This is the fourth and last of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. Earlier we read of Israel being God's servant, God's wayward servant. But Christ is later identified as God's faithful servant Who will accomplish His mission in gentleness by the Spirit, 42:1-9; Whose commission includes even the redemption of the Gentiles, 49:1-7; and Who suffers in submission to the will of God and will be vindicated, 50: 4-11.
In this last song, Christ, though despised and rejected, redeemed many because unknown to them, He was saving His ignorant people by means of His suffering when He underwent divine punishment in their place, 52:13 -53:12.
This song has five stanzas of three verses each. They are the last three verses of Isaiah 52, then vv. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 of Isaiah 53. It is important to include the first section which is found at the end of Isaiah 52 to get the entire picture.
We should be very careful to see who is speaking! In Isaiah 42:1-7, it is the Father speaking, with one verse narrated by the prophet. In Isaiah 49, the prophet reports the words of Christ and the Father to each other! In Isaiah 50, I think it is Christ alone who is speaking in the entire song. In Isaiah 52, 53 Christ does not speak, rather God and men combine to sing His praise.
In the last great song, the five stanzas change speakers:
Stanza one, 52:13-15:
It is regrettable that many read Isaiah 53 without beginning with these words. In it is contained the exalted position of Christ followed by humiliation and then Christ as the object of faith and wonder. He is Eternal God who became God incarnate. But His unique humiliation was so appalling that His true position as Lord was beyond human comprehension. The high esteem of which He is worthy meets up with His mangled flesh on the cross. Yet the Father is boasting of the work of His Servant, Who will serve so wisely that the repulsion caused by His disfigured appearance will be replaced with great wonder. Nations fall before Him in adoration. The One mutilated will be exalted. God will see to that. Many who draw back in misunderstanding will come to see Who He was and is, and what He has done. Horror will be replaced by wonder and worship.
Stanza two, 53:1-3:
Misunderstanding about the Servant - the report of stanza one includes Gentile nations eventually believing. But its fulfillment will be preceded by rejection. Isaiah speaks as one of them when he uses the first person plural. The rejecters are God's people. This prophecy showed that when He came, Israel would not believe in their Messiah. It also implies that they will.
Note Paul's use of this verse in Romans 10:16: "Not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Israel says, 'Lord who has believed our message?' " Isaiah 53 has Israel not getting it! And Isaiah 42:18-20 calls God's servant, Israel, blind. The Savior when He comes would be unimpressive to them. He was not a loud revolutionary according to Isaiah 42. He lacked the superficial beauty so enthralling to modern taste. Instead of riding high, He suffered. Many were His sorrows, but politicians try to have a smiling face. They project image; character matters little. He was despised and rejected. People did not flock to him when they saw an agenda different from theirs, virtues they did not share like submission to the will of God, and the way of the cross. All of this is repugnant to worldly advance.
Isaiah 53:1-3 is an indictment of the world's sense of what is esteemed. Let every believer fix in the heart that Christ did not fit into the criteria of what is desirable and winsome. I am saddened that the evangelical church today is so enamored with appealing to the world by means of what is attractive to it. The entire ministry of Christ is contrary to that worldly and misguided approach. We embrace the One the world considered ugly! To us He is beautiful. To Israel He was a shameful disappointment. They, with hearts like ours, did not esteem Him. We should not forget this Song began with God expressing His delight in Him.
Stanza three, 53:4-6:
All the misunderstanding changes in what has to be one of the most glorious sets of words in the entire Bible. A new appreciation of Christ emerges in this stanza. The change is not in Christ at all, but in His observers. Blindness is removed for now they see, and how they see! A radical revision has transpired. Before, He was to them a useless specimen of humanity. They once mistakenly thought of the One they rejected as rejected by God as well. (We tend to think God agrees with us, when real enlightenment is to agree with Him!) All this sorrow and indignity was of tremendous purpose. He was not an outcast to be pitied, but the great Servant acting for the benefit of His people.
Here sin and the cross come together! Sin is manifest earlier when we read of their rejection of Him, but the theme now is how He was enduring what those sinners deserved. This chapter has a sharp sense of "We were so wrong," and "But He was doing this for us!"
It is my opinion that not even in the gospels do we come across an explanation of the cross that exceeds this part of Isaiah in clarity. The Gospels speak primarily of what happened; Isaiah spoke of the purpose of the Servant's work.
The Servant's death was substitutionary. Note how representative it is; it is He for us:
Here I must repeat Isaiah's words because there is more than one crucial perspective on Christ's work. Some evangelicals today will admit one element of Christ's work and deny another.
