that you are saying I have given your mother?

You say that I have sold you as a bankrupt father sells his children, -to which then of my creditors is it that I have sold you?"

The most characteristic effect of sin is that fit is always reminding men of law. Whether the moral habit of it be upon them or they are entangled in its material consequences, sin breeds in men the conscience of inexorable, irrevocable law. Its effect is not only practical, but intellectual. Sin not only robs a man of the freedom of his own will, but it takes from him the power to think of freedom in others, and it does not stop till it paralyses his belief in the freedom of God. He, who knows himself as the creature of unchangeable habits or as the victim of pitiless laws, cannot help imputing his own experience to what is beyond him, till all life seems strictly law bound, the idea of a free agent anywhere an impossibility, and God but a part of the necessity which rules the universe.

Two kinds of generations of men have most tended to be necessitarian in their philosophy, the generations which have given themselves over to do evil, and the generations whose political experience or whose science has impressed them with the inevitable physical results of sin. If belief in a Divine Redeemer, able to deliver man’s nature from the guilt and the curse of sin, is growing weak among us to-day, this is largely due to the fact that our moral and our physical sciences have been proving to us what creatures of law we are, and disclosing, especially in the study of disease and insanity, how inevitably suffering follows sin. God Himself has been so much revealed to us as law, that as a generation we find it hard to believe that He ever acts in any fashion that resembles the reversal of a law, or ever works any swift, sudden deed of salvation.

Now the generation of the Exile was a generation, to whom God had revealed Himself as law. They were a generation of convicts. They had owned the justice of the sentence which had banished and enslaved them; they had experienced how inexorably God’s processes of judgment sweep down the ages; for fifty years they had been feeling the inevitable consequences of sin. The conscience of Law, which this experience was bound to create in them, grew ever more strong, till at last it absorbed even the hope of redemption, and the God who enforced the Law Himself seemed to be forced by it. To express this sense of law these earnest Israelites-for though in error they were in earnest-went to the only kind of law with which they were familiar, and borrowed from it two of its forms, which were not only suggested to them by the relations in which the nation and the nation’s sons respectively stood to Jehovah, as wife and as children, but admirably illustrated the ideas they wished to express. There was, first, the form of divorce, so expressive of the ideas of absoluteness, deliberateness, and finality; -of absoluteness, for throughout the East power of divorce rests entirely with the husband; of deliberateness, for in order to prevent hasty divorce the Hebrew law insisted that the husband must make a bill or writing of divorce instead of only speaking dismissal; and of finality, for such a writing, in contrast to the spoken dismissal, set the divorce beyond recall. The other form, which the doubters-borrowed from their law, was one which, while it also illustrated the irrevocableness of the act, emphasised the helplessness of the agent, -the act of the father, who put his children away, not as the husband put his wife in his anger, but in his necessity, selling them to pay his debts and because he was bankrupt.

On such doubts God turns with their own language. "I have indeed put your mother away, but ‘where is the bill’ that makes her divorce final, beyond recall? You indeed were sold, but was it because I was bankrupt? ‘To which,’ then, ‘of My creditors (not the scorn of the plural) was it that I sold you? Nay, by means of your iniquities did you sell yourselves, and by means of your transgressions were you put away.’ But I stand here ready as ever to save, I alone. If there is any difficulty about your restoration it lies in this, that I am alone, with no response or assistance from men. ‘Why when I came was there no man? when I called was there none to answer? Is My hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem? or is there in it no power to deliver?"’ And so we come back to the truth, which this prophecy so often presents to us, that behind all things there is a personal initiative and urgency of infinite power, which moves freely of its own compassion and force, which is hindered by no laws from its own ends, and needs no man’s co-operation to effect its purposes. The rest of the Lord’s answer to His people’s fear, that He is bound by an inexorable law, is simply an appeal to His wealth of force. This omnipotence of God is our prophet’s constant solution for the problems which arise, and he expresses it here in his favourite figures of physical changes and convulsions of nature. "Lo, with My rebuke I dry up the sea, I make rivers a wilderness: their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness, and sackcloth I set for their covering." The argument seems to be: if God can work those sudden revolutions in the physical world, those apparent interruptions of law in that sphere, surely you can believe Him capable of creating sudden revolutions also in the sphere of history, and reversing those laws and processes, which you feel to be unalterable. It is an argument from the physical to the moral world, in our prophet’s own analogical style, and like those we found in chapter 40.

II.

Isaiah 51:1-23; Isaiah 52:1-12

Passing over the passage on the Servant, Isaiah 50:4-11, we reach a second series of exhortations in face of Doubts in the Way of the Return. The first of this new series is Isaiah 51:1-3.

Their doubts having been answered with regard to God’s mindfulness of them and His power to save them, the loyal Israelites fall back to doubt themselves. They see with dismay how few are ready to achieve the freedom that God has assured, and upon how small and insignificant a group of individuals the future of the nation depends. But their disappointment is not made by them an excuse to desert the purpose of Jehovah: their fewness makes them the more faithful, and the defection of their countrymen drives them the closer to their God. Therefore, God speaks to them kindly, and answers their last sad doubt. "Hearken unto Me, ye that follow righteousness, that seek Jehovah." "Righteousness" here might be taken in its inward sense of conformity to law, personal rightness of character; and so taken it would well fall in with the rest of the passage. Those addressed would then be such in Israel, as in face of hopeless prospects applied themselves to virtue and religion. But "righteousness" here is more probably used in the outward sense, which we have found prevalent in "Second Isaiah," of vindication and victory; the "coming right" of God’s people and God’s cause in the world, their justification and triumph in history. They who are addressed will then be they who, in spite of their fewness, believe in this triumph, "follow it," make-it their goal and their aim, and "seek Jehovah," knowing that He can bring it to pass. And because, in spite of their doubts, they are still earnest, and though faint are yet pursuing, God speaks to comfort them about their fewness. Their present state may be very small and unpromising, but let them look back upon the much more unpromising character of their origin: "look unto the rock whence ye were hewn, and the hole of the pit whence ye were digged." Today you may be a mere handful, ridiculous in the light of the destiny you were called to achieve, but remember you were once but one man: "look unto Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bare you: for as one I called him and blessed him, that I might make of him many."

When we are weary and hopeless it is best to sit down and remember. Is the future dark: let us look back and see the gathering and impetus of the past! We can follow the luminous track, the unmistakable increase and progress, but the most inspiring sight of all is what God makes of the individual heart; how a man’s heart is always His beginning, the fountain of the future, the origin of nations. Lift up your hearts, ye few and feeble; your father was but one when I called him, and I made him many!

Having thus assured His loyal remnant of the restoration of Zion, in spite of their fewness, Jehovah in the next few verses (Isaiah 51:4-8) extends the prospect of His glory to the world: "Revelation shall go forth from Me, and I will make My law to light on the nations." Revelation and Law between them summarise His will. As He identified them both with the Servant’s work, [Isaiah 40:11] so here He tells the loyal in Israel, who were in one aspect His Servant, that they shall surely come to pass; and in the next little oracle, Isaiah 51:7-8, He exhorts them to do that in which the Servant has been set forth as an example: "fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be dismayed at their revilings. For like a garment the moth shall eat them up, and like wool shall the worm devour them." It is a response in almost the same words to the Servant’s profession of confidence in God in Isaiah 50:7-9. By some it is used as an argument to show that the Servant and the godly remnant are to our prophet still virtually one and the same; but we have already seen (Isaiah 50:10) the god-fearing addressed as distinct from the Servant, and can only understand here that they are once more exhorted to take him as their example. But if the likeness of the passage on the Servant to this passage on the suffering Remnant does not prove that Remnant and Servant are the same, it is certainly an indication that both passages, so far from being pieced together out of different poems, are most probably due to the same author and were produced originally in the same current of thought.

