• Dr Deane Woods

Messiah in Isaiah–Study Seven

Updated: Jul 1

The “Suffering/Slain Servant” of the LORD

(Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12)


Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God led the Jewish prophet Isaiah to describe Him so clearly that the people of Israel – and the world – would recognise the Messiah. The incontestable accuracy of Isaiah 53 is a “stand-out” example of a “proof passage” that the Bible is the inerrant (therefore trustworthy) Word of God. The present writer is delighted to share his final article on the “Four Servant Songs in Isaiah”, not only in this series of studies, but also as he concludes his official ministry as one of The FRIENDS OF ISRAEL Gospel Ministry international team members.


Previous articles have dealt with Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” prophecies of the Messiah as “The Humble Servant” (Is. 42:1-7), “The Rejected Servant” (Is. 49:1-7) and “The Afflicted Servant”. This “Fourth Song” brings Isaiah’s messianic portrait to a climax as this literary image presents Him as “The Suffering/Slain Servant” (Is. 52:13-53:12).

Readers are urged to refer to these “Four Servant Songs” as illustrated in the diagram image below.

Isaiah 53 – Why The “Forbidden Chapter”?

From the writing of Isaiah 53 in the 8th century B.C. until the 11th century A.D., all Jewish commentators believed this portion of Scripture spoke of the Messiah of Israel. The first to object to this view was Rabbi Solomon Ben Isaac (Schlomo Yitzhaki), known as Rashi (A.D. 1040-1105). He said that Isaiah 53 described the people of Israel as suffering for the sins of the Gentile nations.


According to a 17th century Jewish historian, Raphael Levi, the ancient rabbis used to read Isaiah 53 in synagogues but after the chapter caused “arguments and great confusion” they decided that the simplest, most prudent thing to do to rectify this perpetual problem amongst Jewry would be to remove that prophecy out of the “Haftara” readings. These readings (followed by sung chants) were thematically linked to follow the Torah reading each Shabbat, Jewish festivals, and Fast days. Henceforth, when Isaiah 52 is read in synagogues, it is stopped in the middle of the chapter and the week after, the readings resume at Isaiah 54. Isaiah 53 is purposely skipped!

Thus, in the past century particularly, rabbis have again emphasised Rashi’s interpretation and rejected the belief that Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah and continue to “jump over” the “forbidden chapter” – Isaiah 53.


Why is Isaiah 53’s Message in the Past Tense?

The message of Isaiah 53 is really simple and straightforward. Isaiah prophesies about the Messiah who would be rejected by His people, suffer and die in agony as a “slain sacrifice” which God would see as an atonement for the sins of humanity. According to his prophecy (which concludes the other “Servant of the Lord’s ‘Servant Songs’”), the leaders of Israel would recognise they had made a mistake at the end of days when they rejected the Messiah, so the prophet put the prophecy in the past tense. Furthermore, he saw himself as part of the people of Israel and therefore used the third person plural “we”.


AT THE END OF CHAPTER 52 ISAIAH WRITES AN INTRODUCTION TO CHAPTER 53!


13 Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently

God is clearly the speaker here as He describes the works and attributes of His Servant. The word “Behold” is used to grab the reader’s (and hearer’s) attention. This message is a “must” - not to be missed and certainly applied!

The term “My Servant” connects us back to the earlier sections of Isaiah’s prophecy. He is “the Servant of the Lord”, the One who humble, rejected and afflicted (Is. 42:1-7; Is. 49:1-7; 50:4-11). This Servant would be exalted above all because He would deal prudently and perform the Lord’s will completely in every detail.

13He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high

God’s Servant is emphasised for His eminence as the Messiah. Three words underscore this purposive emphasis: “exalted”, “extolled” and “very high”. The God-sent Messiah would be resurrected, ascend to the heavens and be exalted at God’s right hand.

14 Just as many were astonished at you, So His visage was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men


Throughout his book, Isaiah revealed the that the Lord would bring punishment on the proud. To covet some exalted position, the perpetrator would be humiliated and punished – no more so than Lucifer, star of the morning (Is. 14:13-14; cf. also 2:12; 10:33; 13:11, 19; 23:9 and later in 57:7). Only the LORD God is worthy to be extolled and exalted (Is. 6:1-8ff; 57:15). His Servant, Messiah, is co-equal, co-existent and co-eternal with Him because He is the eternal begotten “Son of Glory” whom King David revealed the Yahweh’s “decree” to this “Son” 300 years earlier (Ps. 2:6-7ff). The “(raging) nations in rebellion against Him” are invited by the Holy Spirit, (Hebrew, Ru’ach Kodesh) to “kiss the Son” if they are to be saved (Ps. 2:10-12; cf. Is. 48:12-16, especially vs. 16). Thus, Isaiah emphasises Messiah’s deity here in verse 14!


