Some Messianic Prophecies, Part 3

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Isaiah 53 is famous because in it we read of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah. This verse in particular is among the most famous Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 NIV)

However, the prophecy of the Suffering Servant really begins back at 52:13 –

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (NIV)

This whole section has been referred to as the “holy of holies” of Isaiah. And Polycarp wrote of it as the “golden passional of the Old Testament.” However you like to refer these verses, they are profound in their meaning and life-changing when they are understood. The previous so-called “servant songs” in Isaiah all described the prophetic ministry of the Servant of the Lord, but in this one, He is portrayed as Priest, who suffers vicariously for the sins of others. This Servant is the sin-bearing martyr and while the other “servants songs” could refer to the nation of Israel, a faithful remnant, or the Messiah Himself, this one is clearly the Messiah, an individual sufferer.

The Suffering Servant passage is really only five paragraphs long, with each paragraph containing three verses.

The Servant Exalted, 52:13 – 15

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (NIV)

This is God speaking, introducing His Servant, using terms ascribed to divinity – raised, lifted up, highly exalted – coupled with terms that can only be used in describing a man – his appearance marred by suffering. At the very beginning of this song, then, we have a Servant who is both divine and human.

The task of this divine-human Servant is to fulfill the purposes of God. He will do this “wisely” or “prudently” or with “understanding,” depending on which translation of the Bible you are reading. This great Suffering Servant will have an exalted nature with the destiny of a Martyr, but with great insight that will enable Him to deal wisely and effectively with the greatest problem of man: human hatred and sin.

And even though the Servant will suffer beyond normal human endurance, His shed blood will cause “kings” to marvel in silent awe as they see what they were never told or taught. The idea is that the Servant’s task will be to give the people an entirely new life, something kings can’t conceive of.

The Servant Despised, Isaiah 53:1 – 3

But, oh, how few believe it! Who will listen? To whom will God reveal his saving power? In God’s eyes he was like a tender green shoot, sprouting from a root in dry and sterile ground. But in our eyes there was no attractiveness at all, nothing to make us want him. We despised him and rejected him—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we didn’t care.  (TLB)

Jews consider this prophecy to be all about Israel – and they’re not necessarily wrong, but they’ve cast their nation on the wrong side. To them, Israel is the suffering servant, but what we’re reading about here is future Israel (“in our eyes”) when the people finally recognize and acknowledge the Lord Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. These verses are the thoughts they will have at that time. So profound will be their realization of the truth that, they say, “who would have believed it?”

It’s heartening to know that in the future, at long last national Israel will understand the truth. But, at the same time, there is an application of these verses for today. It’s not just Israel to whom God reveals the truth of Jesus; He reveals it also to repentant and penitent sinners. These verses could well constitute the awakened conscience of a saved man, for when he sees the truth, he just can’t believe why it took so long for him to believe.
Some day, the godly remnant of Israel will regret their rejection of Jesus, and that day they will turn to Him as their Messiah and Savior.

The Servant Wounded, Isaiah 53:4 – 6

Yet it was our grief he bore, our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, for his own sins! But he was wounded and bruised for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace; he was lashed—and we were healed! We—every one of us—have strayed away like sheep! We, who left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet God laid on him the guilt and sins of every one of us! (TLB)

This paragraph is so powerful and moving, Handel based one of his more significant songs on it in his famous oratorio, “The Messiah.” During His earthly ministry, Jesus entered into our sorrows and afflictions; He experienced what we experience and He healed those who came to Him in faith. There are some who teach that healing is part of the atonement. Whether it is or isn’t is a debate for another day. It must be noted, though, that while Jesus healed all kinds of sickness and diseases, He died for our sins, not for our illnesses.

That evening several demon-possessed people were brought to Jesus; and when he spoke a single word, all the demons fled; and all the sick were healed. This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, “He took our sicknesses and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8:16, 17 TLB)

This lone paragraph in Isaiah teaches the great doctrine of substitution. Israel of Christ’s day believed He deserved to die. He was accused of and condemned for blasphemy. He was considered punished by God because He deserved it. And yet, Jesus died, not for Himself, but for others and this wonderful prophecy is an absolute promise that one day Israel will see the truth.

