This is our last week in the book of Isaiah! (At least for a while).
So far, we’ve looked at various ways Isaiah describes judgment for Israel, for the surrounding nations, and for the world, as well as hope for Israel, and the whole world in the promise of a future Messianic king.
The majority of the judgment focuses on Israel, and points to the coming exile to Babylon.
Chapters 1-39 of Isaiah are pretty heavy on that impending doom, with little glimpses of the messianic promise. But when you hit Isaiah chapter 40, like Mike pointed out, it’s like stepping into a whole new book, the tone changes to be not just glimpses of hope but totally full of it! Beginning with the words “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.” The focus shifts to the return from Exile, and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, which would be brought about through this “messiah” figure, God’s “chosen one”.
We’ve looked at how Isaiah describes the Messiah as one who would restore humanity back to the Eden ideal, who would be called “Emmanuel, God with us” and who would lift up the oppressed and judge the oppressors. This Messiah, this chosen one, would be a king in the Davidic line, a descendant of the great king David!
The messiah is depicted, not just in Isaiah but throughout the prophets, as being a great king! THE perfect king, an even greater David, or better yet, an even greater Hezekiah - the king who did give Judah hope and salvation, though just for his own lifetime.
When you think of a great king, what qualities come to mind? If you think of a leader who conquers empires and sits on a throne ruling with a sceptre in his hand, what kind of personality would you expect?
I would certainly would expect certain qualities like strength, and courage, and tenacity, and boldness, and leadership! If you think of the great kings of Israel’s past, you might also associate them with political power, and influence, and affluence, great wealth and abundance! After all, if the Messiah was to be the greatest king Israel had ever seen, he must surely surpass all those who went before him and failed.
And don’t forget, the Messiah must not only surpass the greatness of Israel’s past kings, but also of her greatest prophets and priests! He must be greater than Moses, who led the people out of slavery, out of Egypt and into the promised land, who spoke with God face to face until his own appearance was too glorious for his own people to look at, who delivered the law and officiated the wedding ceremony between the people of Israel and Yahweh their God. He must be greater than Aaron or any of the Levites, who’s incredibly sacred role was to intercede on behalf of the people, providing atonement for their sins, and facilitating communion between them and Yahweh, curating a pure and holy space where heaven and earth intersect.
Wow! Those are some high expectations! To fill all those magnificent roles, of king, prophet, and priest, all in one person, and to do it better, to do it perfectly and without failing, unlike everyone else who came before him. It might seem almost impossible, but that’s how Isaiah (and other prophets) spoke of the Messiah, and that’s why Israel had so much anticipation for this person to show up and restore them to their former glory once and for all.
However, Isaiah also describes the Messiah in one other way, and it’s rather surprising, unexpected, even shocking. It doesn’t quite fit in with this magnificent image.
What we find in Isaiah chapter 53 is the portrait of what we commonly refer to as the “suffering servant” who, paradoxically, is exalted and glorified somehow through suffering and humiliation. It’s not exactly the image of a magnificent king, a miraculous prophet, or a fantastic priest. Let’s take a look:
13 See, my servant will be successful; he will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted. 14 Just as many were appalled at you— his appearance was so disfigured that he did not look like a man, and his form did not resemble a human being— 15 so he will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of him, for they will see what had not been told them, and they will understand what they had not heard. 1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at him, no appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; he was despised, and we didn’t value him. 4 Yet he himself bore our sicknesses, and he carried our pains; but we in turn regarded him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds. 6 We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished him for the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8 He was taken away because of oppression and judgment, and who considered his fate? For he was cut off from the land of the living; he was struck because of my people’s rebellion. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, but he was with a rich man at his death, because he had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully. 10 Yet the Lord was pleased to crush him severely. When you make him a guilt offering, he will see his seed, he will prolong his days, and by his hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished. 11 After his anguish, he will see light and be satisfied. By his knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many, and he will carry their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him the many as a portion, and he will receive the mighty as spoil, because he willingly submitted to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet he bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.
