*This essay was previously published in

VOICE: An Independent Church Journal (97:2 March-April 2018, pp. 29-30)


Isaiah (700’s BC) was one of Israel’s most influential prophets, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is perhaps his most important oracle. This prophecy is the one Old Testament section that the New Testament quotes most, and it consistently proclaims its fulfillment in Christ, the LORD’s ultimate Servant.


Isaiah’s ministry was mostly one of denouncing Israel’s sins and announcing impending judgment for violating the Mosaic Covenant. The LORD of hosts was going to war to purge Israel of her sins (ch 6) so she might again dwell with the Holy One of Israel. This war plan included enemy armies and the Babylonian exile. But it also included a plan to redeem His people from their greatest enemy—their own sins. While the first half of Isaiah (chs 1-39) focuses on God’s plan to judge unfaithful Israel, the second half (chs 40-66) focuses on God’s plan to redeem the nation. In the middle of second half of the book is this majestic oracle often called, “The Gospel According to Isaiah.”


The oracle is comprised of three parts: an introduction (52:13-15), the body (53:1-9), and a conclusion (53:10-12). The introduction and conclusion contain direct speech from the LORD (“my,” “I”) and tend to focus on the aftermath of the Servant’s suffering.


The introduction (52:13-15) indicates how unlikely the exaltation of this Servant would be. He would have most honorable status, being high and lifted up—words used elsewhere in Isaiah only for Yahweh. He would be Israel’s wisest leader and achieve the highest glory. However, before this exaltation he would have the most horrible appearance (52:14). Israel’s sufferings had been shocking, but his would be so disfiguring that he would not even appear to be human. But in Yahweh’s plan this path of pain would accomplish the most amazing thing: world-wide redemption and renown (53:15).


The body of the prophecy (53:1-9) focuses on the unbelievable suffering of the Servant. His sufferings would be misunderstood by his countrymen (53:1-3). Who would have guessed that Yahweh’s great war strategy (His “arm”) would look like this (53:1)? He would not arrive with the usual credentials (53:2). From the beginning he seemed vulnerable, and his development looked unpromising. His final sufferings were grossly misunderstood as personal failure worthy of shame (53:3).


His sufferings were undeserved (53:4-6). He carried the weight of his people’s sins, not his own (53:4). Ironically, his being crushed brought about the healing and peace of the people (53:5). He was convicted as a substitute for the people’s waywardness (53:6).


None of this was an accident, for his sufferings were clearly deliberate (53:7-9). He suffered as a willing victim, refusing to complain, going away like a sheep to slaughter (53:7). He suffered under extreme justice (53:8). The illegal court that convicted him was a travesty of injustice, and the court of popular opinion was equally a tragedy of indifference. But operating behind all this was the extremely unique justice of God who received the Servant’s suffering as a substitutionary atonement. The Servant’s suffering was according to divine design (53:9). One indicator of God’s sovereign favor was the unexpectedly honorable burial he would receive, an indicator of his true honor. And the Servant’s flawless character was evident in his conduct under trial and torture.


God was surely pleased with him, a point borne out in the conclusion (53:10-12). His sufferings were all aimed at pleasing Yahweh (53:10). God was pleased to accept the servant as an offering for sin, and then was pleased to reward the Servant with the blessings of resurrection life. The sufferings of the Servant brought about our salvation (53:11). His work was finished and fully satisfying, perfect and fully justifying. And most wonderfully, the sufferings earned Yahweh’s reward (53:12). He gained a redeemed people as the spoil of his war for men’s souls, for he made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.