The Suffering Servant
In this chapter I'd like us to look and marvel at an amazing passage of Scripture. It is found in the book of Isaiah and is considered to be one of the clearest descriptions and prophecies of Jesus' person and work contained in the Old Testament. This passage is commonly referred to as the "Suffering Servant" passage in Isaiah because it pictures the Messiah of Israel – not as a conquering political hero (as some of the people thought He would be) – but as one who would save His people through His own personal suffering.
It is an extraordinary passage because of its accuracy in describing the person, the purpose and the promise of God fulfilled through Jesus Christ – all foretold 700 years before His appearance. It is incredible because the information contained in this passage could not be applied historically, morally or theologically to any other religious leader in history except Jesus Christ: only He could be the Suffering Servant.
Therefore, the purpose of this study is to marvel and be amazed, as we examine this miraculous prophecy concerning Jesus, the Suffering Servant, as he is described by Isaiah the prophet.
Background on Isaiah
Isaiah lived in the 7th century before Christ. After Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel was divided into the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Each kingdom had its own leaders and prophets. Isaiah was a prophet in the Southern kingdom living in Jerusalem.
He was an educated man and came from a leading family and so he served the king's court as minister. Prophets served as religious and political advisors since their leaders sought the will of God in what they did as kings. This was often a source of conflict because many of the kings didn't want to follow the word of the prophets when they received it.
In this capacity, Isaiah lived and served through the reigns of several kings in Jerusalem.
During his lifetime, however, Isaiah saw the Northern Kingdom destroyed and the Assyrian army (which conquered the North) march right to the gates of Jerusalem itself. He had advised King Hezekiah not to surrender and prayed for the city and an angel stopped the foreign army and saved the city, a high point of his ministry.
His writings are a commentary on the things that took place in his own lifetime but he also prophesied about future events:
- The fall of the Northern Kingdom
- The rise of the Babylonian Empire 100 years before it happened.
- The decline of Egypt as a world power.
- The eventual fall of Jerusalem and its restoration under King Cyrus who wasn't even born when he made this prophecy.
Aside from his predictions, Isaiah also spoke of the spiritual condition of the nation and its role in the world. It is here where the image of the "Servant" comes in: Isaiah described the nation of Israel as God's servant who at times suffered because of its relationship to God but would one day be vindicated, one day be restored from captivity.
Sometimes, however, he described the servant as a person, a man who would come to serve God for a special purpose. In chapters 49-55, Isaiah speaks about this idea of the servant. Sometimes it is the nation, sometimes the individual. The context determines which one. In chapters 52-53, Isaiah talks about the servant as a person and what is amazing is that through his description of the Suffering Servant he gives a perfect account of Jesus' life and ministry here on earth.
One of the reasons why the Bible is reliable is because it contains fulfilled prophecy – predictions of the future accurately described and historically completed. Isaiah 52-53 contains one of the clearest examples of fulfilled prophecy. Not simply the predictions of political events in the next 50-100 years, but an accurate description of the Christ 700 years before He arrived, accurate in every way:
- Accurately describing His person – Could not fit any other person in history.
- Accurately describing His purpose – The heart and soul of the Christian religion, the reason for Christ's work is described.
- Accurately describing His promise – Through Isaiah God provided the encouragement that sinners needed long before the Christ arrived.
Let's read through the text and see Jesus as the Suffering Servant.
13Behold, My servant will prosper,
He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted.
14Just as many were astonished at you,
My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man
And His form more than the sons of men.
Here Isaiah distinguishes between the idea of the nation as servant and the Messiah as servant. Even though the nation has suffered, the suffering of this individual will be great. He immediately identifies this person as a servant and as a servant who will suffer – and this is where the idea of the "suffering servant" comes from.
15Thus He will sprinkle many nations,
Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him;
For what had not been told them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.
This verse reveals the purpose of the Messiah's ministry and that is to cleanse. The priests would sprinkle the people with the blood of the sacrifice as a way of signifying that the sacrifice covered their sins and cleansed them of moral filth. The sprinkling of nations is a reference to the idea that the sacrifice of the Messiah would accomplish this not only for the people in the physical presence of the priest but for the entire world. Even powerful men, like kings, will be amazed because God's plan for saving man (by cleansing him from sin) will finally be revealed through this servant. Romans 16:25 (the mystery Paul speaks of).
Vs. 53:1 - Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Here Isaiah writes as God would Himself be speaking in the first person. God is saying that despite the things that the Messiah would do, there would be disbelief. The prophecy here is that the reaction to what the servant would do would be disbelief and history confirms that despite the miracles and teaching – the Jews first, and then the world, largely disbelieved. Once started, he goes on to describe the person of the servant.
