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Behold My Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12)

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"My Servant Shall Deal Prudently" (Isa 52:13-15)

After Jesus had been scourged, he was handed over to the execution squad by Pilate. He had known what to expect for a long tine -- the terrible climax of all his physical sufferings. For hours, as dark gave way to dawn, and as the crowd gathered, he had already endured humiliating insults and cruel buffetings. A "crown" of thorns had been brutally forced down upon his head. (And these were real thorns, an inch long, if the traditional plant of the crown of thorns is the correct one!) So it was with scarred face, and lacerated back and shoulders, that he followed the Roman soldiers, bearing his cross and stumbling as he went. Before and behind and on either side, they clear a path and keep the excited crowd at bay. In their midst he stumbles and shuffles his way under the weight of the cross, his face a mask of patience and pain.

Jesus, the express image of the Father's person, is reduced to the state predicted by Isaiah:

"His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" (Isa 52:14).
And further:

"There is no beauty that we should desire him" (Isa 53:2).
Growing weaker, he stumbles one last time and falls prostrate under the burden. The impatient soldiers compel a witness to bear his cross, and rudely wrestle him to his feet again. Soon they are at Calvary, where a hole has been dug in the ground. The cross-piece is laid on the ground and he is placed upon it. Spikes are driven through his wrists and ankles and into the rough wood. Then with its human burden the cross is lifted and jolted down upon the stake, where it is made fast. There, for ceaseless hours, he hangs -- his whole body a raw nerve of pain, his senses dazed by the shimmering heat and the clouds and the dust.

"They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me; they pierced my hands and my feet" (Psa 22:13-16).
He suffered the shame, the physical agony, the draining away of his strength, and a raging thirst. There was dizziness, cramps, fever, and torment. Every movement, no matter how slight, would signal new anguish. Truly might it be said, "His visage was so marred more than any man."

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Isaiah 52:13

"Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high."
This verse is an overview. The four main stages of Christ's work are referred to:

  1. His ministry ("deal prudently");
  2. His crucifixion ("exalted" -- cp John 3:14; 12:32);
  3. His resurrection ("extolled"); and
  4. His ascension, mediation, and coming kingdom ("very high").
This outline is clearly parallel to Paul's outline:

  1. "The form (Greek 'fashion') of a servant" (Phi 2:7);
  2. "Obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (v 8);
  3. "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him" (v 9); and
  4. "That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (vv 10,11).
"Behold" -- A trumpet call, demanding careful attention to all that follows.

"My servant" -- The Hebrew "ebed" is a slave, as opposed to a hired servant. Unless released, a slave serves for life. The example for all such slaves is Exo 21:5,6:

"If the servant shall plainly say, I love my master... I will not go out free... then his master shall bring him to the door... and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever."

To this the Psalmist refers: "Mine eyes hast thou opened" (Psa 40:6), a passage cited in conjunction with the perfect obedience of the Perfect Servant of Yahweh in Heb 10:5-9, where this phrase is translated "a body (ie, a slave) hast thou prepared me"!

The prophecies relating to Yahweh's servant are found in Isaiah, from Isa 41 through this section. In these prophecies, Isaiah has been continually contrasting the "national" servant, Israel, with the "individual" servant, the Messiah, much to the discredit of the former. Israel the multitudinous servant has been called to an honorable position of service, but has despised the privilege and failed miserably (Isa41:8; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1,21; 43:4; 43:20). For this they are sharply rebuked (Isa 42:17-20). Meanwhile, Israel is called upon to "behold My Servant" (Isa 42:1); God's individual "Servant" would accomplish what the national "Servant" could not. Through him the works of the Father, the greatest of which is the redemption and glorification of a portion of mankind, will be accomplished.

Strangely at least from the contemporary Jewish perspective, God's purpose of redemption requires the suffering and finally the sacrificial death of His obedient servant. This point is reached by stages in the progressive revelations about Isaiah's "Servant". First, there is a mere hint of temporary discouragement (42:4); second, a lament over "failure" (49:4); third, personal abuse (50:6); and finally, here, misrepresentation, injustice, and a violent death!

