Isaiah 53 – a Verse by Verse Exposition
52:13 Behold, My servant shall succeed; he will be exalted and become high and exceedingly lofty.
The success and exaltation of God’s servant is an event that the prophet sees as futuristic. The immediate context (52:7-12) tells us that this is part of the blessing that Israel will experience at the time of her restoration.
52:14 Just as many were astonished over you, [saying] his appearance is too marred to be that of man and his visage to be human.
The prophet is talking to the servant in the first person, another indication that the servant is Israel. In the previous verses (52:7-12), the prophet speaks to Israel in the first person several times.
The prophet identifies the servant as one who was considered by many to be subhuman. The onlookers judged the servant to be subhuman because of the way he appeared to them.
52:15 So shall he overthrow many nations, kings will shut their mouths, for that which they had never been told they will [now] see and that which they had never heard they will [now] perceive.
The servant is depicted as one who overcomes nations. (It is through the overpowering of nations that the servant “divides spoils” as the prophet foretells in 53:12. See also Micah 4:13; 5:7; Isaiah 41:15,16.) The prophet is telling us that just as many were astonished by the servant’s lowliness so will many witness the servant’s victory and exaltation.
The kings of nations will know the servant and his exaltation will take them by surprise. They had heard various teachings about the servant but they had never been told about the exaltation that they are now witnessing. (See Micah 7:16).
53:1 Who would have believed our report, and upon whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed.
These are the words of the surprised kings described in the previous verse. (The same grammatical pattern is found in Isaiah 14:16 where the verb for “perception” is followed by the words of those “perceiving” without a direct introduction.) These kings have known the servant throughout his period of lowliness and in all of that time they were never told how the servant will one day be exalted by God to the degree that they now witness. The report that they now hear (and perceive) is something that they would have never believed in the time of the servant’s lowliness.
The revelation of the arm of the Lord has already been described in 52:10 where we clearly see how the arm of the Lord is revealed on behalf of Israel. (See Psalm 98:1-3).
53:2 He grew like a sapling before Him and like a root from arid ground, he had neither form nor grandeur; we saw him, but without such visage that we should desire him.
The kings speak of the former state of the servant (before his exaltation). They describe his existence as an impossibility; like a root in an arid and dry land. The kings describe the servant as one who was not attractive or majestic in any way.
53:3 Scorned and isolated from men, a man of pains and accustomed to illness, as one from whom we would hide our faces; he was scorned and we had no regard for him.
The prophet continues with the words of the kings who had shunned the servant throughout his time of lowliness. The general state of the servant throughout this period was that he was separated from the rest of humanity. The kings describe him as a figure that was so visibly stricken by suffering that it was difficult for people to look at him.
53:4 But in truth, it was our ills that he bore and our pains that he carried; but we had regarded him diseased, stricken by God and afflicted.
The kings now realize that their spiritual assessment of the servant was completely backward. During the time of the servant’s lowliness those who knew him believed that his constant affliction proves that he is spiritually deformed. Otherwise, why would this nation be singled out for God’s wrath over any other?
But now, with the servant’s exaltation, they realize that the servant was not more wicked than them but more righteous. Their assessment of the servant is reversed because they come to a true understanding of God’s plan throughout history. With the restoration of Israel and God’s glory coming to dwell in the Jerusalem Temple the nations of the world will experience true sanctity and a real connection to God. They will realize that many of their activities were actively preventing God’s presence from being manifest in this world, even though they had considered many of these activities to be righteous and Godly.
In order for God’s presence to be revealed in this world there needs to be obedience and humility toward God. This obedience does not have to be perfect because God doesn’t demand from His creations that which they cannot deliver, but it needs to be accepting of God’s sovereignty to the degree that humans are capable.
Since all of mankind benefits from God’s presence being manifest in this world it would be appropriate that all of mankind participate in the work of preparing a resting place for God’s presence. The way that this sanctuary for God would be prepared would necessitate that mankind purify its collective heart. In order to build this dwelling place for God mankind would need to strive to achieve humility toward God and to accept God’s sovereignty.
But instead of putting this task on the shoulders of all mankind, God placed this task on the shoulders of His servant. Instead of purifying the collective heart of all mankind, God chose to purify the collective heart of His servant Israel and His servant will then shine the truth toward the rest of mankind. The nations will walk by that light and partake of the goodness of God (Isaiah 60:3). And the way that God chose to purify the heart of His servant is through suffering (Isaiah 48:10).
