Man of Sorrows
2 ‑ A Tender Plant
A Study in Isaiah 53
"Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" (Isaiah 53.1).
It is an appealing question. It almost implies that none can be found to believe, and yet the story is a true one and the revelation waiting to break through to those who will bend their minds to consider. The speaker has changed his standpoint very rapidly from the one he occupied in chapter 52. Then, he gloried in the prospect of kings and great men shutting their mouths and giving heed to the coming of the Servant for their salvation and their instruction. Now, he bewails the fact that none will listen to the good tidings nor lift their eyes to the glorious vision resplendent in the skies. Very evidently the prophet has turned away from his contemplation of the glories due to be revealed in the Millennial Age. Now He has bent his gaze again upon the nearer prospect, the darker days of the First Advent, with all that they hold of sorrow and suffering and death for the Anointed Deliverer.
The word rendered 'report' means tidings or news, and is so translated in Psa.112.7 and Prov.25.25. Here it quite certainly denotes the declaration of the office and work of Jesus and the preaching of His Gospel, as is evident from Rom.10.16 "They have not all obeyed the gospel, for Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report". The prophet, coming back as it were from the world of the future into the world of the present, is suddenly struck with the realisation that the glories which are so real and so precious to him and his fellows, mean nothing to the world in general. He does not claim the message as his alone; he has fellow-believers and fellow-prophets. It is not 'my' report, but 'our' report. He pictures himself as one only of a dedicated company who have seen the light themselves and want to make it known to all and sundry. After all, Israel was a consecrated nation, intended by reason of election and training to receive the Servant when He came, in the way He should come. Isaiah really had a right to expect that the joyous declaration would be received with acclamation by his countrymen. Their ritual sacrifices on the Day of Atonement had pointed forward to this reality. They should know by now that only by suffering and sacrifice could there be cleansing from sin. But Israel did not believe, and Isaiah and his fellow-prophets found themselves but voices crying in the wilderness.
We often find ourselves in the same position. The Faith is so real and logical and convincing to us, we fail to realise that it does not seem so to others. The promise of future restitution and, above that, the glories of the High Calling, take clear and definite shape in our minds but to others it oft times appears fantastic and improbable and all our arguments unconvincing. And we find that hard to understand. Why cannot these people see the same things that we can see so well? That is an old question but it will not be fully answered until we are beyond the Veil. Suffice it now to realise that, as with Jesus during His life on earth, so with His followers since, "the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not".
So Isaiah is driven to proclaim his message to an unbelieving generation, knowing not to what extent his words would ever find lodgement and bear fruit. He must have thought of it as a witness to the people, a prophetic foreview that would be better understood and appreciated after the fulfilment had come. He could not have known of the Divine purpose that his inspired and glowing words should be preserved and recorded for all succeeding generations and taken by other zealous servants of God to the uttermost ends of the earth. Yet so it has been. Wherever the Gospel has been preached this 53rd chapter of Isaiah has been preached too, one of the Scripture's brightest jewels.
By way of doctrinal digression, it has been pointed out that there are no less than eleven expressions in this chapter referring to the vicarious nature of our Lord's sufferings while in the flesh. The modern schools of thought which portray our Lord as an inspiring example of right living but deny man's fall into sin and the need for a Redeemer must dispense entirely with this chapter and blot it out from the Divine revelation before they can begin to sustain their contention. The eleven points are:
"He bore our griefs."
"He carried our sorrows."
"He was wounded for our transgression."
"He was bruised for our iniquities."
"The chastisement of our peace was upon him."
"By his stripes we are healed."
"Laid on him the iniquity of us all."
"For the transgression of my people was he stricken."
"Thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin."
"He shall bear their iniquities."
"He bare the sins of many."
All of this is very closely associated with the typical ceremonies of the Day of Atonement, and the Priesthood that conducted those ceremonies. "Transgression"; "Iniquity"; "Sin"; these are words that are frequently used in the Leviticus accounts of the laws concerning the offerings, and it is appropriate that we should meet them again here. If we could only but realise it, the whole of the complex ritual associated with the Day of Atonement has the reality, toward which it pointed, clearly set out here in this chapter. Isaiah 53 is in very truth the prophetic counterpart of Leviticus 16, and all that there is in that 16th chapter is presented in new guise here in Isa. 53.
"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground." (v 2). The word translated "tender plant" comes from "suckling" as in "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings" in Psa.8.2, and refers to the young saplings that grow up from the stump of a tree which has been felled. In our own day such shoots are still referred to as 'suckers'. This is a picture of the coming of Christ which is similar and yet in marked contrast to Isa. 11.1. "There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots". In that chapter the "Branch" comes forth to glory and power, the Spirit of the Lord resting upon Him leading Him to judge the poor with righteousness and slay the wicked with the rod of His mouth. Isaiah has passed over the day of humiliation and suffering and sees only the triumphant Kingdom beyond, when Messiah shall reign gloriously and all the nations flock to His banner. In this verse of the 53rd chapter, the same "rod of the stem of Jesse" is depicted as a sapling growing out of dry ground to disesteem and spurning. Its growth and development is to be under unfavourable circumstances. But it is the same shoot. It will go on growing until it has survived the winter and passed into the light and sunshine of the spring, and it is then that the fully grown tree will spread abroad its branches in invitation to all creatures. The stone that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his vision became a great mountain that filled the whole earth, so here we have the picture of a tender sapling which thrusts its roots into the soil and its leaves into the air until it has filled the whole face of the land. Like Israel in her own destined times, it blossomed and budded and filled the whole world with fruit.
