ONE - MY SERVANT WILL PROSPER — THE SUFFERING LEADS TO GLORY
The first three verses give us an overview of the section: through the humiliation of suffering the Servant of the LORD will be exalted.
THE SERVANT WILL BE EXALTED (verse13)
This grand theme is announced in the first verse. The Servant will be exalted, be raised on high, will be very high. The significant means of this being accomplished is the fact that he will “deal wisely” or “prosper.” The verb used here describes prudent and practical wisdom. It means that he will live skillfully according to the plan of God so that he may be prosperous and have good success. Jeremiah associates this verb with the prophecy of the Messiah receiving the kingdom (23:5). This point then is that this Servant will prosper as God intends him to.
THE EXALTATION WILL CONTRAST THE HUMILIATION (verses 14, 15)
The theme announced in the first verse is now developed: the exaltation follows humiliation. The humiliation is reported in v. 14: earlier, many were aghast at him. They were astonished because his form and his visage was so marred. “Marred” is mild. The term used describes a spoiling, a destruction, an appearance-changing affliction. The details of this will be discovered in 53:1-9.
The exaltation is reported in v. 15. Kings are astonished that he, of all people, should be so exalted. The contrast is staggering—he will startle kings (“startle” is preferable to the translation “sprinkle”). When they see God’s plan work out, when they look on him whom they pierced, they shall see what they had not been told, they shall understand what they had not heard. In that day, they shall realize what the wisdom of God teaches, that the suffering servant will be exalted.
The point we learn about suffering here is that the suffering Servant prospers with God because he deals wisely. He has insight. This is the point the prophecy makes about the Servant’s sufferings—they are practical. He endures them, not for his own sake, but for some practical end of which he is aware and to which they will bring him. The suffering, which seems to be misfortune, is here seen as the Servant’s wisdom which will issue in his glory. The first stanza, then, gives us the general theme. In contrast to human experience God reveals in his Servant that suffering is fruitful, that sacrifice is practical. Pain, in God’s service, shall lead to glory.
It is this that is at odds with the world. What is success with God is often failure in the eyes of the world. Success with God may not include fame and fortune, health and happiness—as the world knows them. What is success? Success is knowing the will of God an doing it. The Servant knows that suffering is in God’s plan the way to glory.
TWO - WHO HAS BELIEVED — THE SUFFERING IS OFFENSIVE
The second stanza begins to trace the development of the theme of suffering, first showing that it raises disbelief and thoughtfulness in the people who observe it.
THEY DID NOT BELIEVE THE REPORT (verse 1)
If we paraphrase the first verse we would say something like, “No one ever imagined this.” The verse is expressed in the form of questions. The penitent would reflect on the suffering Servant and eventually come to realize God was at work. But that realization would take belief and revelation. For ages Israel did not believe such suffering was at the heart of God’s redemptive plan.
THE SUFFERING IS OBSERVED (verses 2, 3)
The response to the suffering Servant is so true to life. On the one hand his beginnings were thought to be insignificant, and on the other hand his sufferings were offensive.
Verse two describes his beginnings: like a tender plant in a parched ground. His beginnings were unlikely. Who would have thought that a “carpenter’s son” out of Nazareth would figure prominently in the divine plan. There was nothing appealing or attractive in his appearance that would make Israel rally to him.
Verse three reports that he was despised, that is, looked down on, held in contempt, as well as rejected. His life was filled with grief and sorrows, so that men turned away their faces from him. In short, they did not “esteem him,” they didn’t think much of him, especially in his condition.
These words illustrate vividly a habit we all share, the habit of letting the eye cheat the conscience, of letting the sight of suffering blind us to the meaning. We dislike pain and suffering; we turn away from it, forgetting that it has a reason, a future, and a God. We look on things so superficially. We make snap judgments about suffering on the surface. Every day we allow the dullness of poverty, the ugliness of disease, the futility of misfortune, the disappointment of failure, to prevent us for realizing that we share the responsibility for them. We allow suffering in others or ourselves to blind us to the fact of the reasons and purposes for sufferings. We consider the sufferer an unlucky person who is falling by the way. The truth is that suffering is part of God’s p[an to remind us of the human predicament we share, to bring up out of ourselves in sympathy and patience, and to eventually fit us for glory. So it is reasonable that the suffering Servant himself share the suffering of the world to redeem the world.
THREE - SURELY OUR GRIEFS—THE SUFFERING IS VICARIOUS
If people at first make rash observations about the suffering of God’s Servant, they are soon led in their conscience to realize its purpose. In this section they realize that the suffering is vicarious.
THE SERVANT’S SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT (verse 4)
The earliest and most common moral judgment, which people pass on pain, is that which is implied in its name—that is penal. People suffer because God is angry with them. That is what Job’s visitors concluded about his suffering. Here, Israel says, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” That is, they saw the suffering Servant and thought God was striking him.
But now they knew they were wrong. The hand of God was indeed upon the Servant, and the reason was sin, yet the sin was not his, but theirs. Verse 4 makes this clear, and verses 5 and 6 amplify it.
