Servant… Isaiah 52:13–53:3
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.