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Isaiah 52:13-53:12

The Old Testament reading for Good Friday is always the fourth servant song from Second Isaiah, Isa 52:13-53:12. It is a very familiar passage for Christians and along with Psalm 22, which is also set for Good Friday, it has been one of the texts which has most influenced how the church understands God’s work in Jesus.

The first ‘servant song’ (Isa 42:1-9) was about the servant, i.e. spoken about the servant in the 3rd person. That approach continues here with the opening clause in Isa 52:13 ‘Here is my servant’ pointing back to 42:1. Thus, Isaiah 42 and Isaiah 52-53 are respectively the start and culmination of the story of the servant. The two middle passages, Isa 49:1-7 and 50:4-9a, were both written in the 1st person, allowing us to hear of the servant’s experience from his own mouth. Now we stand with others and observe what happens to him and how it is to be understood.

The passage has a definite structure. It begins in Isa 52:13-15 with what is essentially a brief summary of the whole section. Verse 13 starts with a statement of the exaltation of the servant, who will be ‘lifted … very high’. It then recalls how marred he once was and how astonished others were to see his disfigurement. But just as his appearance was once ‘astonishing’ in this way, so what will happen to him in later times will be equally astonishing. Kings and nations, mighty institutions and people, will be equally confounded. What happens to this servant will not only be surprisingly new, but beyond anything human power can imagine. No human intelligence, no human intellectual or technical knowhow will ever understand this. But just what will happen we do not yet know.

The summary in 52:13-15 is then explored through the whole passage. The unexplained exaltation in this summary leads into a description of the experience and suffering of the servant and how that is understood by those who watch (53:2-9). At the end, the exaltation of the servant is given new meaning with an interpretation of what God was doing in the experience of this servant (53:10-12). At the heart of the passage lies Isa 53:1. It contains a question expressed first as if it arises out of the astonishment of the kings and nations described at the end of chapter 52. But in the parallel line in 53:1b it gets to the heart of the matter: ‘to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ It is a question about the power of God (the ‘arm’ of the Lord, ‘arm’ being a metaphor for power). Somehow this servant’s life and experience is revealing about divine power and possibilities.

The onlookers describe the servant’s life as one struck by suffering and rejection from an early time (53:2-3). But things change dramatically in v. 4 when the onlookers assess this servant’s life in a surprising way. Once they would have thought that his affliction was God’s punishment on the servant (v. 4b) just as Job’s friends suggested his suffering was caused by his own sin. But the onlookers of the servant do not conclude in this way. They see in the servant’s suffering the result of their sin: ‘surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases’; ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities’. The statements in vv. 4-5a are ambiguous. Do the onlookers mean that their wrongful deeds have directly resulted in this man’s suffering, i.e. they have hurt him physically and in other ways, or that this man vicariously suffers for them, i.e. suffers for their sin?

Either understanding is possible, although it is fair to say that many Christian readers have understood it in the latter way, modelling their understanding on a presumption that Old Testament sacrifices are substitutionary in form. The death of Jesus is often seen in this way influencing how today’s passage is understood. This substitutionary view of sacrifice in the Old Testament, however, is not the case for most sacrifices. Moreover, the idea of a person ‘suffering for others’ vicariously is not seen elsewhere in the Old Testament as salvific. Nor does today’s passage say anywhere that the servant’s suffering was willingly accepted or for the purpose that others might go free. Finally, we should note that in Second Isaiah, the past sins of the people which led to their exile are no longer an obstacle to God’s work with them. Their sins have already been dealt with and twice over (Isa 40:2). No, what the onlookers understand from this servant’s suffering has not so much to do with forgiveness as with their redemption.

We might ask how can forgiveness and redemption be separated? Well they can’t, but Second Isaiah does not see them as identical either. We are not told what the iniquities and transgressions mentioned in vv. 4-9 are, but it is the later reflection of the onlookers that leads them to conclude that this man, who suffered silently (v. 7) and innocently (v. 9b) but was condemned through a perversion of justice (v. 8), and who was possibly executed depending on whether we read vv. 8b-9a literally or metaphorically, has ‘borne their infirmities’. Yet God has acted in him and with him in an entirely unexpected way. This man, in bearing their iniquities (v. 11), will be the agent through whom God’s plan will come to pass (v. 10). He will see light, find satisfaction in knowledge (v. 11) and be allotted a portion with the great (i.e. with those whose memories persist in the community; v. 12a).

One of the difficulties Second Isaiah faced in his work with the people in exile in Babylon was in convincing them that their time in exile was about to end. He could see the rise of the Persian Empire and the demise of the Babylonian one. He knew that with the Persians there would be the opportunity to return to Jerusalem. The trouble was that many did not want to make that journey; life even in exile had become too comfortable to risk a new journey of faith and hope. Maybe this was the ‘iniquity’ the people perceived, their own reluctance to see the new exodus God called them to. We should note that the language of the servant’s reward, an allotment of a portion with the great in v. 12, is language associated with the promised land (cf. Isa 9:3).  But as long as the servant undertook the calling, in spite of the onlookers’ persecution of him, the people would (belatedly) perceive their redemption set before them.

But there is even more than this. The language used in relation to the servant bearing their sins and carrying their iniquities etc., takes us back to an earlier passage in Second Isaiah. In Isa 46:1-2 the prophet describes the great religious processions of Babylon when statues of the gods Bel and Nebo were loaded onto beasts and cattle and paraded through the city. The prophet describes the hard task of the animals as a ‘carrying’ of these gods, who are a burden to those who ‘bear’ them. It is a ‘going into exile’ (v. 2). Yet the prophet goes on to speak of how the Lord has ‘borne’ Israel and ‘carried’ them from birth (v. 3). What the servant does in bearing the sins of many (Isaiah 52-53) is a symbol of what God has been doing for the people all along and now wants to do again in bringing them out of exile. The servant’s bearing their sins even to death is symbolic of the extent of God’s carrying the people even into new life.

So what is described in Isaiah 52-53 is not a vicarious suffering of one individual in order that the sins of many may be forgiven. Rather, we have in the servant one whose solidarity with God’s purpose to redeem the people is so strong and clear to others, even those who persecute him, that his life and experience themselves are seen as redemptive. In seeing the servant especially how he suffers silently and innocently, they recognise an act which symbolizes what God has done for them in their exile experience – borne them and carried them to the possibility of a new life. What is astonishing here is the nature of God’s work and power. Throughout Second Isaiah there is talk of God as creator and redeemer. In past times this was understood very much in terms of great power and authority. Now, God is seen to work through seeming weakness to redeem the people and create them anew.

The suffering servant figure, especially in Isa 52:13-53:12, has been a major influence on how Christianity has understood the death of Jesus. While it is quite likely that Jesus as a Jew knew the Book of Isaiah (he is said to quote bits in the Gospels), and hence the servant figure, there is no evidence Jesus understood his own mission and death in terms of the suffering servant figure. It is nevertheless helpful for us to reflect on Jesus’ death in terms of our understanding of the servant.

Psalm 22

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