Isaiah 53 – The Atoning Suffering and Victory of the Messiah
“This chapter foretells the sufferings of the Messiah, the end for which he was to die, and the advantages resulting to mankind from that illustrious event…. This chapter contains a beautiful summary of the most peculiar and distinguishing doctrines of Christianity.” (Adam Clarke)
A. The atoning suffering of the Servant of the LORD.
1. (1-3) How man saw the suffering Messiah.
Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant,
And as a root out of dry ground.
He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him,
There is no beauty that we should desire Him.
He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
a. Who has believed our report? Prophetically, Isaiah anticipates at least two things here. First, he anticipates how strange and contradictory it seems that this suffering Messiah, whose visage is marred more than any man, is at the same time salvation and cleansing to the nations. Second, he anticipates the rejection of the Messiah, that many would not believe our report.
b. To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? In this context of the Messiah’s suffering and agony, this line seems out of place. The arm of the LORD is a picture of His strength, power, and might. Yet we will see a Messiah weak and suffering. But the strength, power, and might of God will be expressed in the midst of this suffering, seemingly weak Messiah.
c. He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant: Jesus did grow up, as He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52). But all the while, He was as a tender plant – of seeming weakness and insignificance, not like a mighty tree.
i. A tender plant is weak and vulnerable – unless it is before Him, that is, before the LORD God. In God’s presence, that which seems to be weak is strong. If the plant is before Him, it doesn’t even matter that the ground is dry. God will sustain it with His presence.
d. As a root out of dry ground: Jesus grew up in the Galilee region of Roman occupied Palestine. In respect to spiritual, political, and standard of living matters, it was indeed dry ground. God can bring the most wonderful things out of dry ground.
i. “Do not say, ‘It is useless to preach down there, or to send missionaries to that uncivilised country.’ How do you know? Is it very dry ground? Ah, well, that is hopeful soil; Christ is a ‘root out of a dry ground,’ and the more there is to discourage the more you should be encouraged. Read it the other way. Is it dark? Then all is fair for a grand show of light; the light will never seem so bright as when the night is very very dark.” (Spurgeon)
e. He has no form or comeliness…no beauty that we should desire Him: Prophetically, Isaiah gives a more compelling description of Jesus than we find anywhere in the gospel accounts. Jesus was not a man of remarkable beauty or physical attractiveness (comeliness). This doesn’t mean that Jesus was ugly, but it does mean that He did not have the “advantage” of good looks.
i. This means that when we try to attract people to Jesus through form or comeliness, or beauty, we are using methods that run counter to the nature of Jesus. “These days it appears that we must dress up the gospel to make it attractive. We have to use the methods of technique which must be smart, well-presented, streamlined. There must be something about the presentation of the gospel that will appeal to people…to what is called ‘the modern mind.’ I wonder if we stop to think that in our efforts to make the gospel message ‘attractive’ we are drawing a curtain across the face of Jesus in His humiliation? The only one who can make Him attractive is the Holy Spirit.” (Redpath)
f. He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: Jesus was not a “life of the party” man. It would be wrong to think of Him as perpetually sad and morose; indeed, He certainly showed great joy (such as in Luke 10:21). Yet He knew sorrow and grief so intimately that He could be called a Man of sorrows. This, among other reasons, made Him despised and rejected by men.
i. Most of our sorrow is really just self-pity. It is feeling sorry for ourselves. Jesus never once felt sorry for Himself. His sorrow was for others, and for the fallen, desperate condition of humanity.
ii. “He was also ‘a man of sorrows,’ for the variety of his woes; he was a man not of sorrow only, but of ‘sorrows.’ All the sufferings of the body and of the soul were known to him; the sorrows of the man who actively struggles to obey; the sorrows of the man who sits still, and passively endures. The sorrows of the lofty he knew, for he was the King of Israel; the sorrows of the poor he knew, for he ‘had not where to lay his head.’ Sorrows relative, and sorrows personal; sorrows mental, and sorrows spiritual; sorrows of all kinds and degrees assailed him. Affliction emptied his quiver upon him, making his heart the target for all conceivable woes.” (Spurgeon)
iii. In 1 Timothy 3, one of the requirements for leaders in the church is that they be soberminded. This word describes the person who is able to think clearly and with clarity. They do not constantly joke but know how to deal with serious subjects in a serious way. It doesn’t mean solemn and somber, but it does mean an appropriate seriousness.
g. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him: Because there was nothing outwardly beautiful or charismatic about the Messiah, mankind’s reaction was to withdraw from Him, to despise Him, and hold Him in low esteem. This shows that men value physical beauty and charisma far more than God does, and when we don’t see it, we can reject the ones God accepts.
2. (4-6) The Servant of the LORD bears our sin.
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
a. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: At this point, the prophet does not have in mind the way the Messiah took our guilt and God’s wrath upon Himself. Here, he has in view how the Messiah took our pain upon Himself. He made our griefs His own, and our sorrows as if they were His. The image is that He loaded them up and carried them on His back, so we wouldn’t have to.
i. How many people carry around pain – griefs and sorrows – that Jesus really carried for them? He took them from us, but for it to do us any good, we must release them.
b. Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted: Curiously, this estimation was accurate. Certainly, the Messiah was stricken. He was smitten by God. He was afflicted. The problem was not in seeing these things, but in only seeing these things. Man saw the suffering Jesus but didn’t understand the reasons why.
c. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him: Yes, the Messiah was stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But now, the prophet explains why. It was for us – for our transgressions…for our iniquities. It was in our place that the Messiah suffered.
i. Wounded is literally “pierced through.”
d. And by His stripes we are healed: Here, the prophet sees through the centuries to know that the Messiah would be beaten with many stripes (Mark 15:15). More so, the prophet announces that provision for healing is found in the suffering of Jesus, so by His stripes we are healed.
i. There has been much debate as to if Isaiah had in mind spiritual healing or physical healing. As this passage is quoted in the New Testament, we see some more of the thought. In Matthew 8:16-17, the view seems to be of physical healing. In 1 Peter 2:24-25, the view seems to be of spiritual healing. We can safely say that God has both aspects of healing in view, and both our physical and spiritual healing is provided for by the suffering of Jesus.
ii. However, some have taken this to mean that every believer has the right – the promise – to perfect health right now, and if there is any lack of health, it is simply because this promise has not been claimed in faith. In this thinking, great stress is laid upon the past tense of this phrase – by His stripes we are healed. The idea is that since it is in the past tense, perfect health is God’s promise and provision for every Christian at this very moment, even as the believer has the promise to perfect forgiveness and salvation at this moment.
iii. The problem of this view – not even counting how it terribly contradicts the personal experience of saints in the Bible and through history – is that it misunderstands the “verb tense” of both salvation and healing. We can say without reservation that perfect, total, complete healing is God’s promise to every believer in Jesus Christ, paid for by His stripes and the totality of His work for us. But we must also say that it is not promised to every believer right now, just as the totality of our salvation is not promised to us right now. The Bible says that we have been saved (Ephesians 2:8), that we are being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18), and that we will be saved (1 Corinthians 3:15). Even so, there is a sense in which we have been healed, are being healed, and one day will be healed. God’s ultimate healing is called “resurrection,” and it is a glorious promise to every believer. Every “patch-up” healing in this present age simply anticipates the ultimate healing that will come.
iv. What Christians must not do is foolishly “claim” to be healed, despite “mere symptoms” that say otherwise, and believe they are standing on the promise of Isaiah 53:5. What Christians must do is pray boldly and trust God’s goodness and mercy in granting gifts of healing now, even before the ultimate healing of resurrection.
v. “‘With his stripes we are healed.’ Will you notice that fact? The healing of a sinner does not lie in himself, nor in what he is, nor in what he feels, nor in what he does, nor in what he vows, nor in what he promises. It is not in himself at all; but there, at Gabbatha, where the pavement is stained with the blood of the Son of God, and there, at Golgotha, where the place of a skull beholds the agonies of Christ. It is in his stripes that the healing lies. I beseech thee, do not scourge thyself: ‘With his stripes we are healed.’” (Spurgeon)
e. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way: Here the prophet describes our need for the Messiah’s atoning work. Sheep are stupid, headstrong animals, and we, like they, have gone astray. We have turned – against God’s way, every one, to his own way.
i. We all have our own way of sin. The constant temptation is to condemn your way of sin, and to justify my way of sin. But each way that is our own way instead of the LORD’s way is a sinful, destructive, damned way.
f. And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all: Here we see the partnership between the Father and the Son in the work on the cross. If the Messiah was wounded for our transgressions, then it was also the LORD who laid on Him the iniquity of us all. The Father judged our iniquity as it was laid on the Son.
3. (7-9) The suffering and death of the Servant of the LORD.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.
And they made His grave with the wicked—
But with the rich at His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
a. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: Despite the pain and the suffering of the Messiah, He never opened…His mouth to defend Himself. He was silent before His accusers (Mark 15:2-5), never speaking to defend Himself, only to glorify God.
b. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth: The prophet repeats His previous point, that the Messiah will suffer without speaking to defend Himself. When Isaiah uses the phrase, He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, we should not take this as indicating that Jesus was a helpless victim of circumstances and was helpless as a lamb. Quite the contrary; even in His suffering and death, Jesus was in control (John 10:18, 19:11 and 19:30). Isaiah’s point is that Jesus was silent, not helpless.
i. “If I were to die for any one of you, what would it amount to but that I paid the debt of nature a little sooner than I must ultimately have paid it? For we must all die, sooner or later. But the Christ needed not to die at all, so far as he himself was personally concerned. There was no cause within himself why he should go to the cross to lay down his life. He yielded himself up, a willing sacrifice for our sins.” (Spurgeon)
c. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? This not only refers to the confinement of the Messiah before His crucifixion, but it also speaks of the fact that the Messiah died childless. There was no one to declare His generation.
d. For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken: This is the first indication in this passage that the suffering Servant of the LORD, the Messiah Himself, would die. Up to this point, we might have thought He would only have been severely beaten. But there is no mistaking the point: He is to be cut off from the land of the living.
i. “The phrase ‘cut off’ strongly suggests not only a violent, premature death but also the just judgment of God, not simply the oppressive judgment of men.” (Grogan)
ii. This, among many aspects of this prophecy, demonstrates again that Isaiah cannot be speaking of Israel as the suffering Servant. As badly as Israel has suffered through the centuries, she has never been cut off from the land of the living. She has always endured, even as God promised Abraham.
iii. The prophet brings the point home again and again. The Servant of the LORD, the Messiah, suffers, but not for Himself, but for the transgressions of My people.
e. And they made His grave with the wicked: Jesus died in the company of the wicked (Luke 23:32-33), and it was the intention of those supervising His execution to cast Him into a common grave with the wicked.
f. But with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth: Despite the intention of others to make His grave with the wicked, God allowed the Messiah to be with the rich at His death, buried in the tomb of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56, Matthew 27:57-60).
i. The line because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth is important. It shows that even in His death, even in His taking the transgressions of God’s people, the Messiah never sinned. He remained the Holy One, despite all the pain and suffering. As a recognition of that, He was buried with the rich at His death, and would indeed be resurrected.
B. The victory of the Servant of the LORD.
1. (10-11) The Messiah’s satisfaction.
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
a. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief: The prophet gloriously, and emphatically, states that the suffering of the Servant of the LORD was ordained by the LORD, even for His pleasure!
i. This was God’s doing!He has put Him to grief! Jesus was no victim of circumstance or at the mercy of political or military power. It was the planned, ordained work of the LORD God, prophesied by Isaiah hundreds of years before it happened. This was God’s victory, not Satan’s or man’s triumph.
ii. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. The Father and the Son worked together at the cross. Though Jesus was treated as if He were an enemy of God, He was not. Even as Jesus was punished as if He were a sinner, He was performing the most holy service to God the Father ever offered. This is why Isaiah can say, yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him (Isaiah 53:10). In and of itself, the suffering of the Son did not please the Father. But as it accomplished the work of reconciling the world to Himself, it was completely pleasing to God the Father.
b. When you make His soul an offering for sin: The Hebrew speaks of a specific, sacrificial sin-offering as described in Leviticus chapter 5. The idea of a substitutionary atonement for sin cannot be more specifically stated.
i. And it was this – the becoming of the sin-sacrifice – more than the physical suffering that Jesus dreaded. “My Lord suffered as you suffer, only more keenly; for he had never injured his body or soul by any act of excess, so as to take off the edge from his sensitiveness. His was the pouring out of a whole soul in all the phases of suffering into which perfect souls can pass. He felt the horror of sin as we who have sinned could not feel it, and the sight of evil afflicted him much more than it does the purest among us.” (Spurgeon)
c. He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand: The death, the burial, the offering of the Messiah does not end the story. He lives on! He lives to see His seed, His spiritual descendants. He shall prolong His days, and not be under the curse of death. And the life He lives after His death and burial is glorious; His life shall be lived prospering in the pleasure of the LORD.
d. He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied: The Messiah will look upon His work – with full view of the travail of His soul – and in the end, He shall be satisfied. The Messiah will have no regrets. Every bit of the suffering and agony was worth it and brought about a satisfactory result.
i. As the last lines to the hymn by Maltbie Babcock put it:
This is my Father’s world:
The battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and heaven be one.
e. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities: It is in knowing the Messiah, in both who He is and what He has done, that makes us justified before God.
2. (12) The Messiah’s work and reward.
Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.
a. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong: The Messiah’s glorious work will be rewarded. With the image of dividing the spoil after a victorious battle, we see that the Messiah ultimately triumphs.
i. Paul described this ultimate triumph in Philippians 2:10-11: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. That is a glorious reward.
ii. “It is a strange fact that I am going to declare, but it is not less true than strange: according to our text the extraordinary glories of Christ, as Saviour, have all been earned by his connection with human sin. He has gotten his most illustrious splendour, his brightest jewels, his divinest crowns, out of coming into contact with this poor fallen race.” (Spurgeon)
iii. In the end, the sufferings and humiliation of Jesus only bring Him more glory and majesty! “I do see that out of this dunghill of sin Christ has brought this diamond of his glory by our salvation. If there had been no sinners, there could not have been a Saviour. If no sin, no pouring out of the soul unto death; and if no pouring out of the soul unto death, no dividing a portion with the great. If there had been no guilt, there had been no act of expiation. In the wondrous act of expiation by our great Substitute, the Godhead is more gloriously revealed than in all the creations and providences of the divine power and wisdom.” (Spurgeon)
iv. Who does the Messiah divide the spoil with? With the strong; those strong in Him. We can share in the spoil of Jesus’ victory! If children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Romans 8:17)
b. Because He poured out His soul unto death: This speaks of the totality of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Poured out means that it was all gone. There was nothing left, nothing more He could give.
i. “‘He hath poured out his soul unto death.’ I will say no more about it, except that you see how complete it was. Jesus gave poor sinners everything. His every faculty was laid out for them. To his last rag he was stripped upon the cross. No part of his body or of his soul was kept back from being made a sacrifice. The last drop, as I said before, was poured out till the cup was drained. He made no reserve: he kept not back even his innermost self: ‘He hath poured out his soul unto death.’” (Spurgeon)
c. He was numbered with the transgressors: Jesus could never become a sinner; He could never be a transgressor Himself. Yet willingly, loving, He was numbered with the transgressors. Is there a rollcall taken for transgressors? Jesus says, “Put My name down with them.” We would be shocked if a godly woman looked at a list of prostitutes and said, “Put my name down among them.” Or what if a godly man looked at a list of murderers and said, “Number me among them.” But that is what Jesus did for us, only to an even greater degree.
d. He bore the sin of many: Over and over again, the prophet emphasizes the point. The Servant of the LORD, the Messiah, suffers on behalf of and in the place of guilty sinners.
e. And made intercession for the transgressors: We know that presently, Jesus has a ministry of intercession (Hebrews 7:25). But Hebrews 7:25 speaks of intercession for the saints. This passage probably refers to Jesus’ prayers on the cross itself.
i. This means the work of the Messiah is made available to transgressors. It is when we see ourselves as transgressors that we can reach out and receive His salvation.
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – email@example.com