April 26: Isaiah 53:4

Isaiah 53:4

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them;
but we considered him (to) be touched,
struck by (the) Mightiest and oppressed.”

Verse 4 continues the description from v. 3 (cf. the previous note), emphasizing the reason for the Servant’s sorrow and suffering—it is primarily due to his empathic and intercessory role in relation to the Israelite/Jewish people. He identifies with their suffering and takes it upon himself, carrying/bearing it on their behalf. In the previous note, I mentioned the importance of Exod 3:7 and the related Moses traditions. Indeed, Moses’ role as YHWH’s servant was closely tied to the suffering of the people, as well as to their deliverance from suffering.

The same words—yl!j( (“weakness, sickness”) and ba)k=m^ (“sorrow”)—from verse 3 are repeated here in the first two lines. This makes clear that the “sorrows” and the apparent “weakness” of the Servant, mentioned in v. 3, are those of the people themselves. The Servant has taken their weakness upon himself.

Two verbs are used to express this: ac^n` (“lift [up]”) and lb^s* (“carry, bear”). The latter verb is relatively rare in the Old Testament, while the former is the common verb used for lifting/carrying something. It can also be used in a figurative sense for the burden of leadership, etc. Following along with the Moses-pattern for the figure of the Servant, the episode in Numbers 11 should given special consideration. Moses feels the weight of his special role of leadership over the people, which puts him in the middle of any conflict between them and YHWH. The wording of his complaint in vv. 11ff would seem to be relevant to the portrait of the Servant here:

“And Moshe said to YHWH, ‘For what [i.e. why] have you caused evil [i.e. hurt, trouble] for your servant? And (why) have I not found favor in your eyes, for (you) to put upon me (the) burden [aC*m^] of all this people?'”

The noun aC*m^ is derived from the root acn, and literally means “lifting, (something) being lifted”. Moses, in his beleaguered state, views this burden (of leadership) as a kind of affliction by God. In the narrative, YHWH responds to Moses’ complaint and relieves some of the burden by having it be shared by other leaders among the people.

In the final two lines of verse 4, the focus shifts back to the how the people have viewed the Servant. It demonstrates how the people have misjudged the Servant, considering the burden of his mission as a personal weakness. Here, this misunderstanding is taken a step further: his weakness and suffering is (erroneously) viewed as a punishment by YHWH. Three verbs, all in passive participle form, are used to express this:

    • ug~n`, “touch” —u^Wgn` (“being touched,” i.e., “he was touched”)
    • hk*n`, “strike” —hK@m% (Hophal participle), “being struck, having been struck”
    • hn`u*, “press down, oppress” —hN#u%m= (Pual participle), “being pressed down, oppressed”

The passive form in these cases is clearly an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied actor. In the Old Testament idiom, to be “touched” by God often has a negative implication—i.e., experiencing some evil or misfortune. To be “struck” by God is even more forceful, indicating a plague or other serious (or disastrous) situation. Being “pressed down” indicates the result or effect of the Divine action, and the punishment that YHWH brings down upon a person.

At the time, the people (apparently) did not realize the nature of the Servant’s suffering (his weakness and sorrow)—that it was the result of his intercessory role. The wording and context of the description indicates that now they do understand this, and recognize their error; indeed, it is part of their testimony now on the Servant’s behalf.

Between verses 3 and 4, there is a dramatic progression in this description of the tension (and conflict) between the Servant and the people. As it turns out, the Servant’s suffering is brought out by YHWH’s judgment—only it is judgment that was intended for the people, but which instead fell upon the Servant, who intercedes for them. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 5).

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