Friday, December 22, 2017

Unlocking the Meaning of Isaiah 53: Who is the Suffering Servant?


The 'suffering servant' song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the most significant of Messianic prophecies that we find in the Hebrew Bible. It introduces to us the innocent suffering servant who would be slain for the sins of God's people. But few people realize the full significance of Isaiah 53 in relation to the identity of the Messiah. When one reads the suffering servant song in the context of the book of Isaiah as a whole, it becomes clear that the text unmistakably points to a divine Messiah -- i.e. the Christ must be God Himself veiled in human flesh. In this article, I aim to reveal why. But first, the text of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is worth reproducing in its entirety.
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
    he shall be high and lifted up,
    and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
    his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
    Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
    and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By 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,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
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
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.
I will not dwell long on the popular understanding among orthodox Jews today that the servant here is simply a personification of the nation of Israel, or even a righteous remnant within Israel. Very briefly, this interpretation fails for a number of reasons. For one thing, consider verses 8-9:
8 By 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, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9 And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
In context, the "my people" of verses 8 is clearly the Hebrews. How, then, can national Israel be "cut off out of the land of the living" and "stricken for the transgression of my people [i.e. Israel]" if Israel herself has done no violence and there be no deceit in her mouth? Moreover, Isaiah is quite explicit elsewhere, such as in Isaiah 6:5, where he exclaims concerning his own guilt before God:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
It seems unlikely that Isaiah 53 speaks of a righteous remnant if this is how even Isaiah felt about his own standing before God. Moreover, he says in Isaiah 64:6,
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
A further reason to think that this text is not personifying the nation of Israel is that God uses the nations to smite Israel for Israel's sins -- and Israel's smiting does not bring healing to the other nations. Rather, God then turns His hand in judgment against them for overdoing the punishment and for their haughtiness and arrogance (see Jeremiah 30 & 31, Zechariah 1, and Isaiah 10 & 29).

But if not national Israel or a righteous remnant, who then is the servant of Isaiah 53?


One of the most intriguing things about this passage is the exaltation language that is applied to the suffering servant in 52:13:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
This is the very same exaltation language that is used exclusively of Yahweh elsewhere in the book of Isaiah. Consider, for example, Isaiah 6:1:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.
Or consider Isaiah 33:5,10:
The Lord is exalted, for he dwells on high…“Now I will arise,” says the Lord, “now I will lift myself up; now I will be exalted."
Or Isaiah 57:15:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
In case any readers were wondering whether this exaltation language of being "high and lifted up" can be applied to anyone who is not Yahweh, Isaiah 2:11-17 sets the record straight:
11 The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. 12 For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; 13 against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; 14 against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills; 15 against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; 16 against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. 17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
Thus, we see, that the language that Isaiah 52:13 applies to the suffering servant can only be used of a divine person.

However, we see further evidence in the suffering servant song of a divine Messiah. Consider again Isaiah 53:11-12:
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 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 and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Thus, we read that the servant will justify many and make intercession for sinners. But here is the thing. We read in Isaiah 45:24-25 that Israel will be justified in Yahweh alone.
24 “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. 25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
We further read in Isaiah 59:16 that,
He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.
Thus, there was nobody found worthy enough to intercede or bring about salvation -- so Yahweh did it Himself using His very own arm.

What then is the Lord's arm? Of course, when Scripture speaks of God's arm, it is using a metaphor for God's power. In another sense, however, Isaiah seems to almost treat the arm of the Lord as a divine person. For example, we read in Isaiah 40:10 that,
Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
Wait a minute... God's arm rules for him? This language seems to at least be implicit that the arm that rules for Yahweh is in fact a person. Further evidence to corroborate this suggestion is found in Isaiah 51:9-11:
9 Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? 10 Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? 11 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Read through the text of Isaiah 51 for yourself. The whole passage has Yahweh speaking all the way through. And yet in these three verses Yahweh speaks to and even invokes His own arm, treating His arm as a person, representing the very embodiment of His power -- and yet this person participates in His very own essence.

