The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Maas’ Introduction to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (The Fourth Suffering Servant Song)

Posted by Dim Bulb on October 16, 2012

I. The Prophecy and its Context

In the first part of chapter 52 the prophet has described the approach of a vast host of the chosen people going forth to occupy the Holy City. In the closing verses of the chapter the prophet tells us how these new occupants shall be cleansed. God’s own servant shall sprinkle them, thereby purifying them from their uncleanness. But though many kings and nations shall receive the glad tidings of salvation, Israel shall refuse to believe the message. The prophet, therefore, endeavors to correct Israel’s misapprehensions about the low condition of the Servant, pointing out the cause of his suffering and its effects, and the prophet’s words are finally confirmed by God himself. The division of the prophetic text fully agrees with what we have said concerning its relation to the context:

a. God announces the method of his divine purification by means of the vicarious ministry of the Servant (Isa 52:13-15).

b. The prophet describes the low condition of the suffering Servant according to the view of the unbelieving people (Isa 53:1-3).

c. The prophet begins to explain the real cause of the Servant’s suffering and humiliation, pointing out that the Servant undergoes really a vicarious suffering (Isa 53:4-7).

d. The prophet continues the real explanation of the Servant’s suffering, describing the glorious effects it will produce in his own condition and in the state of the world at large (Isa 53:8-10).

e. Finally, God himself confirms the prophet’s view of the Servant’s vicarious suffering and its glorious effects (Isa 53:11-12).

II. Messianic Character of the Prophecy

A. The Servant is not a mere collection of persons, the whole Israelite nation collectively, or the godly portion of it, or the prophetic order, or the priesthood. Reasons:

1. There are several passages in the prophecy that can apply only to an individual: In Isa 53:3 the Servant is the ” most abject of men, a man of sorrows;” in Isa 53:10-11 there is question of the Servant’s soul; in Isa 53:9 we read of his burial.

2. The Servant cannot represent Israel at large, because the people is always spoken of as suffering for its own sins (Isa 1:4-5; Jer 17:1-4; Dan 9:16), while the Servant, according to the prophet’s description, is wholly innocent. The last generation of Jews in particular, which witnessed the burning of the second temple, was so sinful that Josephus believes none more ungodly had existed from the beginning of human history (Bell. Jud. V. x. 15).

3. The Servant is represented as suffering willingly, while the Jews suffered against their will; in Isa 49:5 and Isa 53:8-9 the prophet distinguishes the Servant from the people.

4. Nor can it be said that the prophecy may refer to the godly portion of the people, or to a God-fearing order of the nation. For the idea of a vicarious suffering is not applied to any man living in the Old Testament (cf. 49:7-8; Jer 40:4; etc.). Besides, no collection of godly men was as such “reputed with the wicked,” “cut off out the land of the living,” nor did they “see long-lived seed.”

The arguments of our opponents are hardly strong enough to call for serious refutation, Granting that the Servant of the Lord applies to the whole people in Isa 42:19 and according to Rosenmuller in Isa 41:8; Isa 42:1; Isa 43:10; Isa 44:1, Isa 44:21; Isa 45:4; Isa 48:20; Isa 49:3-7; Isa 50:10, and to the prophets in Isa 44:26, it does not follow that, therefore, it must apply to either the people or the prophets in Isa 52:13-53:12. Since it is plain from the preceding references that the Servant does not always refer to the same subject, we must determine from the context in what special sense the term must be understood in each particular case. The bare circumstance that the prophets have suffered much from their fellow-citizens (Jer 2:20; Jer 11:19, Jer 11:21; Jer 15:10-21; 2 Kings 21:16; Neh 9:26), and that they occasionally prayed for their persecutors (Jer 42:2-4), does not prove that therefore their sufferings were vicarious in their nature, and that they agreed with all the particulars of the prophet’s description. In point of fact we have seen that the prophets’ sufferings are wholly different from those of the Servant. It is true that the later Jewish writers apply the prophecy to the Jewish people; Origen testifies that they have done so from the third century (Celsus, 1. p. 42). But we shall see that the earlier Jewish writers testify to the tradition of the Messianic character of the prophecy. It will appear from the commentary that in Isa 52:14 there is no question of the Gentiles surprised at the sufferings of the Hebrew nation, and that the plurals in Isa 53:8-9 (“to them,” “in his deaths”) do not necessitate a collective meaning of the Servant.

B. The Servant is not a great saint of the Old Testament, such as Moses, Hezekiah, David, Uzziah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Josiah. It may be clearly proved that the various details of the prophet’s description do not fit the persons suggested. The Servant must be born in a lowly condition, must be condemned unjustly to death, suffer a violent death willingly, be reputed with the wicked, and have his burial-place with the rich; moreover, the Servant’s suffering must be vicarious in its nature and gain a long-lived seed for the innocent sufferer. A glance at the foregoing list of names suffices to show us that none of them can be said to agree with the suffering Servant as described by Isaiah.

C. The Servant described by Isaiah is the Messiah. Reasons:

1. The New Testament repeatedly identifies the Servant with the Messiah, either explicitly, or at least implicitly. Luke 22:37 expressly states Christ’s words: “This that is written must yet be fulfilled in me: And with the wicked was he reckoned.” Mark 15:28 applies the same prophecy to the suffering of Christ: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith: And with the wicked he was reputed.” John 12:37-38 applies another part of the same prophecy to Jesus Christ: “And whereas he had done so many miracles before them, they believed not in him, that the saying of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled which he said: Lord, who hath believed our hearing? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The same Messianic reference of Isa 52:13 ff. may be seen in John 1:29; Matt 8:17; Matt 20:28; Acts 8:28-351 Peter 2:22-25; 1 Cor 15:3; 1 John 3:5.

