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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Suffering Servant -- Isaiah 53

The Suffering Servant—"… for you,  for me"

For most Christians, this chapter is like the Holy of Holies of the Book of Isaiah, perhaps even of the entire Old Testament. For in it we see the very heart of God's plan to restore sinful human beings like you and me to himself. As both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles have so perceptively put it, what separates us from God is not his indifference to us, but our rebellion against him, shown by our sinful thoughts and actions. Isaiah himself will write in a later chapter:
No, the arm of Yahweh is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear, 2 but your guilty deeds have made a gulf between you and your God. Your sins have made him hide his face from you so as not to hear you, 3 since your hands are stained with blood and your fingers with guilt; your lips utter lies, your tongues murmur wickedness. 4 No one makes upright accusations or pleads sincerely. All rely on empty words, utter falsehood, conceive trouble and give birth to evil.  (Isaiah 59:1-4 NJB)
And Saint Paul will write to the Christians in Asia Minor:
You once were dead because of your sins and wickedness; 2 you followed the ways of this present world order, obeying the commander of the spiritual powers of the air, the spirit now at work among God’s rebel subjects. 3 We too were once of their number: we were ruled by our physical desires, and did what instinct and evil imagination suggested. In our natural condition we lay under the condemnation of God like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 REB)
"You were dead": that's very strong language. So far as any communion with God, the source of all life, was concerned, before we believed we were "dead"! But God can raise the dead! He has proven that many times in history. And it happens every time someone turns to him in faith and embraces his Son as Savior and Lord.

Yes, God can and does raise the dead. But something else needs to be done first. God raises only those whom he has first forgiven their sins and removed the barrier that stands between him and his rebellious sinful creature. And that is the theme of this chapter of Isaiah's prophecy: how God removes the barrier, what Isaiah called the "gulf" between us and God (59:2). How did God bridge that "gulf"?

Although in our Bibles there is a chapter division after Isaiah 52:15, that division was not there when Isaiah wrote. The logical beginning point is 52:13.  This is another of Isaiah's "Servant Poems". We have seen how in the beginning the Servant of Yahweh appears to be the nation Israel, but that as the prophecies continue, it becomes clear that the Servant cannot be the nation, for his mission is to restore the nation to God. In this Servant Poem the opening verses are spoken by God himself (52:13-15). They are words of confidence that God has in this Servant. He is destined to succeed in his mission. And as a result, he will be exalted.
See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness— 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (Isaiah 52:13-15 NIV) 
The Hebrew word translated above as "act wisely" is better translated here as "achieve success". This is its meaning in Joshua 1:8; 1 Samuel 18:15; and Proverbs 17:8. God begins the Song of the Servant with a confident, bold and assured prediction of success. As God's servant, Israel often failed. That was why she was in exile when she would read these words. But this Servant would not fail. The threefold mention of his exaltation emphasizes its magnitude. Jesus was not only raised from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and he was elevated further to sit at God's right hand:
 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11 NIV)
Verses 14 and 15 intend to show a balance sheet, expressed by the coordinating conjunctions "Just as …… so". The common denominator is the term "many". Just as there were many who opposed him in his lifetime, so there would be many whom he would "sprinkle" with the purifying forgiveness made possible by his death for our sins. The first "many" were limited to those in Roman Palestine who saw and heard him. The second "many" would include entire nations and their kings. Along with the purifying forgiveness made possible by the Servant's death, the second "many" will receive divine enlightenment: what before they did not see or understand, will now dawn upon them.

