Isaiah 52:13-53:12 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Isaiah 52:13-53:12


The Exalted Servant of the LORD

From very early on in the Christian era the Book of Isaiah has been referred to as the fifth gospel even though it was written some 700 years before some of the events it described took place. The gospel according to Isaiah is most clearly laid out in the last of his "Servant Songs" where he supplies us with a clear and highly detailed description of the ministry of the coming Messiah.

Bible readers are left in no doubt concerning the identity of this Coming One. The Ethiopian Eunuch was reading from this "song" when he was met by Philip but the Ethiopian was struggling to understand what the text was all about. Philip helped him:

Acts 8:35 "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus."

But is it really possible for a book to contain such clear and precise detail of events that were yet so far off in the future? For godless critics the accuracy of the detail could only suggest one thing – a fabrication. The details contained in Isaiah must have been added after the events of the life and death of Jesus Christ took place.

That there was no evidence, of course, to support such a view was not an issue to such people – it was surely obvious, wasn't it, that God couldn't reveal the future so clearly and so far ahead? With the earliest known manuscript of Isaiah dating from around the year AD.1000 there was plenty of time for the changes to have been added according to the critics. Men naturally prefer any excuse rather than to face up to the possibility of God breaking into their world.

But in the 1940s a shepherd boy stumbled into a cave in Qumran and found some clay pots. It was the beginning of something special – the Dead Sea Scrolls were about to see the light of day again after being lost for centuries. One of the manuscripts that belonged to this discovery contained the entire text of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and it has been dated to between 150-100BC. And guess what, all those precise details concerning the Messiah's life and ministry were already there! The God of the Bible is well able to declare the end from the beginning – fulfilled prophecy is one more reason why we should wake up and face up to the reality of God's Word and in particular to respond to the gospel which he has prepared with such care and precision.

The Final Servant Song – Introduction
Isaiah's song comprises five verses which generally increase in length as the song progresses.

The first verse of the song (52:13-15) serves as something of a prologue in which the various themes of the song are introduced. It begins on the strong note of victory celebrating the exaltation of the servant of the LORD

The second verse (53:1-3) leads us into the main body of the song and contains a number of factual declarations about the sufferings and the humiliation that this servant underwent.

The third verse (53:4-6) turns from description to explanation. It begins to give us answers to the question as to why all this humiliation, suffering and rejection took place. Wrong views are corrected and replaced with the right ones. It is this section which forms the very heart of the entire song and is full of the idea of penal substitution as the explanation par excellence for what happened to this servant.

Verse 4 (53:7-9) provides us with further factual descriptions concerning exactly what befell this servant. The details are impressive.

The song concludes with verse 5 (53:10-12) where further explanation of the facts is supplied and the divine intent is made crystal clear that this servant will be the Saviour of the World.

Verse 1 – 52:13-15
Our tendency is to look at outward appearances and to be impressed by what we see with our eyes. We expect to find the victory in the hands of those who seem to be doing well and we don't naturally give a second thought to those who struggle and suffer.

So God draws our attention to the one we would otherwise overlook.

"Behold my servant" he says before going on to describe the success, the prosperity and the glory of his servant. And we look around to see who it can possibly be.

And having surveyed the scene we are drawn to a man who has been so badly ill-treated that he hardly looks like a man any more! What is this? Is this some kind of joke? Who wants such a one? What could such a one possibly do for us?

The Jews of Jesus' day didn't want a crucified Messiah – to their minds that was a contradiction in terms. Muslims today argue that God would never allow his servant to suffer in such a way and so they deny that Jesus was crucified – how dishonouring it all would be! And men today don't want naturally want a crucified Saviour – not, that is, until they come to realise just why he had to be crucified and how it is all so relevant and important for them too!

But "behold my servant" insists the LORD God, he is the one, disfigured as he is, who will cleanse many. The language used is sacrificial language. "Sprinkle" signifies cleansing and particularly the cleansing from sin. The sacrificial system required the blood of the sacrificial victim to be sprinkled, it had to be applied to the guilty if any benefit were to be enjoyed. Now, says God, my servant will sprinkle blood not just on many people within the chosen nation but he spinkle it on many nations! This One who seems oh so unlikely will prove to be the Saviour of the World – even though the world will have trouble coming to terms with it all!

Verse 2 – 53:1-3                                           
Unbelief was the order of the day as the servant of the LORD went about his business – none wanted to believe!

Born in humble circumstances there was nothing about him that drew men to him. He didn't possess the celebrity status or the trappings of power that attract others – outwardly there was nothing special about him. And instead men reacted to him in a very different way- they looked down on him, they despised him and they rejected him. He wasn't their idea of an important person, he certainly was not the chosen of God – how could he be when his life experiences involved sorrow and grief of all sorts?

No, he was the kind of person they didn't want anything to do with, he kept the wrong sort of company and they wouldn't be seen dead with him – thus they despised and rejected him.

Little did they realise!

Little did they know!

Verse 3 – 53:4-6
But how wrong their analysis was of this One! How wrong they were in the assessment of him! They couldn't have been more wrong as they made up their minds about him!
Yes, he knew about sorrow and grief – but they thought it was all his own, it was all due to something wrong with his life – no, it was nothing to do with them – or so they thought!
Suffering? It was God's retribution. That man was suffering and it was all his own fault. No-one could suffer like him unless he had deserved it!

That's how they viewed his troubles – they were so extreme he must really has messed up big-time!

Do you still think that somehow Jesus deserved what he got, he had set his sights too high and fallen flat on his face? Do you think that he had got above his station and suffered because of it? Perhaps he was too intransigent, too insistent, and paid the price…

But that wasn't it at all!

