Man of Sorrows
1 ‑ Behold My Servant
A study in Isaiah 53
The latter part of the Book of Isaiah presents a grand panorama of the Divine Plan of Salvation, the means by which that salvation is accomplished, and the nature of the world that is to witness the accomplishment of that salvation. This noble prophecy presents a picture of the "Servant of Jehovah". He is a 'suffering servant', who because of His unquestioning loyalty to His Father in Heaven and His uncomplaining acceptance of the suffering on earth which that loyalty involves, becomes the means whereby God is able to reconcile to Himself "whosoever will". The story closes with a wonderful pen-picture of the new heavens and earth, cleansed from the defilement of sin, which results from that reconciliation. The end of the vision is strikingly like the closing scene of the Book of Revelation, where the Holy City has come to earth and its light enlightens the nations, nothing that defiles being able to enter into it.
The whole of this Messianic prophecy of Isaiah forms a setting for its brightest jewel, the sublime passage which constitutes the 53rd chapter. From this chapter we have our conception of Jesus as a lamb who is led to the slaughter and a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief. That is not the only aspect of Jesus of which we know. We realise that in His earthly life He was not always and even not habitually overshadowed by sorrow. His countenance was more often lighted by happiness and benevolence than darkened by grief and sadness. His relations with men were not always that of an unresisting sheep being led to death. There were times when He took full command of the situation in indignation and even anger, reproving Pharisees and priests for their hypocrisy and greed. There were times when He held His hearers spell-bound, teaching them as "one having authority". But here in Isaiah 53 we have what is intended to be a doctrinal presentation of the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" and therefore it is only to be expected that the suffering aspect of our Redeemer's ministry should be stressed to the exclusion of every other consideration.
This study opens with verse 13 of chapter 52. This is really the commencement of the description and this is where chapter 53 should in fact have started. In verses 13-15 of chapter 52 the voice of God is heard speaking from heaven declaring the mission of His Servant the Redeemer. Verses 1-10 of chapter 53 contain the spoken response of those on earth who understand the message and accept the Redeemer. Verses 11-12, the closing words from God, give assurance of the triumphant fulfilment of all that the Redeemer comes to accomplish.
"Behold, my servant shall deal prudently. He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high." (v 13). Although the term "servant" in the Old Testament usually carries the thought of a slave, since most servants were bound to their master's house and family and could not leave even if they wanted to, it also includes the thought of reverential respect and obedience as from a son. Here at the outset we are reminded of that word in Hebrews "Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God." Throughout His earthly life Jesus made clear that He was always consistently carrying out His Father's will and purpose. The absolute supremacy of God the Father is everywhere acknowledged. For the work and duration of the Millennial Age "the Father judges no man but has committed all judgment to the Son". At its end "then shall the Son himself be subject unto him that did put all things under him, that God may be all in all". But here in Isaiah there is something more than the usual significance in the word "servant". There is no other servant anywhere in the Bible like this one. Here we have the suffering servant of God who by means of His suffering is going to restore God's erring creation to Him. Abraham (Psa. 105. 6), Job (Job 1. 8), Moses (Josh. 1. 1), Joshua (Josh. 24. 29), David (Psa. 18. 1) and Isaiah (Isa. 20. 3) were all honoured by being called servants of God but none of them held the position before God that was occupied by this "suffering servant". Mighty as were the works that all those men did in their several spheres, none of them could match the work done by the One who is described with such eloquent pathos in Isa. 53. "Behold my servant". The injunction is imperative. We are to look upon this One and see in Him all that we need to take away the load of our sins and all that we need to show us the way back to harmony with God, and everlasting life.
He shall deal prudently ‑ wisely, is the meaning. The word is from a root meaning to attend closely, to be circumspect. In the Book of Proverbs the same word is often used in the sense of having understanding. "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him" says Isaiah 11 "the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord". The rest of chapter 11 goes on to describe the practical out-working of that wisdom in the work of the Millennial Age when many are to be turned to righteousness and the stony hearts taken away from men and replaced by hearts of flesh. Here in verse 13 the "dealing prudently", or with wisdom, would seem to have reference rather to His First Advent and His life on earth rather than His Second Advent and His reign over the nations. Even though He was to be despised and rejected and ultimately put to death His whole life was to be characterised by Divine wisdom and it was so truly thus characterised that His opponents "could not gainsay the wisdom with which he spoke."
