Read Catherine's talk from our continuing Series in Isaiah at our Friday Service of Holy Communion.

the reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:3   /   the speaker: Catherine Barlen   /   the series: Servant Songs

Isaiah 52:13 to 53:3 – Start of fourth and final Servant Song – for 13.3.15

Opening Prayer

Father we thank You that we can gather together and study Your word. May I speak in Your name and may Your word come alive to us through me, Amen.


It’s a real pleasure to participate in this series on the prophet Isaiah’s four so-called Servant Songs, which were identified as such by a 19th century theologian (though the Servant does appear in other books of Isaiah too).  I have enjoyed the first three talks and learned much.

So far we have covered the first three of the Servant Songs, Isaiah 42: 1-9, 49:1-7 and 50:4-9. Today we embark on the fourth Song, but only in part, as the fourth song is the longest of the songs. The full song comprises verses 52:13 through to 53:12, five stanzas each of three verses. Today I’m looking at the first two stanzas.

Those of you who’ve attended the whole series will remember the first talk by Tom in which he imagined a pebble being thrown into a lake and ripples spreading out from its point of impact. I liked this way of looking at Isaiah’s prophecy very much as prophecy necessarily speaks to people of different times in different ways. Tom identified 3 questions to fit the different ripples, and I will use a similar pattern:

1.     How would this poem be heard by its original listeners?

2.     What is it saying about Jesus? And

3.     What does it say to us today?

The Old Testament Audience

Isaiah’s original audience were the Israelites who were either already in exile in Babylon or about to be sent into exile there after the fall of Jerusalem.  This is clearly described by Isaiah as a punishment from God for the Israelites’ rejection of God – in the second talk Richard noted Isaiah’s comment that Jerusalem, the previously faithful city, had become a prostitute. However at the same time Isaiah offers hope of restoration, to be brought about by God’s Servant, who is sometimes described as the nation Israel and sometimes as an individual, who might be a prophet, possibly even Isaiah himself, who is called on to suffer for the sins of the people of Israel, so that they might be reconciled to God. 

The original audience would not have seen this passage as a prophecy of a Messiah, since the concept of a suffering servant was the complete opposite of what they thought of as a Messiah, which was more along the lines of a military hero who would defeat occupiers of Israel such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians. They would probably have had little understanding of what Isaiah was referring to here.

The New Testament Writers and Audience

The New Testament Writers and their audience of early Christians were however convinced that this passage pointed directly to Jesus.  So much so that the fourth song (as a whole) is quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other Old Testament passage and is often referred to as “the gospel in the Old Testament”.

Acts Chapter 8 tells us that an important Ethiopian Eunuch was reading verses of this very song (the verses we will study next week) on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The Holy Spirit took the Evangelist Philip to him and Philip asked him if he understood the passage. The Eunuch asked Philip “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” and “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus”, which led to the Eunuch asking Philip to baptise him.  The Gospel writers Matthew and John both state that certain actions performed by Jesus took place to “fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” in this fourth song and the Apostle Peter referred to verse 9 in showing (in his first letter) how Christ suffered for us – and as an example to us.

So what does this passage tell us about Jesus?

This passage contains a mixture of pleasant and less pleasant predictions about Jesus.  It starts on a clearly positive note, that the servant “will act wisely, he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted”.    Isaiah used the same words “highly exalted” to describe God on a throne, of which Isaiah had a vision (recorded in Chapter 6). Jeremiah also prophesied of a Messianic King who would “reign wisely” (23:5). In his Pentecost speech the Apostle Peter would speak of Jesus being “exalted to the right hand of God” and Paul would later write to the Philippians that God “exalted [Jesus] to the highest place” (2:9-11).

The next section is a strange simile in the translation given in the NIV which speaks of the Servant “sprinkling” many nations.  The NIV study notes refer to the sprinkling of water in ritual cleansing, and contain a note of an alternative translation: “so will many nations marvel at him”. However the NRSV notes that the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “sprinkle” by the NIV is uncertain and prefers “startle” – so verse 15 starts “so he shall startle many nations”.  “Startle” seems to me to fit better (than “sprinkle”) with verse 14, which refers to the Servant’s appearance being “so disfigured beyond that of any man”.  We remember that Jesus was flogged by the Romans with a scourge, which consisted of a whip of leather thongs with pieces of bone or metal attached to the ends. So his body would have been very badly cut before he was sent out for crucifixion. His appearance was so shocking that many would be appalled, nations would be startled and kings would shut their mouths in astonishment.  We have in recent weeks seen in our own news media many examples of inhuman cruelty to other human beings that have caused many to be appalled and whole nations to be startled.  How much more shocking here where God’s own special servant, his own Son and himself God, in our eyes, is treated in such a way.

