By Scott Grant

Holy ground

Today in our study of Isaiah we come to the holy of holies in the Old Testament, the fourth and final Servant Song. It is the clearest presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. As such, it is the most frequently quoted text in the New Testament.

We have already seen how the Servant of the Lord is fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. Israel, as the servant of the Lord (Isaiah 41:8, 42:19, 44:1), fails in its role. The Lord, through Isaiah, presents a picture of his true Servant.

Isaiah tells Israel that it will go into exile, but, particularly from Isaiah 40 on, he tells it that it will return from exile. The Servant of the Lord surfaces as the figure who brings about the return from exile, which turns out to be not simply a geographical return but a spiritual return. The second and third Servant Songs showed that the Servant’s work had something to do with suffering (49:4, 7, 50:6). Now, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, his work is shown to be suffering for the sins of Israel and, in fact, the entire world. Everything in Isaiah points to this text. Everything in our lives points to this text.

The poem comprises five stanzas (Isaiah 52:13-15, 53:1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12). We will consider the stanzas one week at a time. We will look to see first, how the Servant of the Lord is fulfilled in Jesus so that we might worship him. Second, as the church of Christ that constitutes God’s Israel, the servant of the Lord, and as individual servants of the Lord, we will look to see how we can follow Jesus as his servants.


Not of this world

We all want wisdom. Just last week I spoke to a woman who called the church in desperation trying to find out what God’s will was in a decision she had to make. What she wanted was wisdom.

It is said that Solomon is the wisest man who ever lived, but he never exercised the kind of wisdom demonstrated by Jesus of Nazareth. The wisdom that Jesus exercises is not of this world. It is seemingly self-destructive. No one would think to call this wisdom. This is not the wisdom we want. But it’s the wisdom we need. Jesus exercises a strange kind of wisdom that disfigures him, cleanses us and culminates in his exaltation.

Isaiah 52:7-12 summed up much of the hope portrayed by Isaiah beginning in Isaiah 40. He spoke of good news, of Israel’s God becoming king, of the defeat of Babylon and impending return from exile. The stage is set for the Servant of the Lord, in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

Isaiah 52:13 serves as an introduction to the poem. Verses 14 and 15, which conclude the first stanza, feature a structure that focuses on the first line of verse 15, marked "X." The "A" and "B" lines present reaction to the Servant of the Lord, and the "1" and "2" lines present the reason for that reaction.

14       A Just as many were astonished at you,

                    A1 So his appearance was marred more than any man,

                   A2 And his form more than the sons of men.

15                            X Thus he will sprinkle many nations,

           B Kings will shut their mouths on account of him;

                   B1 For what had not been told them they will see,

                   B2 And what they had not heard they will understand.


The wisdom of the Servant (52:13)

The final Servant Song, just as the first (Isaiah 42:1), begins with the Lord’s saying "behold," calling attention to the Servant of the Lord and his activity. The Lord says that his Servant will "prosper." The word can also be translated "act wisely" (NIV). In this case, the meaning probably combines wisdom and effectiveness. The Servant will act wisely and therefore be effective.

As such, he will be "high and lifted up, and greatly exalted." He will act wisely and be successful in battle and then be exalted as a victorious king. The three-fold description of his exaltation conveys the message that this king will be exalted above all others. Similar language has been used elsewhere in Isaiah of the Lord himself (Isaiah 6:1, 57:15). The Lord shares his reign with his Servant.

Similar language is used in the New Testament of Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant of the Lord. Jesus, after his resurrection, is exalted, seated on a throne at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33, Ephesians 1:20, Hebrews 8:1).

Paul, in a New Testament poem, says Jesus took the form of a slave, or servant. As a servant, "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Chris is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:7-11).

Jesus also speaks of his exaltation: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 8:32). Jesus understands it to be a different kind exaltation, for John immediately adds, "But he was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which he was to die" (John 8:33). Jesus sees the cross as a kind of throne, as the beginning of his exaltation, as the beginning of his being lifted up to a heavenly throne.

