Isaiah 52:13-53:12

It seems that Americans like surveys more than other countries, at least this is what I discover when I look for information on some topic. I wanted to find what percentage of Jews have read the Bible and could only find information for Jews in the US.

In a survey by the Pew Research Center that asked how often people read the Bible at least once per week, 63% of American evangelicals, 61% of black Protestants, 30% of mainline Protestants, and 25% of Catholics said they read the Bible weekly. Only 17% of American Jews read their Bible (what we call the Old Testament) at least once per week.

My point in this is to say that for most Jews, the only time they read the Bible or hear it read is when they are in synagogue. 65% do not read the Bible for themselves.

The reason I am talking about this is that there is a chapter in the Old Testament that is never read in synagogues on their Sabbath services and because of this, the contents of this chapter are unknown to most Jews.

Each week during the Sabbath service in synagogues there is a reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Following this there is the Haftarah reading which is a reading from the prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the twelve minor prophets.

Not every chapter of every prophetic book is read during the year, but there is one chapter in Isaiah that is skipped over and never read in synagogues – Isaiah 53.

The 17th century Jewish historian, Raphael Levi, admitted that long ago the rabbis used to read Isaiah 53 in synagogues, but after the chapter caused “arguments and great confusion” the rabbis decided that the simplest thing would be to just take that prophecy out of the Haftarah readings in synagogues. That’s why today when Jews read Isaiah 52, they stop in the middle of the chapter and the week after jump straight to Isaiah 54.

So this morning we will look at the forbidden chapter, Isaiah 52:13-53:12.

This forbidden chapter is the fourth of the four servant songs in Isaiah. Over the past few weeks we have looked at the first three. Today we will finish our fall series of sermons from Isaiah with this fourth servant song. Next Sunday we enter into the season of Advent and will begin focusing on the birth of Jesus, the promised Messiah, and on the second coming of Jesus, his promised return.

This fourth servant song, like the first three, has a poetic structure. There are five sections in this servant song and they follow a chiastic pattern. I have talked about this poetic structure in other sermons. In a chiasm there is a repeated theme with the main point of what is being said found in the middle. So this fourth servant song has the pattern of A1, B1, B2, B3, A2.

A1 and A2, the first and last sections of this servant song explore the theme of exaltation and suffering. The middle B sections talk about the suffering itself.

A1 Enigma: Exaltation and Humiliation
B1 Suffering observed and misunderstood
B2 Suffering explained
B3 Suffering, voluntary and undeserved
A2 Solution: exaltation through sin-bearing suffering

So the two A sections explore the intermingling of exaltation and humiliation and suffering. The middle B sections focus on the suffering with section B2, the heart of the song, explaining why the suffering will take place.

Let’s begin with the first section: Enigma: Exaltation and Humiliation.

An enigma is something that is mysterious or difficult to understand. Our Christian faith is full of enigmas. How can three persons be one God? How could God be born as a man? How could Jesus be fully human and fully divine? How could God in the flesh die on a cross?

Our faith is full of enigmas because we worship God who preexisted creation. Before there was a universe, before there was anything, there was God. Because we are limited by our four-dimensional world, there are things about God we will never be able to understand because God is not limited by our four dimensions.

We embrace truth that is mysterious to us and are encouraged by this because it reveals that our faith is not something we created. Our faith is not a man-made faith. If that were the case, we would be able to explain and understand everything fully. Our faith would not be any greater than what our own minds were able to create.

So here is the enigma presented in this first section of the fourth servant song. How can exaltation and humiliation be wrapped together in one person?

When there is a 1500 meter race, the runners start off and at the end of the race one of them finishes first, one of them comes in second, and one of them comes in third. When they hand out medals to the runners, who gets the medals? Who are photographers taking pictures of? Who gets the glory?

The glory does not go to the runners who finish after the first three. The glory goes to the three first finishers while the other runners stand by the side watching. If the race is a marathon, the medal ceremony is over before the last runners get to the finish line. By the time they finish, there are no more photographers. The crowd that cheered the first finishers have left. There is no glory to give to those who finish the marathon hours after the winners have been honored.

