I grew up in a faith tradition that had little tolerance for long hymns. If a hymn had three stanzas, we would sing all three. But if there were more than three, we would sing the first, second and last stanzas and forego the others. But if you carefully read the old hymns you’ll quickly see that they tell a story, and to omit one or more stanzas means that you choose to skip part of the story.
Isaiah 53 is written like a hymn. Some 700 years before the time of Christ, Isaiah took up pen and paper and wrote these words, telling the story of the suffering servant. The passage is written in five stanzas of three verses each, unfolding the story of Christ who would serve as our servant emancipator.
See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. And he will startlee many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard about. (Isaiah 52:10-13, NLT)
The prophet claimed that the nations would be startled as they see what would become of the suffering servant. From the very beginning we see God’s vindication of his servant.
Who has believed our message? To whom has the LORD revealed his powerful arm? My servant grew up in the LORD’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. (Isaiah 53:1-3, NLT)
The report is not believed. Not because the report is inaccurate, but it is disbelieved that this suffering is necessary. His suffering was so great it was unwatchable. Not only are we unable to look upon him, we despise and reject him, literally withdrawing from him because of our discomfort with his discomfort.
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrowsa that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6, NLT)
Words like “pierced” and “crushed” speak to the violence of Christ’s suffering. As he suffers alone, those who were contemporary with him would have wondered what he had done to deserve such brutal punishment. But the prophetic answer is that he had done nothing worthy of death. It was not for crimes or sins he had committed, but for ours. He is our substitute, taking our place, dealing with every aspect of our need, fulfilling the plan of God.
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. (Isaiah 53:7-9)
As the disturbing imagery continues, it is not lost on the reader that the reason it is so uncomfortable because it exposes our own vulnerability and mortality. If Christ is innocent and we are guilty, we are confronted with our own sinfulness. The death Jesus died should have been yours and mine. We would rather talk about heaven than hell; and would prefer words about grace to words about wrath. Yet what is heaven without hell? What is grace without wrath?
But it was the LORD’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the LORD’s good plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. (Isaiah 53:10-12, NLT)
Though Christ suffered greatly, God esteemed that it was worth it, for his voluntary sacrifice would provide the opportunity for the world to be saved.
There are always challenges in bridging contexts between the times of the Bible and today. It is hard to see ourselves in these images, and frequently we wonder how these verses begin to apply to us. There is an old hymn that asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The short answer is “yes, you were there.” Not as an eyewitness, but among the guilty, condemning him to die, crying out “Crucify him!” We can’t look at Holy Week as some event in history that we get to benefit from. Your sin and mine was also atoned for that day. We were among those who despised and rejected him.
We despised and rejected him then, and in many ways we still despise and reject him today. Curious as to how? Check back in for the follow up post this week.