2For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
3He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
He grew like a plain plant not in a royal garden, but without special care. This refers to the humble birth of Jesus, who although He was king, chose to be born in a manger, of poor people. His early years were not spent as a king, in splendor with attention paid to Him, but in obscurity, living under submission to His parents. In His later life during His public ministry, He spent much time avoiding:
- The crowds who merely wanted bread.
- The religious leaders who wanted to trap and kill Him.
His final night was spent alone in anguished prayer and His last day a long ordeal of suffering, rejection and painful death.
4Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
5But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
6All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.
In these three verses, Isaiah explains the purpose of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. In three short verses are contained the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most of the Old Testament is written in poetic form and Isaiah is no exception. One poetic device used was to repeat the same idea in a variety of ways (Parallelism). Here Isaiah explains that the Messiah would die for the sins of men; he explains it in three ways:
- He would carry our sorrow - Some would think that it was His sadness and His sins that He bore on the cross. However, the truth of the matter was that it was our suffering and our sins that we see in His cross and death, not His own.
- He would experience the pain (pierced, crushed, chastened, scourged), that we should experience when God would judge and condemn us. Death and condemnation from God, these things caused pain and the Messiah would experience that pain on behalf of each person so that when sinners came before God – they wouldn't have to.
- He will bring those who are lost back home again by suffering the consequences of their lostness on their behalf. All the things that happen to those who stray away from God – the Messiah would bear so they could go home to be with Him. Jesus, the Apostles and every person who has ever tried to preach the good news of salvation has repeated this idea to his hearers – that God sent the Messiah to die for sinners, but Isaiah explained it 700 years before it happened!
7He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
In this verse, Isaiah returns to describe the spirit with which the Messiah would enter into this suffering: Unlike the nation of Israel which suffered because of its rebellion and did not bear its punishment willingly or without complaint. The individual servant, the Messiah, would accept His suffering without complaint or resistance. His suffering was not due for His own sins but as a command of God for the sins of others, and for this reason He bore it quietly and without resistance for to resist was to resist God and to refuse was to lose man's opportunity for salvation.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
Here is another poetic device. After describing the person and the purpose of the Servant, the author (God) asks a question of the readers. Once the Messiah was unjustly killed and taken away, who among His own generation (or people) realized that it was for their own sins this had happened, and not His own? Once again, the idea of disbelief and misunderstanding is brought up. The Jews did not believe He was the Messiah and rejected the idea that His death was for their sins. They considered Him a blasphemer and trouble-maker until the end (even to this day).
9His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
Yet, the writer says that even in death He would be justified. Evil men and criminals were buried in common graves – cut-off from their people but even though He was considered this by the people, Jesus would be buried in a proper grave. We know that the Lord was removed from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, and buried in a new tomb near the place where He died – not in a common grave, (John 19:38-42). Even though He died like a criminal, He was buried … like a just man.
In the last verses, the promise or result of the Messiah's suffering is explained. Again this is explained in different ways.
10But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
The Servant will live to see His descendants, those who will come after Him. God's will, will be done through Him (the pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand).
11As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
The Servant, through His suffering, will live to see the justification (forgiveness, salvation) of those who come after Him.
12Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors.
He will be considered great because of His work as atoning sacrifice and mediator between God and sinners.
In other words, because of His suffering, the servant will save many, will Himself live to see these and will be exalted by God.
In this passage, written 700 years before the appearance of the Messiah, Isaiah describes perfectly three things that we now know about the Christ, Jesus:
- His personality – Isaiah's description of His attitude, how He was perceived and treated and how He reacted could not fit any Jewish character or any other religious leader throughout history. No one else fits this profile, except Jesus.
- His purpose – The doctrine of salvation by substitutionary atonement is perfectly explained here. He clarifies why God is doing this 700 years before He does it! Not animal sacrifice, but the willing sacrifice of God's own chosen servant on behalf of sinners, this is the basis of Christianity; no other religion has this as a central feature.
- His promise – The prophecy even goes beyond the time that the actual events are going to take place. In the passage, Isaiah describes the promise that God makes to the Messiah and to those who will benefit from His appearance.
- To the Messiah the promise is that death will not be able to hold Him because He is sinless. The empty grave and witness of the Apostles confirmed this – the angels are witnesses that He is at the right hand of God.
- To those who accept Him, the promise that their sins will be forgiven, and that the punishment that they would have to endure forever has fallen on Him.
As marvelous as it is, Isaiah's prophecy could at best describe what a person could look forward to, could hope for in the future. While he lived, they had only the sacrifice of animals to appease their consciences for sin (and this only reminded them of sin, it didn't cleanse their guilty consciences).
We, on the other hand, have the blessing of having seen his prophecy fulfilled and have, today, access to the sacrifice of the Messiah to wash away our sins, to guarantee our salvation and to protect us against the judgment to come. What he through the miracle of prophecy saw, we through the word of God have access to now – the opportunity to be saved through Jesus Christ.
Jesus said it Himself in Mark 16:16, "Those who believe and are baptized will be saved."