The background of the picture is the allusion in Isa.10.34, to the fall of the Davidic kingly rule under the symbol of the cutting down a great cedar in Lebanon by the ruthless invader. The cedars of Lebanon were the mightiest trees known to the ancient world. It was only fitting that these proud monarchs of the forest, standing erect in their towering majesty over all the other trees, should be chosen to picture the royal authority of the house of David, who "sat upon the throne of the Lord" and ruled Israel in the name of God.
The apparent permanence of those cedars told fitly of the throne that was to endure for ever before God. But Isaiah in his day knew that because of faithlessness the throne of David must be overthrown, the upstanding cedar be cut down. That was the theme of his prophecy but he did not end there. The throne of David would one day be re-established, when "he whose right it is" appears to claim His possession. So in verse 34 of chapter 10 the prophet sees the Assyrian and Babylonian invaders ravaging the land and taking the people captive and destroying the kingly power and he says "he shall cut down the thickets of the forest with iron, and Lebanon shall fall by a mighty one''. Immediately following, in the first verse of chapter 11, comes the golden sequel "and there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse"....Like the tree of the Babylonian king's vision, which was cut down until seven times had passed over it, and then was to sprout again, so it is here. The great cedar of Lebanon which was the kingship of David's line was cut down by the oppressors of Israel. Zedekiah was the last king; but a tender sapling out of that cut-down stump would one day arise to grow into a cedar mightier by far than that which had flourished and perished.
So out of the apparent barrenness and failure of God's promises there grows the "root of David". Christ is to be as a root out of dry ground. The learned men of our Lord's day were quite unable to understand how Christ could be both David's son and David's Lord, even though Jesus quoted the Old Testament Scriptures to that effect and they had prided themselves on understanding the Old Testament Scriptures. This "rod out of the stem of Jesse", this "tender plant" or sapling from the cut-down stump, is also the root itself! "I am the root and offspring of David, the bright and morning star" (Rev.22.16), "All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (John 1.3). Unless Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Lord from heaven, is the root of David as well as his Son, the whole of our faith is founded upon a falsity and we are of all men most miserable. The only possibility for salvation of this fallen race of which we are members lay in the active intervention of God from heaven. "God, sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom.8.3); "He who was rich, for our sakes became poor" (2 Cor.8.9). Without the root there could never have been the tender sapling growing up into maturity to the lasting benefit of mankind.
The 'dry ground' is the "dry and thirsty land, where no water is" of Psa. 63.1. The Psalmist longs and seeks for God but sees no evidence of His presence, until he finds Him in the sanctuary and remembers Him on his bed, meditating on Him in the night watches. Unless we search for God, and finding Him, hold Him fast, even the promises and plans of God are as dry ground to us, barren and profitless. But for those who will have it, there is a root in that dry ground that contains within itself the springing life that is to burst forth into the light of day. This brings life and immortality to light through the Gospel, and causes, at last, the desire of all nations to come. To those who know these things, the dry ground has indeed become a pool, and the thirsty land, springs of water.
"He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." (v.2).
This is the idealised form, comeliness, beauty of the Messianic King of Jewish hopes, that the prophet declares is absent from the Man who has at last fulfilled the prophecy. It is manifestly illogical to take these words as descriptive of our Lord's personal appearance when one remembers that He was humanly perfect as was Adam before his transgression, and that the physical aspect of Jesus must have been one of overpowering beauty and majesty. It is unthinkable that the Son of God should walk this earth in any form other than one suited to the fact that He was indeed the Son of God. It is a significant fact that the alleged descriptions of Jesus dating from the days of the Early Church all present him as possessed of grace and beauty. It was not until later centuries, when the dark influence of a gloomy asceticism was fastening itself upon the Church, that the conception of Jesus as physically unlovely and even repulsive took the lead, and texts like this were taken out of their poetic setting and interpreted in a grossly literal sense.
The glory of Jesus was not of this world. That was the great truth over which Israel stumbled and fell and that is why they saw no beauty in Him to desire. A king must, in their eyes, be possessed of outward majesty and glory; he must be arrayed in costly raiment and flashing jewels; he must have courtiers and servants and a shouting crowd to attend him wherever he went. There were three things, yea, four, said the Wise Man in Proverbs, which "go well" and are "comely in going". A lion, which is strongest among beasts, took his admiration; a greyhound, an he-goat, and a king, "against whom there is no rising up". (Prov.30.29-31). He looked on the outward appearance and marvelled at the strength of the lion, the speed of the greyhound, the irresistible force of the he-goat, and the power of the king. These things, he said, are "comely" ‑ but there was none of that comeliness in the demeanour and the life of the Prince of Peace.
Neither was there the kingly glory and power which shall in truth be manifested in the days of the Kingdom. "Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, O most mighty, with thy glory and majesty; and in thy majesty ride prosperously because of truth and meekness and righteousness" (Psa. 45. 3-4). These are words spoken of this One Who "had no form nor comeliness", but they are words which wait yet for their fulfilment. Isaiah saw in vision the glory of Lebanon, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, resplendent earthly reflections of the glory of the Lord and the excellency of our God (Isa. 35. 2). That again was a vision of the far-distant future, and there was no glory of Lebanon and no excellency of Carmel and Sharon when the Man of Galilee climbed their slopes and wended His way through their valleys. The time for His glory had not then come and there was no reflection of that glory on the earth. So it was that men, gazing upon Him, saw no form nor comeliness, no beauty that could make Him desirable in their eyes.
(To be continued)