When all Doubts in the Way have now been removed, what can remain but a great impatience to achieve’ at once the near salvation? To this impatience the loosened hearts give voice in Isaiah 51:9-11 : "Awake, awake, put on strength, Arm of Jehovah; awake as in the days of old, ages far past!" Not in vain have Israel been called to look back to the rock whence they were hewn and the hole of the pit whence they were digged. Looking back, they see the ancient deliverance manifest: "Art thou not it that hewed Rahab in pieces, that pierced the Dragon! Art thou not it that dried up the sea, waters of the great flood; that did set the hollows of the sea a way for the passage of the redeemed." Then there breaks forth the march of the Return, which we heard already in the end of chapter 35, (Isaiah 1:1-31; Isaiah 2:1-22; Isaiah 3:1-26; Isaiah 4:1-6; Isaiah 5:1-30; Isaiah 6:1-13; Isaiah 7:1-25; Isaiah 8:1-22; Isaiah 9:1-21; Isaiah 10:1-34; Isaiah 11:1-16; Isaiah 12:1-6; Isaiah 13:1-22; Isaiah 14:1-32; Isaiah 15:1-9; Isaiah 16:1-14; Isaiah 17:1-14; Isaiah 18:1-7; Isaiah 19:1-25; Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-17; Isaiah 22:1-25; Isaiah 23:1-18; Isaiah 24:1-23; Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13; Isaiah 28:1-29; Isaiah 29:1-24; Isaiah 30:1-33; Isaiah 31:1-9; Isaiah 32:1-20; Isaiah 33:1-24; Isaiah 34:1-17; Isaiah 35:1-10; Isaiah 36:1-22; Isaiah 37:1-38; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8) and to His people’s impatience Jehovah responds in Isaiah 51:9-16 in strains similar to those of chapter 40. The last verse of this reply is notable for the enormous extension which it gives to the purpose of Jehovah in endowing Israel as His prophet, -an extension to no less than the renewal of the universe, -"in order to plant the heavens and found the earth"; though the reply emphatically concludes with the restoration of Israel, as if this were the cardinal moment in the universal regeneration, -"and to say to Zion, My people art thou." The close conjunction; into which this verse brings words already applied to Israel as the Servant and words which describe Israel as Zion, is another of the many proofs we are discovering of the impossibility of breaking up "Second Isaiah" into poems, the respective subjects of which are one or other of these two personifications of the nation.

But the desire of the prophet speeds on before the returning exiles to the still prostrate and desolate city. He sees her as she fell, the day the Lord made her drunken with the cup of His wrath. With urgent passion he bids her awake, seeking to rouse her now by the horrid tale of her ruin, and now by his exultation in the vengeance the Lord is preparing for His enemies. [Isaiah 51:17-23] In a second strophe he addresses her in conscious contrast to his taunt-song against Babel. Babel was to sit throneless and stripped of her splendour in the dust; but Zion is to shake off the dust, rise, sit on her throne and assume her majesty. For God hath redeemed His people. He could not tolerate longer "the exulting of their tyrants, the blasphemy of His name". [Isaiah 52:6] All through these two strophes the strength of the passion, the intolerance of further captivity, the fierceness of the exultation of vengeance, are very remarkable.

But from the ruin of his city, which has so stirred and made turbulent his passion, the prophet lifts his hot eyes to the dear hills that encircle her; and peace takes the music from vengeance. Often has Jerusalem seen rising across that high margin the spears and banners of her destroyers. But now the lofty skyline is the lighting place of hope. Fit threshold for so Divine an arrival, it lifts against heaven, dilated and beautiful, the herald of the Lord’s peace, the publisher of salvation.

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace, that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation!

Hark thy watchmen! they lift up the voice, together they break into singing; yea, eye to eye do they see when Jehovah returneth to Zion."

The last verse is a picture of the thronging of the city of the prophets by the prophets again-so close that they shall look each other in the face.

For this is the sense of the Hebrew "to see eye to eye," and not that meaning of reconciliation and agreement which the phrase has come to have in colloquial English. The Exile had scattered the prophets arm driven them into hiding. They had been only voices to one another, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel with the desert between the two of than, or like our own prophet, anonymous and unseen. But upon the old gathering-ground, the narrow but the free and open platform of Jerusalem’s public life, they should see each other face to face, they should again be named and known. "Break out, sing together, ye wastes of Jerusalem: for Jehovah has comforted His people, has redeemed Jerusalem. Bared has Jehovah His holy arm to the eyes of all the nations, and see shall all ends of the earth the salvation of our God."

Thus the prophet, after finishing his long argument and dispelling the doubts that still lingered at its close, returns to the first high notes and the first dear subject with which he opened in chapter 40. In face of so open a way, so unclouded a prospect, nothing remains but to repeat, and this time with greater strength than before, the call to leave Babylon:

Draw off, draw off, come forth from there, touch not the unclean;

Come forth from her midst; be ye clean that do bear the vessels of Jehovah.

Nay, neither with haste shall ye forth, nor in flight shall ye go,

For Jehovah goeth before thee, and Israel’s God is thy rearward.


Verses 13-15

CHAPTER XX

THE SUFFERING SERVANT

Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12

WE are now arrived at the last of the passages on the Servant of the Lord. It is known to Christendom as the Fifty-third of Isaiah, but its verses have, unfortunately, been divided between two chapters, Isaiah 52:13-15; Isaiah 53:1-12. Before we attempt the interpretation of this high and solemn passage of Revelation, let us look at its position in our prophecy, and examine its structure.

The peculiarities of the style and of the vocabulary of Isaiah 52:13-15;, Isaiah 53:1-12, along with the fact that, if it be omitted, the prophecies on either side readily flow together, have led some critics to suppose it to be an insertion, borrowed from an earlier writer. The style-broken, sobbing, and recurrent-is certainly a change from the forward, flowing sentences, on which we have been carried up till now, and there are a number of words that we find quite new to us. Yet surely both style and words are fully accounted for by the novel and tragic nature of the subject to which the prophet has brought us: regret and remorse though they speak through the same lips as hope and the assurance of salvation, must necessarily do so with a very different accent and set of terms. Criticism surely overreaches itself, when it suggests that a writer, so versatile and dramatic as our prophet, could not have written Isaiah 52:13-15 through Isaiah 53:1-12 along with, say, chapter 50 or Isaiah 52:1-12 or chapter 54. We might as well be asked to assign to different authors Hamlet’s soliloquy, and the King’s conversation, in the same play, with the ambassadors from Norway. To aver that if Isaiah 52:13-15 through Isaiah 53:1-12 were left out, no one who had not seen it would miss it, so closely does chapter 54. follow on to Isaiah 52:12, is to aver what means nothing. In any dramatic work you may leave out the finest passage, -from a Greek tragedy its grandest chorus, or from a play of Shakespeare’s the hero’s soliloquy, -without seeming, to eyes that have not seen what you have done, to have disturbed the connection of the whole. Observe the juncture in our prophecy at which this last passage on the Servant appears. It is one exactly the same as that at which another great passage on the Servant was inserted, [Isaiah 49:1-9] viz., just after a call to the people to seize the redemption achieved for them and to come forth from Babylon. It is the kind of climax or pause in their tale, which dramatic writers of all kinds employ for the solemn utterance of principles lying at the back, or transcending the scope, of the events of which they treat. To say the least, it is surely more probable that our prophet himself employed so natural an opportunity to give expression to his highest truths about the Servant, than that some one else took his work, broke up another already extant work on the Servant and thrust the pieces of the latter into the former. Moreover, we shall find many of the ideas, as well as of the phrases, of Isaiah 52:13-15 through Isaiah 53:1-12 to be essentially the same as some we have already encountered in our prophecy.

