Good Friday

Allow the text’s own confessional posture to shape humility and compassion

Black and white photo of a cross
Black and white photo of a cross, via Unsplash

March 29, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

This poem holds a vivid place in the Christian imagination. Christians have been making associations between this poem and Jesus since the New Testament period (for example, 1 Peter 2:22–25). However, the poem was originally addressed to Judean exiles in Babylon. It offered them, through vivid personification, a vision of what embrace of God’s comfort and response to God’s will meant in their suffering.1

Christian readings that perceive later echoes of this ancient vision in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus should take care to do no harm to others, particularly Jewish readers.2 Attention to others’ interpretations might further enrich Christian readings, not least by highlighting the importance of the text’s address to a community and the embrace of responsiveness and humility invited by the poetry’s presentation of this figure.

A twofold challenge faces this text’s preachers on Good Friday. First, there is a temptation to see this passage simply as pointing to the crucifixion and so miss its meaning and message on its own terms. This approach “risks robbing the passage of much of its power.”3 The preacher’s task is to keep hearers attentive to this poem long enough for it to do its formational work.

Second, there is a temptation to read this text as a triumphant confirmation of one’s own religious certainties. However, this approach reads against the text’s emphasis on confession. The preacher’s task is to allow the text’s own confessional posture to shape humility and compassion.

This passage begins and ends in glory (see, for example, 52:13; 53:12). This glory is what the divine voice announces, but what the human speakers of the center of the poem specifically cannot see (53:2). The “appearance”4 of the Servant is an apparent cause of his rejection by others. Appearance (52:13, 14; 53:2) and sight motifs weave through the poem (52:13, 15; 53:2, 10, 11), underscoring the audience’s mis-sightedness.

The speaking “we” plays a dominant role in pronouncing the poem, declaring their thoroughgoing misapprehension. They confess their profound mistakenness. The one who, in the divine vision, is “exalted” is the one that “we accounted … stricken” (53:4) and treated as “of no account” (53:3). The “we” who rarely speak in Isaiah’s exilic chapters, here speak the poem’s central lines while “kings … shut their mouths” (52:15), and the Servant himself is celebrated as “silent” (53:7).

Our moment is arguably intensely appearance-focused and tempted to self-glorifying power. These tendencies stand opposed to the God-given glory envisioned in this poem. Rather than having “form or majesty,” the Servant’s appearance is undesirable (53:2). He is undemanding and non-protesting. Twice the poem announces: “He did not open his mouth” (53:7).

That contrast deserves intentional proclamation in a culture infused with the corrosive impact of pervasive artificial, appearance-driven media and self-glorifying power-seeking.5 By offering a counter-vision of glory, this poem may reorient those who dwell richly with its imagery of the ironically exalted, mistakenly despised Servant.

Importantly, the “we” in this passage make corporate confession. This is not a statement that “I” have done wrong, but that “we” have done wrong. Often, especially when reflecting on Good Friday in the Christian tradition, we highlight the central importance of personal response to God’s grace. Such response is vitally important, but so is an awareness of our embeddedness in community. Attention to resonances with Jesus6 should not obscure the apparent original meaning of the Servant figure for the community of Judean exiles,7 nor that early Christian believers were invited, as a community, to embrace Jesus’ example.8

Isolation and loneliness have become particularly pressing concerns in our own context.9 Those who respond by confessing their misunderstandings of God’s work in their world, and who embrace the humility with which this poem invites them to hold their own perceptiveness, find the opportunity for connection within a “we” who together announce that God’s good work heals them (53:5).

Preachers who take up this text’s invitation on Good Friday may invite the lonely and self-isolated of our moment to be reminded of their belonging within the worldwide, time-transcendent body of believers. In this moment we join innumerable multitudes in confessing our ignorance, our looking for God in all the wrong places, and our arrogance in thinking that we hold the keys to all the answers.

The poem has the capacity to enhance our confession, to form humility, and to deepen our compassion for the others’ suffering.10 To the extent that believers perceive resonances with Jesus’ suffering, they might be aided to see the injustice of undeserved suffering in their own contexts and moved to respond in active compassion. By discerning similarities between this personification of perfect embrace of God’s will and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christians might helpfully be formed into imitation of Christ’s own compassion, humility, and embrace of God’s will.


  1. See e.g., Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 40–66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 201, 215.
  2. See e.g., Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: Before and After Christianity,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 73, no. 2 (2019): 172, on the importance of “diversity of interpretation” and the risk of “reading … at the expense of someone else.” On the history of Christian readings of this passage and others in Isaiah, see John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40–55, ICC (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 2:286.
  4. Biblical quotations are NRSVue unless otherwise indicated.
  5. See, for example, recent research published by the American Psychological Association on the impact of social media on body image in adolescents: Helen Thai, et al., “Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth with Emotional Distress,” accessed February 17, 2024,
  6. I am not claiming that this is the poem’s original or only meaning. It is, however, a resonance that Christians indisputably have heard, particularly in the context of Good Friday.
  7. See, for example, Brettler and Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant,” 158.
  8. The verbs directed at the audience in 1 Peter 1:21 are plural.
  9. See, for example, the recent statement from the U.S. Surgeon General titled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, accessed February 17, 2024,
  10. See Brettler and Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant,” 172–173.