I can tell you this from my own experience. When I ran a marathon or half-marathon, the winners would cross the finish line when I was just half-way through the race. By the time I came to the end of the race, the winners had been lauded and honored, had showered, and were now relaxing as I came across the finish line.

In Rome, when a general was victorious in battle, he was honored with a parade. First came the captive leaders, allies, and soldiers (and sometimes their families) usually walking in chains; some were destined for execution or further display. Their captured weapons, armor, gold, silver, statuary, and curious or exotic treasures were carted behind them. Next in line, all on foot, came Rome’s senators and magistrates, followed by the general’s civil servants, then the general in his four-horse chariot. His officers and elder sons rode horseback nearby. His unarmed soldiers followed in togas and laurel crowns, All this was done to the accompaniment of music, clouds of incense, and the strewing of flowers.

The captive leaders, allies, and soldiers walked in misery. The aroma of incense was like poisonous air to them. They were not cheered. There was no glory for them. It was the victorious general and his soldiers who were cheered and received glory. To them the aroma of incense was the sweet smell of victory and triumph.

Winners are honored and losers are forgotten, so how do humiliation and exaltation go together?

Isaiah begins,
See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

As followers of Jesus this is crystal clear to us. We know who this is talking about. This is Jesus who was raised, lifted up, and exalted. Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus was lifted up and ascended to heaven. Jesus is now highly exalted in his heavenly glory. We see this exalted Jesus in John’s Revelation, a vision of gold and light, (Revelation 1:12–17)
The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

This is the glory of the resurrected Jesus Paul met on the road to Damascus, a vision so bright that it made the noonday sun seem dim – and like John, he fell on the ground as though dead.

It is this exalted Jesus Paul talked about in the early hymn of the church, (Philippians 2:9–11)
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

And now, after this glory comes the enigma. It comes as a shock. It is jarring to have this verse of glory connected to what comes next.

See, my servant will act wisely; 
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— 
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being 
and his form marred beyond human likeness— 

How is it possible that these two verses can fit together? Exaltation and the immediately following humiliation. Exaltation comes from victory, not defeat. We celebrate the first runner, not the last. The boxer who knocks out his opponent gets the victory belt, not the boxer who lies bloodied on the floor.

Jesus suffered the most shameful of deaths, crucifixion. This cruel form of punishment was designed to send a message. It was a humiliating way to die. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was not crucified but beheaded, a much more humane way to be killed. Peter who also died at the hand of Nero was crucified because he was not a Roman citizen and did not deserve a more honorable death.

The servant will be exalted and debased, disfigured. What message will this send to the world?
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

The shock is that this man who suffered a humiliating death will be raised to great honor. There is a lot of discussion about the verb the NIV translates as “sprinkle”. Others translate this as “startle”. Commentaries don’t agree about this, but the point is that kings will be surprised by what happened.

The exaltation of Jesus turns on its head the common understanding and common experience that winners are honored and exalted, not losers. But the early followers of Jesus shocked the world by proclaiming that Jesus was exalted because he lost. If the contest was between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus, the Jewish religious leaders won when Jesus was crucified and buried.

They watched him die and went home fully expecting that the followers of Jesus would fade away and the name of Jesus would be forgotten. But they did not understand the power of what Jesus did on the cross.

The followers of Jesus did not hide the fact that Jesus had been crucified. They were not shamed by the way he died. They lifted up the death of Jesus on the cross as a glorious achievement.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, (Galatians 6:14)
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

The author of Hebrews wrote, (Hebrews 12:1–2)
let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

We celebrate Good Friday and call it “Good” Friday because on that day we were set free from the oppressive weight of death that hung over our heads. Good Friday is the day we were set free. That is why we have crosses in our churches. That is why people wear crosses around their necks.

Jesus came to save. The problem was sin that doomed us to death. But rather than crushing sin, smashing sin, destroying sin as a victorious soldier would approach the problem, the servant absorbed sin. This was completely unsuspected.

This leads us into the three center sections of this servant song.

Suffering observed and misunderstood
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

The answer is that the servant was held in low esteem.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.

How could the one who will save us have such a normal, humble origin? This was the problem the people of Nazareth had with Jesus. (Matthew 13:54–57)
Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.