There is then no evidence that this singular prophecy ever stood apart from its present context, or that it was written by another writer than the prophet, by whom we have hitherto found ourselves conducted. On the contrary, while it has links with what goes before it, we see good reasons why the prophet should choose just this moment for uttering its unique and transcendent contents, as well as why he should employ in it a style and a vocabulary so different from his usual.

Turning now to the structure of Isaiah 52:13-15 through Isaiah 53:1-12, we observe that, as arranged in the Canon, there are fifteen verses in the prophecy. These fifteen verses fall into five strophes of three verses each, as printed by the Revised English Version. When set in their own original lines, however, the strophes appear, not of equal, but of increasing length. As will be seen from the version given below, the first [Isaiah 52:13-15] has nine lines, the second [Isaiah 53:1-3] has ten lines, the third (Isaiah 53:4-6) has eleven lines, the fourth (Isaiah 53:7-9) thirteen lines, the fifth (Isaiah 53:10-12) fourteen lines. This increase would be absolutely regular, if, in the fourth strophe, we made either the first two lines one, or the last two one, and if in the fifth again we ran the first two lines together, -changes which the metre allows and some translators have adopted. But, in either case, we perceive a regular increase from strophe to strophe, that is not only one of the many marks with which this most artistic of poems has been elaborated, but gives the reader the very solemn impression of a truth that is ever gathering more of human life into itself, and sweeping forward with fuller and more resistless volume.

Each strophe, it is well to notice, begins with one word or two words which summarise the meaning of the whole strophe and form a title for it. Thus, after the opening exclamation "Behold," the words "My Servant shall prosper" form, as we shall see, not only a summary of the first strophe, in which his ultimate exaltation is described, but the theme of the whole prophecy. Strophe 2 begins "Who hath believed," and accordingly in this strophe the unbelief and thoughtlessness of them who saw the Servant without feeling the meaning of his suffering is confessed. "Surely our sicknesses" fitly entitles strophe 3, in which the people describe how the Servant in his suffering was their substitute. "Oppressed yet he humbled himself" is the headline of strophe 4, and that strophe deals with the humility and innocence of the Servant in contrast to the injustice accorded him; while the headline of strophe 5, "But Jehovah had purposed," brings us back to the main theme of the poem, that behind men’s treatment of the Servant is God’s holy will; which theme is elaborated and brought to its conclusion in strophe 5. These opening and entitling words of each strophe are printed, in the following translation, in larger type than the rest.

As in the rest of Hebrew poetry, so here, the measure is neither regular nor smooth, and does not depend on rhyme. Yet there is an amount of assonance which at times approaches to rhyme. Much of the meaning of the poem depends on the use of the personal pronouns-we and he stand contrasted to each other-and it is these coming in a lengthened form at the end of many of the lines that suggest to the ear something like rhyme. For instance, in Isaiah 53:5-6, the second and third verses of the third strophe, two of the lines run out on the bi-syllable enu, two on inu, and two on the word lanu, while the third has enu, not at the end, but in the middle; in each case, the pronominal suffix of the first person plural. We transcribe these lines to show the effect of this.

Wehu’ meholal mippesha ‘enu

Medhukka’ me’ awonothenu

Musar shelomenu ‘alaw

Ubhahabhuratho nirpa’-lanu

Kullanu kass-ss’on ta’inu

‘ish ledharko paninu

Wa Jahweh hiphgi ‘a bo eth’awon kullanu.

This is the strophe in which the assonance comes oftenest to rhyme; but in strophe 1 ehu ends two lines, and in strophe 2 it ends three. These and other assonants occur also at the beginning and in the middle of lines. We must remember that in all the cases quoted it is the personal pronouns, which give the assonance, -the personal pronouns on which so much of the meaning of the poem turns; and that, therefore, the parallelism primarily intended by the writer is one rather of meaning than of sound. The pair of lines, parallel in meaning, though not in sound, which forms so large a part of Hebrew poetry, is used throughout this poem; but the use of it is varied and elaborated to a unique degree. The very same words and phrases are repeated, and placed on points, from which they seem to call to each other; as, for instance, the double "many" in strophe 1, the "of us all "in strophe 3, and "nor opened he his mouth" in strophe 4. The ideas are very few and very simple: the words "he, we, his, ours, see, hear, know, bear, sickness, strike, stroke," and "many" form, with prepositions and participles, the bulk of the prophecy. It will be evident how singularly suitable this recurrence is for the expression of reproach, and of sorrowful recollection. It is the nature of grief and remorse to harp upon the one dear form, the one most vivid pain. The finest instance of this repetition is verse 6, with its opening keynote "kullanu" "of us all like sheep went astray," with its close on that keynote "guilt of us all," "kullanu." But throughout notes are repeated, and bars recur, expressive of what was done to the Servant, or what the Servant did for man, which seem in their recurrence to say, You cannot hear too much of me: I am the very Gospel. A peculiar sadness is lent to the music by the letters h and i in "holie" and "hehelie," the word for sickness or ailing (ailing is the English equivalent in sense and sound), which happens so often in the poem. The new words, which have been brought to vary this recurrence of a few simple features, are mostly of a sombre type. The heavier letters throng the lines: grievous bs and ms are multiplied, and syllables with long vowels before m and w. But the words sob as well as tramp; and here and there one has a wrench and one a cry in it.

Most wonderful and mysterious of all is the spectral fashion in which the prophecy presents its Hero. He is named only in the first line and once again: elsewhere He is spoken of as He. We never hear or see Himself. But all the more solemnly is He there: a shadow upon countless faces, a grievous memory on the hearts of the speakers. He so haunts all we see and all we hear, that we feel it is not Art, but Conscience, that speaks of Him.

Here is now the prophecy itself, rendered into English quite literally, except for a conjunction here and there, and, as far as possible, in the rhythm of the original. A few necessary notes on difficult words and phrases are given.

I.

Isaiah 52:13 : Behold, my Servant shall prosper,

Shall rise, be lift up, be exceedingly high

Like as they that were astonied before thee were many,

-So marred from a man’s was his visage,

And his form from the children of men!

-So shall the nations he startles be many,

Before him shall kings shut their mouths.

For that which had never been told them they see,

And what they had heard not, they have to consider.

II.

Who gave believing to that which we heard,

And the arm of Jehovah to whom was it bared?

For he sprang like a sapling before Him,

As a root from the ground that is parched;

He had no form nor beauty that we should regard him,

Nor aspect that we should desire him.

Despised and rejected of men

Man of pains and familiar with ailing,

And as one we do cover the face from,

Despised, and we did not esteem him.

III.

Surely our ailments he bore,

And our pains he did take for his burden.

But we-we accounted him stricken,

Smitten of God and degraded.

Yet he-he was pierced for crimes that were ours,

He was crushed for guilt that was ours,

The chastisement of our peace was upon him,

By his stripes healing is ours.

Of us all like to sheep went astray,

Every man to his way we did turn,

And Jehovah made light upon him

The guilt of us all.

IV.

Oppressed, he did humble himself,

Nor opened his mouth-

As a lamb to the slaughter is led.

As a sheep 'fore her shearers is dumb-

Nor opened his mouth.

