Read: Isaiah 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12
Background Considerations Last week’s lesson introduced us to the so-called “Servant Songs” and the debates surrounding their interpretation. It also recommended our attempting to listen to what these words must have meant to the people who first heard them in the sixth century BC, in Babylonian captivity, in a time of rising optimism with the approaching arrival of Cyrus, the anointed “messiah” of God. What will this mean especially as we come to Isaiah 53?
It might also be appropriate at this point to mention the idea in the ancient world of “corporate personality.” Rather than maintaining a focus on individual personality or personal responsibility, much of the Old Testament world views responsibility as a larger, corporate concern, extended to family, clan, tribe, nation. Thus, committing some sins brought guilt on all Israel or shamed the entire family. Restitution could also be understood in similar terms, that the clan kinsman (goel/redeemer) stands up for members of the family who cannot make it on their own and pays off debts incurred and makes things right for them. Any connection here, especially in Isaiah 53 with this idea? Israel (or the current generation of Israel in the captivity) taking the guilt for the sins of earlier generations? Or, given the major emphasis in Isaiah 40-55 on God as the goel/Redeemer, are we also to keep this option open – that God steps in on behalf of the people?
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read again Isaiah 40-55, watching for references to “servant.”
- Isaiah 50:4-9 – These verses represent the third “Servant Song.” What characteristics of the servant become part of our picture? What dangers exist for the servant? What sources of help and protection? What role do persistence and dependence on God play in the life of the servant depicted here? How is the servant hurt by others and helped by God? And what does all of this add to our sense of serving others?
- Isaiah 52:13-15 – The fourth “Servant Song” is of course the most memorable, at least as viewed by Christians. Again we must ask what these words meant to the people who first heard them. Could Israel have been the servant here? Can we find a both/and approach which will allow the richness of both Old Testament and New Testament (and early Christian) understandings? The song breaks nicely into four parts, each consisting of three verses and all building to a crescendo of joy, based on the action of the servant. In these verses, what emphases surface? Why the exaltation and embarrassment? Why the surprise of the audience being asked to look at the servant?
- Isaiah 53:1-3 – What elements in these verses surprise us on first reading? Why the lack of credibility in the report? What does the description of the servant as despised, tormented, despised and sorrowful add to our understanding of service?
- Isaiah 53:4-6 – Any surprises here? What does the language of grief and injury on behalf of others suggest? What about the language of sheep, a metaphor used often in the Psalms for Israel, especially in the time of the exile? Of course, the idea of suffering for someone else’s guilt jumps out at us and pushes us toward the New Testament. But, as the note below on Lamentations 5 suggests, there is precedent for at least a part of Israel to suffer for the guilt of another part.
- Isaiah 53:7-9 – The theme of vicarious suffering continues in these verses, as does the metaphor of Israel as sheep. What is new has to do with death and burial of the servant.
- Isaiah 53:10-12 – With these verses, the success of the servant’s mission on behalf of others rises along with the joy it generates. There is a future for the servant’s offspring because of his suffering.
- Lamentations 5 – The idea of vicarious suffering for another’s guilt appears here as well as in Isaiah 53, and a part of Israel is suffering for another part. In fact, it is the same language of “bearing their iniquity” in Lamentations 5:7, which also comes from the time of the exile. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel had to deal with a popular proverb: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The Lament complains that the generation suffering from the Babylonian onslaught was bearing the iniquity/guilt of the parents who had already sinned and died.
Contributions to the study of Isaiah How will some of these suggestions about an original application of words which already carry lots of theological significance for Christians affect our understanding of how the Bible works?
Lessons for Life Whatever our understanding of the application of the words especially of Isaiah 53, we cannot miss the amazing development of a theology of service to others, even to the point of dying on their behalf.