2. The Old Testament, too, confirms the Messianic character of the prophecy now in question. The description of the Servant exactly agrees with the description of the Messiah as found in Isa 11:1; Ps 22:6-8, Ps 22:12-18, Ps 22:27-31; Ps 72:7, Ps 72:10, Ps 72:17; Isa 11:10; Zechariah 9:9; Ps 85:10-14. Besides, it must be kept in mind that no single person or collection of persons can be found in the Old Testament history in whom the prophecy of Isaiah may be said to have been fulfilled. On the other hand, every detail of the prophet’s description has found evident fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ.

3. The testimony of the Fathers shows that the Church has always regarded the prophecy as referring to the Messiah The references to the numerous patristic applications of the prophecy to the Messiah may be found in Kilber’s Analysis Biblica, ed. II. vol. i. pp. 383 ff.

4. Finally, the testimony of the Jewish tradition concerning the Messianic reference of the prophecy is so clear that it needs only to be stated:

On Isa 52:13~The Targum reads in this passage: “Behold my servant, the Messiah, shall prosper; he shall be exalted…” And again on the words “he shall understand” the Targum remarks, “This is the king Messiah.” Yalkut ii. (Par. 338, p. 53 c, line 7, etc., from the bottom) has on the words ” he shall be exalted:” “He shall be exalted more than Abraham, for of him it is written, I have exalted my hand to the Lord (Gen 14:22); he shall be extolled more than Moses, for of him it is written, Thou sayest unto me, Extol [i.e., carry] them in thy bosom (Num 11:12). And he shall be higher than the ministering angels, for it is said: As for their rings, they were so high (Ezekiel 1:18). And thus it is said: Who art thou, great mountain? (Zechariah 4:7), i.e., that is greater than the fathers. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed (Isa 53:5). Rab Hunna in the name of Acha said: The chastisements or afflictions were divided into three parts: one to David and the fathers, and one to the rebellious generations, and one to king Messias.” Of. Tanchuma, in loc.

On Isa 53:4~Sanhedrin (fol. 98, col. 2) has the following passage where there is question of the Messianic names: “The Rabbis say: His name is the leper of the house of Rabbi, as it is said: Surely he hath borne our infirmities, and carried our sorrows, and we have thought him, as it were, a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted ” (Isa 53:4). Cf. Midrash Echa, or Lamentations, on i. 16.

On Isa 53:5~We have seen the Messianic application of this verse under the preceding paragraph on Isa 52:13.

On Isa 53:6~Yalkut on Isaiah 60:1 has the following testimony: “The congregation of Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be he! Lord of the universe! for the sake of the law, which thou hast given to me and which is called a source of life, shall I ever enjoy thy light? What is the
meaning of “in thy light shall we see light”? (Ps 36:9) It denotes the light of the Messiah, as it is said: And God saw the light that it was good (Gen 1:4). This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be he! had already respect to the generation of the Messiah and to his works before the creation of the world, and that he preserved that first light under the throne of his glory for the Messiah and his age. Satan pleaded before the Holy One, blessed be he! and said: Lord of the universe, for whom is the light preserved under the throne of glory? The Holy One answered: For him who is to overthrow and to shame thee. Satan said: Let me see him! The Holy One said Come and see him! When he saw him, he trembled and fell upon his face and said: Yes surely, that is truly the Messiah who will throw me and all idolatrous nations into hell, for it is said: He will swallow up death in victory, and the Lord God will wipe off tears from all faces (Isa 25:6). In that hour the nations gathered together and said before the Holy One, blessed be he! Lord of the universe, who is he in whose hands we are to fall! What is his name? What is his nature? The Holy One replied, “Ephraim Messiah, my righteousness” is his name; he exalts his light and that of his generation, and gives light to the eyes of Israel and redeemeth his people. No nation or tongue can stand before him, for it is said, The enemy shall not exact upon him, nor the son of wickedness afflict him (Ps 89:22). AH his enemies and adversaries shall fear him and go back before him, as it is said, And I will beat down his foes before his face (Ps 89:23). Even the streams will run before him into the sea, as it is said: I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers (Ps 89:25). When they flew, the Holy One, blessed be he! began to stipulate with him [the Messiah]. He said to him: The sins of those who are treasured up beside thee will bring thee under a yoke of iron, and make thee like this calf whose eyes are dim, and will torment thy spirit with unrighteousness; and because of transgression thy tongue will cleave to the roof of thy mouth. Dost thou accede to this? Messiah rejoined before the Holy One, blessed be he: Lord of the universe, perhaps this trouble is for many years? The Holy One, blessed be he! replied: By thy life and the life of thy head, a week have I decreed upon thee (Dan 9:27). If it grieve thy soul, I will expel or afflict thee now. He replied before him: Lord of the universe! with heartfelt gladness and with heartfelt joy I take this upon myself on condition that not one of Israel shall perish; and that not only those that are alive shall be saved in my days, but also those that are hid in the dust; and not only the dead shall be saved in my days, but also those dead who died from the time of the first Adam until now; and not these only, but also those who have been prematurely born; and not only these, but also all that are in thy mind to create and have not yet been created. Thus I consent, and on these terms I take this office upon myself.”

On Isa 53:10~The Targum applies this passage to the kingdom of the Messiah. Aben-Ezra, Jarchi, Abarbanel, Maimonides, and others of the more recent Rabbinic writers freely admit that their older writers understood the prophecy as applying to the Messias. Cf. Wolf, ” Bibliotheca Hebr.” 1. p. 818; R. Martini, ” Pugio fidei;” Edersheim, “The Life and Times of Jesus,” vol. ii. p. 727; ” Hebraica,” vol. iv. p. 46; iii. 268.

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