THE PUNISHMENT OF THE SERVANT WAS REDEMPTIVE (verses 5, 6)
Note the parallelism of this fifth verse: “he was wounded for our transgressions” and “he was crushed for our iniquities.” The contrast is between “he” and “our.” All his suffering was because of our rebellions and sins.
The second set of expressions clarify the purpose of this vicarious or substitutionary suffering as redemptive: “The chastisement of our peace” and “by his stripes we are healed.” All interpreters of this verse agree that the peace, the healing, is ours in consequence of the chastisement and scourging. The pain was his in consequence of the sin that was ours—that is, the suffering was vicarious. And the pain brought spiritual healing and peace—that is, the suffering was redemptive.
That the suffering is vicarious and redemptive is confessed by Israel in verse 6: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. The verse begins and ends with “all.” Substitutionary suffering of this Servant touches all who have sinned—and we know that that is all of us.
In every family, in every nation, the innocent suffer for the guilty. Vicarious suffering is not arbitrary or accidental; it comes with our growth, it is of the very nature of life. It is that part of the service of humankind, to which we are all born, and of the reality of which we daily grow more aware.
Vicarious suffering is not a curse. It is service—service to God. It proves to be a power where every other moral force has failed. This is very intelligible, because it is based on love. Any parents who have suffered and sacrificed for their children can understand the impulse.
But people argue that vicarious suffering is unjust. They forget, however, that there are two reasons people endure suffering in this world—justice and love. We often suffer because we ourselves are not innocent. We share the cause of pain in the world. This is justice. But to suffer in service to God is a demonstration of love. The epitome of this is the suffering Servant. Not only is his suffering vicarious—it is voluntary. Human experience feels it has found its highest and holiest form of love when the innocent is willing to take the blame for others. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” and greater spiritual service can no one do for others, than to suffer with them and for them that they might be healed spiritually.
But, of course, the suffering of this Servant far outdistanced human vicarious suffering (and it is here the nature of the Servant begins to unfold): his suffering removes sin. We may observe a Moses interceding for the sinful people, asking God to take his life so that wrath could be averted from those worshiping the golden calf. That is noble; it’s magnificent. But it cannot remove sin. God himself had to carry the sins of his people. What all vicarious suffering had failed to do in Israel’s experience, the suffering of our Lord accomplished. Centuries after this oracle was written our divine Lord came and fulfilled to the letter the words of this prophecy. His vicarious suffering would strike the heart into penitence and lift it to peace with God.
FOUR - OPPRESSED HE HUMBLED HIMSELF — THE SUFFERING IS ACCEPTED (ISAIAH 53:7-9)
If the third stanza confessed that it was for the sins of the people the Servant suffered, the fourth stanza declares that he himself was sinless, and yet silently submitted to all which injustice laid on him.
THE SUFFERING SERVANT IS SILENT (verse 7)
What is so remarkable is that although he was afflicted and oppressed, he did not open his mouth. Such a thing is almost unheard of in the Old Testament. No one else could remain silent under pain. In the Old Testament sufferers broke out into one of two voices—the voice of guilt or the voice of doubt. The sufferer is either confessing his sin which the suffering has called to his attention or, when he feels no guilt, he is protesting his suffering, challenging God in argument. David, Jeremiah, Job, and countless others, including us we must confess, are not silent under pain. We confess that we deserve it, or complain that we do not.
Not so with the suffering Servant. He did not open his mouth, but was silent like a sheep led to the slaughter. Why was this Servant the unique sample of silence under suffering? Because he knew the truth. It had been said of him in 52:13: “My servant shall deal wisely.” He knew what he was about. He had no guilt of his own, and no doubts of God. He knew that is was not punishment he was enduring for himself, but that it was a service he was performing—a service laid on him by God, a service for man’s redemption, a service sure of results that were glorious. If anything will enable a person to accept silently his suffering it is this—the knowledge that the suffering was service to God.
THE SUFFERING SERVANT IS INNOCENT (verses 8, 9)
The prophet reports that the Servant was innocent. He had done no violence; no guile was found in him. Yet he was taken to judgment by tyrannical powers. It was judicial murder. And when they considered that he was lawfully put to death, they consistently gave him a convict’s grave. On this note the stanza ends. He was innocent, but he willingly submitted to the oppression, an oppression that carried him to an ignominious burial. From all appearances, an innocent man’s life ended fruitlessly. But nothing could be further from the truth.
FIVE - THE LORD WAS PLEASED—THE SUFFERING WAS INVALUABLE
It appeared to many that the death of this Servant was an awful tragedy. It was utterly a perversion of justice. Surely here passed into oblivion the fairest life that ever lived. People might see and say, God forsakes his own. On the contrary, the fifth stanza begins, God’s will and pleasure was in it.
THE SUFFERING WAS GOD’S WILL (verse 10)
“It pleased the LORD to bruise him” begins the theological explanation of the suffering. The verb “pleased” does not mean enjoyment. It basically means that God willed the suffering. It is that kind of pleasure. This is the one message which can render any pain tolerable—God willed it—it is his pleasure. Thus, any that God calls to suffer for his service should make it their purpose to do his will, to please him. Therein is success with God.
THE SUFFERING WAS FOR OUR JUSTIFICATION (verse 11)