This last thought leads very naturally into the material of chapter 53, which is a lament by those who did not understand and mistakenly rejected the Servant, causing (from a human point of view) his sufferings and death. They are the "we" and the "us". It is natural, and I believe essentially correct, to think of this as a lament by Jesus' own earthly people, for they were the ones who judged him a blasphemer and false messiah and turned him over to the Roman governor Pilate as one guilty of treason against the Roman emperor and worthy of death. It is even possible that this is a prophecy in more ways than just a dramatic prediction of the Messiah's suffering and death for humanity's sins. Many scholars think that this could be a kind of libretto for the future national repentance of Israel and her recognition that Y'shua-Jesus is her Messiah. But while that may be the case, it is also proper for Christians to see ourselves in the "we" and "us" and "our" of this lament. For as St. Paul reminds us in his epistles, we too were blind and rebellious to God, and many of us knew about the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection long before we decided to put our trust in him and become his disciples. We too were blind. We too did not believe what we had heard (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.   (Isaiah 53:1-3 NRSV)
Both of Israel's first two kings—Saul and David—were well received by their people. It is true that Moses was at first rejected in Egypt and only after returning from Midian as God's emissary he was accepted. But these verses predicted that the Servant would be "discounted" (the precise meaning of "despised"—"we held him of no account") and "rejected" by those whom he came to save. It is true that initially, in his ministry in Galilee Jesus seemed popular. But there are hints in the gospels that what drew most of the crowds were the miracles—the healings, the exorcisms, the displays of power—and the free bread and fish. They came to see the "show", not to repent and become true disciples. Theres was a superficial attraction to him. Underneath they saw him as nothing worth giving up their other activities, much less worth taking up their cross and following him. He was "of no special account".

What a stringe way for God's "successful" Servant to start out! Why on earth would God choose to save his creatures by one who was "despised and rejected"?
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.  (Isaiah 53:4-6 NRSV)
"He … our", "we … him". The story is in the pronouns! There is something going on here that a modern Christian songwriter has dubbed "The Great Exchange". Something much more significant that Tom Sawyer's "If you paint this fence for me, I'll show you my sore toe!" God's righteous and successful Servant will carry the sins of God's unrighteous and unsuccessful creatures. He will be "wounded", "crushed" and "punished" as you and I deserved to be. This will create the possibility for us, for whom he does this, to be "made whole" and "be healed".  And so that the reader will not think that this act will be only for a few and more deserving people, the prophet stresses that, just as we "all" have gone astray from God's will and followed our own way, so God has transferred the iniquity (= sin) of "all" of us to this Servant.

The simile of the sheep should not be pressed. If you don't watch a flock, its members will wander off. But when they are returned, they are not punished. For sheep wander off not through deliberate and culpable rebellion. But that is not a precise picture of our state. For we wander from God by deliberate choice. We are culpable. We deserve punishment. Yet that is not what God the Good Shepherd does. And that is not what the Servant does either. He suffers so that we might be forgiven.
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.   (Isaiah 53:7-9 NRSV)
To this point the prophecy of the Suffering Servant has focused on the purpose of the sufferings: in order to remove the punishment from us. Now Isaiah turns from theology to history, predicting the details of how the Servant will suffer. He will not resist the suffering. He will undergo it voluntarily and quietly. His suffering will take the form of an unjust trial, in which he will be falsely accused (53:8). His companions in death will be criminals ("his grave with the wicked"). He will be buried in a rich man's tomb. Jesus hung on a cross between two convicted criminals, and his body was laid in the tomb of wealthy Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60). These details have no theological significance: they are here as historical "markers" by which we may detect the prophecy's fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. The comment that he "had done no violence" fits the fact that although the charge against Jesus was rebellion against Rome by making himself a king, it was admitted by all that at no time in his public ministry did he provoke violence. And when he answered questions before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, his answers, though few, were always truthful.
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.    (Isaiah 53:10-12 NRSV)
The word "yet" is so important here! The Servant did all things right. There was no earthly reason for his sufferings. As St. Peter described Jesus' public ministry, "he went around doing good" (Acts 10:38). Why? Why did he suffer so? The answer is both stupefying and deeply moving: "It was the will of the LORD to crush him"! God wanted it this way! It was the Plan! There was no other way for God to treat sinners as saints, to give sonship and eternal life to vicious rebels, to reverse the first sin in the Garden of Eden. It was The Great Exchange.