Isaiah now turns to explanation – yes, we had viewed him from that angle once but now he'd learnt something different. We thought he was smitten and stricken by God – yes, so far we had been right, - but when we thought that the punishment fitted the crime we assumed the crime was his and that is where we went wrong!!

Yes, Jesus, the servant, suffered terribly – he was grievously wounded for transgressions and seriously crushed for iniquities - but those transgressions and those iniquities were not his! He was chastised, punished – a punishment that went way beyond rejection and isolation to painful beatings, scourging and a cruel execution. But the amazing thing was that it had nothing to do with sins, crimes or misdemeanours of his own!

The sufferings that Jesus, the servant of the LORD, experienced were however inflicted by God and they were inflicted because of sin, iniquity and transgression – but it was the sin of others that he suffered, it was the transgressions of others that were laid on him and for which he answered, it was the iniquity of others that caused him to be crushed.

And in bearing it all he secured peace for others, in undergoing it all he secured healing for others! It was we who had gone astray following the evil devices of our own hearts but the charge was laid at his door.

There was in this however no miscarriage of justice. It wasn't that the wrong man had been caught and accused and a mistake had been made! No this was all part of the divine will, this was all part of the divine plan. The LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all.

This is the language of penal substitution:

  • It is penal and has to do with justice. Sin, in whatever form it might appear, is utterly abhorrent to the LORD God and deserves punishment and will be punished. There is no winking at sin and pretending that sin is somehow not as bad as all that – sin is awful and we see something of the divine hatred of sin in the punishments and sufferings handed out to the Son.

  • It is substitutionary because there is a transfer of responsibility, a transfer of liability, that takes place due to the divine will motivated by divine love for sinners. This is what the word "sprinkle" pointed towards in the opening verse of the song – a pure, innocent victim takes the place of the guilty that the guilty might go free. No bright idea dreamt up by men – it was the LORD who carried out this transfer of responsibility so that his servant might suffer in our place for our wrong-doing!

Verse 4 – 53:7-9
Isaiah turns once more to furnish us with more details concerning the sufferings of the Messiah. The servant of the LORD wouldn't be dragged off kicking and screaming desperately trying to save himself; he wouldn't be crying out that it was unfair or unjust – he would rather go as a lamb to the slaughter.

Now we can ask why that would be and the answer is simply that Jesus was a willing victim who voluntarily took upon himself the punishment due to his people.

This wouldn't be appreciated at the time – there would be no clear understanding of just what it was that Jesus was doing as he was doing it – his enemies thought that they had managed to get rid of a troublesome upstart, his followers were desperately sad thinking that things had all gone horribly wrong. But it wouldn't be long before all that would change.

In the meantime having been betrayed into the hands of the Jewish authorities who in turn delivered him up to the Roman authorities Jesus would be crucified in the midst of wicked men, criminals who deserved every bit of what came their way. He would be buried and that in the tomb of a wealthy man – this poor man who in life had nowhere to lay his head even though the foxes had their holes and the birds of the air their nests – who would have thought he'd find a resting place with the rich? Well Isaiah 700 years inspired by the Spirit of God but not many others!

And of course it must be underscored that this servant of the Lord, who was bearing our sorrows and griefs, who was being wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, was himself entirely exempt from any personal sin or blemish: he had done no violence and there no deceit in his mouth.

Verse 5 – 53:10-12
Once more Isaiah to explain what was really going on. How we need to understand the divine perspective on things as our human bias can so easily lead us up the garden path.

v.10 "Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief;"

What was to take place with the servant, Isaiah insists once more, is in no way to be attributed to anything other than the fact that it was in the purpose of God that his servant should suffer, and a suffering that would go as far as death itself.

The suffering of the servant, which would culminate in the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, must not be regarded as some gratuitous act or as some meaningless gesture merely designed to draw attention as a piece of theatre but nothing more. The sufferings of the Servant Jesus had meaning – they were the means by which he made an offering of his life for sin. In other words his death was no accident but rather it was at the centre of the divine plan of salvation.

v.10 "when his soul makes an offering for sin"

Isaiah sees something yet more extraordinary! An amazing thing that the innocent servant should be willing to suffer so even to give his life – but death will not be the end of him!

v.10 "he shall prolong his days;"

Isaiah is describing resurrection for us in these verses – there simply is no other way of properly reading these verses. Just take a look at what takes place AFTER he suffers and dies:

  • v.10 "he shall see his offspring" – that is he will see all those who benefit from what he has done on their behalf

  • v.11 "Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;" – there will be many who come to know and love and trust him as his work proves to be efficacious for sinners and he will not be disappointed as those the Father gives to him come to him.

  • v.12 "Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death" – this is victory indeed and what an exalted position is given to this servant, our Saviour. This is no memorial plaque or statue erected to honour  the dead – this is living honour and status and it is afforded AFTER he obediently gave himself as a substitutionary offering on behalf of his people. Death preceded the reward and the reward only has meaning if life is enjoyed once more – do you see how Isaiah is speaking about resurrection?

  • Finally, v.12 "yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors." –The work of the servant would be completed and so Isaiah speaks of the effectiveness of the penal sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Saviour in the past tense: he died and as he died he bore the sin of many – many individuals, many nations. And ever since his resurrection the Lord has been keeping his promise that he would build his church through the preaching of the gospel word: thousands of Jews were saved and brought into that church on the Day of Pentecost when Peter preached:

Acts 2:38 "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins"

And when later the Jews rejected the offer of salvation the apostles turned to the Gentiles who rejoiced and we read:

Acts 13:39 "and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed."

And what of us here this evening? How have we responded to this servant of the LORD, the Lord Jesus? Have we understood what God was doing in Jesus Christ? Have we understood that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself? Have we gone to him in faith and trust and received the salvation he came to secure on our behalf.

How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?


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