Isaiah Chapter 53 Sunday School Notes

These are a few of my notes for Sunday April 5, 2009 in the Lifeway Explore the Bible series.

Books referenced in these notes include:

1.)Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000

2.) John N. Oswalt, Isaiah (NIV Application Commentary), Zondervan, 1993 

3.) Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, 1995

4.)Robert L. Reymond, Jesus Divine Messiah, Mentor, 2003

5.) Christianity in Jewish Terms, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Editor, Basic Books, 2002

This is likely the most debated passage in the OT. Simply determining the proper sense of the Hebrew is difficult and seriously affects interpretation of the passage. It is a part of an overall series called Deutero-Isaiah, which covers Is 40-55, climaxing in chapters 49-55. The dominant figure in these chapters is the “servant of the Lord”, who oddly seems an individual most of the time, but is on several occasions spoken of plurally, as a nation or group. Isaiah has a series of “servant songs” within these chapters, the list of which is:

1. Is 42:1-7: Servant’s Ministry
2. Is 49:1-6: Servant’s Mission
3. Is 50:4-9: Servant’s Sufferings
4. Is 52:13-53:12: Servant’s Atonement(Oswalt, Kaiser, Childs)

Christians have famously identified the servant with Jesus, beginning perhaps as early as Phil 2:7; Matt, 8:17; Acts 8:30-35; 1 Pet 2:22-25, 3:18; John 12:38. They got that interpretation from Jesus, who alludes to Is 53:12 in Luk 22:37. Early Jewish Targums associated the passage with the Messiah. At least one opinion in the Talmud is that it describes Moses. Saadia Gaon suggested the similarities with Jer 10:18-24 mean Isaiah is describing Jeremiah. Probably the most common Jewish notion is that the passage describes Israel corporately, both at the hands of their Babylonian captors and as the chosen people. (Reymond, JSB)

The fourth servant song can be divided up into five stanzas of three verses each:
1.Mystery of the Servant 52:13-15
2.Servant’s Rejection 53:1-3
3.Servant carries our sins 53:4-6
4.Servant’s submission 53:7-9
5.Servant’s exaltation with revelation of the atoning nature of the servant’s suffering 53:10-12(Oswalt, Kaiser)

or simply three stanzas of five verses each:
1.First divine speech (52:13-15)
2.Confession of the “we” (53:1-11a)
3.Second Divine speech (53:11b-12) (Childs)

Is 52:13-15
This first section starts with the assurance of the triumph of the servant. He will be lifted, exalted, raised up, language elsewhere in Is (6:1, 57:15) only used of God. This is altogether puzzling because v. 14 speaks of the servant’s horrible appearance, his disfigurement, which on the face of it seems to indicate the opposite of success or God’s favor. The notion that suffering is caused by sin is ancient, and indeed can honestly be seen as the majority opinion. Yet the Bible speaks at times of other reasons for suffering. Look at Deu 3:2, 8:5, and Prov 3:12, which imply that suffering is the lot of those closest to God, and that suffering can have good effects. This is a tension that runs throughout the Bible (There a whole Book of Job strongly concerned with the issue) and throughout the history of both Judaism and Christianity. (Oswalt, CJT)

Verse 15 continues the strangeness. It speaks of the Servant “yazzeh”-ing many nations, which is normally rendered “sprinkle”. Many people perfer to translate here “surprise, startle”for several reasons:
1. Greek OT reads “surprise”
2. Semantics requires “sprinkle” to refer to nations, not a liquid like blood or water.

The “sprinkle” idea would presumably refer to the ceremonial sprinkling of water and/or blood as part of a sin offering, which Christians would connect to Jesus’ blood. The startle idea would refer to victory through self-sacrifice, the disfigurement and marring mentioned. That is certainly not how the world expects success.

Who is “they”? Obvious idea is the startled nations. Childs suggests instead some part of Israel, now having their eyes opened, as in Is 48:6, since “they” seem to understand this strange thing Isaiah is about to speak more of.(Oswalt)

Is 53:1
The language here is again vague. The “report” might be either what Isaiah is saying, or what a group, say repentant Israel, had learned of the Servant. Childs thinks the question separates the group seeing what has happened from those who don’t understand. (Childs, Oswalt)

Here it is explicitly stated the servant is “the arm of the Lord” that restores Israel and all people to God, as in Is 50:2; 51:5,9; 52:10-12. Previous hints of world deliverance occur in Is 42:1-6; 49:1-6; 50:4-9.

Is 53:2-3
Three reasons given for the surprise at the Servant’s success:

1.plant or root from dry ground implies he comes from a spiritually dead time and/or place
2.He has nothing especially appealing about him to win people over.
3.He was rejected because he knew suffering and sickness, so again he sounds unsuccessful, and not especially beloved of God.(Oswalt)

Is 53:4-6
Again, the servant knows sickness and pain because he carries “our” own sickness and pain. This makes him look unsuccessful, even struck by God to the world, which measures Heaven’s blessing by worldly success.(Oswalt)

“Our, our, we, our,our, our, we, we, our, us”- Surely though these verse Isaiah is referring to himself and the people of Judah. Thus it is hard to believe the people/Israel is the suffering servant depicted here.(Oswalt)

Here is one of the theological cruxes of the whole passage: God punishes the servant for the sins of “us all”. As I said earlier, this is opposite what most people think God does. He does not punish the innocent, but the guilty, because they deserve it.

Is 53:7-9
In verse 7 we get the passage’s only extended metaphor, and it is surely significant that it refers to sheep, the animal of religious sacrifice. The Servant is compared to a sheep, which goes to its searing and slaughter quietly.

Verse 8 is a translational nightmare. Was the Servant taken away “by oppressive judgement”(unfairly), “without hinderance or opposition” (without protest), or after “prison and judgment”? (legally).

And the line, “his generation, who cares?” Does that mean he died without heirs, or does it mean his contemporaries didn’t care that he was unjustly condemned?

8b, struck for my people, or his people is surprisingly clear, overall.

V.9 gives people problems because they equate the first section “grave with the wicked” to be parallel to “rich man in his death”. The typical Christian interpretation separates them, seeing it as a reference to Jesus being crucified between thieves, but buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s family grave.(Childs)

Is 53:10-12(Childs)
Verse 10 again notes that God did this terrible thing to His own servant in the first section. The second section is another translational tangle. What sort of offering, Hebrew“asam”, is being referred to here? The term is indeed most often used of ritual guilt offering in the Law (Lev. 5:6-25; 7:1-2, 5-7; 19:21-22) but is also used in Ezekiel (40:39;42:13;44:29; 46:20). But the term seems to have its origins not in a religious sense, but a secular one, in which a wrong must be compensated for. Thus some consider the idea here to be that there is no known ritual forgiveness implied here, but something new, something God has brought about with the Servant’s suffering, which God has accepted as compensation for the sins of “us all”.

In Verse 11 we see that the Servant apparently knows this compensation to be his task, and that it will succeed in making righteous many.

Verse 12 in essence summarizes what has gone before, emphasizing as at the beginning in 52:13 the Servant’s success.


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