At first glance it looks as if the Servant has an enviable task. Who wouldn’t want to act wisely and effectively and thereby be exalted? But the New Testament tells us what it means for Jesus, the Servant of the Lord. It means that he humbles himself, that he obeys God and that he submits to the painful, shameful God-forsaken death of a failed revolutionary. Then God gives him his throne.

This is a strange way to be wise, a strange way to be effective, a strange way to be exalted. Everything we know about wisdom, effectiveness and exaltation says that one should be assert oneself to be exalted, not humble oneself. It’s certainly not the way to rise to power or win an election. Satan presented Jesus with the apparently wise and effective way to rulership—a way that would have neatly bypassed the mess of the cross (Matthew 4:1-11). When Jesus was on the cross, Satan, through the bystanders, made the offer again; he offered him the opportunity to come down from the cross and begin his reign (Matthew 27:38-44). Yet Jesus, with penetrating wisdom, chose the way of the Servant—the way of humility, the way of obedience, the way of the cross. And that’s how he was effective. Just before he proclaimed that he would be lifted up, he said, "Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out" (John 12:31). The great battle he fought was with Satan, and the great victory was won on the cross. That’s how he drew all men to himself. That’s how he draws us to himself. And that’s why he was exalted by God.

Now Jesus takes this strange wisdom and passes it on to us, his servants and kings. This strange wisdom is now our wisdom. We become the world’s servants. We humble ourselves. We turn the other cheek. We take up our crosses. We give up our rights. With penetrating wisdom, we look beyond the wisdom of this world and perceive the wisdom of the cross. And that’s how we are exalted—that’s how we fulfill our destiny as the exalted kings of the earth, by being its humble servants. Jesus tells his disciples, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45). James writes, "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:10).


The scars of the Servant (52:14)

The first line of verse 14 portrays public reaction to the Servant. The second two lines give the reason for that reaction.

The word "many" encompasses all those who benefit from the Servant’s work. It also appears in the final stanza (Isaiah 53:11, 12), which is in parallel construction with the first stanza. The many are also contrasted with the one, the singular Servant of the Lord. The many are "astonished" at the Servant, referred to here with the second-person singular "you." They are shocked and horrified because of the Servant’s "appearance" and "form," which are "marred." His appearance is "marred more than any man." It’s not that the Servant is marred more than any man has ever been marred; it’s that he is marred beyond human semblance. His form is also marred more than the "sons of men," a collective term that speaks of the Servant’s place among other humans. His appearance would hardly qualify him as an individual human, and his form would hardly qualify him for inclusion in the human race.

Why is the Servant disfigured? This stanza doesn’t tell us, but the third stanza tells us that he was "pierced through," "crushed" and "scourged," suffering the punishment that we deserved for our sins, though it was assumed he was suffering for his own sins (Isaiah 53:4-5). We will consider the vicarious suffering of the Servant when we come to that stanza. For now, in consideration of this stanza, it’s enough to note that the Servant’s wise actions first result not only in his exaltation but in his disfigurement. He accepts the punishment due others, and it causes his disfigurement.

What is it about the Servant’s appearance and form that shocks and horrifies the "many," those who will ultimately benefit from the Servant’s work? Such disfigurement would not be shocking in a world familiar with the brutalities of ancient warfare and punishment. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the disfigurement described here. No, what’s shocking is the suggestion that this figure who appears barely human for the punishment that he apparently deserves is a victorious king—high and lifted up and greatly exalted. Who would ever expect or want such a failure for a king?

Jesus is such a king. He ran afoul of Israel and Rome, and was put on trial as a revolutionary. He was convicted, scourged and crucified. He was marred beyond human semblance. Yet his followers a few days later were proclaiming that this one, crushed with ease by the powers that be, had been raised from the dead and was reigning from heaven (Acts 2:32-33). Astonishing! Horrifying! Scandalous! No one at the scene of the crucifixion was shocked, because none believed he was the Messiah (Matthew 27:39-44). Paul speaks of the cross as a stumbling block (skandalon—from which we get our word "scandal") in 1 Corinthians 1:23 and Galatians 5:11. A crucified and victorious king was a contradiction in terms. Kings didn’t die on crosses unless they were failures. For most of the Jews, it was a pill too big to swallow.

