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A Servant Song From Isaiah

 

Last February, a second-hour Sunday morning class began a study of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the last and most well-known of four servant songs in Isaiah. The objective of the study is to burnish the class participants’ knowledge of and love for the Lord Jesus Christ through the examination of his person and work as presented in the servant song. Because all of scripture points to Jesus Christ, the class necessarily includes discussion of passages outside of the servant song. To the extent that the objective is achieved, the study should be eminently practical.

Isaiah began the servant song in Isaiah 52:13 by quoting God as saying, “Behold, my servant.” Who is “my servant?” The answer can be clear to anyone who believes the New Testament. Yet there can be profit in trying to answer that question from the perspective of a Jew reading the first three verses of the song just after Isaiah wrote them, when there was no New Testament.

Our God said that his servant “shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” That certainly speaks well of the servant. This is one worthy of notice, especially if the reader understands the servant to be high and lifted up and exalted by God. If that reader is familiar with the rest of the book of Isaiah, he might observe that the Hebrew words rendered “high” and “lifted up” were used by Isaiah in portraying his vision of “the Lord sitting upon a throne” (Isaiah 6:1) and in depicting the One “whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15). So we have a servant of God about whom words are used that are applied elsewhere indirectly or directly to God himself. What, if anything, does that say about who the servant might be?

In Isaiah 52:14 the servant is described as one whose “appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” The man to whom words of exaltation were employed in the previous verse is one who in some part of his life did not even look human. Under what scenario can one imagine such a thing happening? What would account for that? Can this verse and the preceding one really be speaking of the same person?

Isaiah 52:15 says three things: 1) that the servant shall sprinkle many nations; 2) that “kings shall shut their mouths because of him”; and 3) that the kings see what has not been told them and understand what they have not heard. Does not “sprinkle” have to do with a duty of a priest? The words “nations” and “kings” seem to indicate that somehow the servant would be involved with those outside of Israel. What is it that kings had not been told and had not heard that they now see and understand?

As people who remember Christ’s death each communion Sunday and celebrate his resurrection each Lord’s Day, we can exult that the servant about whom God spoke as being exalted is himself God, that his appearance owed to a love that surpasses knowledge, that he is our great high priest who has sprinkled the nations with his own blood, and that people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” will be ransomed thereby.

We can benefit from seeing ourselves as contemporaries of Isaiah befuddled by the gospel elements of his servant song if that makes us thankful to our God for our ability to make sense of it and to delight in it. If the exercise strengthens our resolve to boast only in the Lord, especially when the words that are a stumbling block to some and folly to others are to us altogether true, then we are blessed.