Other Jews rejected Jesus because he came from the hill country of Galilee. (John 7:41)
“How can the Messiah come from Galilee?”

You can hear them sneer as they said this. How could a country bumpkin, a hillbilly from Nazareth, be the Messiah?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, 
and like a root out of dry ground. 
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, 
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 

Jesus did not stand out in a crowd. When Samuel went to look for a king, he found Saul who looked like a king. Saul impressed people with his height and bearing. Jesus did not stand out like this.

When people imagined what the Messiah would look like when he came, they imagined someone regal and powerful, a strong warrior who would lead the revolt against the Roman occupiers of Israel. Jesus did not look like a warrior.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, 
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. 
Like one from whom people hide their faces 
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Jesus did attract people, but he attracted the wrong kind of people. He attracted unsophisticated country people. He attracted prostitutes and despised tax collectors. He attracted lepers and people who had been possessed.

The elite of Israel rejected Jesus. The educated elite rejected Jesus. The sophisticated elite rejected Jesus. Jesus was God in the flesh, but they were blind to that.

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who sent his servants to collect his share of the fruit during the time of harvest. The tenants killed his servants and so finally the landowner sent his son and they seized him and killed him as well.

The religious leaders were angered by this parable because they knew Jesus was talking about them.

God became flesh and rather than being honored, he was rejected. The religious leaders who were supposed to honor God with their worship and devotion, rejected Jesus and plotted how to kill him.

he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Jesus was observed, evaluated, and spit out as worthless. He was viewed as nothing more than a radical troublemaker, someone to get rid of.

Now we come to the third section of this servant song, the very heart of the song.

Suffering explained
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

The description of the physical suffering of Jesus is powerful in itself, but there is a “he/we” pattern in these verses that reveals the emotional suffering of Jesus.

Surely he took up our pain 
and bore our suffering, 

As we remember in the sacrament of communion, Jesus broke his body so we could be rescued. Jesus gave up his life so we could have our life.

And what is our response?

yet we considered him punished by God, 
stricken by him, and afflicted. 

This is certainly what Saul the Pharisee thought. When Jesus was crucified it became clear to Saul that Jesus was not the Messiah who was promised. How could he be so sure? When Jesus was crucified, he was revealed to be a cursed man and it was impossible for the Messiah to be a cursed man. Paul read in Deuteronomy 21:22-23
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.

The Pharisees who watched Jesus heal people were not impressed with him. They watched a man’s shriveled arm be made whole, right in front of their eyes, and plotted how to kill him. They listened to his teaching which impressed people and heard threatening words. When they saw him on the cross they were satisfied that they had done a good thing. God had protected them from this man. God has protected Israel from this man. They had done their duty.

The crucifixion of Jesus was positive proof for Saul that Jesus had not been who he claimed to be and that those who were following him and claiming he had been raised from the dead were following a lie.

Now we return to the second “he” section.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

As an aside, let me say something that will be controversial. In prayers for healing, this verse is often quoted, “by his wounds we are healed.” And, it is true that we will all receive healing for all the weakness and deformities we suffer from. Some of us will be healed in this life but we will all be healed when we receive our heavenly bodies. But the physical healing we receive is only the smallest part of what this phrase means.

We are healed by his wounds so that we enter into eternal life. We are healed by his wounds so that our physical death is just a small step into life without end. That is the amazing power of this phrase, “by his wounds we are healed.” We need to be careful not to trivialize the power of these words, “by his wounds we are healed,” by limiting them to physical healing.

Jesus went to the cross thinking of us. He suffered intense pain, physical pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain – and he did this because he was thinking of us. He was paying the price for our ticket into heaven.

And who were we thinking of?

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, 
each of us has turned to our own way; 
and the Lord has laid on him 
the iniquity of us all. 

Jesus was thinking of us and we were thinking about ourselves. Jesus is absorbed by his attention to us and we are absorbed with our own needs, our own desires, our own wants, our own welfare.

The “he/we” contrasts in this section of the song reveal how alone Jesus was on the cross. His disciples fled when he was arrested. Only John seems to have been present at the crucifixion. And we can be like the disciples when we focus our energy and attention on our wants, our desires, and neglect to put Jesus first in our lives.

This brings us to the fourth section of the song.