"Deal prudently" -- Hebrew "yaschil" signifies "to prosper" (RSV, NEB). The same word is used of Joshua (Jos 1:7,8) in regard to achieving the inheritance of the land of Canaan for himself and his flock; and also of the "righteous Branch" (Jer 23:5) who will reign as a king and save Judah and Israel, and who will be called "The Lord our Righteousness".

"Exalted" -- "Rum": to be high. Several passages in John's Gospel equate crucifixion with being lifted up (Joh 3:14; 8:28; 12:32,33), most directly alluding to the brazen serpent lifted up on the pole (Num 21:1-9).

"Extolled" -- "Nasa": elevated as a banner or an ensign. The victory of the children of Israel over Amalek through the lifting up of Moses' rod (Exo 17:9,11) was commemorated "by the building of an altar called "Yahweh-Nissi" -- "He who shall be lifted up", or "The Lord my banner".

In a glorious "kingdom" prophecy, the "root of Jesse" (cp Isa 53:21) will stand for an "ensign ("nes") of the people", to which even the Gentiles will seek (Isa 11:10).

"And be very high" -- Thus the three similar phrases may be differentiated: Jesus was lifted up on the cross. He was then lifted up out of the grave. And finally he was lifted up to heaven, to sit on the right hand of God, from whence he will return to sit on a glorious throne, ruling over all kingdoms!

Isaiah 52:14

"As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men."
The "as" beginning this verse is matched by the "so" beginning v 15. As many individuals were astonished at the Messiah, so shall "many" nations be sprinkled (ie, cleansed) by him! Here is the multiplying effect of the work of Christ: what a comparatively few witnessed in person, in the streets of Jerusalem and on the brow of a little hill, will ultimately bring blessing to multitudes scattered from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth! And the marvelous irony is this: that which appalled and repelled those who witnessed it will at last be embraced joyfully and thankfully by humble and obedient believers. That which appeared tragic and senseless will be seen to be lovely and wise. Paul speaks of the rationale of the crucifixion, and this irony of the cross, to the Corinthian brethren:

"Hath not God made foolish the things of this world?... We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (1Co 1:20,23,24).

That which "the world" saw as scandal and weakness was actually righteousness and power. Paul leads us surely to the conclusion that the salvation of mankind is specifically designed by God to run counter to proud and vain man's expectations; hence the "astonishment" of Isa 52:14 (and the despite and disesteem of Isa 53:3). His purpose in so doing is undoubtedly to lend man to renounce his "worldly", materialistic, natural attitudes, and to see salvation on God's terms, and to see himself in God's eyes. In the words of Paul again, this was done so "that no flesh should glory in His presence" (1Co 1:29).

"Many" -- Not only were "many" astonished, but "many" will finally be cleansed (v 15) by the "sprinkled blood" of Christ. This is further amplified by the "many" who will be justified (Isa 53:11) "by their knowledge of him", and the "many" whose sins he bore (v 12).

"Astonied" -- "Astonished" (RSV), a state of mind manifested by some as early as Jesus' twelfth year, when he sat in the Temple with the doctors of the law (Luke 2:46,47). The sense of astonishment, however, reflected by this picture of Isaiah is best captured by the alternate renderings "appalled" (NIV and NEB: "aghast").

"His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" – "Visage" is translated "appearance" (RSV) and is the same word as "beauty" in Isa 53:2. "Form" appears also in Isa 53:2. The latter portions of each of these two phrases are practically identical. The literal is "from being a man"; other versions read "beyond human resemblance" (RSV) or "beyond human likeness" (NIV). This description is comparable to Psa 22:6:

"I am a worm, and no man."
Indeed, there are many such comparisons between this Servant Song and Psalm 22.

The literalness of this description, as connected with Christ's trials, is easily grasped. The Temple guard and the Roman soldiers had no regard for delicate sensibilities; and this man -- though markedly different from others -- was nevertheless a condemned criminal. It is probably correct, then, to think of the Suffering Servant as ending up not only with a lacerated black eye (Mat 27:20), but also with a mass of cuts and bruises on his face, teeth knocked out, and a long red scar across his cheek (Mat 27:30; 26:67; John 18:22, mg; Mic 5:1). Truly "beyond human resemblance"!

Although the imagery of this section is that of a suffering leper (and probably well described the appearance of the typical Hezekiah when ravaged by that disease), it is obvious upon reflection that Jesus could not have literally suffered leprosy. It was prophesied of him that, as "the holy thing" (Luke 1:35), he should not see corruption (Psa 16:10; Acts 2:27). If he were not to partake of corruption even in death, how unlikely that he would so partake during his lifetime! Furthermore, an appearance of leprosy during his ministry would have prohibited him from preaching in the synagogue or in the Temple, and would of course have been inconsistent with the magnetic effect he had upon many, including small children. Finally, there is also the ritual of the Passover, of which Jesus was the perfect fulfillment (1Co 5:7), a lamb necessarily without spot and blemish. We must come to the conclusion, then, that the marring of his countenance and figure must have been effected only in his last trials and crucifixion.

Isaiah 52:15

"So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which. they had not heard shall they consider."
One who is leprous (Isa 53:4), or is made to appear leprous -- that is, an outcast and a criminal -- becomes, in a fantastic turnabout, the "priest" to cleanse "leprous" Gentiles! Paul and Peter speak of "the blood of sprinkling" (Heb 12:24; 1Pe 1:2) by which forgiveness is obtained. The "sprinkling" of the blood of Jesus is the fulfillment of the typical sprinkling of water of separation (Num 19), water containing the ashes of a heifer offered "without the camp" (Num 19:3; Heb 13:12), and effective in cleansing those who have come into contact with the dead (Num 19:13). Paul puts this cleansing on a moral plane when he describes the "blood of Christ" as able to purge us from "dead works" (Heb 9:14; cp Heb 10:22). The agency of sprinkling, or cleansing, will extend into the Last Days and the Kingdom Age, when a fountain for sin and uncleanness will be opened in Jerusalem (Zec 13:1; cp Eze 36:25).

The imagery also recalls the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the houses of the Israelites in Egypt (Exo 12:7,22; Heb 10:19,22; Psa 51:7).

"Sprinkle" – The RSV has "startle", but the Hebrew word ("nazah") occurs elsewhere 19 times, always in the sense of sprinkling for ceremonial purification (ie, Lev 4:6; 16:14,19; Num 19:18,21). It is difficult to see why modern translators should replace the AV rendering.

"Many nations" – The blessing of all nations through the special seed of Abraham (Gen 12:3) will involve the forgiveness of sins as a prelude to the enjoyment of the peace and plenty of the kingdom. All this is comprehended in Isaiah's previous prophecies about Yahweh's righteous Servant bringing judgment to the Gentiles (Isa 42:1-4) by being a light and the embodiment of Yahweh's salvation (Isa 49:1-6).

"The kings shall shut their mouths at him" – The LXX of this expression is used to describe the "marveling" of Pilate (Mat 27:14; Mark 15:5) at the patient silence of Jesus in the face of accusations (cp Isa 53:7!).

* * *

We see then from these opening verses, that Isaiah is dealing with one who is going to be exalted and enthroned; who is going to be a King and a Priest; who will endure great sufferings in the process of his work. But the glorious outcome of it will be that many nations will come within the scope of that redemptive work.

New Testament Quotations

  1. Verse 13 -- Phi 2:7,9: This has been outlined above.
  2. Verse 13 -- Acts 3:13,14: At the healing of the lame man in the Beautiful Gate, Peter testified of Jesus, the "servant" (Acts 3:l3, RSV) whom God glorified. In his speech he made several other statements easily connected with this prophecy: ie, "whom ye delivered up" (53:12); "why marvel ye?" (52:13,15 LXX); and "that Christ should suffer".
  3. Verse 15 -- Rom 15:20,21: Paul uses this verse to explain his efforts to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, and even to Gentile kings. His work, however, must be seen as only the initial fulfillment of the prophecy. The time is coming when the kings of the earth will all fall prostrate and amazed before the glorified Christ, the one who was first a lamb for the slaughter, but who will then be seen as the Redeemed and Glorified One, and the Redeemer of his people.
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