“Coming to the fourth song, 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 for 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 seed 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.
Ultimately, it is Israel’s sacrificial system that illumines the theology of the servant’s suffering, that provides the categories for Israel to understand that Yahweh has redeemed his people through the Servant, by making “his soul a guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10).
The guilt offering, like the purification offering, was a sacrifice given by Yahweh for cleansing Israel from sin, making divine forgiveness possible (see Leviticus 4–5). Beyond purification from sin, the guilt offering also included the notion of making restitution for one’s offence against God—it brought in more fully the idea of restoration along with purification.
Signifying atonement and cleansing from sin, the purification and guilt offerings focused especially on the blood rite of the ritual—the collecting and sprinkling or smearing of blood. As Yahweh declared in Leviticus, he had given Israel blood on the altar as life for life (nefesh), or soul for soul, to make atonement for the sins of his people (Leviticus 17:11).
In Isaiah 53, Yahweh, having laid on his blameless servant the iniquity of his people, crushes him, making “his soul [nefesh] a guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10).
The servant suffers, then, as a vicarious substitute for the people of God, claiming for himself the depth and fullness of Israel’s judgement—this is the new revelation that dawns on the “we” who speak from within Israel and who now form the servants of Yahweh, disciples of the servant.
In seeing the significance of the servant’s suffering, these Israelites come to discern themselves and their own sinfulness more deeply. Indeed, the Israelites say as much about themselves, by way of confession, as they do about the servant:
However, it was our griefs that he bore and our sorrows he carried,
Yet we ourselves had thought him struck, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.
Upon him was the chastisement for our peace, by his wounds, there is healing for us.
All we like sheep had gone astray, we had each one turned to his own way,
But Yahweh himself laid upon him the iniquity of all of us. (Isaiah 53:4–6)
Through the servant, through his suffering and exaltation, they have come to see their own blindness and to condemn their own self-justification. In the light of his suffering, they are enabled to see the darkness of their own condition and, with profound humility, confess their own guilt, completely absolving the servant as blameless: our griefs, our sorrows, our transgressions, our iniquities, our need of chastisement and healing, our waywardness from Yahweh’s paths of righteousness—our iniquity.
And in the darkness of their need, they see the light in his suffering, that by his chastisement they find peace, that by his wounds they find healing. The servant’s suffering as a vicarious, sacrificial substitute is inescapable, for he “will bear their iniquities,” he “carried the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:11, 12). His soul serving as a guilt offering, he was “led as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).
Here Yahweh’s own lamb undergoes the cultic exodus. What was once said even of the scapegoat’s role on the Day of Atonement—that it would “bear (nasa’) upon him all their iniquities” (Leviticus 16:22)—is echoed in the labor of the servant who “bore [nasa’] the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12).
The servant has been sent to deal with the ultimate problem of Israel and of all humanity, sin, which makes exile from God absolutely and unalterably necessary. Sin separates humanity from God and leads to death—to an eternal exile from the only fountain of life.
True restoration to God, a definitive exodus, must raise humanity up from sin and death and not only cleanse but finally transform—sanctify and glorify—human beings into true children of God, a path that will be pioneered and opened by the servant for Israel’s sake.
The summation of the servant’s labor, for it was a God-ordained mission, is that he made intercession for transgressors (Isaiah 53:12). For this reason, many have likened the servant to the figure of Moses, whose entire life was an act of intercession on behalf of Israel.
As those who have benefited from his redemption, the servants are given to penetrate to the profound reality that this servant’s suffering and vindication are the very means of God whereby both Israel’s restoration and Israel’s vocation among the nations will be fulfilled.
But the servant must indeed suffer and die and then be raised again—the suffering and the exaltation fill each other with significance and power, and it is only from his royal exaltation that the servant leads his people through the new exodus of his own suffering and glory.
By the New Testament’s illumination, we see that as a function of the servant’s exalted glory, so emphasized in Isaiah, he is enabled to pour out the Spirit upon the peoples for whom he was made an atoning sacrifice, uniting them to his own death and resurrection.
The servants of the servant who speak in the fourth song do so from the vantage point of their own spiritual resurrection. With the eyes of the old creation, as it were, they had only looked with loathing and scorn on the servant.
But now, having their sight healed and enlightened by the outpoured Spirit, their eyes see him as their Lord and Savior, who with unsearchable love laid down his own life to ransom them from the grave and redeem them from death.
All the streams of heavenly blessings converge through the one unifying sieve of this servant, the Messiah. He is the Rock through whom every divine promise pours out as a rushing river, transforming the wilderness of this age into the paradise of a new creation.”
–L. Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption (Essential Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 141-145.