Alright, that’s a fairly long passage so let me just summarize a few of the highlights (or maybe I should say lowlights) of this suffering servant:
This passage is very poetic, and beautifully written, but it paints a very ugly picture, doesn’t it? It’s in the middle of a long stretch of comfort and hope in Isaiah, you’re reading along about redemption and salvation and restoration, and then BAM! What in the world is this?
Now, if you’re familiar with the story of Jesus, the parallels are pretty obvious, and it’s easy to see why Isaiah is quoted so frequently in the New Testament. And we’ll get to Jesus in a minute, but first I just want to pause and consider this from the Old Testament, post-exile perspective.
How would this prophecy be received at the time? During an incredibly desperate and needy low point, full of discouragement and despair.
Just try to picture reading (or more likely, hearing) this passage as a Jew during the exile, or even after the exile, in the 400 years between the exile and Jesus.
If I were looking for hope in a coming Messiah, I wouldn’t be very encouraged by this depiction.
I would want stories of a conquering king who will establish a powerful kingdom! Of a prophet wielding fire from heaven and obliterating my enemies! And yes, of a priest who brings the presence of God to our temple and absolves us of all our past sins so I have nothing to worry about!
Not this! Not this. This guy sounds pathetic! In fact, that’s exactly how people react to him! They despise and reject him, according to Isaiah. What are the implications of that? How on earth does that lead to exaltation and glory? How does that save Israel from oppression?
Well, to be honest, Isaiah doesn’t really unravel that mystery! This portrait of the suffering servant is just presented as part of the package! So, it may have been tempting to just skim over this or ignore it, but if I really wanted to accept it and understand it as much as possible, with only the Old Testament as my context, I think the first step might be to look for any parallels or precedents, elsewhere in the prophets and in the narrative of Hebrew scripture.
So, first of all, was Isaiah the only prophet who described the Messiah in this way? Anyone have a guess?
Well…actually…yes he was. We can find other places where God refers to either the Messiah, or Israel, or both, as “my servant” but Isaiah is the only one who really brings out this concept of the servant actually suffering, and suffering profoundly, in obedience to his role. So…no help from the other prophets.
What about the narratives? What do we see from Israel’s history? Are there any other examples of suffering servants in the Old Testament? Can anyone think of any?
The story of Job certainly comes to mind, if only because his is the quintessential Old Testament story of suffering, in general. In him, you find an innocent, righteous, God-fearing man who is afflicted with every type of suffering imaginable. And for what? To prove Job’s faith? A the beginning of the story, Yahweh brags to the accuser about how righteous Job is, and the accuser (the satan) says, basically, “I bet I can prove he’s not really that great.”
But the end of the story doesn’t culminate with Yahweh going to the satan and saying “see, I told you so!”
No, at the end of the story Job’s misguided friends are confronted by God’s anger:
Job 42:7–10 LEB
7 And then after Yahweh spoke these words to Job, Yahweh said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath has been kindled against you and against the two of your friends, for you have not spoken to me what is right as my servant Job has. 8 So then, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job and offer a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job will pray for you, for I will certainly accept his prayer, so that it will not be done with you according to your folly, for you have not spoken to me what is right as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did just as Yahweh had told them, and Yahweh accepted Job’s prayer. 10 Then Yahweh returned Job’s fortune when he prayed to him on behalf of his friends. Thus Yahweh increased all that Job had twice as much as before.
So Job, who God refers to as his servant, suffered innocently, and somehow the prayer of that innocent, suffering servant, was acceptable to God on behalf of those with whom God was angry. In other words, Job was a righteous, suffering servant who interceded on behalf of others, saving them from God’s wrath. In the meantime, as Job interceded in the midst of his suffering, God restored him, and exalted him, increased him twice beyond as much as before.
Of course, there is much more to the Job story, but this is one major feature that’s a clear parallel to Isaiah’s portrait of the suffering servant. In fact, it’s fascinating to study all the parallels between Job and the rest of the Old Testament, leading up to the Messiah, if you ever want to go deeper into that on your own I highly recommend it. But for now, it’s enough just to say there’s at least one precedent for the concept of a suffering servant.
There is one more story that comes to mind, from the last part of Genesis. The story of Joseph, Abraham’s great grandson. Joseph was the victim of his brothers’ jealousy, they sold him off as a slave and he was brought to Egypt. Now, he wasn’t necessarily entirely innocent leading up to that, the story implies a rather unwise provocation on his part which lead to the jealousy in the first place, but other than that during his whole time in Egypt he is described as blameless in his behavior, and yet he suffers repeated injustice at the hands of others. But all that suffering culminates in his exaltation over the whole of Egypt. At the very end of Genesis, in chapter 50, his brothers fear retribution after their father dies, and they come to Joseph essentially asking for mercy:
Genesis 50:18–21 CSB
18 His brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your slaves!” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. 21 Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Verse 20 is probably the most famous quote from the story of Joseph. “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” And I bring up this story, not because it’s a perfect parallel to the suffering servant, but because it IS an example of a person suffering and going through things that just make no sense in the moment, and seem totally contrary to God’s claim of being good and loving and just, and his promise to reward the righteous and stick up for the little guy. But where the larger story, the greater, redemptive purpose of salvation is revealed in the end.
So, in the time after Isaiah and before Christ, the story of Joseph may have been an encouragement and a reminder that, although the suffering servant of Isaiah may seem to make no sense in that moment, it makes total sense in God’s bigger plan and in the economy of his kingdom.
And of course, that’s still a good reminder for us today, to have faith in God’s sovereignty and in his perspective, because it’s so infinitely larger than ours.
But when it comes to understanding Isaiah’s prophecy, we also have the benefit of being able to refer to the New Testament, to see how Jesus did, in fact, fulfill the role of the suffering servant.
Even before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus began to fulfill the words of Isaiah in literal, physical terms, by bringing healing to people sickness and disease. Matthew points this out:
Matthew 8:16–17 CSB
16 When evening came, they brought to him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick, 17 so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.
That’s a direct quote of Isaiah 53:4, which means Matthew is explicitly equating Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53
But, remember, Matthew wrote this in hindsight. Jesus’s disciples weren’t able to see or accept that correlation, and the implication that Jesus would need to suffer and die in order to fulfill that role, until after the fact.
But Jesus knew, and came right out and said it, multiple times:
Luke 18:31–34 CSB
31 Then he took the Twelve aside and told them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. Everything that is written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles, and he will be mocked, insulted, spit on; 33 and after they flog him, they will kill him, and he will rise on the third day.” 34 They understood none of these things. The meaning of the saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
They didn’t understand it.
In fact, Mark documents at least one time when Peter didn’t understand, or maybe he understood just enough that it really made him upset.
Mark 8:31–32 CSB
31 Then he began to teach them that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise after three days. 32 He spoke openly about this. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Of course Jesus shut that down pretty quick, but this just goes to show how upsetting it would have been to think of the messiah in these terms! It ticked Peter off, and he had the nerve to rebuke Jesus for saying he would suffer and die!
So, while they just didn’t grasp the fact or maybe were in denial about what was to come, they also totally missed a MAJOR piece in what Jesus was saying. He said he would rise again after three days! That’s the truly miraculous part, and would prove that he was truly the son of God, the pure and holy sacrifice worthy of taking on the sins of the world!
That’s the exaltation part, that Isaiah 52:13 mentioned. Remember, this whole suffering servant package is unique, not just because it claims that the Messiah would suffer, but that by suffering, he would be crowned with glory.
And that’s exactly what happened. Eventually, they got it.
In fact, Jesus stayed around for a while after dying and resurrecting to make sure they got it, to make sure his disciples understood who he was and what had just happened. But then eventually he left them, a cloud took him into heaven, and he sent the Holy Spirit to empower them to continue his work.