Suffering, voluntary and undeserved
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

The temple in Jerusalem was a bit like Morocco during Eid al-Adha, the big feast when Muslim families kill a sheep to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son. Sheep are bought in the sheep market, packed into the trunks of cars, tied on the roofs of cars, put in the back of trucks, even put on scooters to get to the family’s home. The sheep is alone for a few short days and then one morning it wakes up, eats some hay, drinks some water, and then is led out to be killed. It goes without knowing what will happen.

In the temple with all the animals being sacrificed, there was a lot of noise. In the sheep markets we can hear the bleating of sheep as they are pulled to where they will be transported to their temporary home. The temple was like this but even more so.

Sheep do not walk to the cars to be taken to their temporary home. In the temple, sheep did not walk up to the altar. Sheep resist and they had to be dragged to the altar.

But in contrast, the servant was silent as he was led to his death. He did not make an impassioned defense for himself. He did not plead for mercy. He was silent.

He was innocent and Pilate knew he was innocent. But Jesus did not have to be dragged to the cross. Jesus knew he came to earth to die and went willingly to the cross to suffer for us. Jesus came to do one time what had been done every year in the past.

The author of Hebrews writes: (Hebrews 10:1–4) (The Message)
The old plan was only a hint of the good things in the new plan. Since that old “law plan” wasn’t complete in itself, it couldn’t complete those who followed it. No matter how many sacrifices were offered year after year, they never added up to a complete solution. If they had, the worshipers would have gone merrily on their way, no longer dragged down by their sins. But instead of removing awareness of sin, when those animal sacrifices were repeated over and over they actually heightened awareness and guilt. The plain fact is that bull and goat blood can’t get rid of sin.

How could a dumb animal, not knowing why it was being sacrificed, make atonement for the sins of men and women?

The writer of Hebrews continues, (Hebrews 10:11–14) (The Message)
Every priest goes to work at the altar each day, offers the same old sacrifices year in, year out, and never makes a dent in the sin problem. As a priest, Christ made a single sacrifice for sins, and that was it! Then he sat down right beside God and waited for his enemies to cave in. It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process.

Jesus made for us the once-for-all-time sacrifice.

This brings us to the fifth section of this song. The song began with the enigma, the mystery of how exaltation and humiliation could be intertwined. It continues with that theme at the end.

Solution: exaltation through sin-bearing suffering
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

The servant will be crushed and made to suffer. The servant will suffer and be crushed because it the Lord’s will that the servant suffer and be crushed. Why will the Lord do this? To “make his life an offering for sin.”

But that is not the end of the story. Even though he will be killed,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Isaiah is not specific how this will happen. He says that the servant will die, he will suffer and be crushed, and then, somehow, he will be alive again.

We know in specific detail what Isaiah did not see in his prophetic vision. On the third day Jesus burst from the grave in triumph. He appeared to his followers and charged them to share the good news of the kingdom of God.

And it is good news. It is great news. We have a story to tell that is completely amazing. There is a video I will share with you in the RICEmail this coming week. A Messianic Jew speaks with Jews in Jerusalem about Isaiah 53. He has them read from the Bible themselves and asks them questions about what they are reading. They are amazed. They have never heard this before. It is wonderful to watch the interactions.

We have a wonderful story to tell. It is an amazing story. Rejoice in this story. Not everyone will agree with you. Not everyone will be open to hearing your story. But it is a wonderful story to tell.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 takes us through the story: from the birth of Jesus to the life of Jesus to the death of Jesus and to the exaltation of Jesus. Listen as I read it one more time, this time from the Eugene Peterson paraphrase: The Message.

Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (The Message)
13–15 “Just watch my servant blossom!
Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—
a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes,
what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.”
53 Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

2–6 The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
on him, on him.

7–9 He was beaten, he was tortured,
but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
and like a sheep being sheared,
he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul
or said one word that wasn’t true.

10 Still, it’s what God had in mind all along,
to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin
so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.

11–12 Out of that terrible travail of soul,
he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
will make many “righteous ones,”
as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—
the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch,
because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

This is your story to tell. Who will hear the story from your lips?

Romans 10:13–15
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

“The Forbidden Chapter” in the Tanakh