But it is about to get even more interesting. Now flip over to Isaiah 63. Again we see in verse 5 that Yahweh once more says:
I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me.
We go on to read in verses 7-10:
7 I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. 10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.
Here, the whole Trinity comes into view. The Holy Spirit is alluded to in verse 10, and identified even as a person who was grieved by the Hebrew rebellion in the wilderness. In verse 9 we are told that "the angel of His presence saved them." This alludes back to Exodus 23:20-21, in which we read,
20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
Thus, this angel has the ability to forgive and withhold forgiveness of sins (an exclusive prerogative of deity), and He is no ordinary angel since God's very name is in Him. In future posts, I will show that the angel of the Lord (that this relates to) is not only God Himself and yet in a sense distinct from God (in a manner akin to how we Trinitarians believe Christ is God and yet somehow distinct from God), but that the Hebrew Old Testament prophecies that the angel of the Lord will be the Messiah. The Hebrew word translated "angel" in our Bibles is Malak, which can also be translated "messenger" (so it does not necessarily only refer to a celestial creature). Thus, the malak Yahweh can be rendered "the messenger of Yahweh".

To show one example of the messenger of Yahweh being the Messiah in Hebrew prophecy, consider Malachi 3:1:
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
Thus, we learn that the Messiah is given the title of "the messenger of the covenant." Jesus in fact applies this text to himself in Matthew 11:10/Luke 7:27. Note that it is the same word for messenger (malak) used here that is used elsewhere in relation to the angel/messenger of Yahweh. But who is the messenger of the covenant? To find out, we turn to Judges 2:1:
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you.
Thus, the angel/messenger who delivered the covenant is the angel/messenger of Yahweh. We can thus see that the Messiah will be this angel of the covenant. There is of course much more that can be said about this, but I will leave that for future blog posts. For now, we return to our text in Isaiah 63. We read in verses 11-12,
11 Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses and his people. Where is he who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his Holy Spirit, 12 who caused his glorious arm to go at the right hand of Moses, who divided the waters before them to make for himself an everlasting name.
Again, verse 11 alludes to the Holy Spirit mentioned already in verse 10. But instead of speaking of the angel of His presence who went at the right hand of Moses, we are told that it was His glorious arm that went at the right hand of Moses (a parallelism for the angel of His presence mentioned in verse 9). Thus, we infer that the angel of His presence is the glorious arm of the Lord.

But how does this all relate to Isaiah 53? To find out, we read Isaiah 53:1-2:
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For HE grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
Here we see the arm of the Lord identified as the Messiah (the nearest antecedent to the "he" of verse 2 is the arm of the Lord -- and "he" is distinguished from "him"). Since we saw in Isaiah 63 that the arm of the Lord is the angel of the Lord, this text dovetails with passages like Malachi 3:1, where the Messiah is identified as the angel of the Lord. Indeed, supposing otherwise leads to an irreconcilable contradiction, since Isaiah 59:16 and 63:5 (as I showed above) tell us that no man was worthy enough to save, intercede or justify, since no one was righteous enough -- which is why God did it through his own arm. If it is not the servant who is the Arm of the Lord then that means that God empowered the servant to do what he did. But then why say that God found no one and so did it himself in His own arm, when God could have used His arm to empower anybody and everybody to do the work?

