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).