Servant of the Lord

Servant of the Lord (52:13—53:12)
Good Friday Message


Most Christians are familiar with this passage in Isaiah. We often read it at Communion time. We certainly turn to it at Easter time. But, how familiar are we with the context of this passage?

To understand it correctly we have to imagine ourselves as Jews who have been in Exile in Babylon for 70 years. Many of our fellow Jews have settled comfortably into our new environment. We have had children born to us over the years; children who have not known our home country, Israel. Many of the new generation have even learned the language of our Babylonian neighbours and have blended in with Babylonian society to an amazing extent. Parents have even established their own businesses among the Babylonian population, and have been doing very well commercially. Some have even lost any desire to go back to that small, insignificant land once embraced as God’s Promised Land.

But, there has been friction among us. Some of us have not been prepared to lose our God-given identity, or forget God’s promises to us to make us His distinctive people, and dwell among us. But, what hope is there left! Our Temple has been destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem have been pulled down, and our institutions, like kingship and priesthood have come to an end. We haven’t even heard any prophetic voice to encourage us to believe that there is a future for us in our God-given land.

A voice of hope

Suddenly the voice of God is heard among us once again. It’s the voice of the prophet Isaiah. Last time we heard his voice was when our people were told that as a nation we had gone too far in our rebellion against God. Our future was Exile in a strange land. We have been in Babylon 70 years now! Now the message comes virtually out of the blue saying,

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isa 40:1-5).

For those of us who have maintained some kind of hope of restoration, this news is incredible. What can we look forward to? Something on the scale of the Exodus? We used to hear how that grand figure of Moses challenged the might of Pharaoh and all Egypt, and finally led our people from bondage to God’s Promised Land for us. Can we expect something similar? Who is this grand figure going to be?

Once again the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all nations will witness our liberation.

Progressive revelation

Let’s leave the Exiles now, and see what Isaiah has to say. As the prophecy progresses, the picture of a glorious liberation takes on some twists and turns. The One who was to liberate them was portrayed not as the glorious Son of Man that we see in Daniel 7. The One who was going to come down with the clouds of heaven, who was given authority, glory and sovereign power, and before whom all nations fall down in worship.

No, this One who was going to accomplish the liberation of God’s people from Babylon is the Servant of the Lord. ‘Servant’? What kind of a title is that! Yes, Moses had been called the servant of the Lord, and Israel was also referred to as the ‘servant of the Lord’, but it had been deaf, dumb, and blind to everything God had tried to say to them. This Servant comes from among God’s people, but displays perfect obedience to God. He is going to achieve the liberation of Israel that the Son of Man in Daniel was tasked with, but in a way totally unexpected.

Why had God chosen a different approach to their rescue, to what was expected? Here we see God’s wisdom at work. A political liberation was incapable of changing their sin-prone nature. Something far deeper and transforming needed to be carried out among the children of Israel.

The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of a time when God would give His people a new mind, a new heart, a new attitude towards Him, so that the transformation would make them His people in truth, not just in name. But, who was this agent of transformation going to be? It’s Isaiah who points him out to us.

We are told in 52:13-15 that the first impressions of this Servant that seemed so disappointing, will completely alter people’s understanding of him, and the significance of his sufferings will be finally understood. Let’s follow the progression of this disclosure. If we could sum up chapter 53, we could say it was,

Beauty for ashes

Suffering observed and misunderstood (53:1-3)

Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Our whole humanity shrinks at the sight of real suffering.

Some of you might remember in the film, “Amazing Grace”, when William Wilberforce wanted to demonstrate the plight of slaves to the nobility of his day, he showed them what life was like on a slave trading ship. The response was for the ladies to cover their noses with their handkerchiefs and shrink from looking. Even today, when the news reporters want to show us some unpleasant scenes, they warn us saying, ‘Some people might find the following scenes disturbing.’ We see nothing noble or praiseworthy in most examples of human suffering. Suffering is to be avoided at all costs.

But this person in our passage not only suffers, but people have turned their backs on him despising him, thinking he is getting what he deserves. After all, no-one who is innocent could be going through what he is going through.

Explanation of the suffering (53:4-6)

But now comes the explanation for the sufferings of this One.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
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.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

For those who continue to stand, watch, and wonder, a new understanding dawns on them.

They move from a casual understanding, to a more enlightened view of his sufferings. The Servant whom God called to be Israel’s liberator from Exile, had a far deeper task than just to liberate them from human bondage. Freeing them from the hardships of life and its circumstances does nothing to change people’s sinful nature; the nature that keeps rebelling against God, and continues to spoil all that God has made good.

But who would want to take your place and mine in God’s judgement against our sin? Who would want to play substitute where the price is the ultimate cost of one’s life! Isaac Watts, the hymn writer expressed this thought very well when he wrote,

Alas! And did my Saviour bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

A willing act to the very end (53:7-9)

We now come to the perfect obedience of the Servant. His total surrender to God’s purpose for him.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgement 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.
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.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” cried Jesus on the cross.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. (Mt 27:51). The afternoon turned to darkness.

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.

The Servant is triumphant and exalted (53:10-12)

The cross has always been a stumbling block for people who measure success in terms of power. Dr Albert Schweizer, a French-German theologian, organist, philosopher, and physician, missionary in Gabon in Africa, thought the cross was Jesus’ moment of failure. It is still despised by most of the world, even some who call themselves Christians, like Albert Schweizer. Yet, here is the display of God’s wisdom. How?

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.
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.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Here is God’s wisdom, victorious over the worst havoc Satan has been able to bring about in this world. It was not through some incredible display of what people regard as power, or some sensational display. It was through the death of His own dear Son, Jesus Christ. Satan’s power over sin, death and hell was broken. Having faced the worst Satan could direct against him, Jesus rose triumpant over death. As Paul exclaimed,

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law [the law that demanded death for sin; the law that was fully satisfied by the death of Jesus].
But thanks be to God! He gave us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1Cor 15:55-57).

No wonder Paul the apostle gloried in the wisdom of God, when he wrote,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1Cor 1:18-25).

This understanding led Paul to take a completely different view of life and his role in it. While people in the world boasted of greatness, riches, power, influence, God showed Paul that His grace was sufficient for Paul in every situation, for God’s power was most visibly displayed when His people embraced their weakness.

Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10).

Our response

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do. (Isaac Watts)