With the exaltation of the servant the nations will realize that it was through the servant that God was accomplishing His purpose in the world for the benefit of all mankind. The suffering that the servant bore should have been borne by all mankind, and if anything, the nations should have carried the brunt of the suffering, because it was their wickedness that was more directly standing in the way of God’s purpose for the world.
53:5 He was violated because of our sins and crushed because of our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him and with his company, we were healed.
With the servant’s exaltation, the kings will finally realize that the ultimate goal toward which God was leading all of mankind was not the exaltation of the object of their own devotion, but that it was the exaltation of the object of Israel’s devotion that all of history was leading to. They will realize that much of what they considered Godly was directly opposing God’s plan. And they will realize that the servant’s activities were pleasing to God all along. They will recognize that any blessing that they merited was because of their association with the servant. The purification process that the servant had to undergo was more for the general benefit of mankind than for his own benefit.
The last phrase in this verse can also be translated as: “and with his wounds we were healed.” The point remains the same. With the exaltation of the servant the nations realize that the merit of the servant had protected them all along and the servant’s merit and righteousness was achieved through his suffering.
53:6 We have all strayed like sheep, each of us turning his own way, and the Lord inflicted upon him the iniquity of us all.
With the exaltation of the servant the nations come to the realization that while they believed that they were “following God,” in truth they were following their own way because God had never commanded them to walk in those paths. The nations thought that they were achieving atonement for their own sins, each according to their own respective theologies on the subject. But they now see that they were doing nothing to move God’s purpose forward. It was the despised servant who was moving God’s purpose forward. It was in the heart of the servant that God was preparing a corner of humility and obedience that would serve as God’s dwelling place for the benefit of all mankind. And it was in the heart of the servant that the refining process of purging the world of rebellion against God was taking place.
53:7 He was persecuted and afflicted, but he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to the slaughter or like a ewe that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth.
The prophet continues to describe the suffering of the servant. We are given to understand that the persecutors of the servant saw him as an animal. The attitude of the servant’s enemies was that suffering is the God-ordained lot of the servant just as sheep were put in this world by God to be shorn and slaughtered. And anything that the servant might have said in self-defense was as meaningless to his persecutors as the bleating of sheep before those who shear them.
The prophet uses the metaphors of slaughtering and shearing to indicate that the servant suffered through his enemies in two different ways. Sometimes his enemies would slaughter him as people would slaughter sheep. And even when his enemies would not kill him they would still fleece him of his possessions just as people shear the wool off their sheep.
53:8 Through government and judgment was he deprived, and who could describe his generation, for he was cut off from the land of the living, it was for the sin of my nation that they were afflicted
The prophet explains that the persecutors of the servant were not criminals and outcasts from society; it was the governments and the court-systems of the nations that persecuted the servant. Persecution of the servant was not only legalized, but was elevated to the status of religious virtue and patriotic duty.
An alternate interpretation of the opening phrase of this verse would have the prophet telling us that the servant had been deprived of his own government and justice system.
The second phrase in this verse teaches us that the suffering of the servant had been so extreme that no one could express it in words.
The third phrase in this verse teaches us that the servant wasn’t simply killed but that he was deemed unworthy to partake of life together with the rest of humanity. The persecutors of the servant saw him as a subhuman creature that has no rightful place in this world.
The fourth phrase in this verse is the expression of each of the gentile kings acknowledging that it was through the guilt of their own respective nations that the servant suffered. The persecution of the servant was directly proportionate to the evil in the hearts of his persecutors. Throughout history, when a society degenerated into cruelty and evil, they persecuted the Jew. The corrupt Catholic Church, the evil Czars and the brutal Nazis all showed their true colors with their treatment of the Jewish people.
53:9 And he placed his grave with the wicked and his deaths were with the rich for no violence that he had done nor for any deception that was in his mouth.
Here the prophet reveals how the persecutors of the servant justified and legalized their persecution. They believed as an article of faith that the servant was a violent criminal and that he had gained wealth through deception and the servant was innocent of both of these charges.
Throughout the history of the world, the enemies of the Jews believed that the Jewish people are murderers and liars. The Gospel of John elevates belief in this accusation to the status of religious dogma (John 8:44), and one of the world’s most popular books, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, ensures that people will still believe these lies until the ultimate exaltation of the servant.