The next couple of lines of verse 14 are more optimistic.  As a result of being startled and astonished, at the suffering – and possibly also the exaltation - of the Servant, kings will “see what they were not told” and “understand what they have not heard”.  So the impact of the Servant’s suffering will be to make some kings at least reconsider their priorities and recognise the Servant’s mission.  This positive result is in stark contrast to the passage in Isaiah 6, quoted by Jesus in the parable of the sower, where it appears that God deliberately hardens the hearts of some people so that they may never understand His message and never obtain understanding and healing.

Chapter 53 verse 1 is quoted by both John (12.38) and Paul (at Romans 10:6) as a cry of despair from the prophet that none will believe his message of salvation, which explains why the people would not believe in Jesus despite his miracles, as the Israelites did not listen to Isaiah either.

Verse 2 explains how little notice would be taken of Jesus as he grew up – he would not grow up as a prince in a palace but would have humble origins, and he would be neither handsome nor majestic.  He would however have strong roots – as he would come from the stump of Jesse (see Chapter 11v1) and he would thrive despite growing in dry soil.

Verse 3 reiterates the message already given – in today’s passage and last week’s Chapter 50 – that Jesus, the Servant and Messiah – would suffer, be despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, suffering both physical and mental pain, and familiar with suffering.  Others would hide their faces from him and would not hold him in esteem.

What does this mean for us today?

First, what does it mean for us that our Lord Jesus suffered in this way as Isaiah predicted?  To many people today, including many Christians, this remains shocking, as indeed it is. For many people, Jesus’ suffering on the cross is a reason not to believe in God, or not to accept Jesus as the Son of God, as God, especially a good God, could not have permitted his innocent son to suffer so unjustly.

It was equally shocking for the 1st century contemporaries of the first disciples. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. […] Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1: 18, 22-24).

So how can Christ, suffering as God’s servant an excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion, be demonstrating the power of God?  Isaiah does not address this here, but his prophecies of the suffering servant seem to make very clear that God’s Messiah, the personification of the perfect Israel, was going to suffer.

I need to tread carefully here as I feel that, rather like Job, I am “speaking of things that I do not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (42:3).  However John’s Gospel makes clear that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him”.  Jesus’ crucifixion demonstrates the extent of God’s love for us, that God the Father was prepared to sacrifice His own son to pay the penalty for our sins and at the same time Jesus, God the Son, was prepared to sacrifice himself for the same reason.  To quote the theologian Graham Tomlin, (one of my theology tutors): “Jesus’ giving up of his own life is the centre of history because it is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice is the essence of love and God is love…. The cross is the clearest of all revelations of God because it is the deepest act of love, and therefore speaks most powerfully of the nature of the God who is love.”

 And of course we also need to look at the cross together with Jesus’ resurrection 3 days later, which demonstrated not only that he made the ultimate self-sacrifice but also that, through doing this, he conquered death and enabled us too to look for life after death and a time when any suffering we may be experiencing will likewise be over.

Second, what does the prophecy say to us today about the likely impact of our faith on our own lives.  In Tom’s talk he spoke of how our call to discipleship calls us to be more like Jesus.  I have been wrestling over the last three weeks with the question of whether we are therefore called to endure suffering as Jesus did, and whether God actually intends this for us. It would appear from some words Jesus himself spoke that we are indeed expected to suffer as part of our discipleship: he told the crowds that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-5).  Likewise Paul and Barnabas told the early disciples that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

This does not necessarily mean, however, that God or Jesus intend or want us to suffer, but rather that suffering is something that we will normally experience in our fallen world, especially if we take a stand as Christians in trying to make positive changes to that world.

Moreover we can take much comfort from the fact that Jesus suffered as he did on the cross.  First, because his suffering as the Servant on the cross means that God, in the person of God the Son, knows what it is to suffer abandonment, agony and death and is able to stand close by us when we suffer similar afflictions.  God is with us not as a distant sympathetic observer but as someone who knows intimately what pain is, so when we suffer, we are not alone.

Secondly because, although Jesus suffered as he did, we know that suffering cannot overcome God.  Jesus rose again. Suffering is real but temporary.  In the end there will be no more suffering.  And this is what Isaiah also looks forward to at the end of his prophecy, when he speaks of God’s creation of “new heavens and a new earth” and a restored city of Jerusalem in which “the sound of weeping and crying will be no more”.   This will be brought about as a result of Jesus’ actions as the suffering Servant, and we have it to look forward to.