Now come three verbs, crowding one upon the other, all expressive of his ultimate triumph and glory. "He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high". This must refer to the outcome of His earthly life, the glory that was to follow, for none of these things were true while He lived on earth. It might be that here we have an indication of the three steps by which the One who died on the cross in obedience to the Father's Will was ultimately brought to be seated at His right hand "from thenceforth waiting until his enemies be made his footstool" - to His resurrection, His ascension, His "entry into the presence of God for us". The first word "exalted" means to be raised up, the second, "extolled" to be borne up or lifted up, as by angels or other medium, and the third just what it says, to be very high. Our Lord after His ascension was "higher than all heavens". We might very reasonably therefore take these three words as descriptive of the upward progress of our Lord after the close of His earthly life to be glorified with the glory that He had with the Father before the world was. Thus He had prayed to the Father in His Gethsemane prayer recorded in John 17. "Wherefore God hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and in earth and under the earth." (Phil. 2. 9,10).
"As many were astonished at thee: his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men". (Isa. 52. 14). The first phrase means to be dumb with astonishment, to be compelled to silence by the solemnity or the strangeness of what is seen. The subject of astonishment is the second phrase "His visage was so marred" and here it is very possible that the traditional view is hopelessly wrong. The word for "marred" occurs only this once in the Old Testament and there is serious doubt whether it is correct. It means, not only "marred" in the modern sense of that term, i.e. to deface, but it means to destroy utterly by decay and corruption. Such an expression carried to its logical extreme is quite out of place in any description of our Lord. There is no evidence that our Lord was in any sense unlovely to look upon. There is at least some piece of evidence to the contrary. We know that little children came spontaneously to Him and would have been less likely to have come to one with a repulsive face. Jesus as a perfect man must have arrived at the maturity of human life in possession of physical beauty far excelling anything that had been seen on earth since Adam. The sorrows and disappointments of life may have left their mark on Him to the extent of a more serious and reflective mien. There is, however, no more likelihood that those experiences, or the "going out of virtue" from Him as He expended vitality for the good of others, rendered Him unlovely to look upon than it does in our own cases to-day. We are witnesses that such experiences in the life often tend to make the countenance sweeter and more attractive; it is usually bitterness and discontent which sours the visage, and that we do not associate with our Lord.
The Septuagint has it "so shall thy face be without glory from men, and thy glory shall not be honoured by the sons of men". This rendering must have come from a different Hebrew text than the one that declares His countenance to be in process of destruction by decay, and it makes a much more fitting commentary upon the person of our Lord, so much so that we are perhaps justified in accepting it in place of the Authorised Version. Our Lord while in the flesh did indeed manifest a glory all His own, a "glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" but it was not a glory He obtained from men, neither was it a glory that was honoured by the sons of men. They despised and rejected him instead. The words of the Septuagint are literally true therefore in our Lord's experience. Some scholars consider that the word has suffered the alteration, at the hands of an ancient copyist, of one letter which has changed the word from one meaning "to anoint" and that on this supposition the reference here is not to a countenance that has been marred by disfigurement but one that has been anointed for ceremonial purification. The word in this case would be the same as that used in Leviticus for the consecration of Aaron and his sons. It is used elsewhere for the anointing to office of the kings of Israel. If this is the true interpretation then this verse indicates the astonishment of the beholders at seeing one among them who is anointed for the purpose of cleansing the people from sin, which is itself a fitting introduction to the sublime theme of chapter 53. Such cases of a changed letter altering the whole meaning of a word are not uncommon. It is tolerably certain that the passage in the original never taught that our Lord's physical appearance would be repulsive or unattractive and if so we shall have approached to a more accurate conception of Jesus' human nature.
"So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him; for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider." (52. 15). This "sprinkling" is similar to Moses' sprinkling of the blood upon the altar and the people (Exod. 24) and of the blood of the sin-offering in the Day of Atonement ceremonies (Lev. 16). It is also the sprinkling of water for purifying and making clean in Lev.19. The sprinkling of many nations is the purification and cleansing of many nations, and the purifying agent is the blood of Jesus Christ. Hence, the Apostle tells us that we have come to "Jesus the mediator of the new covenant and the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel". (Heb. 12. 24). Hence we are "elect unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ". (1 Pet. 1. 2). What a triumphant testimony this is to the final success of God's Plans. "So shall he sprinkle many nations." It is not that only a few will eventually attain eternal salvation and the many suffer everlasting loss and cutting-off. God's plan is going to be gloriously successful, and "many nations", the majority of earth's children, receive lasting benefit from the ransom sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
There is a subtle allusion here to the priestly function of the "servant's" work on earth. After the institution of the priesthood, only the Levitical priests could lawfully sprinkle the blood of the offerings. Hence this servant who comes to execute the will of God in the realm of human salvation is qualified and authorised to act as a priest ‑ as we have it in the Epistle to the Hebrews "We have such an High Priest.., a minister of the true tabernacle". (Heb. 8. 1-2).