But there is yet further evidence for the deity of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. Consider Isaiah 11:1-5,10:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— 3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist…10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
This text is undisputably speaking of the Messiah -- the descendant of David (and therefore of his father Jesse). This means that this text connects with Isaiah 9:6-7, which speak of a divine Messiah (who is afforded the title of "Mighty God", a title used elsewhere, e.g. in Isaiah 10:21 of Yahweh) reigning from David's throne. While the title Elohim is sometimes used of figures who are not God (e.g. Exodus 7:1), the title El (used in Isaiah 9:6) is never used in any sense other than that of absolute deity. The conclusion that Isaiah 11 is speaking of the same individual as Isaiah 9 is further supported by the statement that "with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth", which resembles what is said of the child born in Isaiah 9 (verse 7):
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Thus, the Messiah spoken of in Isaiah 11 is the same individual as that spoken of in Isaiah 9:6-7. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 11:10 for "root" (verse 1 uses the same word in the plural) is sheresh, the very same word used of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53:2: "For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground." We can further confirm the connection between Isaiah 53 and 9 & 11 by looking at Isaiah 42:2-7, which speaks of the same servant as that described in Isaiah 53:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
Thus, like the Messiah of Isaiah 9 and 11, the servant is going to "bring justice to the nations" (verse 1) and "establish justice on the earth" (verse 4). Moreover, the servant is going to "open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness." But that is exactly what we read of the divine child in Isaiah 9:1:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
Since Isaiah 42 refers to the same servant of Isaiah 53 and since Isaiah 42 connects with Isaiah 9 & 11, this in turn again connects Isaiah 53 with 9 & 11.

Thus, Isaiah 53 connects with Isaiah 11 and in turn with Isaiah 9, providing us with yet another reason to take the suffering servant as no less than a divine person.

For further discussion of Isaiah 53, I refer readers to this excellent article at BeliefMap.

One of the most compelling evidences for the divine inspiration of Scripture is the subtle consistency of the portrait of the Messiah and the nature of the Triune God throughout 1500 years of Scripture. Indeed, in the earliest Christian community, two primary arguments were used for the truth of the gospel -- (1) the historic reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; and (2) Messianic prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures. The latter has been sadly neglected in modern apologetics. It is time the argument from Messianic prophecy were revived once more and reclaimed for the powerful cumulative argument that it is. In future posts, I will reveal more of the Bible's buried treasures, which are hidden in plain view, pertaining to the Old Testament portrait of the Messiah.

2 comments:

ANNOYED PINOY said...

Excellent article!
Three comments.
I. Tony Costa has said that Mark 1:1ff (esp. v. 2) alludes to Exodus 23:20 which refers to "the angel". Specifically, Costa says Mark 1:1ff is likely a cluster of three (3) quotations/allusion, not merely two (2). That's because Mark 1:2 in the Greek most closely resembles Exodus 23:20 (in the Septuagint) which refers to an angel/Angel whom God promised He would send. If Mark really is alluding to this passage in Exodus, then Mark is identifying Jesus with the Malak YHVH. This undermines versions of Unitarianism that deny Christ's personal Preexistence, as well as those who affirm a merely human messiah who only began to exist when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb.

[[Tony Costa made the above claim in the following debate at 1:18:05 into the debate.
https://youtu.be/9km_KBw81DQ?t=1h18m5s ]]

II. Mark 1:2 also alludes to Isa. 40:3 and Mal. 3:1. The Hebrew of Mal. 3:1 uses a phrase "ha adon" which literally means "the Lord", implying "the [TRUE] Lord." It's the singular word for Lord with the definite article "the." While "adon" by itself can be used of human/angelic "lords", with the article it's only used in the Old Testament of the true God [i.e. Almighty God]. As even an appendix acknowledges in older editions of the New World Translation of the Bible. It's not in recent editions of the NWT probably because it was in the interests of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization to remove that appendix lest it refute their theology. Since it's not too difficult to connect Malachi 3:1 and Mark 1:3. The other six places in the Tanach in which "ha adon" is used are Ex. 23:17; Ex. 34:23; Isa 1:24; Isa. 3:1; Isa. 10:16; Isa. 10 33. All of them refer only to Almighty God.

III. Isa. 51:9-11 also seems to teach the personal preexistence of Christ.

"Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, AS IN DAYS OF OLD, the generations of long ago. WAS IT NOT YOU WHO cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?......."

Andrew said...

Great article Jonathan.