By tyranny and law was he taken;

And of his age who reflected,

That he was wrenched from the land of the living,

For My people’s transgressions the stroke was on him?

So they made with the wicked his grave,

Yea, with the felon his tomb.

Though never harm had he done,

Neither was guile in his mouth.

V.

But Jehovah had purposed to bruise him,

Had laid on him sickness; if his life should offer guilt offering,

A seed he should see, he should lengthen his days.

And the purpose of Jehovah by his hand should prosper,

From the travail of his soul shall he see,

By his knowledge be satisfied.

My Servant, the Righteous, righteousness wins he for many,

And their guilt he takes for his load.

Therefore I set him a share with the great,

Yea, with the strong shall he share the spoil:

Because that he poured out his life unto death,

Let himself with transgressors be reckoned;

Yea, he the sin of the many hath borne,

And for the transgressors he interposes.

Let us now take the interpretation strophe by strophe.

1. Isaiah 52:13-15. When last our eyes were directed to the Servant, he was suffering unexplained and unvindicated. [Isaiah 50:4-6] His sufferings seemed to have fallen upon him as the consequence of his fidelity to the Word committed to him; the Prophet had inevitably become the Martyr. Further than this his sufferings were not explained, and the Servant was left in them, calling upon God indeed, and sure that God would hear and vindicate him, but as yet unanswered by word of God or word of man. It is these words, words both of God and of man, which are given in Isaiah 52:13-15 through Isaiah 53:1-12. The Sufferer is explained and vindicated, first by God in the first strophe, Isaiah 52:13-15, and then by the Conscience of Men, His own people, in the second and third; [Isaiah 53:1-6] and then, as it appears, the Divine Voice, or the Prophet speaking for it, resumes in strophes 4 and 5, and concludes in a strain similar to strophe 1.

God’s explanation and vindication of the Sufferer is, then, given in the first strophe. It is summed up in the first line, and in one very pregnant word. Jeremiah had said of the Messiah, "He shall reign as a King and deal wisely" or "prosper"; [Jeremiah 23:5] and so God says here of the Servant, "Behold he shall deal wisely" or "prosper." The Hebrew verb does not get full expression in any English one. In rendering it "shall deal wisely" or "prudently" our translators undoubtedly touch the quick of it. For it is originally a mental process or quality: "has insight, understands, is farseeing." But then it also includes the effect of this-"understands so as to get on, deals wisely so as to succeed, is practical" both in his way of working and in being sure of his end. Ewald has found an almost exact equivalent in German, "hat Geschick"; for Geschick means both "skill" or "address" and "fate" or "destiny." The Hebrew verb is the most practical in the whole language, for this is precisely the point which the prophecy seeks to bring out about the Servant’s sufferings. They are practical. He is practical in them. He endures them, not for their own sake, but for some practical end of which he is aware and to which they must assuredly bring him. His failure to convince men by his word, the pain and spite which seem to be his only wage, are not the last of him, but the beginning and the way to what is higher. So "shall he rise and be lift up and be very high." The suffering, which in chapter 1 seemed to be the Servant’s misfortune, is here seen as his wisdom which shall issue in his glory.

But of themselves men do not see this, and they need to be convinced. Pain, the blessed means of God, is man’s abhorrence and perplexity. All along the history of the world the Sufferer has been the astonishment and stumbling-block of humanity. The barbarian gets rid of him; he is the first difficulty with which every young literature wrestles; to the end he remains the problem of philosophy and the sore test of faith. It is not native to men to see meaning or profit in the Sufferer; they are staggered by him, they see no reason or promise in him. So did men receive this unique Sufferer, this Servant of Jehovah. The many were astonied at him; his visage was so marred more than men, and his form than the children of men. But his life is to teach them the opposite of their impressions, and to bring them out of their perplexity into reverence before the revealed purpose of God in the Sufferer. "As they that were astonied at thee were many, so shall the nations he startles be many; kings shall shut their mouths at him, for that which was not told them they see, and that which they have heard not they have to consider,"-viz., the triumph and influence to which the Servant was consciously led through suffering. There may be some reflection here of the way in which the Gentiles regarded the Suffering Israel, but the reference is vague, and perhaps purposely so.

The first strophe, then, gives us just the general theme. In contrast to human experience God reveals in His servant that suffering is fruitful, that sacrifice is practical. Pain, in God’s service, shall lead to glory.

II. Isaiah 53:1-3. God never speaks but in man He wakens conscience, and the second strophe of the prophecy (along with the third) is the answer of conscience to God. Penitent men, looking back from the light of the Servant’s exaltation to the time when his humiliation was before their eyes, say, "Yes; what God has said is true of us. We were the deaf and the indifferent. We heard, but ‘who of us believed what we heard, and to whom was the arm of the Lord’-His purpose, the hand He had in the Servant’s sufferings-‘revealed?"’ Who are these penitent speakers? Some critics have held them to be the heathen, more have said that they are Israel. But none have pointed out that the writer gives himself no trouble to define them, but seems more anxious to impress us with their consciousness of their moral relation to the Servant. On the whole, it would appear that it is Israel, whom the prophet has in mind as the speakers of Isaiah 53:1-6. For, besides the fact that the Old Testament knows nothing of a bearing by Israel of the sins of the Gentiles, it is expressly said in Isaiah 53:8, that the sins for which the Servant was stricken were the sins of "my people"; which people must be the same as the speakers, for they own in Isaiah 53:4-6 that the Servant bore their sins. For these and other reasons the mass of Christian critics at the present day are probably right when they assume that Israel are the speakers in Isaiah 53:1-6; but the reader must beware of allowing his attention to be lost in questions of that kind. The art of the poem seems intentionally to leave vague the national relation of the speakers to the Servant, in order the more impressively to bring out their moral attitude towards him. There is an utter disappearance of all lines of separation between Jew and Gentile, -both in the first strophe, where, although Gentile names are used, Jews may yet be meant to be included, and in the rest of the poem, -as if the writer wished us to feel that all men stood over against that solitary Servant in a common indifference to his suffering and a common conscience of the guilt he bears. In short, it is no historical situation, such as some critics seem anxious to fasten him down upon, that the prophet reflects; but a certain moral situation, ideal in so far as it was not yet realised, -the state of the quickened human conscience over against a certain Human Suffering, in which, having noted it at the time, that conscience now realises that the purpose of God was at work.

In Isaiah 53:2 and Isaiah 53:3 the penitent speakers give us the reasons of their disregard of the Servant in the days of his suffering. In these reasons there is nothing peculiar to Israel, and no special experience of Jewish history is reflected by the terms in which they are conveyed. They are the confession, in general language, of a universal human habit, -the habit of letting the eye cheat the heart and conscience, of allowing the aspect of suffering to blind us to its meaning; of forgetting in our sense of the ugliness and helplessness of pain, that it has a motive, a future, and a God. It took ages to wean mankind from those native feelings of aversion and resentment, which caused them at first to abandon or destroy their sick. And, even now, scorn for the weak and incredulity in the heroism or in the profitableness of suffering are strong in the best of us. We judge by looks; we are hurried by the physical impression which the sufferer makes on us, or by our pride that we are not as he is, into peremptory and harsh judgments upon him. Every day we allow the dulness of poverty, the ugliness of disease, the unprofitableness of misfortune, the ludicrousness of failure, to keep back conscience from discovering to us our share of responsibility for them, and to repel our hearts from that sympathy and patience with them, which along with conscience would assuredly discover to us their place in God’s Providence and their special significance for ourselves. It is this original sin of man, of which these penitent speakers own themselves guilty.