But there is more! "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." Many see in the words "see his offspring and prolong his days" a reference to the resurrection of Jesus. And furthermore, the very "will of the LORD" which decreed his suffering and death for sins, would "prosper" through "making many righteous" by bearing their iniquities.

We return to where the Song began: the Servant will succeed; and he will be exalted threefold! Verse 11 is so moving. The Resurrected One will be satisfied by his knowledge that many who otherwise would be eternally lost will be made righteous. He will see his offspring. That's you! That's me!

Ash Wednesday is behind us, and today is the first Sunday of Lent. As we continue on the Lenten road toward Good Friday and Easter, this will be a good chapter to keep before our minds and hearts, reminding us of the plan of God that reached back centuries before the Incarnation. "For God (i.e., the Father) so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:16). Can you feel the love of God the Father pulsating through this prophecy? Can you sense the sacrifice of the "given" Son, and what it meant for him to be "given" as the Suffering and Successful Servant? "I am among you as one who serves," said Jesus.  Can we do anything other in response than to yield our bodies as "living sacrifices" which is our appropriate worship of this Servant?  (Romans 12:1-2).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Isaiah 52:1-12

Awake, awake, O Zion, clothe yourself with strength.  Put on your garments of splendor, O Jerusalem, the holy city.  The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.  2 Shake off your dust; rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive Daughter of Zion. 3 For this is what the Lord says: “You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.” 4 For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:  “At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them. 5 “And now what do I have here?” declares the Lord.  “For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock,’” declares the Lord.  “And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed. 6 Therefore my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I.” 7 How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”  8 Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the Lord returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. 9 Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. 10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.  11 Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord. 12 But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.  (Isaiah 52:1-12 NIV)
This passage, like many in Isaiah, is composed of a mixture of commands and promises. Let's look together at the examples. First, the commands:
  • awake
  • cloth yourself with strength
  • put on your garments of splendor
  • shake off your dust
  • rise up
  • sit enthroned
  • free yourself from the chains on your neck
  • burst into songs of joy together
  • depart and go out from there = come out from it
  • touch no unclean thing = be pure
Although this is a somewhat long list, it can be condensed by grouping together the commands that are essentially the same idea. If we do this, we see the following pattern:
  • Israel in exile is to awake out of her despair and believe God's promise of release from captivity.
  • She is to shake off the "dust" of the surrounding paganism and leave Babylonia for the Promised Land.
  • She is to "clothe" herself with the strength that comes from believing God's promises and "sit enthroned" upon them.
  • She is to let the joy of what she has believed drive away all sadness and hopelessness.
To aid the exiles in doing what he has commanded them to do, God gives them promises.
  • The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter Jerusalem (as its rulers) again (v 1).
  • Jerusalem was "sold for nothing", and without money it will be redeemed. (v 3)
  • When the LORD rescues his people, it will be conspicuous, for "The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God (v 10).
  • When Cyrus has conquered Babylon and the Persian king decrees the exiles' right to return to their land, they will not need to flee, as they did from the pharaoh in Exodus 14-15, for "you will not leave in haste or go in flight;  for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard" (v 12).
How nice it is, that we who are gentiles, adopted by the mercy of God into the blessings of his people Israel, can claim similar promises to these.
  • The Devil and his temptations cannot lord it over us in our "Jerusalem", because God guards the gates of our "city".
  • We were not required to buy our own forgiveness and eternal life by good deeds or ritual acts, but it was given to us "without money". For "you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect"  (1 Peter 1:18–19 NIV).
  • When Jesus saved you and me from our sins, it was conspicuous to everyone who witnessed the transformation in our lives. With us it was as Paul described the conversion of the disciples in Thessalonica: "You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath [of God]" (1 Thessalonians 1:6–10 NIV)
  • Like the exiles, we have learned to flee every form of evil and moral impurity. But like them, we do not have to flee in terror from the Devil our former oppressor. Instead, we can "resist the Devil; and he will flee from you" (James 4:7)!
Ancient Israel's experiences with God are a paradigm of our own. Which is one reason we should never neglect reading and praying through the rich teachings of the Old Testament.