Before He would be exalted, however, Messiah would suffer, be humiliated and tortured to such an extent that his body would be disfigured and his face virtually unrecognisable.


15 So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, And what they had not heard they shall consider.


Moreover, in His suffering and tortuous death, Messiah would thereby “sprinkle many nations” – an action which described the priests as they purified the people of Israel or the Temple vessels (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 4:6; 8:11 etc). However, Messiah’s “(sprinkling)” would be universal, not just as the Hebrew priests had done in the Sanctuary. Because of His deity and authority evidenced in His exaltation, the Messiah’s “purifying” role will exceed that of the priests and even the High Priest who held the highest spiritual authority.

Since this unique and extraordinary message of the Lord coming as a “Suffering, Saving Servant”, Isaiah’s summary introduction next gives way to a description of his people’s difficulty in believing this message in chapter 53. There, we will see the answer his people (in a yet future generation) will cry as they appreciate the reality of their Messiah whom they, in past generations, had missed!


I. MESSIAH’S REJECTION! (vss. 1-3)

1 Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?


These words describe Israel’s lack of faith. God’s people don’t believe what they heard from Him through His prophets and other servants of the Lord. Despite His 300 plus messianic prophecies and over 450 references to His King and His Kingdom in the Hebrew Bible that point to the promised Messiah, as a nation, they had not “heard, believed and obeyed” Him! Their spiritual blindness was contrasted by Isaiah to the “ox who knows its owner and the donkey it’s master’s crib…”. Yet, God, whom the prophet said had “brought up His children” only to witness them “rebel against (Him)” and thus “do not know (Him)” (Is. 1:2-3).

The “arm of the Lord” speaks of His strength and power. Isaiah used that anthropomorphic term earlier in reference to His sovereign rule (Is. 40:10; 42:6). It is His “arm” that brings salvation (Is. 52:10). Even the Gentiles put their hope in His “arm” for deliverance (Is. 51:5).


2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him.


Israel is a dry place, but the driest location in that geographic area was not the Negev Desert but the nation’s corporate heart. In that environment, Messiah would grow up in “spiritually dry ground” as a “tender plant”. Isaiah spoke of that future historic time when there would be no word from the Lord in 400 years before Messiah would come. Genesis had opened with “LIFE” (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”); it ended with “DEATH” – (“… in a coffin in Egypt”). Something drastic had happened in between those occasions that caused “man’s” radical departure from a positive relationship with his Creator, physical and spiritual death – the “Fall” (Gen. 3). Yet, Moses had revealed that Yahweh, in grace, had also promised a (Kinsman) “Redeemer” (Gen. 3:15; 49:10). Isaiah prophesied that there was not anything appealing about Messiah to his people. His appearance was not extraordinary, nor his manner that of an extrovert (cf. Is. 42:1-4ff).


3 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him


In this verse, Isaiah again emphases his people’s spiritual blindness. The Lord’s Servant came to His people but they distanced themselves from Him, despising Him (Jn. 1:10-11). He seemed some sort of a “social and religious misfit”! They walked away from Him in the “day of their visitation” (Lk. 19:44).


II. MESSIAH’S REDEMPTION! (vss. 4-6)

4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.


In these verses Isaiah foreshadows the Servant’s sacrifice. His life was marked by pain, rejection and suffering. He was “smitten by God”, “afflicted”, “wounded”, “bruised” and “(punished)” and finally condemned - but not for any fault of His own. He was “without sin” (Heb. 4:16) but “was made sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). His was a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice for sins “once for all” (Heb. 9:28; 10:10). He paid the penalty for the sins of Jew and Gentile alike. The “chastisement” (i.e., corrective punishment).

Speaking generally, the people of Israel have thought that the sufferings of “that Man” were brought about by His own doing. The scriptural fact is, however, that “He was made sin for us” as He “bore our sins upon the tree” in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (1 Pt. 2:24; cf. Heb. 5:8). That is why many Jewish as well as Gentile folk believe that Messiah Jesus was crucified for their own personal sins and have now been reconciled to God, in Him!


III. MESSIAH’S RESOLVE! (vss. 7-9)

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressi