May 22, 2011 David Balzer

Isaiah 52:13-53:12: The Greatest Song Ever Written

The worst country in the world to be a Christian is ***. Open Doors Watch List ranks it number one persecutor of Christians 8 years in a row. It’s been that way for decades. The problem has been the difficulty in getting any information about the abuses at all.

A 2004 BBC documentary, Access to Evil, tells the story of a *** government official who escaped to *** with evidence of Christian persecution. As part of the government’s chemical weapons program, he’d been given written orders to collect a Christian family and use them as human guinea pigs in the testing. Scientists would pump chemical weapons into the room where the Christians were being held, with this official watching.

The chemicals should have produced a wild, violent and painful death. To the official’s surprise, the family’s death was peaceful. As the chemicals were applied… the parents looked after their children… and sang to them… The peaceful way they died shocked the official. He saw their faith, hope and love. Not long after the official became a Christian and eventually defected, escaping through ***.

That family’s silent, gentle, submissive declaration of faith was far more powerful than an angry clenched fist. God’s purposes were seen in their humility. In the strength of absolute weakness.

The pages of church history are filled with stories like that. Of ordinary men and women submissively, silently suffering for their Saviour. Of dying martyrs’ deaths.

Of missionaries spending their whole lives on the mission field, but never seeing any fruit. Of losing their children, or their spouse, to illness, sacrificed for the sake of Christ.

Of ordinary people giving up lives of wealth and privilege and power, to serve in poverty, obscurity and weakness instead. Never being noticed, or applauded.

Ordinary street sweepers, teachers, managers and housewives who’ve taken up their cross daily, and followed Christ. Who’ve chosen to LOSE THEIR LIFE for Jesus’ sake. And, as a result, are ridiculed, misunderstood, or ostracised. Discriminated against. Denied basic rights. Abandoned by family.

How does God VIEW all of that? Not part of the plan? Mistakes? Just bad luck? Acceptable collateral damage? A necessary evil?

No! The message of Isaiah, and the message of the whole Bible, is that it’s ALL part of God’s plan. There ARE no mistakes. No bad luck.

In fact, a life like THAT is God’s DESIGN. Rather than health and wealth, power and success, popularity and fame. God wants his people to be showing THOSE VERY CHARACTERISTICS.

The weak, humble, submissive, gentle obedience of God’s servants shows his character and his purposes. Servants like this Nth Korean family.

How do I KNOW that? I know it’s his plan for his servants TODAY because that was his plan for his IDEAL SERVANT in Isaiah 52 and 53. Weak, humble, submissive, gentle obedience. And it’s what he expects from us, his servants TODAY, as we follow after THAT servant.

So far in Isaiah we’ve seen how God chose Israel, and called them to be his people, living out his righteousness in their obedience to him, and in the way they treated each other. And this would be a witness to the nations around them.

But Israel were stiff-necked and stubborn. Disobedient. Deaf and blind. A FAILURE as a servant and a witness. And so God handed them over to Babylon. And that’s where they are now as they listen to these words of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The Servant in Isaiah

As they hear about God’s IDEAL SERVANT.

The Servant is a shadowy figure we’ve been following for a few weeks now. Back in Ch 41 and 42, he seemed to be Israel – THE WHOLE NATION. They were called to serve God, and to be a witness to the nations. And yet, they never lived up to their calling.

What God needed was an IDEAL servant. In Ch 49, the servant pops his head up again. But this time, the description doesn’t really fit Israel.

Just turn to Ch 49 for a moment. The chapter begins with the servant speaking about how God had called him before his birth to be a weapon in God’s hand. A polished arrow hidden away in God’s quiver. His mouth would be a sharpened sword that delivered God’s cutting message. Then in v3 we read.

“God said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”

Perhaps we ARE meant to think of the NATION of Israel. But then we get to v5.

5 And now the LORD says–he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to BRING JACOB BACK TO HIM AND GATHER ISRAEL TO HIMSELF,

This servant called “Israel” is called to BRING ISRAEL BACK. God’s plan is to set apart an IDEAL servant who’s going to do the job where Israel FAILED. This figure is AN INDIVIDUAL who STANDS FOR the nation of Israel, and who BRINGS THEM BACK. Who rescues them. Who acts as an obedient servant in all the ways Israel DIDN’T.

The Servant Song

And so we come to the end of Ch 52, and THE SERVANT REAPPEARS. And from here to the end of Ch 53, we have a beautifully crafted poem, often called the Servant Song. It’s five sections of three verses each.

Most commentators call it THE CENTREPIECE OF THE WHOLE BOOK OF ISAIAH. Others call it the NUMBER ONE OLD TESTAMENT GOSPEL SUMMARY. And others call it THE GREATEST SONG EVER WRITTEN.

But not according to a 2004 Rolling Stones magazine special issue, “The 500 greatest songs of all time.” According to their survey of musicians, critics and music industry figures, the top 5 greatest songs of all time are:

Like a rolling stone (Bob Dylan),

I can’t get no satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)

Imagine (John Lennon),

What’s going on (Marvin Gaye)

RESPECT (Aretha Franklin)

You may agree or disagree with their choices – I’m a little sceptical when the top two songs both feature the phrase “Rolling Stone”. But perhaps they should have titled the issue The 500 greatest songs of the last 60 years, since the oldest song on the list was from the 1940’s! Which is PRESUMPTUOUS to say the least!

We’ve got to go a little further back to find THIS great song. And the REASON it’s so great is that it’s here that we get the CLEAREST PORTRAIT YET of God’s servant. And we’re forced to rub out every guess we’ve made so far. The language is just too specific, and too extraordinary. It can’t be ISRAEL, or ISAIAH, or any of the OTHER prophets of the time, or the JEWISH King Hezekiah, or the PERSIAN King Cyrus.

Only JESUS OF NAZARETH remains on our list. God’s Messiah, God’s Son. The PERFECT servant.

There are so many connections to the events of his life in this section, it’s staggering. Hard to refute.

Wisdom (52:13-15)

Look there from v13 of Ch 52. The FIRST section we can call WISDOM. And God’s speaking, talking about his servant.

13 See, my servant will act WISELY; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Wisdom is living GOD’S way, and that’s what the servant does. He’ll be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. But not in the way we might IMAGINE. V14 comes as a jarring correction.

14 …there were many who were appalled at him–his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness–

The suffering the servant would endure would be SO HORRIFIC, people would be APPALLED. And then in v15, kings would be PUZZLED, confused. It wouldn’t fit their preconceived ideas. What’s wisdom for GOD is FOOLISHNESS for MEN. And what’s EXALTATION for God is SHAME AND REJECTION for MEN.

And we’ll need to wait to the END of the song to find out what God’s exaltation LOOKS LIKE.

Despised (53:1-3)

Moving on. The SECOND section can be titled “Despised”. God’s faithful take over the singing from God. And they start by recognising how UNEXPECTED God’s plan turned out to be.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

We’d NEVER have chosen parents like Jesus had, or the surrounding he was born or raised in. Who’d have guessed God would do things THAT way?!

The strong arm of God’s purposes wasn’t a mighty warrior with an impeccable bloodline. V2.

2 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. 3 He was DESPISED and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

He started small and insignificant. Nothing attractive or majestic. In fact he was DETESTED by people.

And he knew all about sorrows and suffering. (We’ll find out exactly WHY in the next section)

Substitute (53:4-6)

The THIRD section I’m calling “SUBSTITUTE”. The REASON the servant is FAMILIAR with sorrows and suffering is because he CARRIED  OUR suffering and sorrows. V4.

4 Surely he took up our INFIRMITIES (same word as suffering) and carried our SORROWS,

Like a counsellor who spends all day listening to people’s problems. He knows ALL ABOUT pain and tangled lives. He KNOWS it because he BEARS it. As more and more people unload on him during the day, his shoulders sink lower and lower as he carries their problems.

And it’s the same with the Servant. He a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering because he CARRIES  OUR suffering and sorrow.

And there’s two things about that that’s difficult to understand. First, why those who’s sorrows are being carried don’t APPRECIATE him. He’s carrying their sorrows, but they don’t esteem him! That doesn’t seem fair!

Second thing that doesn’t seem fair is there in the last part of v4. He’s been smitten and afflicted by God himself. Something about this BEARING sorrows and suffering on our behalf is to do with God’s PLANS for him TO SAVE his people. Something he does OBEDIENTLY – as a SERVANT.

And the next couple of verses explain how that WORKS. It’s about him being a SUBSTITUTE. V5.

5 But he was pierced FOR our transgressions, he was crushed FOR our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was UPON HIM, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has LAID ON HIM the iniquity of us all.

The language of laying sins on someone. Of punishment, and peace. Of a SUBSTITUTE. It would all be very familiar for the Jewish listener. As he thought about the Day of Atonement. The day when God’s anger for sin is satisfied.

In Leviticus ch 16 v20 God tells the people how the High Priest is to lay his hands on the head of a live goat, and then confess over it all the sin of Israel – to put those sins, SYMBOLICALLY, on the goat’s head.

And then to send the goat into the wilderness CARRYING ALL THEIR SIN WITH IT.

God, in his MERCY, chooses to satisfy his wrath at ISRAEL’S sin  by taking it out on A GOAT INSTEAD. The goat dies in place of the people.

Yet it never really DEALT with the sin. It was just a MAKE-DO, STOP-GAP MEASURE. Every year, the same drama had to be played out. Because it never really DEALT with the sin. Year after year, until the PERFECT sacrifice came along. The One who could GENUINELY bear the sin of others. Heb 10 says

10:1 The law (that is, THE SACRIFICIAL SYSTEM)… can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR THE BLOOD OF BULLS AND GOATS TO TAKE AWAY SINS.

But what goats COULDN’T DO, God’s ideal servant DID! Isaiah 53 PROMISES it. And then God finally brings it to pass in on a cross outside Jerusalem. Rom 3:25 describes God’s patience in OVERLOOKING sin in Israel, until the IDEAL servant came to BEAR it TRULY and JUSTLY.

25 God presented him (Jesus) as A SACRIFICE OF ATONEMENT (just like the goat), through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished- 26 HE DID IT TO DEMONSTRATE HIS JUSTICE AT THE PRESENT TIME, SO AS TO BE JUST AND THE ONE WHO JUSTIFIES THOSE WHO HAVE FAITH IN JESUS.

Jesus took our sins onto his perfect, sinless shoulders. And then bore God’s wrath into the wilderness of death. He substituted for US, taking up OUR sufferings, pierced for OUR transgressions. “The punishment that brought us PEACE was upon him.” And so God’s just wrath was SATISFIED. And many could be declared JUST.

And the key to RECEIVING that substitution is to TRUST it. To reach out and ACCEPT it. To ask God to forgive you instead of punishing you BECAUSE OF WHAT Jesus, God’s ideal servant, did as your substitute.

That’s the THIRD song. Explaining HOW the unjust treatment of the Servant can be part of God’s plan. HOW the substitution works.

Silent (7-9)

The FOURTH song is titled “Silent”. V7-9. And it’s similar to the SECOND section. Both looking at the servant’s HUMILITY. THIS one focuses on his SILENCE though. No abuse, no anger, no murderous screams of revenge. Just obedient acceptance.

7 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 her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Slaughtered. No chance of descendants (v8).

And in his death (v9), he ends up cursed like SINNERS. Even though he’d done nothing wrong.

Exalted (10-12)

Which all seems so unfair. UNJUST. Until we come to section 5 (v10). EXALTED.

(9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, though he had done no violence,) 10 YET IT WAS THE LORD’S WILL TO CRUSH HIM and cause him to suffer,

That is an EXTRAORDINARY CLAIM. It was the Father’s WILL to crush his son. To cause him to suffer. The perfectly JUST God allows his servant to be unjustly murdered. What would make a Father CHOOSE that option?

I hate to see my kids experience ANY pain. To imagine choosing DEATH for them is inconceivable. Yet God DID. And his reason is there in the next phrase.

and though the LORD MAKES HIS LIFE A GUILT OFFERING, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

His life was a guilt offering. A substitute. A sacrifice. One dying in place of many. Verse 11 talks about

by his knowledge my righteous servant WILL JUSTIFY MANY, and he will BEAR THEIR INIQUITIES.

Verse 12. “He BORE the sins of MANY”.

But more than just ONE person dying for the GREATER GOOD. Rather than just being AN ACCEPTABLE CASUALTY. It was God’s will  because DEATH WASN’T THE END for his servant. V11

he will see his offspring and PROLONG HIS DAYS, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

Or v12.

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,

We can TRUST that Jesus achieved forgiveness for many because God RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD. God declared his work acceptable.

Phil 2 puts these two stages more clearly. The humbling and the exaltation.

Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but MADE HIMSELF NOTHIng, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross!

That’s the HUMILIATION. Here’s the SECOND stage.

9 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 confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Responding to the Servant

And that’s how you RESPOND to the exalted, resurrected, triumphant Son. You bow the knee before him. And you confess to him, and to everyone around. That HE is Lord. To the glory of the Father.

But the FLIP side of that is how you respond to the humbled, silent, ridiculed, hated, suffering servant. Listen to what 1 Peter 2 says. V18. He’s talking to slaves, but the principle applies to ALL of us.

18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is COMMENDABLE if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.

God APPROVES of a life of silently enduring hardship for Jesus’ sake! V21.

21 To this you were CALLED, because Christ suffered for you, LEAVING YOU AN EXAMPLE, that you should follow in his steps.

That’s the Christian’s calling! To walk in Jesus’ footsteps. So don’t be surprised when it HAPPENS. Don’t DOUBT God! Don’t retaliate! Don’t give up. Just endure it. Follow Jesus’ example.

Do it at work when you boss overlooks you AGAIN for the promotion. Or blames you for something that wasn’t your fault.

Do it at home when your family doesn’t appreciate you. Or nags you.

Do it with those non-Christian friends or family that snigger behind their hands when you mention anything about Jesus. Or workmates that try to drag you down to their level with porn or dirty jokes or crude gossip.

God’s CALLED you to follow Christ’s example.

And then, just to back up what he’s saying Peter quotes from Isaiah 53. V22.

22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

Peter continues

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (ANOTHER quote from Isaiah 52) 25 For you were like sheep going astray (and AGAIN!) , but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

The ideal servant bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might DIE to SINS and LIVE for righteousness. Let’s DO that. And follow Jesus’ example as we DO it. In gratitude to the One who gave EVERYTHING for us.

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