An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

 Introduction

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is one of the most thoroughly treated texts of Old Testament studies. The text has received heightened consideration because it represents a unique Old Testament passage that speaks of a (seemingly) messianic figure who undergoes vicarious suffering for the atonement of God’s people — a prophecy some would say is fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth (an interpretation that dates as far back as Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30-35).  The concept of atonement through vicarious suffering is certainly present in the Old Testament (i.e. the Levitical sacrificial system, the Passover, the confirmation of the covenant in Exodus 24). However, one is hard-pressed to find the idea of the Davidic king dying on behalf of the people in the Old Testament. In fact, the idea of the Messiah suffering a vicarious death seems quite contradictory to Yahweh’s promise of an eternal throne to the heir of David (2 Samuel 7:12-13).  Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has received heightened attention because it alone of the recognized OT messianic texts identifies the anointed servant of Yahweh as the one who willingly takes on the sin of His people. While most considerations of this passage (rightfully) treat the role of atonement through vicarious suffering, this study is particular in the sense that it lends special attention to the function of the servant’s unwavering obedience as a means for Yahweh’s redemptive work in the world.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in Context      

            Considering the text’s role and function in the book of Isaiah at large is appropriate in creating a framework for a proper exegetical-theological analysis of the passage. Isaiah can be divided in two major sections: Isaiah 1-39 and 40-66. This division is prompted primarily by changes in literary style and content. Chapters 1-39 focus on judgment while chapters 40-66 focus on hope. Chapters 1-39 also contain a substantial portion of historical narrative (6-7, 36-39) while 40-66 is much more lyrical in its language and has no narrative.

The difference in content between chapters 1-39 and 40-66 also strongly suggests that each section addresses unique historical audiences. It is generally accepted the Isaiah 1-39 speaks to eighth century b.c.e  Judah (and her kings) and 40-66 to the exilic community in Babylon.[8]  Each of these historical audiences would have been wrestling with theological questions brought to fore by their historical circumstances. Eighth century Judah was facing a multi-layered international threat from the Syro-Ephraimite coalition as well as Assyrian king Tiglath-Puleser III. In a time of such looming threat and uncertain future, would Yahweh be capable of defending His people? Could Yahweh be trusted to deliver? Isaiah 1-39 answers such questions with a resounding “Yes.”  Divine deliverance, however, comes as a response to human faith and obedience (Isaiah 7 and 36-39).  The nation experiences the redemptive work of Yahweh when Hezekiah trusts and obeys Yahweh.  Upon the basis of that trust, Yahweh responds with an astonishing redemptive act (Isaiah 37:36-38).

Sixth century Babylonian exiles would have been facing theological questions quite different than that of the eighth century audience. Did Yahweh abandon His people? Would Yahweh redeem his people from exile? Is Yahweh capable and willing to redeem his people from exile? These questions create the historical-theological framework for chapters 40-66.  The question that 52:13-53:12 specifically answers is: if the Holy One of Israel is willing and able to redeem Israel from their plight, how will he do so? More specifically still, 52:13-53:12 describes the means by which the Holy One of Israel will deliver Israel from the cause of the exile (sin).

While 40-66 (and 52:13-53:12) answer a series of different questions than that of 1-39, all answers are in a similar vein as that of 1-39: Yahweh redeems on the basis of trust and obedience. The book-wide theme of servanthood, then, comes to a climax in 52:13-53:12 as the servant of Yahweh demonstrates unshakeable obedience that results in the ultimate redemptive work of Yahweh in the world.

An Exegetical-Theological Analysis of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

            Isaiah 52:13-53:12 can be divided in to four parts:[9] (1) 52:13-53:3, (2) 53:4-6, (3) 53:7-9, and (4) 53:10-12.  The central theological message of the passage is efficacious atonement that comes through the faithful obedience and vicarious suffering of the Servant of Yahweh.  While the concept of suffering is especially strong in the passage, suffering plays a supportive role to faithful obedience and atonement.  While the suffering of the servant is the manifestation of the wrath of God against human sin, it is also the means by which the servant’s faithfulness is tested.  The thoroughness of the servant’s suffering (and therefore the efficacy of the atonement) is suggested in the theme from birth to death (53:2, 9).[10]  More than anything else, the reader comes away from the passage joining Yahweh in the exaltation of the servant for (1) his exemplary humility and faithfulness to Yahweh, and (2) his providing the means for Yahweh’s redemptive work in the world.

