The pericope for consideration continues the identity and mission of Isaiah’s servant. We find in the mysterious individual further paradoxes concerning the purpose of the individual’s life and actions. This servant has a difference about them that makes life appear in a world where sin and death reign. The servant surprisingly bears the crimes of the guilty making them right with the offended party (God). This part of the poem speaks about the result of a future victory and the hope of the servant standing in the end in triumph. It is in the ultimate task of absorbing death that the servant has changed the course of the rebels’ destiny.
Often, we look to the New Testament writers to form our theology regarding salvation. For the Christian, it would be wise to look back to the Old Testament to get a better grasp at the foundations of such theological formations. In this passage (and the previous verses) we have important clues on how to think about what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean. Isaiah’s vision regarding the servant grounds itself in sacrificial language from Leviticus. The servant’s actions give writers like Paul in the NT the ability to put forth considerable conclusions regarding the sinner’s response to the actions of Jesus’ (arguably saving) actions.
Obviously, the Christian is indebted to these passages in Isaiah (both in their own context and via the NT) for their formation of soteriology. It is eye opening to go back and read Isaiah without assuming Jesus as the fulfillment of this vision. Oswalt notes that Isaiah’s goal was not to produce a literal future prediction of Jesus’ entire ministry. However, the congruence with which the NT writers match up Jesus with the servant described by Isaiah is remarkable (408). The identity of the servant should be considered within Isaiah’s contexts before jumping to the NT’s illumination. Most of us must attempt to honestly approach this task in a backwards manner because of our Christian upbringing. It might need to be noted that I am not arguing that it is wrong to come to our soteriology “backwards”. In my opinion, it is very striking however, that when one studies Isaiah for its own sake, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are enhanced for their salvific significance rather than diminished.
The human dilemma has become God’s priority in the biblical narrative (404). God’s solution, according to Isaiah, is a sacrificial human. This human has a servant role that is misunderstood completely. The important religious concepts such as holy and righteous are totally flipped upside down within Isaiah’s servant. The servant takes on the iniquities of the non-innocent. Oswalt highlights that this is not just symbolic but something that happens in reality. The righteous one makes others righteous by absorbing the world’s sins. This priest type figure offers themselves for the people’s sin. Unlike animals, this God-like human steps into the active place of substitution to make relationship with God wholly possible again (405).
One’s future thinking about resurrection is hinted at in verse 10. As Oswalt points out, this does not necessarily speak of resurrection but that the servant’s life and death will not be in vain (402-403). I think that the bigger idea of death being dealt a “death-blow” is an appropriate image regarding the servant’s actions. God’s servant not only has a message, but the servant’s action accomplishes what no religion could (even Israel’s sacrificial system). Isaiah plants within this part of the poem further imagination regarding God’s heart and plan to deal with sin and its consequences. God does this through God’s servant in a powerfully absurd way that ends up victorious in the end. One’s theology regarding sin and redemption are given much ground to reflect on within these few verses. The servant further reveals God and the important fact that death loses when God gets actively involved. These thoughts should shape each of us as we ponder the Bible’s ultimate message regarding redemption and restoration.
The passage for study this week highlights the irony regarding God’s ways of working in the world that seem contrary to expectation. The servant that is mentioned is further under scrutiny for the actions that this person makes. Sinful humanity gets a surprise healing from the pain inflicted upon the servant. This poem continues to challenge the assumptions regarding Israel’s saving God. God supposedly is going to send remedy through an unlikely source.
It was typical in the ancient understanding to think that when something bad was happening to an individual it was a result of their wickedness (386, 389). It would seem surely that this absurd character that was appearing weak and sick was getting what they deserved providentially. What the reader discovers, however, is that the sickness, shame, and punishment upon the servant is due to humanity’s sin. This is not the servant’s fault, but the servant bears the entire barrage of insults and are in place of the sinner’s sickness (397).
A large portion of the poem is painting the picture that there is a contrast between humanity and the servant. This is true even despite the reality that the servant is just like humanity and comes from among humanity. This is interesting since this servant is described as innocent, perfect, and undeserving of any harm. The theology of substitution is highlighted by Oswalt on numerous points and as he highlights is connected to the sacrificial system known by Israel (385). Sinful humans, as Israel would have known and argued, needed a mediator between them and God’s righteousness. The sacrificing of unblemished animals to atone for their sins was at the heart of their holiness understanding. It is further striking how Isaiah’s picture combines this language of humanity and a perfect sacrifice to mediate between God and humanity.