But no one is ever permitted to rest with a physical or intellectual impression of suffering. The race, the individual, has always been forced by conscience to the task of finding a moral reason for pain and nothing so marks man’s progress as the successive solutions he has attempted to this problem. The speakers, therefore, proceed in the next part of their confession, strophe 3., to tell us what they first falsely accounted the moral reason of the Servant’s suffering and what they afterwards found to be the truth.

III. Isaiah 53:4-6. The earliest and most common moral judgment which men pass upon pain is that which is implied in its name-that it is penal. A man suffers because God is angry with him and has stricken him. So Job’s friends judged him, and so these speakers tell us they had at first judged the Servant. "We had accounted him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted,"-"stricken," that is, with a plague of sickness, as Job was, for the simile of the sick man is still kept up; "smitten of God and degraded" or "humbled," for it seemed to them that God’s hand was in the Servant’s sickness, to punish and disgrace him for his own sins. But now they know they were wrong. The hand of God was indeed upon the Servant, and the reason was sin; yet the sin was not his, but theirs. "Surely our sicknesses he bore, and our pains he took as his burden. He was pierced for iniquities that were ours. He was crushed for crimes that were ours." Strictly interpreted, these verses mean no more than that the Servant was involved in the consequences of his people’s sins. The verbs "bore" and "made his burden" are indeed taken by some to mean, necessarily, removal or expiation; but in themselves, as is clear from their application to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the whole of the generation of Exile, they mean no more than implication in the reproach and the punishment of the people’s sins. Nevertheless, as we have explained in a note below, it is really impossible to separate the suffering of a Servant, who has been announced as practical and prosperous in his suffering, from the end for which it is endured. We cannot separate the Servant’s bearing of the people’s guilt from his removal of it. And, indeed, this practical end of his passion springs forth, past all doubt, from the rest of the strophe, which declares that the Servant’s sufferings are not only vicarious but redemptive; "The discipline of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed." Translators agree that "discipline of our peace" must mean discipline which procures our peace. The peace, the healing, is ours, in consequence of the chastisement and the scourging that was his. The next verse gives us the obverse and complement of the same thought. The pain was his in consequence of the sin that was ours. "All we like sheep had gone astray, and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all,"-literally "iniquity," but inclusive of its guilt and consequences. Nothing could be plainer than these words. The speakers confess that they know that the Servant’s suffering was both vicarious and redemptive.

But how did they get this knowledge? They do not describe any special means by which it came to them. They state this high and novel truth simply as the last step in a process of their consciousness. At first they were bewildered by the Servant’s suffering; then they thought it contemptible, thus "passing upon it an intellectual judgment"; then, forced to seek a moral reason for it, they accounted it as penal and due to the Servant for his own sins; then they recognised that. its penalty was vicarious, that the Servant was suffering for them; and finally, they knew that it was redemptive, the means of their own healing and peace. This is a natural climax, a logical and moral progress of thought. The last two steps are stated simply as facts of experience following on other facts. Now our prophet usually publishes the truths, with which he is charged, as the very words of God, introducing them with a solemn and authoritative "Thus saith Jehovah." But this novel and supreme truth of vicarious and redemptive suffering, this passion and virtue which crowns the Servant’s office, is introduced to us, not by the mouth of God, but by the lips of penitent men; not as all oracle, but as a confession; not as the commission of Divine authority laid beforehand upon the Servant like his other duties, but as the conviction of the human conscience after the Servant has been lifted up before it. In short, by this unusual turn of his art, the prophet seeks to teach us that vicarious suffering is not a dogmatic, but an experimental truth. The substitution of the Servant for the guilty people, and the redemptive force of that substitution, are no arbitrary doctrine, for which God requires from man a mere intellectual assent; they are no such formal institution of religion as mental indolence and superstition delight to have prepared for their mechanical adherence: but substitutive suffering is a great living fact of human experience, whose outward features are not more evident to men’s eyes than its inner meaning is appreciable by their conscience, and of irresistible effect upon their whole moral nature.

Is this lesson of our prophet’s art not needed? Men have always been apt to think of vicarious suffering, and of its function in their salvation, as something above and apart from their moral nature, with a value known only to God and not calculable in the terms of conscience or of man’s moral experience; nay, rather as something that conflicts with man’s ideas of morality and justice; whereas both the fact and the virtue of vicarious suffering come upon us all, as these speakers describe the vicarious sufferings of the Servant to have come upon them, as a part of inevitable experience, If it be natural, as we saw, for men to be bewildered by the first sight of suffering, to scorn it as futile and to count it the fault of the sufferer himself, it is equally natural and inevitable that these first and hasty theories should be dispelled by the longer experience of life and the more thorough working of conscience. The stricken are not always bearing their own sin. "Suffering is the minister of justice. This is true in part, yet it also is inadequate to explain the facts. Of all the sorrow which befalls humanity, how small a part falls upon the specially guilty; how much seems rather to seek out the good! We might almost ask whether it is not weakness rather than wrong that is punished in this world." In every nation, in every family, the innocent suffer for the guilty. Vicarious suffering is not arbitrary or accidental; it comes with our growth; It is of the very nature of things. It is that part of the Service of Man, to which we are all born, and of the reality of which we daily grow more aware.

But even more than its necessity life teaches us its virtue. Vicarious suffering is not a curse. It is Service-Service for God. It proves a power where every other moral force has failed. By it men are redeemed, on whom justice and their proper punishment have been able to effect nothing. Why this should be is very intelligible. We are not so capable of measuring the physical or moral results of our actions upon our own characters or in our own fortunes as we are upon the lives of others; nor do we so awaken to the guilt and heinousness of our sin as when it reaches and implicates lives which were not partners with us in it. Moreover, while a man’s punishment is apt to give him an excuse for saying, I have expiated my sin myself, and so to leave him self-satisfied and with nothing for which to be grateful or obliged to a higher will; or while it may make him reckless or plunge him into despair; so, on the contrary, when he recognises that others feel the pain of his sin and have come under its weight, then shame is quickly born within him, and pity and every ether passion that can melt a hard heart. If, moreover, the others who bear his sin do so voluntarily and for love’s sake, then how quickly on the back of shame and pity does gratitude rise, and the sense of debt and of constraint to their will! For all these very intelligible reasons, vicarious suffering has been a powerful redemptive force in the experience of the race. Both the fact of its beneficence and the moral reasons for this are clear enough to lift us above a question, which sometimes gives trouble regarding it, -the question of its justice. Such a question is futile about any service for man, which succeeds as this does where all others have failed, and which proves itself so much in harmony with man’s moral nature. But the last shred of objection to the justice of vicarious suffering is surely removed when the sufferer is voluntary as well as vicarious. And, in truth, human experience feels that it has found its highest and its holiest fact in the love that, being innocent itself, stoops to bear its fellows’ sins, -not only the anxiety and reproach of them, but even the cost and the curse of them. "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends"; and greater service can no man do to men than to serve them in this way.