52:13-53:3.  The first section of the passage is focused on the world’s response to the servant and his work: astonishment and rejection. The prophet prefaces this section’s primary focus with Yahweh’s response to the servant, “he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (v. 13b). This preface frames the passage by setting a tone of ensuing exaltation that carries through the cursus pudorum. He whom the world rejects, Yahweh exalts. This creates a sense of curiosity in readers prompting questions concerning the reason for his exaltation. The passage responds: he is exalted because of his unwavering faith and obedience in Yahweh that created a means for Yahweh’s redemptive work.

The section’s focus begins with the “astonishment” (v. 14a) of the people.[11]  The Hebrew šāmam typically carries a connotation of devastation or desolation that comes from judgment.[12]  This means that “astonishment” here probably connotes more than mere surprise as is evidenced in the second and third lines of verse 14, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (v. 14b, emphasis mine). It is probably the severity of judgment carried out on the servant (that will be described in following verses) that merits the response of astonishment. With this, severe punishment is the just response to severe covenant violation. The more astounding the affliction, the more grave the sin.  The obedience of the servant is all the more dumbfounding then because of the severity of punishment he receives on behalf of deplorable trespassers.

While astonishment as a response to sin is the dominate interpretive tone, there is still an underlying tone of simple surprise in šāmam. This is brought out in the double-entendre of nāzāh (“sprinkle”; “startle”) as well as the enlightening of onlookers (52:15-53:1).  God’s redemptive plan carried out through the servant is unimaginable and therefore has an element of surprise.  Who could ever image that this is what the “arm of the Lord” would look like (53:1)? This textual dynamic underlines the transcendent nature of God’s plan as well as the transcendent model of servanthood exemplified in the servant. It is not only God’s plan that is beyond human comprehension but also the shocking obedience of the servant.

Critical in this passage is the sprinkling of many nations (52:15a).  As noted above Hebrew nāzāh can be translated as either “sprinkle” or “startle”.  While the most dominant meaning of nāzāh in the context of 52:13a is “startle”, there is no doubt that the author intends “sprinkle” as well in light of the dynamic of cleansing of sin in following verses.  “Sprinkling has reference to cleaning from sin (1 Peter 1:2, Hebrews 9:13-14… Sprinkling can be done with oil (Leviticus 8:11), oil and blood (Exodus 29:21), and water (Numbers 8u:7; Matthew 3:15).”[13]  There is a clear image here, then, of the servant playing an expiator’s role in relation to many nations. There is even the strong implication in later verses that the blood that is sprinkled is his own.

In sum, 52:13-53:3 has two levels of interpretation surrounding the world’s response to the servant.  First, the world is astounded at the severity of judgment, which he receives and therefore rejects him. Second, they are startled when they come to realize that his judgment is actually theirs and he willfully chooses to carry the burden on their behalf (52:15-53:3). Both of these interpretations underline the faithful obedience of the servant. First, he is willing to obey Yahweh even though it means undergoing severe judgment. Second, he’s willing to obey Yahweh even though it means willfully suffering on behalf of those whom cause his affliction.  It is one thing for one to carry the burden of loved ones, it is quite another to accept chastisement in order to bring peace to one’s enemy (Matthew 5:46-48). What we have here in this servant is a level of obedience unknown to men. Thankfully, his love and devotion to Yahweh outweighs any resentment or bitterness he might feel for his adversaries. Such love and devotion to Yahweh transcends human love.