Isn’t it just a little preposterous that Jesus, this nobody from a nowhere place, who began talking and acting as if he were God’s answer to the world, who was utterly rejected by those steeped in the things of the Lord, who didn’t defend himself or deliver himself, who was abandoned by even his closest followers, who was killed as all the other would-be messiahs, is, in fact, the One? The Jewish authorities would have thought of him as a joke if he hadn’t become such a nuisance. When they put him on the cross and put an end to the nuisance, they mocked him for the joke he appeared to be. As you follow Jesus, don’t lose the shock value, not only that he was disfigured but that this disfigured one is king of creation and your Lord.

Yet as we pore over the scriptures, this text and others, we discover that this is the way it had to be. The Servant of the Lord must suffer. Jesus is the Servant of the Lord, and he has the scars to show it (John 20:27-28).

If you aspire to be a servant of the Lord, you’ll pick up some scars along the way. And as we are wounded, at some point we too are astonished that this is what it’s like for servants of the Lord. Somewhere in the back of our minds we thought that if we chose to serve the Lord, he would bless us in certain ways. We’re shocked that life can hurt so much. That’s why a false gospel that promises health and wealth is so appealing to many. Here we see that for servants of the Lord, scars are part of the deal. Paul said he bears on his body the "brand-marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). He was stoned and beaten as a servant of the Lord.


The cleansing of the Servant (52:15a)

Beginning with the word "thus," the first line in verse 15 explains what the disfigurement of the Servant accomplishes. He will "sprinkle many nations." Sprinkling with blood, oil or water was carried out for cleansing or consecration (Exodus 29:21, Leviticus 4:6, 8:11, 14:7). This reference, when we consider the rest of the poem, suggests that the sprinkling here is for cleansing from sin. The Servant’s disfigurement, caused by the punishment he incurs, enables him to offer cleansing from sin, and, as the New Testament indicates, consecration for priests. The word "many" appears again. Many were astonished at the Servant’s appearance, that he could be God’s king, but these are also sprinkled—cleansed from sin. The Servant, who has already been portrayed as a king, is now depicted as a priest. He cleanses the nations. Evidently, Israel is too shocked to accept such an offer.

Jesus, consecrated as a priest by his scars, offers forgiveness to the world. The sprinkled blood of Jesus cries out for forgiveness (Hebrews 12:24). Jesus has sprinkled our hearts from an evil conscience so that we can draw near to God with a sincere, or true, heart in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). This sprinkling by Jesus, our high priest, qualifies us to be priests who approach God (Exodus 29:21). An evil conscience condemns, but, having been sprinkled by the blood of Jesus, we know we are free of condemnation and therefore free to approach God just as we are. The immoral woman who fell at Jesus’ feet heard Jesus say to her, "Your sins have been forgiven" (Luke 7:48). Can you hear Jesus say those words to you? Can you believe them? Can you feel your heart being cleansed? If you can’t feel it, can you believe it, because it’s true?

We are shocked that this is our king, but we are cleansed by our priest. We, too, are consecrated as priests by our scars. As priests we not only draw near to God, but we offer his forgiveness to others. If someone has been wounded from following the Lord and is still following the Lord, he or she gains credibility. Our offer of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ gains credibility.


The light of the Servant (52:15b-d)

Earlier, the reaction of the many was depicted. Now, it is the reaction of kings, the rulers of the nations. They will "shut their mouths on account of him" as a sign of submission. Paul uses similar language to depict a courtroom scene in which humanity has no defense and submits to the ruling of God the Judge (Romans 3:19). Earlier, there was shock; now, there is submission, even among kings. The kings bow to a greater king, one who is high and lifted up and greatly exalted.

