“Coming to the fourth song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), we enter through the veil of divine mystery and onto hallowed ground– we behold the Servant led like a lamb to the slaughter, despised by men and crushed by Yahweh. Here the eternal plans of divine wisdom– infinitely vast– for the redemption of Israel and the nations unfold, like so many rungs of a celestial ladder unrolling down onto the earth-and-dust of human history.
While Isaiah 49-52 resounds with the anticipation of Israel’s salvation, and Isaiah 54-55 comprises a divine invitation for people to participate in Yahweh’s salvation, Isaiah 53 forms the bridge from anticipation to invitation. This Servant song sets forth the means of redemption, the unexpected, divinely orchestrated way of humanity’s restoration to God– namely atonement through the sacrificial suffering of the Servant of Yahweh.
Structurally, the song has five stanzas, beginning and ending with the Servant’s exaltation. Enveloped by this frame his rejection is described, with the heart and center of the poem unfolding the significance of the Servant’s suffering (Isaiah 53:4-6). ‘My Servant,’ Yahweh declares in the song’s opening verse, ‘will be high and lifted up and very exalted,’ using terms of glory by way of contrast to the depths of lowliness His Servant has endured.
In the last stanza the Servant’s exaltation is presented as his seeing his offspring, obtaining life, and succeeding in his mission, with Yahweh’s will prospering in his hand. After his suffering, death, and burial, he is raised up, living and victorious, and ‘will divide the spoil’ with the strong.
The Servant, therefore, fulfills the hope prophesied of the Messiah earlier in Isaiah, when the people are said to rejoice as when they ‘divide the spoil,’ a joy ushered in with the kingdom of the child who is born for us, the son who is given for us (Isaiah 9:3, 6). What a son given for us means finds an awe-inspiring answer in this fourth song.
The Servant’s rejection and suffering is described with language both unrelentingly brutal and intensely sympathetic, describing him as despised and rejected, acquainted with grief, a man of sorrows who was smitten, stricken, afflicted, wounded, and bruised, who bore chastisement and was lacerated with stripes.
Surprisingly, aside from the Servant’s rejection by people, the ultimate actor against the Servant– the one who planned the smiting, afflicting, wounding, and striking– is none other than Yahweh God Himself, for it was ‘the will of Yahweh to crush him, to make him grief-stricken’ (Isaiah 53:10).
Nevertheless, the Servant was thoroughly rejected by many among Israel. Yahweh had judged Israel for its rebellion, hardening the people in their blindness and deafness (Isaiah 6:10) so that the Servant’s rejection is understood as an outworking of Israel’s own spiritual blindness (Isaiah 53:1) but also as the ordained means for Israel’s remedy.
God’s own judgment on Israel, having given them over to their willful blindness, led to the despising and abuse of the Servant, which in turn opened up the channel of divine forgiveness of Israel.
The severe hammer-blow of justice cleft open the fissure through which heavenly mercy would flow, for the Servant is God’s own sacrificial provision, the promised Lamb of God given as Abraham’s seed, Israel.
Just here it is crucial to understand how the Servant as new Israel relates to his servants as the renewed Israel. Aside from Yahweh’s speeches in the frame, the fourth song is written from the later perspective of this renewed Israel.
We hear, as it were, the confession of Israelites who had once despised and rejected this Servant, assuming him damned of God. They have since discovered to their shock that this same one, from whom they had hidden their faces, has been exalted, vindicated, and set forth by Yahweh as His faithful Servant, the One through whom Israel would be raised up– even the speed of Abraham through whom the nations would be restored finally to God.
That is the incredible proclamation of the central stanza as it unfolds the significance of the Servant’s life (Isaiah 53:4-6). With the awe-filled understanding of hindsight, through the lens of the Servant’s divine vindication and exaltation, these Israelites turn their faces to look once more, fully on the sufferings of the despised One.
Healed of their blindness by the Servant’s exaltation, they are enabled now to see clearly the wonders of Yahweh’s profound wisdom and provision: it was, in fact, our sorrows that he bore, it was for our transgressions that He was wounded!
Although we had all gone astray, each one of us to his own way, yet Yahweh has laid on him all our iniquity. The scorned Servant was actually born for us; he was the Son given for us.
No mere substitution, the Servant dies for Israel to die with him; he is raised up for Israel to be raised up with him– herein lies the crux of Zion’s transformation.”
–L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 141-143.