The Servant's death is atoning. This means it has special reference to our sin. Earlier it was for us, now I am saying it was because of our sin. But this makes no sense unless the intention is that Christ takes the consequences of our sin in our place. We can have a substitutionary action that is not atoning, such as one doing a task for another. The representation of Christ in the Bible is a major theme developed more in the New Testament. But the Old Testament makes a strong connection between sin and death. Redemption is a release from sin secured by a payment being made for it. The earlier quotations say:
On this theme there is more in later stanzas:
Death for sin and sin bearing are interchangeable in this Scripture. But there is another very important theme without which the doctrine of Christ's atoning death is incomplete.
The Servant's death was propitiatory. I hate to use an unfamiliar word, but it is one very specific and one again in dispute in evangelical circles. Propitiation is the turning away of God's wrath against us because Christ absorbed that holy wrath in the offering He made for us. It was not turned away in the sense that it was deflected away from both Christ and us like a bullet that hits no target. We who believe in Him have had it turned away from us, but in order for us to escape, it was not turned away from Christ. We need to remember He really was crucified. The crucifixion is the event; the laying of iniquity on Him is the explanation. He died for us and for our sin; but He also went to face God for us, and the holy justice of God was brought to bear on Him on the cross. Good communicators of the gospel have said it in various ways, such as: "He satisfied divine justice that was against us." He absorbed in His flesh the consuming fire of the wrath of God against every sinner He represented.
To understand propitiation we must enter the holy interaction of the Father and the Son. The Father sent Him to be sin for us so Christ would take the accusation of our sin. He came to be priest for us, so He would make a proper offering for us. Something is going to happen between the Father and the Son, between the Lord and His marvelous Servant.
Poor Israel once thought of Christ as stricken by God, 53:4. And here is the great irony. They saw it as proof that He was not God's Servant. But He was sent to be God's Servant to go under the smiting rod of God. The stanza does not switch from smiting to no smiting, but from confusion over the reason He was smitten. They saw the blow, assumed it was from God, and read it wrong. The blow received was not evidence of God's rejection but of His provision. The smiting, piercing, crushing, bruising strikes against Him were the divine requirement that the Lamb of God take away sin so we could be saved. In this stanza, that smiting of God is now understood in its saving purpose.
The crushing and piercing are facts of the event. They are tied to our sin. But Who is smiting Him? He was punished, but Who did the punishing? It is God! When unbelievers said He was smitten by God, they did not know how close to truth they were. The first clear statement for this is, " … the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." And later, "it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and … the Lord makes his life a guilt offering" (53:10). There is purpose here. It is not just that death for some vague reason happened to him. The Lord laid on Him not only iniquity, but also iniquity's reward, which was God's just retribution for sin.
So the Christian gospel is that our Lord Jesus Christ took upon Himself the punishment of sin and took it from the Father's hand. He took in one day what it would take us forever in hell to pay for our sins. The wrath once against us was directed against Him, and so He was wounded for our transgressions. God was satisfied with His offering. Nothing more would ever be needed to atone for our sin; Jesus paid it all. The three doctrines all combine: He died an atoning, substitutionary, propitiatory death.
Stanza four, 53:7-9:
This section shows the intentional nature of His offering. He knew what was going on and told his disciples of His crucifixion, Matthew 20:17-19. He was like a sheep without resistance, but not like a sheep in ignorance of what lay ahead.
His death was unfair. He had no sin yet was treated as a criminal. His deliverance would come later. Our deliverance depended on Him not being delivered from injustice. He was "cut off" and was cut off because of sin, but the sin was not his. This stanza has shifted from the great purpose of good for His people, to the evil and oppression done to Him. Our Lord had no obligation to do what He did. He had the right to turn it down, except that He would always do His Father's will. The Father had no obligation to save or redeem apart from the grace He was determined to reveal in His Servant.
People would wonder what good it did for the Servant to obey. This stanza shows His submission; where is the vindication? He would never see any offspring if death were His end. He looked like one about to be wiped out in history. The passage cannot end on such a note for this faithful Servant, because He is the pride of God's heart. His reward is coming.
Stanza five, 53:10-12:
Here is the bright section that says it is worth it all! But we are so dull God in this stanza reviews again for us the purpose of His death. That He was pierced for transgressions, ought to be very clear. That the Lord laid on Him iniquity, ought to be clear. We might see that sin requires death. All of us have some sense of justice. Why is it so jarring that God would insist on executing justice? He personally requires that sin be confronted and engaged and that He is the One who exercises this right as God. He does not overlook sin, let it go, or sweep it under the rug. He said vengeance is His and that He would repay, not might repay. This is His policy because it is His character. We might let sin go, especially our own. In fact, we tend to justify sin when God justifies sinners.
