Part 6: The Suffering Servant

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He didn’t have an impressive form or majesty that we should look at him, no appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; he was despised, and we didn’t value him.

Isaiah 53:1-3

After Isaiah establishes the fact that the servant would be successful, he begins to develop the idea of how success comes through suffering. In these verses, the servant is presented as an unimpressive young plant who was despised, rejected, and undervalued. The first verse of Isaiah 53 begins with two questions that reveal the hearts of the hearers. Isaiah asks these rhetorical questions to show that although some believed the news and understood the Lord’s revelation, many did not. In missing who Jesus was at his first advent, the Jews did not value him. Instead, they saw him in his human form and despised him. Expecting a majestic king and finding a humble servant, they concluded that he wasn’t desirable as a leader and they rejected him. Jewish commentators today still reject the idea that Jesus is the servant of Isaiah 53. Instead, they claim that the servant is the nation of Israel. They use contextual evidence and interpret the words narrowly to keep the focus on themselves. For example, one commentator defends this idea by saying, “In Isaiah, and throughout our Scriptures, God’s “arm” refers to the physical redemption of the Jewish people from the oppression of other nations.”[1] He seeks to convince his reader that since “arm” is generally used to refer to God’s dealings with Israel, it could not be widened in this context to include making God’s plan of salvation visible to Gentiles. While many other passages Scripture refer to Israel as God’s servant, God also calls Cyrus his servant, thus it is not necessary to see this passage as only being about the Jewish people. Litwak also notes, “the whole community can stand for an individual and vice versa.”[2] He sees the concept of collective Israel in Isaiah 42 moving “to an individual in chapter 53.”[3] That said, it is interesting to note that, if this passage is about Jesus, then the Jews still have not believed the report but the gentiles have seen the arm of the Lord.

For Christians who proclaim the Gospel to the world today, it should not be surprising if many continue to disbelieve the report. Evangelists can take comfort knowing that Jesus was despised, rejected, and undervalued by men, but he was loved, accepted, and prized by God.

Isaiah earlier said that “Then a shoot will grow from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). In this section he makes another reference to a “young plant” and a “root out of dry ground.” These ideas are obviously linked as a reading of 1 Samuel 16 reveals that David was like the coming Messiah in that he was overlooked in favor of his brothers until the Lord showed Samuel that he was the man who would become king. As David did not match the expectations of the people (or even of Samuel) his desire to follow God’s heart qualified him as a leader. In the same way Jesus did not have an impressive outward form but still qualified in God’s eyes to be his servant. Brendsel also concludes, “like David, we have reason to believe, the Servant is God’s chosen king.”[4]By way of application, believers today should not worry about their external appearance or their level of social influence because “God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something” (1 Corinthians 1:28). Though we may be overlooked by humans, we can still be very useful for God.

Not only did the religious leaders despise and reject Jesus as the Messiah, they also caused him to suffer. Jesus did nothing worthy of judgement or punishment, but he became “a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.” Motivated by envy, they handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities to have him put to death. At Jesus’ trial, he was abused by the religious leaders, beaten by the Roman soldiers, and eventually crucified. In the New Testament, Peter encourages believers to persevere through trials. When a Christian rejoices in suffering, their faith will be strengthened and their refined character will “result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).


[1] Anonymous. “Isaiah 53 – A Jewish Perspective.” Jews for Judaism. Accessed Dec. 8, 2018. https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/isaiah-53-a-jewish-perspective/

[2] Litwak, Kenneth D. “The Use of Quotations from Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the New Testament.” JETS 26/4 (December 1983). 1

[3] Ibid, 1

[4] Brendsel, Isaiah Saw His Glory, accessed online

One thought

  1. Love your posts on this subject, Wills. I get a number of devotionals and seems like “suffering” is a popular topic this morning. I’m looking forward to future posts on Isaiah 53. Truly Jesus was the “suffering Servant”….”man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”.

    Like

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