25 March 2016

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

β€œHe was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (v. 3)

Psalm: Psalm 22


Through Holy Week, we have considered the theme of Jesus the servant. Three of them have come from Isaiah, and have included the passages known collectively as Isaiah's 'servant songs' (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50: 4-11), and today's passage is the fourth and final of these songs. It is also arguably the climax of the songs, seen as a collection. It focuses on the servant as one who suffers, and the redemption that this suffering brings.

As with the previous servant songs, we might look for a historical context to explain what it must originally have meant. But precisely who or what was the servant when the prophecy was first spoken and written down, is hard to know. It may refer to kings and emperors, to the prophet himself, or perhaps to Israel. What seems much clearer, however, is the influence that this prophecy has had on Christian thought. From the early Church, this passage has helped us to find words for what it is that Christ has done for us.

The reference to sacrifice in the passage (verse 7) reminds us that the idea of one life paying for the sins of many is built into the worship of Israel. Animals were offered to make amends, to bring about ritual purity and, at Yom Kippur, to make atonement for the sins of the nation. In this final example, the High Priest would confess the sins of Israel, symbolically placing them onto a goat by laying hands on it. The animal would then be sent out into the desert, bearing the sins on behalf of the Israelites.

The prophet uses this sacrificial idea to suggest that the servant's suffering is redemptive. One person is despised, treated brutally, even killed. And by this treatment, he is exalted and shown to be righteous. Not only that, but he will also "make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11).

To Ponder

  • If you have time, look at Romans 5:6-21. Might today's passage have helped to shape Paul's thinking here? Or is that to read too much into it?
  • This passage is perhaps best known and loved because of its use by Handel in Messiah (especially Part 2 of the work). Do you know of any other examples of it being used in art or music? Why might it inspire artists in this way?
  • The idea of suffering as redemptive has been hugely comforting to struggling individuals or oppressed communities. Why might this be? Are there dangers in this idea?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.