But God's justice is holy and good. It is right that it should be exercised, rather than be some idea merely expressed in words rather than action. It is good that Babylon should be destroyed and its torments ascend forever, Revelation 19. It is proper and fitting that sinners go to hell, or that God's great Servant should undergo justice that sinners may be forgiven. Both are part of the glory of God. To deny this is to assert that God has a dark side, but "God is light; in him is no darkness at all," 1 John 1: 5.
He does not clear the guilty but pays wrath to His enemies and retribution to His foes, Exodus 34:6,7 and Isaiah 59:18. So we read in vs. 10 that it was the Lord's pleasure to put Him to death for us. We cannot really celebrate till this holy attribute of God's justice is addressed. Admitting God's justice is not some price we have to pay to have an otherwise wonderful God. His justice is equally pure and beautiful. That justice required the cross for the Servant or hell for the sinner. Who can complain when He turned His justice on Himself? To resist this is to deny what love has done.
"Though the Lord makes his soul an offering for sin," there is something else the Lord has in mind for Him. He Whose days were cut short would have His days prolonged. He had done the will of the Lord, now it would prosper in His hand. He would see the light of life on His Resurrection Day. The One Who earned life for those who deserved death, would Himself have the life He deserved. God did not spare His Son but gave Him up for us. Now He would raise Him from the dead. Christ underwent justice for our sin, now He would have justice for His obedience.
Our salvation is the design of the Father and the accomplishment of the Son. Verse 11 indicates that the Servant knows what He is doing! He would justify many by his knowledge. He knew what was needed. He knew death brought a penalty, and He would take it, and He knew how to do it - He would go to the cross. When sin is removed from us, then justification can come to us. The iniquities would have to be borne. Notice how often this doctrine is repeated in this passage.
But now we view the victory party. He won. He gains the prize for His efforts - hardly a waste of a life in the light of the resurrection. The Father rewards the Son. Added to the reward of life, He is also to be the possessor of all He gained. He Who had life removed from Him ends up dispensing life to all His own. The One deprived at Calvary is the One Who gives.
And let us never miss who shares His victory. He was numbered with us transgressors, and bore our sin, and now has us as His clients. He intercedes for us. We are not a deserving lot for Him to have, but He loved us enough to die for us, and we are His prize and bride. He was numbered with us that we might be numbered with Him and share His spoils, a privilege the New Testament calls being "heirs with Christ".
Many are saved. He bore the sin of many. The first stanza tells us kings will come to understand. He has done what no other king has ever done. He comes now in the gospel to the nations as the One Who left His throne for a humiliation we do not impose on mass murderers. Yet He was the exalted One and He will be exalted because He poured out His life unto death. Those who truly come to understand will bow in eternal gratitude. He will be "raised and lifted up and highly exalted" just as the Father said.
This is the ministry of Christ. I am grieved that so many today present Christ as the fixer of all our little cuts and bruises, when He is first the Redeemer from sin by His blood. No blessing and no treasure compares to being redeemed. (I have an uncle who, apart from his name, has one word on his tombstone: "Redeemed".)
Three of the five sections teach penal substitutionary atonement. It is not enough to believe in the historical events of the cross. We must accept God's own explanation of the significance of His own acts. God is His own interpreter. Without this we lose the gospel, because our hearts will supply our own distorted explanations.
We must follow our Savior who was humiliated, who suffered injustice, who did not complain of the wrongs done to Him, and Who was satisfied with the vindication that would come from God. This is part of our calling too, since we are commanded to bear our cross.
This song exudes the pride of the Father in the Son. That same pride and boasting in the cross of Christ comes first in the conviction of the mind from God's word. It then flows into our motivations and emotions in worship, evangelism and self-sacrifice as well.
It is a terrible sin to neglect the cross. Many today think it is a good strategy to skirt around the edges of the gospel and avoid its shocking yet glorious core. They call it being "relevant". Our need today is to be Biblical.
An Appeal: Note how brief these verses are! This longest of the four Servant Songs is 15 verses. If all four are totaled, there are only 39. These are passages we must read and linger over, and if we do, we too will sing the same kind of song found in the heart of God.
Jesus Christ is the Servant Isaiah has spoken of - rejected, crucified and raised to glory with nations now coming to faith in Him. Join in and bow too, and you will find in Him, the Sin-Bearer, forgiveness and acceptance. Many still hide their face from Him, and more and more find majesty in Him. To have God's great Servant as Savior is to be saved from the wrath that fell on Him; to reject Him is to face God's justice forever by yourself.