53:4-6.  This second section of the greater passage focuses on atonement through vicarious suffering. This is the heart of the passage. In connection to the previous section, there is an explanation as to how rejection turns into exaltation. The servant of Yahweh is exalted because he is the means by which Yahweh removes the guilt/sin of His people. Goldingay observes:

As many foreign people were appalled at him because of the affliction he had gone through, so his appearance will then be supremely anointed, so that like a priest he can spatter many nations to make it possible for them to come before YHWH.[14]

Throughout vv. 4-6 the reader encounters words such as, “sorrows” (v. 4), “smitten” (v. 4), “afflicted” (v. 4), “wounded” (v. 5), “crushed” (v. 5), “chastisement” (v. 5), and “stripes” (v.5).  These highlight suffering.  In turn, we see another category of words pertaining to atonement such as, “our griefs” (v. 4), “our sorrows” (v. 4), “our transgressions” (v.5), “our iniquities” (v. 5), “brought us peace” (v.5), and “we are healed” (v. 5). While atonement is the central theme in vv. 4-6, the theme of obedience is still very much present in the sense that the servant suffers for those who rejected him. The prophet continues the creative use of the first person pronoun that was introduced in the previous section (53:1-3). That same ones who did not “look at him” and who “esteemed him not” (53:2-3) are the ones for whom he suffered such affliction.

Verse 6b (“…Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all”) concludes the section and initiates the transition into the next (53:7-9). It is critical to note that God is the active party in the section. There is mention of both the servant and the people, but again, Yahweh is the orchestrator. The fact that Yahweh is the orchestrator further highlights the faith of the servant. It is one thing for the Lord to permit His servant to suffer and the servant to trust Him anyway. It is quite another thing for Yahweh to be the very one who lays the punishment on the servant and for the servant to trust Yahweh regardless. What the servant exemplifies here is more than mere obedience – he is obedient to the point of death. The humble obedience of this servant is beyond comprehension (echoing the opening section). With this, it begins to be no wonder that Yahweh exalts the servant.

53:7-9.  This very dynamic of humble submission is carried over into the next section.  “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter…” (v. 7).  His refusal to defend his own innocence probably demonstrates his submission of all rights to Yahweh.  His innocence is not his own, it is Yahweh’s. This third section underlines humble submission also through furthered suffering. Suffering, then, is the dominant theme in the passage because it carries through each sub-section of the text (52:13-53:3; 53:4-6; 53:7-9 and 53:10-12). However, while there is a prevalent mention of suffering, suffering itself serves the greater purpose of pointing to humility and obedience. Suffering comes to a climax in this section with the death and burial of the servant (v. 9). Even in his death he receives insult (v. 9). The section finishes with a reminder that “there was no deceit in his mouth” (v. 9). This stirs up feelings of regret in the reader, and this refocuses the attention of the reader from the idea that he will be exalted to the fact that he has suffered innocently and quietly.  With this, the reader’s response is applause and participation in the exaltation of the servant and of Yahweh.

53:10-12.  Finally, the fourth section brings the passage to a close with a repeated focus on two items: (1) the servant’s suffering is the will of Yahweh, and (2) the servant’s suffering provides the means for lifting the guilt of the sins of the nations (again). There is also a minor emphasis on the exaltation of the servant in this section (53:12). It is specifically pointed out, however, that he is exalted because “he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors” (53:12a). With these major and minor themes, the section concludes by touching base on the dominant points of emphasis in the passage at large: atonement through vicarious suffering which comes as a result of humble and faithful obedience. He is exalted because he was obedient in pouring himself out for the redemption of others.

Conclusion

The passage at large undoubtedly understands the humility and obedience of the servant as being key to efficacious atonement.  Functioning within the context of the book at large, the servant of the Lord (at least in this servant song) epitomizes the true nature of human influence and power.  Going against the typical human understanding of power, the prophet teaches that human influence is inseparable from a submissive and intimate relationship with Yahweh.  Yahweh is the one who is able to work powerfully in history.  Humanity has a choice to participate humbly in Yahweh’s work.  Further still, Yahweh’s competency is so much so that he is able to even use the injustice and atrocious behavior of fallen humanity to redeem the world.  However, his redemption comes to humanity through his faithful and obedient ones who are faithful until death.  Those who fully entrust themselves to Yahweh will be exalted; they will be exalted by the Holy One of Israel because of their faith and obedience.  With a great deal of clarity, we will see these same dynamics at work in the Philippians passage.