What is it about the Servant that causes the kings to bow? They bow "on account of him"—that is, the Servant. But kings are not in the custom of submitting to anyone. They are in the custom of having others submit to them. Also, this is a different reaction from the revulsion depicted earlier. Why the change? The explanation is in the last two lines of verse 15, beginning with the word "for."

It has to do with what they see and what they understand. Gentile nations, for the most part, had not been told about the God of Israel. They had not heard about him. Israel, called to be a light to the nations, instead kept her God to herself. Now, however, the Gentiles will see what they have not been told, and they will understand what they have not heard. They will hear something, and they will understand it.

What will they hear and understand? Obviously, they will hear something about the Servant, and inasmuch as they shut their mouths, they will understand that they are in the presence of a greater king, and they will understand that he sprinkles them, that he cleanses them from their sins.

Israel had prophets of the Lord to prepare it for the Servant of the Lord. Everything about the Lord had been told their leaders, and they had heard everything. Yet they are not the ones who will see and understand. Instead, it is the Gentile leaders.

When Jesus shows up on the scene, in fulfillment of everything that the prophets spoke of, Israel rejects him. But the light begins finding some cracks in the walls of Jerusalem and begins to filter out to the Gentiles. As the light of the world, Jesus fulfills the call of Israel (John 8:12). When Gentiles begin asking to see Jesus, he knows it is time for the light to be shed abroad (John 12:20-26). A Roman centurion at the scene of the crucifixion sees the light (Mark 15:39). Jesus commissions his followers to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16), to tell the world what it has not been told and what it has not heard (Matthew 28:19), and to offer forgiveness of sins (John 20:23). Jesus tells Paul to be a light to the Gentiles, even Gentile kings (Acts 9:15, 26:18). The apostle draws inspiration from this verse, Isaiah 52:15, to preach the gospel to Gentiles who haven’t heard (Romans 15:21). He gives "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:6).

What have you been told? What have you heard? Jesus is the humble Servant of the Lord and the exalted king of creation. He is the horribly disfigured priest who, by virtue of his disfigurement, offers you the sprinkling of forgiveness. Through the prophet Isaiah, this is what you are being told today. This is what you are hearing. Do you see it? Do you understand it? Most of you have heard it before. Most of you, through the eyes and ears of faith that God has given you, have seen it and understood it and have bowed to Jesus. But have your really seen it? Have you really understood it? Has what you have seen and understood about the Servant of the Lord so gripped you that you can hardly think about anything without governance by the knowledge, be it conscious or subconscious, that you too are a servant of the Lord? Perhaps it is time to reach your finger into the holes in his hands, and to put it into his side, to be not unbelieving but believing (John 20:27). Jesus, demonstrating that he is the light of the world, the giver of revelation and the object of revelation, goes about opening the eyes of the blind. Will you let him open your eyes that you might see him?

And what of Jesus’ commission of us? His words to the apostles are also for us. Will we be like Israel of old, and keep our God to ourselves? Or will we be like the apostles? Will we be the light of the world? Will we tell those who tell those who haven’t been told, who haven’t heard? Some of the most unlikely people are candidates for the gospel. They may not know the first thing about the scriptures, but that doesn’t matter. Those who knew the scriptures rejected Jesus. Those who didn’t know the scriptures accepted him. Those who had not been told saw; those who had not heard understood. If we lift up Jesus, he will draw people to himself.


The Servant

Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and the Father exalted him to the highest place. His wisdom caused his disfigurement, but his disfigurement qualified him to offer cleansing from sin. Let us be shocked that this one is God’s king, but as Jesus reveals himself to us, let us accept the cleansing he offers and bow before him.

Let us now be the servants of the Lord—the kings of the world, the priests of the world, and the light of the world. Let us humble ourselves. We may pick up some scars along the way, but that will help us as we offer God’s cleansing. Let us tell those who haven’t heard of the Servant of the Lord and his strange wisdom. "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you at the proper time" (1 Peter 5:6).

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Isaiah 52:13-15
15th Message
Scott Grant
September 17, 2000