May 7: Isaiah 53:12

Isaiah 53:12

“For this (reason) I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
(and with) the strong he shall have a portion of (the) plunder;
(it is) for that which (he did:) he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted,
and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith).”

This final verse (12) is comprised of three parallel couplets. It will be helpful to examine each of these in some detail.

Couplet 1

The verse opens with the compound particle /k@l*, which I translate rather literally as “for this (reason)”. It continues the discussion of the previous lines, but also anticipates the final two couplets here. The Servant’s faithfulness to YHWH, even while enduring suffering and punishment (on behalf of the people), has resulted in his being given a heavenly reward, and entry into the blessed afterlife, where he also will hold a new (heavenly) position as YHWH’s servant. This reward is described in the remainder of the first couplet:

“I will give a portion to him with (the) many,
and (with) the strong he shall have a portion of plunder”

The verb ql^j* is used twice, in the technical sense of giving someone a share or allotment in an inheritance, etc. A covenant setting must be assumed, whereby each vassal receives an appropriate portion from the sovereign, in return for faithful service he has rendered. This includes the plunder (ll*v*) from warring activity. There are “many” (<yB!r^) such vassals for YHWH, and some are particularly strong (<Wxu*), in battle, etc. The Servant is to be given an honored place among these mighty vassals. Probably the divine/heavenly beings (Angels, etc) are in view here, in which case, there is an intentional play on the meaning of the plural substantive <yB!r^ (“[the] many”).

Earlier in this passage, <yB!r^ referred to the nations (and their rulers, 52:15), but also, apparently, to God’s people Israel/Judah (cf. the previous note on 53:11). Possibly the initial occurrence in 52:14 is meant to encompass both groups. There will be “many” among Israel/Judah, and among the nations, who will be made righteous through the Servant’s work. Thus, we should not discount the earthly aspect—that is, of the restored Israel/Judah in the New Age, with a kingdom centered at Jerusalem, from which point the Torah of YHWH will spread out to embrace the nations.

This touches upon an important Isaian theme (cf. 2:2-4) that is developed in the Deutero-Isaian poems (and again in the so-called Trito-Isaiah of chaps. 56-66). In the New Age, the nations will come to Jerusalem to pay homage and give worship to YHWH; within this eschatological imagery, we find the motif of the nations bringing tribute to Judah (cf. chap. 60, etc). The section that follows here (54:1-17) certainly involves the idea that God’s people will prosper in the New Age, and will spread out to possess the territory and wealth of the nations (vv. 2-3). This will constitute a reversal of earlier times: instead of being plundered by the nations, Israel/Judah will come to possess their wealth.

Couplet 2

The second couplet begins with an expression (rv#a& tj^T^) that is difficult to translate in English. Literally it means “under which”, but it essentially modifies the initial particle /k@l* in the first couplet (cf. above), “for this (reason)”. Here it is clarified: the reason is that which the Servant did. And what did he do? The couplet states this clearly:

“he laid bare his soul for death,
and (with the one)s breaking (faith) he was counted”

The verb hr*u* signifies a condition of nakedness—of uncovering or baring oneself. The Servant willingly laid bare his soul, leaving it naked and vulnerable, to the point where it could easily meet with death. He did this by taking on himself the guilt that would make him prone to the judgment (of death) from YHWH. But it is the guilt of the people, not his own, as the discussion in the prior verses makes clear. The guilty persons are characterized as “(the one)s breaking (faith)” (<yu!v=P)), that is, breaking the covenant bond with YHWH and rebelling against His authority. This fundamental meaning of the root uvP has been discussed in the earlier notes. While the Servant has remained faithful/loyal to YHWH, he bears the guilt of those who have broken faith.

It is worth mentioning that it is possible to translate the verb hr*u* in the sense of “empty (out),” which naturally brings to mind the idea of kenosis in the famous Christ-hymn of Phil 2:6-11.

Couplet 3

The final couplet essential restates the point made in the second:

“and he (himself) lifted (the) sin of many,
and met (with the punishment) for their breaking (faith)”

The two couplets together have a chiastic thematic structure, which may be illustrated as follows:

    • The Servant bares his soul for death
      • He is identified with (i.e. bears the guilt of) those breaking faith
      • He bears/lifts the guilt of those committing sin
    • He meets with the punishment (of death) for their sin

Again the verb ac*n` is used for the lifting/bearing of guilt (cf. also in v. 4). The pronoun “he” (aWh) is specifically set in emphatic (first) position, emphasizing that the Servant himself did this, that he bore the guilt of their sin upon himself.

The verb in the final line (ug~P*) can be a bit difficult to translate. In my view, it is best to keep to the fundamental meaning of “meet” —that is, to meet with (i.e., encounter) someone or something. It can be used in the harsher sense of meeting with an impact, i.e., getting hit or struck. Here, it would seem, the idea is of the Servant meeting with punishment—that is, the punishment that should have fallen upon the guilty people, but which has come upon him instead. This is the central theme of the passage: the vicarious suffering of the Servant, by which he bears on himself the guilt of the people.

There can be no doubt that it is this theme which helped to make Isa 52:13-53:12 such a powerful passage when applied to the sacrificial death of Jesus. Interestingly, however, the vicarious and sacrificial aspect does not seem to have been foremost in view for the earliest believers who applied the passage to Jesus. Rather, it appears to have been the correspondence with certain details in the account of Jesus’ Passion that first established the connection between Jesus and the Servant.

Having gone through the passage in detail, it now remains for us to explore the main lines of interpretation—including, but not limited to, the early Christian interpretation. How, precisely, should the figure of the Servant be understood? Does he represent a specific historical person, or is he a symbolic or collective figure? Does he differ in any way from the Servant-figure in the other so-called “Servant Songs” of Deutero-Isaiah? How does this figure fit within the visionary framework of the Deutero-Isaian poems, in terms of their theology, eschatology, expository purpose, and so forth? These subjects will be touched on in the concluding article (on this passage) in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”.

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