Now in this universal human experience of the inevitableness and the virtue of vicarious suffering, Israel had been deeply baptised. The nation had been "served" by suffering in all the ways we have just described. Beginning with the belief that all righteousness prospered, Israel had come to see the righteous afflicted in her midst; the best Israelites had set their minds to the problem, and learned to believe, at least, that such affliction was of God’s will, -part of His Providence, and not an interruption to it. Israel, too, knew the moral solidarity of a people: that citizens share each other’s sorrows, and that one generation rolls over its guilt upon the next. Frequently had the whole nation been spared for a pious remnant’s sake; and in the Exile, while all the people were formally afflicted by God, it was but a portion of them whose conscience was quick to the meaning of the chastisement, and of them alone, in their submissive and intelligent sufferance of the Lord’s wrath, could the opening gospel of the prophecy be spoken, that they "had accomplished their warfare, and had received of the Lord’s hands double for all their sins." But still more vivid than these collective substitutes for the people were the individuals, who, at different points in Israel’s history, had stood forth and taken up as their own the nation’s conscience and stooped to bear the nation’s curse. Far away back, a Moses had offered himself for destruction, if for his sake God would spare his sinful and thoughtless countrymen. In a psalm of the Exile it is remembered that,

He said, that He would destroy them,

Had not Moses His chosen stood before Him in the breach,

To turn away His wrath, lest He should destroy.

And Jeremiah, not by a single heroic resolve, but by the slow agony and martyrdom of a long life, had taken Jerusalem’s sin upon his own heart, had felt himself forsaken of God, and had voluntarily shared his city’s doom, while his generation, unconscious of their guilt and blind to their fate, despised him and esteemed him not. And Ezekiel, who is Jeremiah’s far-off reflection, who could only do in symbol what Jeremiah did in reality, was commanded to lie on his side for days, and so "bear the guilt" of his people.

But in Israel’s experience it was not only the human Servant who served the nation by suffering, for God Himself had come down to "carry" His distressed and accursed people, and "to load Himself with them." Our prophet uses the same two verbs of Jehovah as are used of the Servant. [Isaiah 46:3-4] Like the Servant, too, God "was afflicted in all their affliction"; and His love towards them was expended in passion and agony for their sins. Vicarious suffering was not only human, it was Divine.

Was it very wonderful that a people with such an experience, and with such examples, both human and Divine, should at last be led to the thought of One Sufferer, who would exhibit in Himself all the meaning, and procure for His people all the virtue, of that vicarious reproach and sorrow, which a long line of their martyrs had illustrated, and which God had revealed as the passion of His own love? If they had had every example that could fit them to understand the power of such a sufferer, they had also every reason to feel their need of Him. For the Exile had not healed the nation; it had been for the most of them an illustration of that evil effect of punishment to which we alluded above. Penal servitude in Babylon had but hardened Israel. "God poured on him the fury of anger, and the strength of battle: it set him on fire round about, yet he knew not, and it burned him, yet he laid it not to heart." [Isaiah 42:25] What the Exile, then, had failed to do, when it brought upon the people their own sins, the Servant, taking these sins upon himself, would surely effect. The people, whom the Exile had only hardened, his vicarious suffering should strike into penitence and lift to peace.

IV. Isaiah 53:7-9. It is probable that with Isaiah 53:6 the penitent people have ceased speaking, and that the parable is now taken up by the prophet himself. The voice of God, which uttered the first strophe, does not seem to resume till Isaiah 53:11. If strophe 3 confessed that it was for the people’s sins the Servant suffered, strophe 4 declares that he himself was sinless, and yet silently submitted to all which injustice laid upon him.

Now Silence under Suffering is a strange thing in the Old Testament-a thing absolutely new. No other Old Testament personage could stay dumb under pain, but immediately broke into one of two voices, -voice of guilt or voice of doubt. In the Old Testament the sufferer is always either confessing his guilt to God, or, when he feels no guilt, challenging God in argument. David, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Job, and the nameless martyred and moribund of the Psalms, all strive and are loud under pain. Why was this Servant the unique and solitary instance of silence under suffering? Because he had a secret which they had not. It had been said of him: "My Servant shall deal wisely" or "intelligently," shall know what he is about. He had no guilt of his own, no doubts of his God. But he was conscious of the end God had in his pain, an end not to be served in any other way, and with all his heart he had given himself to it. It was not punishment he was enduring; it was not the throes of the birth into higher experience, which he was feeling: it was a Service he was performing, -a service laid on him by God, a service for man’s redemption, a service sure of results and of glory. Therefore "as a lamb to the slaughter is led, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, he opened not his mouth."

The next two verses (Isaiah 53:8-9) describe how the Servant’s Passion was fulfilled. The figure of a sick man was changed in Isaiah 53:5 to that of a punished one, and the punishment we now see carried on to death. The two verses are difficult, the readings and renderings of most of the words being very various. But the sense is clear. The Servant’s death was accomplished, not on some far hill top by a stroke out of heaven, but in the forms of human law and by men’s hands. It was a judicial murder. "By tyranny and by judgment,"-that is, by a forced and tyrannous judgment, -"he was taken." To this abuse of law the next verse adds the indifference of public opinion: "and as for his contemporaries, who of them reflected that he was cut off from," or "cut down in, the land of the living,"-that in spite of the form of law that condemned him he was a murdered man, -that "for the transgression of my people the stroke was his?" So, having conceived him to have been lawfully put to death, they consistently gave him a convict’s grave: "they made his grave with the wicked, and he was with the felon in his death," though-and on this the strophe emphatically ends-he was an innocent man, "he had done no harm, neither was guile in his mouth."

Premature sickness and the miscarriage of justice, -these to Orientals are the two outstanding misfortunes of the individual’s life. Take the Psalter, set aside its complaints of the horrors of war and of invasion, and you will find almost: all the rest of its sighs rising either from sickness or from the sense of injustice. These were the classic forms of individual suffering in the age and civilisation to which our prophet belonged, and it was natural, therefore, that when he was describing an Ideal or Representative Sufferer, he should fill in his picture with both of them. If we remember this, we shall feel no incongruity in the sudden change of the here from a sick man to a convict, and back again in Isaiah 53:10 from a convict to a sick man. Nor, if we remember this, shall we feel disposed to listen to those interpreters who hold that the basis of this prophecy was the account of an actual historical martyrdom. Had such been the case the prophet would surely have held throughout to one or the other of the two forms of suffering. His sufferer would have been either a leper or a convict, hut hardly both. No doubt the details in Isaiah 53:8-9 are so realistic that they might well be the features of an actual miscarriage of justice; but the like happened too frequently in the Ancient East for such verses to be necessarily any one man’s portrait. Perverted justice was the curse of the individual’s life-perverted justice and that stolid, fatalistic apathy of Oriental public opinion, which would probably regard such a sufferer as suffering for his sins the just vengeance of heaven, though the minister of this vengeance was a tyrant and its means were perjury and murder. "Who of his generation reflected that for the transgression of my people the stroke was on him!"

V. Isaiah 53:10-12. We have heard the awful tragedy. The innocent Servant was put to a violent and premature death. Public apathy closed over him and the unmarked earth of a felon’s grave. It is so utter a perversion of justice, so signal a triumph of wrong over right, so final a disappearance into oblivion of the fairest life that ever lived, that men might be tempted to say, God has forsaken His own. On the contrary-so strophe 5 begins-God’s own will and pleasure have been in this tragedy: "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him." The line as it thus stands in our English version has a grim, repulsive sound. But the Hebrew word has no necessary meaning of pleasure or enjoyment." All it says is, God so willed it. His purpose was in this tragedy. Deus vult! It is the one message which can render any pain tolerable or light up with meaning a mystery so cruel as this: "The Lord" Himself" had purposed to bruise His Servant, "the Lord Himself had laid on him sickness" (the figure of disease is resumed). God’s purpose in putting the Servant to death is explained in the rest of the verse. It was in order that "through his soul making a guilt-offering, he might see a seed, prolong his days, and that the pleasure of the Lord might prosper by his hand."