We read about all that in Acts, and in chapter 3, we come to a scene where it all kind of comes full-circle.
Acts 3:11–26 CSB
11 While he was holding on to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astonished, ran toward them in what is called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he addressed the people: “Fellow Israelites, why are you amazed at this? Why do you stare at us, as though we had made him walk by our own power or godliness? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and denied before Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer released to you. 15 You killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead; we are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in his name, his name has made this man strong, whom you see and know. So the faith that comes through Jesus has given him this perfect health in front of all of you. 17 “And now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your leaders also did. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had predicted through all the prophets—that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah. 21 Heaven must receive him until the time of the restoration of all things, which God spoke about through his holy prophets from the beginning. 22 Moses said: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to everything he tells you. 23 And everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be completely cut off from the people. 24 “In addition, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, have also foretold these days. 25 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, And all the families of the earth will be blessed through your offspring. 26 God raised up his servant and sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.”
Peter, the same guy who was rebuking Jesus earlier, not only understands the glorification of Jesus but wants everyone else to understand it too! Jesus IS the suffering servant, who fulfills the covenant God made with Abraham, and who by his suffering brings salvation even to those by who’s hands he suffered.
More on that point of salvation in a moment, but first I want to read one more passage on the glorification, or exaltation of Christ. This one written by Paul, who went from hating Jesus and killing his followers to worshipping him and becoming the most zealous of followers:
5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In the person of Jesus, God himself became the suffering servant, and is now exalted above every name. The humble, despised, rejected, spit-upon servant is Lord of all creation, before whom all creation will one day bow.
But why? Jesus existed before he was born, he is, was, and always has been God the Son, distinct from but equal to the God the Father, which means he always was Lord of creation whether we knew it or not!
So why go through all that trouble of becoming a human and suffering and dying and explaining things to hard-headed, sinful humans?
It wasn’t for his own sake, that’s obvious. It was for our sake, because we needed him, and he loved us so much that he gave himself for us. And it accomplished two major things.
The first is perhaps the most obvious. It accomplished salvation.
By that, I mean that the sacrifice of Jesus fulfilled the law, and covered the debt of our sins. Jesus was able to accomplish this when no other human (prophet, king, priest, or otherwise) could, because he was sinless while nobody else was or has been since.
Isaiah makes it clear that the servant would suffer, not for his own sin, but for the sin of the people:
Isaiah 53:5 CSB
5 But he was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on him, and we are healed by his wounds.
Paul, an Old Testament scholar, did not miss this bold hyperlink to Jesus:
He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Colossians 2:14 CSB
He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross.
Romans 4:25 CSB
25 He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
The servant suffered as a righteous, innocent lamb, providing the sacrifice to cover our sins once and for all.
But the Messiah taking on the role of suffering servant accomplished something else, too. When Jesus began his ministry, he began preaching about God’s kingdom, and describing it in ways that contrasted the common perception of what “kingdom” must look like (much like Jesus contrasted the idea of what a “king” must be).
But he didn’t just preach about it, he lived out his creed of “Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Those commands are taken straight from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and he said they sum up the whole of the law. The concept of loving your neighbor as yourself was nothing new, and yet he demonstrated what it looks like to really live it out, in a radical and controversial way! And he taught this humble, servant-hearted, others-first lifestyle as the “way” of Yahweh’s kingdom.
Mark 10:42–45 CSB
42 Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Peter goes as far as to say that even the suffering of Christ was given as an example.
1 Peter 2:21 CSB
For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
As Christians we are to follow the example of Jesus, in our attitudes and our priorities, not going through life looking for what we can get out of it, not assessing our relationships based on how much we benefit from them, rather looking for how we can give and serve.
Only Jesus and his sacrifice actually saves people, and only his spirit has the power to transform lives, BUT he has called us, his church, his body, to sacrifice our individual time, money, energy, and yes even our physical comfort, because in doing so we join him in his work of meeting both physical and spiritual needs, and point each other and others to the source and sustainer of life.