And what pity he felt for the crowds that came, because their problems were so great and they didn’t know what to do or where to go for help. They were like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36 TLB)

But they choose to live this way; sinners, believing that they are free – that they are forging their own destiny – yet they aren’t free at all. They are lost. God provided salvation for all the lost sheep through His infinite grace: Christ died for our sins. Paul expressed Isaiah’s thoughts his own way like this –

For God took the sinless Christ and poured into him our sins. Then, in exchange, he poured God’s goodness into us! (2 Corinthians 5:21 TLB)

And Peter put it this way –

He personally carried the load of our sins in his own body when he died on the cross so that we can be finished with sin and live a good life from now on. For his wounds have healed ours! Like sheep you wandered away from God, but now you have returned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls who keeps you safe from all attacks. (1 Peter 2:24, 25 TLB)

Of this doctrine, Alistair Begg notes,

Jesus did not come to live as an example of how to die as a martyr, but as a substitute, taking the place that we deserve in order that we might enjoy what we don’t deserve.

The Servant Cut Off, Isaiah 53:7 – 9

Twice in verse 7, the prophet tells his readers that Jesus never once protested. He was not an unwilling victim, forced to go to the cross. He was a voluntary sacrifice; He allowed Himself to be hurt, humiliated, and manhandled. He never offered a word in His defense before Pilate. He only spoke up in front of the Sanhedrin when silence would have been a renunciation of His deity. Before Herod, Jesus said nothing.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. (Isaiah 53:7 NIV)

In other words, the “judgment” of the human courts (Roman and Jewish) was the instrument of “oppression,” as far as Jesus was concerned. And nobody cared! This is truly an astonishing thought. “Who of his generation protested?” The answer is nobody! The “close pals” of Jesus – His apostles – were either scared witless, or busy denying that they even knew Him at all.

The odd phrase, “cut off,” deserves a quick look. It suggests something beyond a violent, premature death – is strongly implies the just and certain judgment of God. So in the handling of our Lord, we see the terrible oppression of man and the justice of God. In a single verse, we see both the thoughtlessness of man and the plan of God converging upon one perfect Man. He was condemned by His own people, yet He bore the punishment for their guilt and sin.  Simply astonishing!

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:9 NIV)

This is a curious verse and a little hard to understand. Man assigned the Servant’s grave, not among those of the saints or with due reverence and honor, but they treated Him like the wicked guys He was crucified between. Dishonor and humiliation chased our Lord even to His final resting place. That phrase, “with the rich in his death” refers to one Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and compassionate man if ever there was one. It’s an enigmatic, powerful verse, and Ross Price’s summary of it is particularly noteworthy:

He was an innocent man. Humanity vented its spleen in vicious treatment of God’s Holy One. But when selfish evil tries to masquerade as justice it prepares its own unmasking.

The Servant Satisfied, Isaiah 53:10 – 12

Decent, right thinking, unredeemed men see the treatment and death of Jesus Christ as a tragedy. In their ignorance, they see the Servant of Isaiah as a visionary, a martyr, a man ahead of His time, an unfortunate victim of circumstances who suffered and died for His ideals. But, none of that is true.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10 NIV)

The Dead Sea Scroll translates verse 10 like this:

But Yahweh was pleased to crush him and he pierced him.

Clearly, God was in back of every movement against His Son by allowing it to happen as it did. Yet, Moffat’s translation varies slightly and captures the barest hint of a positive outcome:

But the Eternal chose to vindicate his servant, rescuing his life from anguish; he let him propser to the full, in a posterity with life prolonged.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ taken together constitute the greatest victory in the history of the world.

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11 NIV)

Jesus didn’t waste His time on the Cross! He, looking back, will be completely satisfied. Are you satisfied with what Jesus did for you? He did all He could for you. Nothing was left undone in His work for you.
And so this wonderful prophecy closes the way it began, on a positive note.

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