Nine different places in Isaiah alone, God asserts that his ability to foretell sets him apart from pagan idols. Here’s just one: “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you” (Isaiah 42:9 NIV).
In a series of four “Servant songs,” God foretells the ministry of Jesus Christ, centuries in advance, through Isaiah’s ministry. The fourth and longest (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), describes his death and resurrection in minute detail.
Wisdom that looks like folly
The fourth Servant song begins with God asserting that the Servant will act wisely. Apart from divine revelation, no one would attribute wisdom to a hero who deliberately gets himself executed. But the Servant’s wisdom appears when he is “raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).
That’s only after he was marred beyond recognition. Jesus had hearings before the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate. His enemies stirred up a hostile crowd to hector him as he carried his cross.
According to the gospels, the Sanhedrin beat him. Pilate had him whipped. Roman soldiers made a crown of thorns and pushed it on his head. The other abuse they describe may have included some kind of physical violence.
I would guess that ordinary convicts made it from their arrest to their crosses with fewer hearings, fewer beatings, and less constant organized hostility. It’s easy to see how Jesus was bruised and bloodied beyond recognition by the time he was nailed to his cross.
People may think they’re acting on their own decisions for their own benefit. But God rules. He ordains that opposition to himself will contribute to accomplishing his plans. So the Servant’s suffering will “sprinkle many nations.” More than a thousand years of Levitical sacrifices had sprinkled only the altar and mercy seat in the temple.
Even the kings of those nations will respond with humble silence. God told his own people in advance what he would do. He didn’t tell the nations, but they will see and understand after it happens.
Who has believed?
Here is a one-sentence summary of human history: God has revealed his intentions and people haven’t believed or obeyed him.
But the Servant songs present special stumbling blocks to belief. God Almighty chooses to be weak in order to accomplish his goals. Who would think of God not summoning all his strength all the time?
In human terms, Jesus’ ministry was an abject failure. He preached to thousands of people at a time. Many of those who actually followed him over time deserted him when he insisted on the disgusting image of them eating his body. After his resurrection, he found a crowd of 500 people, but only 120 showed up later at the Pentecost prayer service.
And yet Jesus is the mighty arm of the Lord, revealed to anyone willing to pay attention. Looking ahead, Isaiah describes him as a tender plant growing in inadequately watered land, and nothing to look at. Shouldn’t God come in glory? If he insists on becoming a man, shouldn’t he be especially tall and handsome?
Jesus must have been of average height and weight, completely ordinary and undistinguished in every way. I wonder if, in stories where Jesus walked away from mobs intent on killing him, he blended in with bystanders so completely that no one who wanted his death recognized him.
But sinful humanity can’t stand a good man. Plato posed a question of what would happen to a truly good man and decided everyone else would hate him and eventually kill him. The Jewish leadership, who should have welcomed their Messiah with open arms, despised and rejected him from the start. Eventually, so did nearly everyone else. And so he died a criminal’s death.
The clueless begin to catch on.
But 53:3 makes an abrupt change of viewpoint. Earlier in the song, God himself refers to “my servant” and “our message” (the message of God and the Servant). Now, it says “we held him in low esteem.” “We” in this case can only mean the people who had hidden their faces.
We despised him. We rejected him. We figured God had punished him. Then it occurred to us that he got what we deserved. He was pierced—with thorns, with nails, and with a soldier’s spear. Why? For our faults and wickedness.
People today object to being called sinners. It seems so judgmental. Then, when they have to excuse something they’ve done, they’ll say, “I’m only human. After all, nobody’s perfect.” But sin means falling short of perfection. “Nobody’s perfect” and “everyone sins” mean exactly the same thing!
Isaiah’s fourth Servant song pictures sinners as they recognize their fault. It provides the picture of sheep wandering off in all directions. Straying sheep become prey for predators. The human condition is actually worse than that.
In Eden, God gave the fruit of every tree but one. God commanded our first father and mother not to eat of that tree. Satan commanded them to eat it. They chose to obey Satan and thus to participate in his treasonous rebellion against God.
Under any legal system, treason deserves death. And God chose to put the innocent Servant to death instead of the rebels who deserved it.
The Servant’s sacrificial death
Now that Isaiah has established that the Servant suffers what we deserve, he describes step by step how that happened.
First, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7). Isaiah’s readers would have recognized a picture of the sacrifices offered daily at the temple. An animal would be led to the altar. It would go quietly, without resistance. Then someone would cut its throat.
Cattle, especially sheep, were used to being led. They had never questioned their direction before. Why start now? They had no comprehension of their part in the sacrifice.
But the Servant knew exactly what would happen to him. Yet he went just as silently and calmly to his death as any sacrificial animal, in perfect submission.
Isaiah further states that he was taken away by oppression and judgment (57: 8), yet no one protested. Even so, Jesus actually had to work hard to make his crucifixion happen. After the Sanhedrin’s unlawful kangaroo court, he had to manage his betrayal so it would happen according to his plan, not Judas’. Then he had to ensure that Pilate would not give him the acquittal he deserved under Roman law.
The account of his burial contains an astounding detail: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked and with the rich in his death” (57:9).
According to J. Alec Motyer’s commentary on Isaiah in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, “wicked” is plural, but “rich” is singular. So Isaiah is not merely contrasting categories.
Ordinarily, crucified criminals were buried in a mass grave. Gospel accounts show that one rich man offered his own unused tomb for Jesus’ burial. He was one of the few in a position of power to recognize that Jesus had done no wrong in word or deed to deserve such humiliation, oppression, and death. And Isaiah described his bold generosity about 700 years before it happened!
A reversal of the natural order of things
Consider human life as a single sentence. Death is usually the period. In Jesus’ case, it was merely a comma.
It was God’s will and pleasure that the Servant should suffer and be so thoroughly crushed. It was also his will and pleasure to bring him back to life. By dying and coming back to life, Jesus accomplished God’s will and pleasure entirely. Note how the last three verses of this fourth Servant song reverse the previous three.
Dead in 53:9, the Servant is alive in v. 10. Not only that, he has the promise that he will see his offspring. Jesus was a bachelor, remember. But these promised offspring are not physical and genetic, but spiritual—the church.
Condemned in v. 8, the Servant is declared righteous in v. 11. Having borne the iniquities of many, he will justify many. In John 6:37, Jesus refers to “all the Father gives me.” That expression corresponds to “many” in v. 11 and “the great” in v. 12.
Helpless in v. 7, the Servant triumphs in v. 12. He bore everyone’s sin and interceded for the sinners. After being numbered among them, he receives them as his inheritance. Most translations imply that somehow God divides the spoil and gives the Servant a portion. Motyer points out that God does not share his glory. He renders the statement as “Therefore I will apportion to him the many.” The Servant’s portion is all whom he redeemed.
Isaiah attributes the Servant’s ultimate victory to four facts
- He voluntarily submitted to death.
- He identified with transgressors by becoming flesh like them.
- He bore their sins.
- He prayed for them and received them as his portion as the answer to his prayers.
And so the man who looked like such a loser on Good Friday showed himself the victor on Easter Sunday.