Some Reflections on the Servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12

These reflections are part of an ongoing series here at Expository Thoughts about the extent of the atonement.

52:13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals—15 so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

The first stanza of this marvelous poem recounts the prosperity and success that the Servant of Yhwh will enjoy, as he shares in the exaltation that is fit only for God (cf. 6:1; 33:10; 57:15). The poem will return to this at a later point, but the subject of the majority of it will be the Servant’s affliction, to which this stanza quickly turns. The author’s point seems to be that the nations shall contemplate with bewilderment the idea that the Servant will be exalted only after having lost all things. The implication seems to be that they will understand the message in the rest of the poem and shutter at the thought.

In this sense (and in keeping with the theme of this series), there is already a hint that the work of the Servant has a worldwide impact.

53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Already in 52:10, the reader of Isaiah has heard that the holy arm of Yhwh would appear in the sight of all nations, revealing God’s salvation. The point in this stanza seems to build on this and the previous stanza in asking the question, Who would have thought that the salvation brought by the arm of Yhwh would come through one marred in appearance and barely recognizable as human?

As can be seen from the underlined words, there is a shift from “they” and “many nations” to “we.” Most likely, the author is identifying himself with his own people, so that the reference to “we” is referring to Israel, as it does typically throughout the book (e.g. 16:6; 24:16; etc.).

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But 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. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Continuing from the previous stanza, the reader finds that indeed this man was suffering, but it was not for his own sake. The Servant’s wounds were for “our” infirmities, diseases, and transgressions. If the referent of these pronouns is the same as the last stanza, then it appears that the Servant bore the iniquities of his people, namely Israel. The question we would then need to ask is whether it was exclusively for his people. If we read correctly the worldwide impact of the Servant’s humiliation and substitution as expressed in the first stanza, then the conclusion has to be that there is more impact that just Israel’s iniquities. [On the subject of the extent of the atonement: In my opinion, based on the implied antecedent of the pronoun, I would be cautious reading “us all” in v. 6 as a proof for an unlimited atonement view, because the verse has the people of Israel in view.]

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. 9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

This stanza expresses how the Servant suffered unjustly yet without opening his mouth. On the subject, however, it continues the exclusivity of the previous stanza in that his sufferings were for “my people.”

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. 11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In the final stanza of this magnificent poem, the reader finds (perhaps with surprise) that all of this was not at the arbitrary will of man but part of the sovereign plan of Yhwh. Yhwh will exalt the Servant because of the good work he has done. Moreover, the author seems to abandon the language of national exclusivity and return to the worldwide language of the first stanza. The Servant suffered for “many,” made “many” righteous, and interceded for “the transgressors,” which would include all men.

This is a consistent theme throughout the book of Isaiah: The Servant’s work will reach beyond his own people to all nations. For example, in Isaiah 42:6, Yhwh says of the Servant: “I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations” (see also 49:6). This work of the Servant will bring “justice to the nations” (v. 1) and “justice in the earth” (v. 4). Thus, one of the great themes of the book of Isaiah is that Yhwh’s salvation will reach to all nations, a theme that finds expression here as well.

Furthermore, in relation to the theme of this series on the extent of the atonement, this poem (52:13–53:12) gives no resolution in itself to the question at hand. It’s not that I do not have a opinion about the greater question, but I believe the author’s purpose was to show the atoning value of the Servant’s suffering for both his own people and more surprisingly to all the nations. It’s no surprise, then, that Paul picks up on this more general message in Romans 15:21 (quoting 52:13) and applies this message to the good news for Gentiles.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Randy,

    Wonderful post!

    A couple questions for you:

    1. You noted Christ was “one marred in appearance and barely recognizable as human?” Do you think this was referencing pre-calvary Christ or Post-calvary Christ? In other words, was it because of the cross that Jesus was barely recognizable as human or was he marred in appearance before his sufferings? I have always assumed it was because of the cross but i want to make sure i’m correct here.

    2. This to me was your key statement in regards to our topic, “On the subject of the extent of the atonement: In my opinion, based on the implied antecedent of the pronoun, I would be cautious reading “us all” in v. 6 as a proof for an unlimited atonement view, because the verse has the people of Israel in view.”

    So i think you’re saying that we can’t use vv 4-6 to support limited or unlimited atonement, is that correct?

  2. I heard someone recently say that VV 1-3 could be applied to all who reject Christ (unbelievers and pre-conversion Christians alike), not simply the Jewish nation. If that be true then wouldn’t that imply that Christ suffered for all, atleast in some sense? (v. 6 “and the Lord has laid on him the inquity of us all:).

    Even if you limit VV 1-3 and VV 4-6 to the nation of Israel wouldn’t VV 4-6 support the idea that the sins of the non-elect Jews were imputed to Jesus’ account as well as the elects? (again v. 6, and the Lord has laid on him the inquity of us all).

    Please help us understand this correctly. I have never been able to figure out the connection between vv. 1-3 and vv. 4-6 esp. in light of the discussion at hand.

    Blessings-

  3. Caleb,

    1. I think it is fulfilled in his suffering on the cross.

    2. That’s right. This presupposes, however, that the “we” and “us all” is referring to the author and his people. If “we” and “us all” are referring to a broader group, then you could use it in these discussions.

    Blessings,
    Randy

  4. Caleb,

    I’m not sure I can add much what you have said about vv. 1-6. However, I think the beginning and end of the entire poem (from 52:13-53:12) give the message a larger audience. That is, the truths of vv. 1-6 are made to apply to the nations as well (hence the reference to Rom 9). With that said, the point that I would make is the international application of the sacrifice. In context, I believe that is the larger message. Thus, at this point, I think we must look beyond just this one passage (as the men who follow will be doing) in determining the finer aspects of the extent of the atonement. In short, the message here is as follows: The Servant suffered for his own people as well as the nations; therefore, Yhwh will highly exalt him.

    Blessings,
    Randy

  5. Posted by Caleb K on April 18, 2007 at 5:30 am

    Randy,

    Wonderful ET’s here. As i try and deepen my conviction over the intricacies of the atonement it is passages like this one that make it difficult for me to move beyond the SFA position…I am praying for continued humility and enlightenment (in a biblical/non mystical sense) as we continue to study these Texts.

    I hope you sensed the genuine interest behind my questions. I look forward to the posts to come.

    Together for the gospel,

    CK

  6. Posted by Juan Z on April 18, 2007 at 11:03 am

    What a great post. I will be waiting for the others and keep learning about Atonement.

  7. […] Randy McKinion (https://expositorythoughts.wordpress.com) has some reflections on the servant song of isaiah 52:13-53:12. […]

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