What is a guilt-offering? The term originally meant guilt, and is so used by a prophet contemporary to our own. [Jeremiah 51:4] In the legislation, however, both in the Pentateuch and in Ezekiel, it is applied to legal and sacrificial forms of restitution or reparation for guilt. It is only named in Ezekiel along with other sacrifices. [Ezekiel 40:39;, Ezekiel 42:13;, Ezekiel 44:29;, Ezekiel 46:20] Both Numbers and Leviticus define it, but define it differently. In Numbers [Numbers 5:7-8] it is the payment, which a transgressor has to make to the human person offended, of the amount to Which he has harmed that person’s property: it is what we call damages. But in Leviticus it is the ram, exacted over and above damages to the injured party, [Leviticus 5:14-16;, Leviticus 6:1-7] or in cases where no damages were asked, [Leviticus 5:17-19] by the priest; the representative of God, for satisfaction to His law; and it was required even where the offender had been an unwitting one. By this guilt-offering "the priest made atonement" for the sinner and "he was forgiven." It was for this purpose of reparation to the Deity that the plagued Philistines sent a guilt-offering back with the ark of Jehovah, which they had stolen. [1 Samuel 6:13] But there is another historical passage, which though the term "guilt-offering" is not used in it, admirably illustrates the idea. A famine in David’s time was revealed to be due to the murder of certain Gibeonites by the house of Saul. David asked the Gibeonites what reparation he could make. They said it was not a matter of damages. But both parties felt that before the law of God could be satisfied and the land relieved of its curse, some atonement, some guilt-offering, must be made to the Divine Law. It was a wild kind of satisfaction that was paid. Seven men of Saul’s house were hung up before the Lord in Gibeon. But the instinct, though satisfied in so murderous a fashion, was a true and a grand instinct, -the conscience of a law above all human laws and rights, to which homage must be paid before the sinner could come into true relations with God, or the Divine curse be lifted off.

It is in this sense that the word is used of the Servant of Jehovah, the Ideal, Representative Sufferer. Innocent as he is, he gives his life as satisfaction to the Divine law for the guilt of his people. His death was no mere martyrdom or miscarriage of human justice: in God’s intent and purpose, but also by its own, voluntary offering, it was an expiatory sacrifice. By his death the Servant did homage to the law of God. By dying for it He made men feel that the supreme end of man was to own that law and be in a right relation to it, and that the supreme service was to help others to a right relation. As it is said a little farther down, "My Servant, righteous himself, wins righteousness for many, and makes their iniquities his load."

It surely cannot be difficult for anyone, who knows what sin is, and what a part vicarious suffering plays both in the bearing of the sin and in the redemption of the sinner, to perceive that at this point the Servant’s service for God and man reaches its crown. Compare his death and its sad meaning, with the brilliant energies of his earlier career. It is a heavy and an honourable thing to come from God to men, laden with God’s truth for your charge and responsibility; but it is a far heavier to stoop and take upon your heart as your business and burden men’s suffering and sin. It is a needful and a lovely thing to assist the feeble aspirations of men, to put yourself on the side of whatever in them is upward and living, -to be the shelter, as the Servant was, of the bruised reed and the fading wick; but it is more indispensable, and it is infinitely heavier, to seek to lift the deadness of men, to take their guilt upon your heart, to attempt to rouse them to it, to attempt to deliver them from it. It is a useful and a glorious thing to establish order and justice among men, to create a social conscience, to inspire the exercise of love and the habits of service, and this the Servant did when "he set Law on the Earth, and the Isles waited for his teaching"; but after all man’s supreme and controlling relation is his relation to God, and to this their "righteousness" the Servant restored guilty men by his death.

And so it was at this point, according to our prophecy, that the Servant, though brought so low, was nearest his exaltation: though in death, yet nearest life, nearest the highest kind of life, "the seeing of a seed," the finding of himself in others; though despised, rejected, and forgotten of men, most certain of finding a place among the great and notable forces of life, -"therefore do I divide him a share with the great, and the spoil he shall share with the strong." Not because as a prophet he was a sharp sword in the hand of the Lord, or a light flashing to the ends of the earth, but in that-as the prophecy concludes, and it is the prophet’s last and highest word concerning him-in that "he bare the sin of the many, and interposed for the transgressors."

We have seen that the most striking thing about this prophecy is the spectral appearance of the Servant. He haunts, rather than is present in, the chapter. We hear of him, but he himself does not speak. We see faces that he startles, lips that the sight of him shuts, lips that the memory of him, after he has passed in silence, opens to bitter confession of neglect and misunderstanding; but himself we see not. His aspect and his bearing, his work for God and his influence on men, are shown to us, through the recollection and conscience of the speakers, with a vividness and a truth that draw the consciences of us who hear into the current of the confession, and take our hearts captive. But when we ask, Who was he then? What was his name among men? Where shall we find himself? Has he come, or do you still look for him?-neither the speakers, whose conscience he so smote, nor God, whose chief purpose he was, give us here any answer. In some verses he and his work seem already to have happened upon earth, but again we are made to feel that he is still future to the prophet, and that the voices, which the prophet quotes as speaking of having seen him and found him to be the Saviour, are voices of a day not yet born while the prophet writes.

But about five hundred and fifty years after this prophecy was written, a Man came forward among the sons of men.-among this very nation from whom the prophecy had arisen; and in every essential of consciousness and of experience He was the counterpart, embodiment, and fulfilment of this Suffering Servant and his Service. Jesus Christ answers the questions which the prophecy raises and leaves unanswered. In the prophecy we see one who is only a spectre, a dream, a conscience without a voice, without a name, without a place in history. But in Jesus Christ of Nazareth the dream becomes a reality: He, whom we have seen in this chapter only as the purpose of God, only through the eyes and consciences of a generation yet unborn, -He comes forward in flesh and blood; He speaks, He explains Himself, He accomplishes almost to the last detail the work, the patience, and the death that are here described as Ideal and Representative.

The correspondence of details between Christ’s life and this prophecy, published five hundred and fifty years before He came, is striking; if we encountered it for the first time, it would be more than striking, it would be staggering. But do not let us do what so many have done-so fondly exaggerate it as to lose in the details of external resemblance the moral and spiritual identity.

For the external correspondence between this prophecy and the life of Jesus Christ is by no means perfect. Every wound that is set down in the fifty-third of Isaiah was not reproduced or fulfilled in the sufferings of Jesus. For instance, Christ was not the sick, plague-stricken man whom the Servant is at first represented to be. The English translators have masked the leprous figure, that stands out so clearly in the original Hebrew.-for "acquainted with grief, bearing our griefs, put him to grief," we should in each case read "sickness." Now Christ was no Job. As Matthew points out, the only way He could be said "to bear our sicknesses and to carry our pains" was by healing them, not by sharing them.

And again, exactly as the judicial murder of the Servant, and the entire absence from his contemporaries of any idea that he suffered a vicarious death, suit the case of Christ, the next stage in the Servant’s fate was not true of the Victim of Pilate and the Pharisees. Christ’s grave was not with the wicked. He suffered as a felon without the walls on the common place of execution, but friends received the body and gave it an honourable burial in a friend’s grave. Or take the clause, "with the rich in his death." It is doubtful whether the word is really "rich," and ought not to be a closer synonym of "wicked" in the previous clause; but if it be "rich," it is simply another name for "the wicked," who in the East, in cases of miscarried justice, are so often coupled with the evildoers. It cannot possibly denote such a man as Joseph of Arimathea; nor, is it to be observed, do the Evangelists in describing Christ’s burial in that rich and pious man’s tomb take any notice of this line about the Suffering Servant.

