May 2: Isaiah 53:7

Isaiah 53:7

“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.”

If verses 2-6 describe the suffering of the Servant, vv. 7-9 refer to his death. The implication here in verse 7 is that his suffering leads to his death. This suffering is summarized in the first line by the use of the verbs vg~n` and hn`u*, which each have the similar meaning “press, pressure”, with the latter specifically denoting “press down (low)”. The use of the passive Niphal stem, in both cases, indicates that the Servant is “pressed (down)” by the suffering he has experienced.

The idea of the Servant as a shepherd was alluded to in verse 6 (cf. the previous note); now, the same basic imagery has shifted, and he is identified with the sheep. This is fundamental to the overriding theme in the passage, of the Servant identifying with the suffering and weakness of the people, and taking that burden upon himself. The motif of sheep being ‘led to the slaughter’ is part of the wider line of imagery—viz., that sheep without a shepherd, unable to maintain the integrity and guidance of the flock, are scattered and wander off, and are prone to many dangers. At the same time, a callous and exploitative leader may see the sheep as nothing more than animals to be slaughtered, and so this particular theme can reflect the wickedness of the leaders of Israel/Judah, as also that of foreign oppressors (cf. Psalm 44:22; Zech 11:4-7ff, etc).

Here the image of a ‘sheep led to slaughter’ is used to emphasize the submissive silence and docility of the sheep. Twice it is specifically stated that the Servant “did not open his mouth”, even in the midst of the oppression he faced. This silence should be understood as a virtue, as a characteristic of the righteous. It is a Wisdom-theme, and Psalm 39:1-3 is a good example of the ideal of keeping silent in the face of attacks by the wicked. The silence of the righteous, in this regard, is an expression of trust in YHWH—the hope and expectation that one will be delivered and vindicated by God.

The parallel image of a ewe being led, not the slaughter, but to being shaved/sheared (vb zz~G`) of its wool, suggests a familiarity with what is happening (and acceptance of it), rather than dumb ignorance. As such, it may imply that the Servant, at some level, understands the necessity of his suffering, and how it is part of his very role as YHWH’s servant.

For Christians, the application of the sheep/slaughter motif to the death of Jesus has introduced the specific idea of the sheep (Jesus) as a sacrificial offering. However, it is important to note that this ritual/sacrificial aspect is not being emphasized here in verse 7. The reference is to the ordinary slaughtering or butchering of animals for food. This is clear from the use of the verb jb^f#; if the intention were to bring out the idea of sacrificial slaughter (as a religious ritual, etc), the verb jb^z` or fj^v* presumably would have been used instead.

The silence of the Servant is a notable detail that relates specifically to the suffering of Jesus, at least as it is described in the Synoptic Passion narrative. During his interrogation before the Jerusalem Council (Sanhedrin), and again before Pilate, it is emphasized how Jesus kept silent, saying almost nothing during the proceedings (Mk 14:60-61ff; 15:2-5 par). These parallels, between the Passion of Jesus and Isa 52:13-53:12 will be discussed in more detail, in a concluding article.

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