More specifically, God’s vision of power and influence is diametrically opposed to the world’s.  he criteria for eligibility for exaltation and honor in the kingdom is in stark contrast to the criteria of the world. Human power was characterized by military might, coercion and dominance in a time of Assyrian aggression, the rise of the Babylonian empire, vassal rebellions and political alliances. Throughout the entirety of Isaiah’s ministry, he speaks out against such a view of human leadership because of its great disharmony with the nature of the Holy One of Israel (e.g. Isaiah 13:1-22). The suffering servant then, depicts a leader who’s influence is not earned through might, political manipulation or strategic alliances with the nations, but through weakness, and submission to Yahweh. It is the one whom the world would not even think to look upon that the Holy One of Israel uses powerfully for his purposes in the world. This goes on to connect with the greater section of 40-66 that God’s transcendent plan for redemption further proves that he is uniquely God.

It is possible that the servant of Yahweh knows his Lord enough to trust that He is able to redeem any and all human behavior — even acts of injustice. In response to the loyalty of the servant, Yahweh is able to fully redeem the detestable act of humanity thus demonstrating exactly what Yahweh is capable of accomplishing. He is able to redeem the world through the evil acts of humanity. This proceeds to communicate that the servant merits exaltation based on two dynamics: (1) humble faithfulness and trust in Yahweh and (2) offering himself as the instrument for redemption of his enemies.


[1] Hebrewשכל  is in the Hiphil and can denote to instruct, teach, give insight, to be smart or to make smart (Koehler, Baumgartner, Stamm, M.E.J. Richardson (tr.), HALOT (1999), pp 1327-29).  I’ve chosen “prosper” because of the dynamics of semantic parallelism connecting with גבה  in the second verset of the line.

[2] שמם   normally signifies “desolate” (Leviticus 26:22, 31, 32, 34).  When it has a connotation of surprise, it is almost always startled in a negative sense; not simply “astonished” (Lev. 26:32; 1Kings 9:8; 2 Chr. 7:21; Ezra 9:3). Most uses of שמם when used with the connotation of “appalled” or even “desolate” is when the writer/tradition is describing the effects of judgment.  This is certainly fitting here as the servant’s appalling appearance is due to the judgment laid on vicariously. Koehler, Baumgartner, Stamm, M.E.J. Richardson (tr.), HALOT (1999), pp. 1338.

[3] My translation of this verset is quite literal.  Interpreting the verse, the idea is more than likely something such as, “So his appearance was beyond the resemblance of man” (emphasis mine).

[4] Again, as with the preceding verset, “sons of man” connotes “humanity”.  This verset paired with the previous undoubtedly creates a parallelism with the central idea that the servant’s physical appearance was so appalling that he was hardly recognized as a human.  Naturally, this is a hyperbolic statement emphasizing that the severity of judgment laid on him was reflected in his bodily affliction.

[5] נזה  could be “sprinkle or “startle” (Koehler, Baumgarter, Stamm, Richardson (tr.) HALOT (1999), p. 683).  The author is poetically working the rhetorical tool of double entendre, and thereby touches on the two themes of “appalled” and “expiation”.  More notes on this below.

[6] The word “others” is not in the Hebrew, but must be added to make sense in English.  Literally the verse reads, “and hiding of faces from him

[7] Hebrew ערה is behind “emptied out” which typically signifies to pour out, reveal, make naked, expose, or to uncover (Koehler, Baumgartner, Richardson and Stamm, HALOT (1999), pp. 881-2). Here, ערה is in the Hiphil and can signify laying bare the foundations of a wall.  In this context, it seems fairly certain that the idea is that the servant has emptied the life out of himself – his life represented by the pouring out of blood.

[8] Some even argue that chapters 55-66 address a post-exile audience. With this, there is little debate anymore over the proposition that the book of Isaiah as a whole is not addressed to the eighth century prophet’s contemporaries alone. Even single authorship proponents (in general) agree that Isaiah of the eighth century is addressing a different historical in 1-39 than that of 40-66. This division is prompted primarily by an obvious shift in content and literary form. For further treatment of the authorship and historical context of Isaiah (Cf. Oswalt The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: 1998), 17-28).

[9] John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 18.  Also note that Delitzsch, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah, 1980 and Motyer, Isaiah, 1999, divide the section in almost the same manner as Oswalt.

[10] Motyer, Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999), p. 331.

[11] Ibid, p. 332.

[12] G. Archer, R. L. Harris and B. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Accordance Version; Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003).

[13] Ibid, Accordance Version.

[14] J. Goldingay, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 472.


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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