But the absence of a complete incidental correspondence only renders more striking the moral and spiritual correspondence, the essential likeness between the Service set forth in chapter 53 and the work of our Lord.

The speakers of chapter 53 set the Servant over against themselves, and in solitariness of character and office. They count him alone sinless where all they have sinned, and him alone the agent of salvation and healing where their whole duty is to look on and believe. But this is precisely the relation which Christ assumed between Himself and the nation. He was on one side, all they on the other. Against their strong effort to make Him the First among them, it was, as we have said before, the constant aim of our Lord to assert and to explain Himself as The Only.

And this Onlyness was to be realised in suffering. He said, "I must suffer"; or again, "It behoves the Christ to suffer." Suffering is the experience in which men feel their oneness with their kind. Christ, too, by suffering felt His oneness with men; but largely in order to assert a singularity beyond. Through suffering He became like unto men, but only that He might effect through suffering a lonely and a singular service for them. For though He suffered in all points as men did, yet He shared none of their universal feelings about suffering. Pain never drew from Him either of those two voices of guilt or of doubt. Pain never reminded Christ of His own past, nor made Him question God.

Nor did He seek pain for any end in itself. There have been men who have done so; fanatics who have gloried in pain; superstitious minds that have fancied it to be meritorious; men whose wounds have been as mouths to feed their pride, or to publish their fidelity to their cause. But our Lord shrank from pain; if it had been possible He would have willed not to bear it: "Father, save Me from this hour; Father, if it be Thy will, let this cup pass from Me." And when He submitted and was under the agony, it was not in the feeling of it, nor in the impression it made on others, nor in the manner in which it drew men’s hearts to Him, nor in the seal it set on the truth, but in something beyond it, that He found His end and satisfaction. Jesus "looked out of the travail of His soul and was satisfied."

For, firstly, He knew His pain to be God’s will for and outside Himself, -"I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished: Father, save Me from this hour, yet for this cause came I to this hour: Father, Thy will be done,"-and all opportunities to escape as temptations.

And, secondly, like the Servant, Jesus "dealt prudently, had insight." The will of God in His suffering was no mystery to Him. He understood from the first why He was to suffer.

The reasons He gave were the same two and in the same order as are given by our prophet for the sufferings of the Servant, -first, that fidelity to God’s truth could bring with it no other fate in Israel, then that His death was necessary for the sins of men, and as men’s ransom from sin. In giving the first of these reasons for His death, Christ likened Himself to the prophets who had gone before Him in Jerusalem; but in the second He matched Himself with no other, and no other has ever been known in this to match himself with Jesus.

When men, then, stand up and tell us that Christ suffered only for the sake of sympathy with His kind, or only for loyalty to the truth, we have to tell them that this was not the whole of Christ’s own consciousness, this was not the whole of Christ’s own explanation. Suffering, which leads men into the sense of oneness with their kind, only made Him, as it grew the nearer and weighed the heavier, more emphatic upon His difference from other men. If He Himself, by His pity, by His labours of healing (as Matthew points out), and by all His intercourse with His people, penetrated more deeply into the participation of human suffering, the very days which marked with increasing force His sympathy with men, only laid more bare their want of sympathy with Him, their incapacity to follow into that unique conscience and understanding of a Passion, which He bore not only "with," but, as He said, "for" His brethren. "Who believed that which we heard, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed? As to His generation, who reflected that for the transgression of my people He was stricken?" Again, while Christ indeed brought truth to earth from heaven, and was for truth’s sake condemned by men to die, the burden which He found waiting Him on earth, man’s sin, was ever felt by Him to be a heavier burden and responsibility than the delivery of the truth; and was in fact the thing, which, apart from the things for which men might put Him to death, remained the reason of His death in His own sight and in that of His Father. And He told men why He felt their sin to be so heavy, because it kept them so far from God, and this was His purpose, He said, in bearing it-that He might bring us back to God; not primarily that He might relieve us of the suffering which followed sin, though He did so relieve some when He pardoned them, but that He might restore us to right relations with God, -might, like the Servant, "make many righteous." Now it was Christ’s confidence to be able to do this, which distinguished Him from all others, upon whom has most heavily fallen the conscience of their people’s sins, and who have most keenly felt the duty and commission from God of vicarious suffering. If, like Moses, one sometimes dared for love’s sake to offer his life for the life of his people, none, under the conscience and pain of their people’s sins, ever expressed any consciousness of thereby making their brethren righteous. On the contrary, even a Jeremiah, whose experience, as we have seen, comes so wonderfully near the picture of the Representative Sufferer in chapter 53, -even a Jeremiah feels, with the increase of his vicarious pain and conscience of guilt, only the more perplexed, only the deeper in despair, only the less able to understand God and the less hopeful to prevail with Him. But Christ was sure of His power to remove men’s sins, and was never more emphatic about that power than when He most felt those sins’ weight.

And "He has seen His seed"; He "has made many righteous." We found it to be uncertain whether the penitent speakers in chapter 53 understood that the Servant by coming under the physical sufferings, which were the consequences of their sins, relieved them of these consequences; other passages in the prophecy would seem to imply that, while the Servant’s sufferings were alone valid for righteousness, they did not relieve the rest of the nation from suffering too. And so it would be going beyond what God has given us to know, if we said that God counts the sufferings on the Cross, which were endured for our sins, as an equivalent for, or as sufficient to do away with, the sufferings which these sins bring upon our minds, our bodies, and our social relations. Substitution of this kind is neither affirmed by the penitents who speak in the fifty-third of Isaiah, nor is it an invariable or essential part of the experience of those who have found forgiveness through Christ. Everyday penitents turn to God through Christ, and are assured of forgiveness, who feel no abatement in the rigour of the retribution of those laws of God, which they have offended; like David after his forgiveness, they have to continue to bear the consequences of their sins. But dark as this side of experience undoubtedly is, only the more conspicuously against the darkness does the other side of experience shine. By "believing what they have heard," reaching this belief through a quicker conscience and a closer study of Christ’s words about His death, men, upon whom conscience by itself and sore punishment have worked in vain, have been struck into penitence, have been assured of pardon, have been brought into right relations with God, have felt all the melting and the bracing effects of the knowledge that another has suffered in their stead. Nay, let us consider this-the physical consequences of their sins may have been left to be endured by such men, for no other reason than in order to make their new relation to God more sensible to them, while they feel those consequences no longer with the feeling of penalty, but with that of chastisement and discipline. Surely nothing could serve more strongly than this to reveal the new conscience towards God that has been worked within them. This inward "righteousness" is made more plain by the continuance of the physical and social consequences of their sins than it would have been had these consequences been removed.

Thus Christ, like the Servant, became a force in the world, inheriting in the course of Providence a "portion with the great" and "dividing the spoils" of history "with the strong." As has often been said, His Cross is His Throne, and it is by His death that He has ruled the ages. Yet we must not understand this as if His Power was only or mostly shown in binding men, by gratitude for the salvation He won them, to own Him for their King. His power has been even more conspicuously proved in making His fashion of service the most fruitful and the most honoured among men. If men have ceased to turn from sickness with aversion or from weakness with contempt; if they have learned to see in all pain some law of God, and in vicarious suffering God’s most holy service; if patience and self-sacrifice have come in any way to be a habit of human life, -the power in this change has been Christ. But because these two-to say, "Thy will be done," and to sacrifice self-are for us men the hardest and the most unnatural of things to do, Jesus Christ, in making these a conscience and a habit upon earth, has indeed shown Himself able to divide the spoil with the strong, has indeed performed the very highest Service for Man of which man can conceive.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 52:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-52.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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