The servant was well aware of these accusations. The servant was also aware of the consequences of these accusations. The righteous of Israel realized that their loyalty to God and their refusal to submit to the idols and ideologies of the nations around them will mean that they will be executed in the most gruesome ways and that their graves will be marked as the graves of criminals. And they willingly accepted this fate.
53:10 And the Lord desired to crush and afflict him; if his soul would acknowledge guilt, he would see offspring and live long days and the purpose of God will succeed through his hand.
At this point, the prophetic narrator moves away from the voices of the shocked onlookers and gives us his own perspective of the suffering of the servant. The emphasis changes according to the spiritual needs of the respective speakers. There isn’t much spiritual benefit to be gained by focusing on the guilt of others. It is for this reason that the kings of nations focus on their own guilt as it relates to the suffering of the servant, and for this same reason, the focus shifts to the guilt of the servant when addressing the servant. After all, the audience of the prophet is the people of Israel.
The prophet tells us that God desired to afflict the servant. The purpose of Israel’s suffering, from Israel’s perspective, is to refine them. As a loving father rebukes his son so does God put Israel through the crucible of exile (Deuteronomy 8:5; Proverbs 3:11,12; Amos 3:2).
In order for the suffering to accomplish its purpose the servant needs to acknowledge and to recognize his own guilt. No created being is free of guilt and by acknowledging guilt we come closer to God’s truth. Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah were all righteous people yet they all acknowledged their own guilt together with the sins of the nation (Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 9:20; Ezra 9:6; Nehemiah 1:6).
The prophet goes on to tell us the reward that the servant will experience as a result of acknowledging his guilt. The servant will see his physical progeny walking in his footsteps and his days will be lengthened. These two blessings are not unrelated. No individual saint is guaranteed long days. But through his progeny the servant perseveres and outlasts his persecutors. The might, the splendor and the power of those who persecuted the Jew have long faded away while the Jew still prays the same prayers and studies the same texts with freshness and vitality. It is the same Jew that stirred the fanatical hatred of the Church fathers, the mobs of Crusaders, the Moslem Almohads, the Inquisitors, the Ukrainian soldiers of Chemilnicki, the Russian Czars, the Communists and the Nazis. These and many like them have come and gone but the Jew is still here.
The greatest gift that God has granted His servant is the promise that God’s own purpose in this world will be accomplished through him. The righteous of Israel are called God’s armor bearers (Isaiah 52:11). God allowed them to join Him in bringing His light to the world.
53:11 From the travail of his soul he will see and be satiated, with his knowledge will My righteous servant render many righteous and he will bear their sins.
The prophet continues to describe the reward that the servant will experience as a recompense for his suffering. The servant will see the good that was achieved through his suffering and he will be satiated with the knowledge that God’s purpose was brought to fruition through his suffering.
The servant will utilize his knowledge to render the many righteous. Israel will teach the truth that they carry in their heart (Isaiah 51:7) to the nations (Zechariah 8:23; Isaiah 42:4). And even after the exaltation will the servant take responsibility for the sins of the nations. Israel is called upon to be God’s priest (Isaiah 61:6). Just as the priests in the Temple bore the responsibility of Israel’s sins so does Israel bear the responsibility of the sins of the nations (Numbers 18:1). It is the priest’s responsibility to teach the people and guide them and if the people fail, the priests are held responsible (Malachi 2:8). In the Messianic age, the responsibility to teach mankind will fall on the shoulders of the righteous of Israel.
53:12 Therefore, I will assign him a portion from the many and he will divide the mighty as spoils, in return for having poured out his soul for death and being counted among the wicked, for he bore the sin of the many, and he will pray for the wicked
This verse continues with the description of the servant’s reward. The servant will be given the wealth of his persecutors. These will be granted to him as spoils of war (Isaiah 33:23; Ezekiel 39:10; Zechariah 14:14).
This reward is due to the servant for his willingness to die for God’s sake and for accepting the scorn of his persecutors who considered his faith to be criminal. The suffering that the righteous of Israel endured, a suffering that included being the outcast of humanity and oftentimes even death, brought all of mankind to experience the light of God (Isaiah 60:3). The men that God chose as His armor bearers fought a difficult battle but their task is never done. Even after their exaltation and vindication, they will still pray on behalf of all mankind.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal