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

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"Who Hath Believed Our Report?" (Isaiah 53:1-3)

Passing on from the general overview of the Messiah's sacrificial work (52:13-15). This next section (Isa 53:1-3) shows his appeal to his own nation and their rejection of him. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11).

Verse 1

"Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?"
"Who hath believed our report?" -- "Shemmah" signifies something heard, an announcement. That is, ''who hath believed the report to us, not the report from us?" "What we have heard" (RSV, NEB). (The parallelism of the next phrase proves this rendering.) Isaiah classifies himself amongst the nation that failed to appreciate and believe in the Messiah when he appeared. Especially was this true of the elite class of Israel. "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" (John 7:48).

"And to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?" -- "Arm" is "zeroah", a word quite similar in the original to "seed" ("zera"), which does double duty in Scripture as both planting seed and descendants. The fundamental idea is that of "stretching out". In those days seed was sown broadcast (cp Jesus' parable of the sower -- Mat 13); the farmer stretched forth his arm to cast the seed across the field. Likewise, the begettal of children was a way of stretching one's influence, or one's "arm", forward into succeeding years.

Jesus Christ was both "arm" of Yahweh (Isa 40:10; Luke 1:51) and "seed" of Yahweh (ie, Gen 3:15). Through him would come the stretching out of the Almighty's "arm" -- ie, the extension of His purpose. Through him, a "tender plant" (v 2), would also come the final harvest of a multitudinous "seed" (Isa 53:10; Psa 126:5,6; John 12:23,24).

Moses had been the "arm" of the Lord to cut and wound "Rahab" (Egypt), and to dry up the sea that the ransomed would pass over (Isa 51:9,10), as a flock following its shepherd (Isa 63:5,11,12). It is to be noticed also that this "arm" of Moses was made "leprous" (Exo 4:6), as is the "arm of Yahweh" in Isa 53! Jesus, the "arm of Yahweh", because of his "leprous" nature, and by his sacrificial death -- the Lamb/Shepherd (vv 6,7) for his flock -- provides the true and perfect ransom, and the final and absolute deliverance out of Egypt.

Verse 2

"For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him."
"For he shall grow up before Him" -- That is, he shall grow up before God -- but, by implication, not before men; not in the "public eye". His childhood home, Nazareth, was a city of meager reputation, a despised place. It was a proverb in Israel: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). His family was poor in Israel, despite its royal ancestry. His "father" was but a lowly carpenter. All the circumstances of his early life were contrived by the Heavenly Father so that His Son would grow up in secret, far away from the prying eyes of the nation.

"As a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground" -- "A young plant" (RSV), "parched ground" (NEB). "Plant" and "root" draw attention to the "seed" aspect mentioned already; they also call to mind the prophecy of Isa 11: the Messiah as a "branch" sprung up from the old root of Jesse. (The word "netzer", "branch" in 11:1, is the basis of the rather obscure citation in Mat 2:23 -- "He shall be called a Nazarene." Nazareth was the "Branch-town", the "dry" and despised place out of which the "Branch" of Yahweh grew up!)

Nazareth and Galilee -- indeed, all of Israel -- was a "dry ground" politically and spiritually. This term is reflective of the Roman domination of Canaan, the eclipsed monarchy of Judah, and the dry and cold and sterile Jewish formalism. From such a soil how could a divine plant like Jesus grow and prosper? It was as if the loveliest and most fruitful tree were to spring unbidden out of the desert sand. But the "young" and "tender" plant which was Jesus, appearing outwardly feeble to men, had hidden stores of strength. His strength was in the Lord; his "roots" were sent deep into the life-giving word; he was planted by the hidden "rivers of water" (Psa 1:3); even in the intense heat of trial and persecution he "prospered" (Isa 52:13, RSV; Jer 17:8).

"He hath no form nor comeliness" -- "Form" is the same word that appeared in Isa 52:14. "Comeliness" is "hawdar", which signifies magnificence or splendor; it is translated "majesty" in NEB and NIV.

"And when we shall see him" -- This should be translated, as in the RSV, "that we should look at him", and linked with the previous phrase -- thus producing a parallel with the last phrase of v 2.

"There is no beauty that we should desire him" -- "Beauty" is "marek", translated "visage" (AV) and "appearance" (RSV) in Isa 52:14. This is a further reference to the less-than-human appearance of Jesus as a result of his last terrible trials (Isa 52:14).

Perhaps, in a broader sense, we may find exhortation in this. For those who look for the realization of their hopes and ambitions in this life the outward appearance, the form and the beauty are everything. They desire only that which appeals to the natural eye and the natural mind. But to those who have a deeper understanding of life's true values, these things are of little consequence. They know that such qualities will fade and perish with time, leaving behind a vacuum of discontent and futility. So they look instead for the enduring qualities of heart and mind, qualities that fit men and women for eternal fellowship with their Creator.

"For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2Co 4:18).
Verse 3

"He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not."
"He is despised" -- "Bazah" signifies "disesteemed"; it is used in Gen 25:34 and 1Sa 2:30. Because he appeared to be something much less than what he really was, Jesus was looked down upon and scorned:

"Is not this Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:22). "We know this man whence he is... for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet" (John 7:27,52).

"Rejected" -- "Chadel", destitute, without friends or help.

"A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" -- He knew an unsettled, transient existence (Luke 9:58). He was opposed and menaced (Luke 4:29). He suffered the indifference and the maligning of his own kindred (John 7:5; Mark 3:21). He was sensitive to pain, often working himself to exhaustion (Luke 8:46; John 4:6; Mark 4:36). While others slept, he spent whole nights in agonizing prayer. He felt the pain of others as though it were his own (Mat 8:17). He grieved over a mission that failed (Mat 23:37-39). He was betrayed by a close companion (John 13:18). And finally, he suffered indignity, torture, and a cruel death.

"We hid as it were our faces from him" -- The margin has, which is plausible, "he hid his face from us". This suggests several ideas:

  1. An allusion to the leper covering his upper lip and crying "Unclean, unclean" (Lev 13:45).
  2. The withholding of his "glory" from the eyes of a disbelieving people.
  3. Shame and humiliation: "he emptied himself" (Phi 2:8).
If we accept the AV rendering, however, it is possible also to see significance: "We hid our faces from him." We esteemed him smitten of God; we lost what faith we had as we saw him dying a criminal's death. We today have the advantage of hindsight. But if we had been there, our reactions would have almost certainly been those of the believers of that day. We too would have looked aghast at a suffering "Saviour". The "we" of Isaiah 53 spans the ages of time; it includes Martha and John and Peter and Thomas; it includes us all.

New Testament Quotations

  1. Verse 1 -- Rom 10:16: This verse is quoted by Paul to show that very few could be expected to believe the gospel of Christ.
  2. Verse 1 -- John 12:38: Although Jesus worked great miracles before the nation of Israel, "yet they believed not on him, in order that the saying of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled."
  3. Verse 2 -- Luke 20:13: The parable of the vineyard. The lord at last sends his beloved son to the disobedient husbandmen. "It may be they will reverence him when they see him" is an echo of Isaiah's "when we shall see him". Sure enough, Isaiah's prophecy foretells how the beloved son would not be reverenced, but rejected at his coming.
  4. Verse 2 -- Rev 22:16: The two seemingly paradoxical ideas "root" and "offspring" are taken from Isaiah's "root" and "plant" here.
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