The use of the image of a sheep in the poem suggests humanity’s dilemma and the servant’s destiny. It symbolizes humanity’s flaws with sin and missing the point of creation when they have no awareness regarding consequences for actions (389). Humanity needs a God as much as sheep need the guidance and love of a good shepherd. A good shepherd will rescue their sheep at great cost. Oswalt points out the contrast between the people who have gone astray being like a flock of sheep and the servant being a submissive lamb on the way to death. This comparison is a powerful picture of how the servant is like the lamb in a different way than the lost unaware sheep (389-391).
The absurdity of the poem is further complicated when one thinks that God is the one who supposedly does this to the servant (Isaiah 53:6b). This tension should stand when we think about God’s radical dealing with the life destroying force of sin. God is really dealing with God in a profound way. Oswalt notes the many connections here between Jesus and this servant (385, 391, 392). Jesus is described in the New Testament by John the Baptist as the lamb that takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:9). Jesus also is the one making the decision to follow through with the mission of embracing death to satisfy God’s mission of salvation (Luke 9:51).
This servant/messiah being described by Isaiah is one that is truly unique. The one who never committed sins or violence is embracing sin and violence within themselves. Oswalt sees that Isaiah is writing about an individual the world had never seen. He rightly notes that there has never been such a person known to have been fully innocent and always have spoken truth (396-397). The entire pericope tells of a contrast between humanity and the servant. It ultimately speaks about God’s character and how God works with the problem of sin. For Israel, it should have prompted them to see things in a different light and be on the lookout for one who would be innocently led like a lamb to the slaughter and in whose mouth, there was found no deceit. Isaiah pointed to the kind of servant that would save people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
This well-known section of scripture is one that reveals the character of God. The mystery of the identity of the servant in the poem is something worthy of exploring. The role of this servant in God’s purposes in the world is also important to the theological purpose of the message Isaiah is trying to convey regarding God and humanity’s sin problem. Humanity (including/specifically God’s people) often miss God due to their assumptions and alienation from the creator.
Everything in the poem flips the expectations of the hearers. It gets the reader to think in regards to what people would expect from God’s action and power bursting forth into the world. God’s power (“the arm of the Lord”) is not as destructive as much as it is constructive to the those who have been victims of abused power (375). Certainly, Israel had played both roles of oppressed and oppressor in her history. The irony of this periscope (as with most of the Bible) is shown in God’s ability to work despite apparent weaknesses. It begs the question when talking about God’s power and God’s ability when it is assumed YHWH is the creator of it all. Maybe this is another theme that is sarcastically picked up throughout Isaiah. God’s people have amnesia regarding God and therefore forget their own role in the created order (and call to the world).
Oswalt points out that despite the amount of study done on this pericope details of the interpretation remains not perfectly nailed down (377). The identity of the servant is the one who will restore covenant and, as Oswalt notes, the servant is not Israel (378). The most important impact of the message of these verses deals with suffering and humiliation regarding the servant. It is ridiculous, from humanity’s vantage point, that power is going to come through weakness. It is absurd to place the event of mockery with a conclusion event of exaltation. This seems to be the point Isaiah is trying to make (Isa 55:8).
It is easy for the New Testament writers to attribute the servant to Jesus. When we focus on the passage in its Old Testament context, however, we also see a theme of God’s character coming through in the very idea that God’s name as revealed in Exodus 3 means deliverer. Jesus’ story starts in a humble place and before resurrection (exaltation) he experiences the crushing of power from both the political and religious establishment (382).
It is further revealed in this passage concerning the theology of substitution. Others have argued that this cannot be found due to the servant’s participation in suffering rather than standing in the sinner’s place (not to mention Israel suffering already for their sins). Oswalt makes a case for the idea of substitution that is convincing (385-386). While substitution theology can be found here, it is worth noting that it is not the all-encompassing passage to deal with atonement. It is simply a very important one when developing a robust understanding of God’s dealing with sin and death.
Throughout the section everything points to the idea that God’s servant will not be given the time of day (but surprisingly will in the end). In the parade of power expectations, God’s people and the rest of the watching world will miss it. Oswalt highlights and interprets 53:2-3 as point of avoidance. He compares it to when a sick person is often avoided because of another person’s uncertain feelings regarding the situation. This ends up avoiding the person in need altogether with nobody winning (383-384). This section that was chosen for review highlights God’s character of suffering through God’s appointed servant. God is impacted by sin and deals with it directly at great painful cost. The poem testifies to Israel’s rejection of God due to their obtuse alienated expectations. The servant’s role, however, is the very thing Israel/the world needs and ironically wants.