The Suffering Servant

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted… . He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

- Isaiah 52:13–53:3

Exile was the fate of God’s old covenant people because they rejected His righteous rule (Lev. 26:14–39; Isa. 39; Hos. 1:2–5; 5:14). Sin led to the exile, so even though the Lord could use Cyrus to bring His people back to their homeland (Isa. 45:1–13), something else would have to be done to restore their relationship to God if they were never to be cast out again. God would have to establish His kingdom—His blessed presence would have to break into history, removing the transgressions that kept His people from seeing His face and guaranteeing their heavenly citizenship forever.

Only by a sovereign work could this kingdom be established (52:3–6, 10). Moreover, since the Lord’s kingdom and the Davidic kingdom were to be one and the same as an eternal kingdom (2 Sam. 7:1–17; Ps. 110), this kingdom could come only through the Son of David. In other words, God would have to do this work through the Messiah, a holy King who could atone for the sins of His people and establish them in righteousness.

Isaiah told the exiles this would happen through the work of the Suffering Servant (52:13–53:12). Christians have long insisted that this Suffering Servant is Jesus, while Jews contend that He is the nation of Israel. Who is right? Well, the Suffering Servant in Isaiah’s famous passage is clearly an individual, for 53:8 distinguishes the Servant from “my people,” that is, Israel. Still, modern Jews are not wholly incorrect, although they miss the essential point. Isaiah does refer to Israel as the Lord’s servant, and this servant’s vocation was to be righteous (44:1, 21; 45:4; 53:11; 60:3). Yet the nation of Israel was unrighteous (1:1–20; Rom. 3:9). An ideal Israel was needed who could serve God in righteousness, a man who would embody and represent Israel before the Lord in order to fulfill Israel’s vocation. This man could only be the Messiah (Isa. 9:1–7; 11; 42:1–9; 49:1–7). Indeed, the Suffering Servant is Israel, the ideal and perfect Israel—Jesus Christ.

This Servant “shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted” (52:13), an image of majesty and awe. Yet this exaltation does not occur in a manner that human beings would expect. The Servant is not lifted high because of some kind of outer beauty or evident regal stature, for He is “marred, beyond human semblance” (v. 14) and has “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2). No, humiliation is the path for the Suffering Servant’s exaltation.

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments on today’s passage as to why salvation through the Suffering Servant is so despised the world over: “The loftiness of the mystery is a reason why it scarcely obtains credit in the world. It is reckoned to be folly, because it exceeds all human capacities.” Achieving exaltation through suffering is a strange thing indeed. It is foolishness in our way of doing things, but it is wisdom in God’s economy. We should never diminish the scandal of the cross.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 22
Galatians 6:14

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