Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12
Taking the description of the servant at face value, I’m struck by how likely it is that I would have dismissed the servant, passed him by on the street without another thought. He certainly wouldn’t have been a contender for “man of the year” or on my list of those most likely to succeed. I wouldn’t have sought him out with the hopes of making an important connection in my network. And I wouldn’t have believed that he had anything to offer me.
The description here of the servant is one who defies all current measures of success in our culture. He was marred beyond human semblance (52:14). He had no attractiveness for which one would naturally be drawn to him (53:2). He was despised and rejected, hard to look at (53:4). He asked for nothing and yet gave all. He was oppressed. He was afflicted. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. The world battered and bruised him, and did its best to sideline him.
Yet, in spite of all of the ways in which the servant was rejected or perhaps because of it, kings and nations are astonished by him (52:15). Far from being diminished or sidelined by his suffering, the servant is described as one who would be savior to all. This lowly figure turns out to be someone Israel needs and by extension, someone we need. And it is precisely the lack of qualities we associate with earthly success that ensure the servant’s success in God’s divine economy of salvation.
There is no clear identification of the servant in this song. Some streams of Jewish tradition hold, however, that the servant is the real or ideal people of Israel who have suffered and continue to suffer for the transgressions of the world. This interpretation is supported by the identification of the servant as Israel in Isaiah 41:8 and 43:10. If this is the case, the song is an interpretation and exposition of the calling of Israel as a nation to be a people who would intercede for and bear the punishments and afflictions of the nations. The righteous one will make many righteous (53:11).
In Christian tradition, this song has become an apt interpretation and key means for understanding the life and suffering of Jesus as the Messiah. Somehow, through the suffering of Jesus, all are healed vicariously from their afflictions. On him has been laid the iniquity of us all. In this Christian reading, the song transcends the particularities of ancient Israel and extends to all people, the first person pronouns in this song now referring to us today. He was wounded for our transgressions. Crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that made us whole. And by his bruises, we are healed.
Human sin participated in his demise. But God refused to let his suffering and sin be the last word. Instead, in the mysterious ways of God, his suffering becomes the vehicle for our redemption and restoration. Perhaps that is what makes this song a fitting text for Good Friday. Jesus’ death was not for naught. It was not gratuitous but salvific. And thus, though we grieve the suffering of the servant, we rejoice in what God has done through him. We celebrate that death was not the end. There is more to the story, for the song closes with the exaltation of the servant. Even as the servant was humiliated for our transgressions, God allotted him a share with the great and the strong (53:12). This servant, whom the world counted as insignificant and of low estate changed the course of history and now, God has raised him to a position of glory and honor. And so yes, Jesus died. But on the third day, he rose again from the dead and now is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Thus, even on this dark Friday as we commemorate the cross, we recognize the glory of the suffering Messiah who now reigns in heaven.
In light of a messianic reading, a number of applications seem warranted. First, the song invites us to reflect on the question of how we define success, especially for those who are called to the work of ministry and mission. For the servant, earthly standards and predictors for success were insufficient. The servant wasn’t charismatic. He didn’t have a strong personality or proven leadership qualities or excellent preaching skills. Instead, the servant’s main qualities are represented in terms of his character. He is a person who is humble and gentle in heart, empathetic and compassionate, and who puts the well-being of others before his own concerns about reputation. Jesus goes on to model these qualities in his own ministry, teaching with both word and deed that ministry is not about making ourselves big in the eyes of our parishioners, but rather, giving ourselves for their sake. The emphasis on good character as a key element to the servant’s success should certainly give us pause. Being faithful ambassadors of Christ’s salvific work is not nearly as much about what we can do as it is about who we are and how we act.
Second, this passage invites us to consider suffering in the Christian life. A common but false narrative associated with the Christian faith is that God will grant earthly blessings and rewards to those who have faith. This text clearly dispels that notion. Instead, this passage suggests that suffering is part of the Christian life. This doesn’t mean that God wants us to suffer or that all suffering is vicarious or beneficial. Most human suffering is the result of sin and evil. However, it does suggest that suffering is not a sign of God’s abandoning or forsaking us, no matter how much it may feel like that at the time. Instead, we learn from this text that God is very present in our suffering, comforting and strengthening us as one who knows intimately what it is to suffer because he has taken on the suffering of us all.