Now we are told that "kings shall shut their mouths at Him, seeing things of which they had never before heard, and understanding things which heretofore had never come upon their minds". This is quite clearly spoken prophetically of the far distant future when Messiah will come in the glory and power of His Kingdom. These words are quite inappropriate to the First Advent. If kings shut their mouths at Him it is because they respect and honour Him. So it was in the days of the patriarch Job's prosperity and glory, when he was the acknowledged lord of his community and nation. "When 1 went out to the gate through the city, when I prepared my seat in the street, the young men saw me, and covered themselves, and the aged arose, and stood up. The princes refrained talking, and laid their hand on their mouth. The nobles held their peace, and their tongue cleaved to the roof of their mouth." (Job 29. 7-10). Poetically, Micah says, "the nations … shall lay their hand upon their mouth" (Micah 7. 16) at the rising up of God to fulfil His age-old promise to Israel. So here, the mighty exhibition of Divine power that will eventually reveal the all- conquering Christ to mankind will cause kings and mighty men to stand abashed and silent in the presence of One Who is to exercise all rule and all authority and all sovereignty in the earth.
"That which hath not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they understand." This is a Millennial promise also. Most commentators say that these words were fulfilled in the coming of the Gospel to the world when Jesus came, and in the preaching of the Gospel in the world throughout the centuries since. They expect the world to be converted during this Age. The kings and great ones of the earth still do not "see" and "understand" the things which heretofore had not been proclaimed. With all the making known of things that had been kept secret from the foundation of the world the "seeing" and "understanding" is still not an accomplished fact. It is still mainly the "poor of this world, rich in faith" who have seen and understood but most certainly not the kings and mighty men. We are led therefore to the conclusion, that this word will have its fulfilment in the coming Age. In that day, things that the powerful and influential and intellectual of earth had either never considered seriously for a moment, or if they had, had dismissed as unworthy of further consideration, will be brought prominently before their attention and demand acceptance. "God will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
It requires only a moment's thought to appreciate what a revolutionary change in the thinking of educated men and women will be brought about by the Kingdom. Every one of us is familiar with the half-pitying, half-cynical smile that comes over the face of some as we try to tell them the message in its simplicity and beauty. "Do you really believe that?"… "Rather fantastic, isn't it?"… "You'll never change human nature" ‑ we have heard all the stock replies. There are so many in the world brought up in the ways of the world and according to its standards who find it quite impossible to consider the story seriously even for a moment. It is so foreign to their way of thinking and alien to all their conception of things. That is why one can truthfully say that they have never heard or been told of these things. The message has fallen upon their ears, perhaps repeatedly, but the ears were deaf to the message; they could not receive it. Now, says the prophet, "in that day when the servant of the Lord commands the attention of all men, they will see and understand". It is a true word, applicable in principle to men in the age to come. But is it really intended in its fullness to the Church now? "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Cor. 2. 9). Isaiah first uttered those words, so well known because the Apostle Paul used them in his epistle. And Isaiah's phrase is vivid when we think of these kings who are to see and understand. "For since the beginning of the world, men have not heard, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside you, what he hath prepared for him that waited for him." (Isa. 64. 4). Paul's words were intended for the Church, the spiritually-minded sons of God in this Age; Isaiah's rhapsody was designed to embrace all men and to bring within its scope those who in this 'present evil world' do not know God. "Him that waits for him" says Isaiah; this is none other than every son of mankind who ultimately inherits the earthly Paradise. "It shall be said in that day … we have waited for him, and he will save us." (Isa. 25. 9). In the glorious outcome of God's redemptive Plan, when all that are in heaven and on earth join together in one vast song of praise and adoration to the One sitting upon the throne, and to the Lamb, the men who formerly doubted and disbelieved and disparaged and denied will perceive in the ways of God and the benevolence of God, heights of wisdom and love such as the heart of man, unaided, could never have conceived.
(To be continued)