April 25: Isaiah 53:3

Isaiah 53:3

“He was disregarded and forsaken by men,
a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him,
he was disregarded, and we did not think (anything of) him.”

This verse builds on the last lines of verse 2 (cf. the previous note), with the basic sense that the people did not think much of the Servant; certainly he did not have a particularly impressive or attractive physical appearance. In the ancient world, such physical characteristics were often thought to mark a person as a gifted leader (cf. the notice regarding Saul in 1 Sam 9:2). However, as verse 3 indicates, this general disregard of the Servant (his appearance) touches upon a deeper conflict with the people.

The verb translated above as “disregard” is hz`B*, which fundamentally signifies considering something (or someone) to be of little worth. We might translate the verb here more forcefully as “despise”, though in some ways “disregard” provides a better transition from verse 2. In any case, the verb is repeated in the fourth line, and so brackets the entire quatrain. Parallel with hzb is the root ldj (“leave, forsake, reject”), here as an adjective (“forsaken”); the two terms indicate the attitude of the people (“men”) toward him. The parallel verb in the last line is bv^j*, which fundamentally indicates what one thinks (about something).

Between the first and fourth line, the focus shifts from the general view of people toward the Servant to the specific view of those who are providing the description (“we”). The people—some of them, at any rate—appear to be giving testimony on behalf of the Servant in the heavenly court. They admit that they did not think much of the Servant—they disregarded (or even despised) him. Central to this rejection is the characterization we find in the second and third lines:

“a man of sorrows, being known by weakness,
and we hid our faces (away) from him”

The expression “man of sorrows” (toba)k=m^ vya!) indicates that the Servant is characterized by sorrow. We do not know the reason for this. It is unlikely that it is to be considered the result of physical suffering (as from an illness). Given the influence of the Moses traditions upon the portrait of the Servant-figure, it is possible that Exod 3:7 is in view here:

“And YHWH said: ‘Seeing (it), (yes,) I have seen (the) oppression of my people that are in Egypt, and their cry I have heard from (the) mouth of (the one)s (op)pressing him, for I know their sorrows.'”

The sorrow here relates to the experience of the Israelite people (in Egypt). And this is the context of Moses’ particular role as the servant of YHWH—a role that began when Moses saw the suffering of his people (Exod 2:11). The idea seems to be that the Servant, like Moses, takes on the burden of the people, and so suffers (and experiences sorrow) in a sympathetic (or empathic) way. In other words, he identifies with the suffering of the people. This theme will be developed in the following verses, and it must be considered an important aspect of the “sorrows” that characterize the Servant.

Ironically, while the Servant identifies with the suffering of the people, the people, for their part, turn away from him. Literally they “hide” (vb rt^s*) their faces from him. It is the very suffering/sorrow of the Servant that prompts them to turn away. This suffering is defined here by the word yl!j(, which fundamentally means “weakness”, but can also denote “sickness, illness, disease”. It is often translated here as “sickness”, but in my view “weakness” is more accurate and appropriate. The Servant’s role in carrying the burden of the people’s suffering/sorrow takes a profound a toll on him, both physically and emotionally, and this can appear to the casual (and callous) observer as an unattractive weakness.

Indeed, the Servant is known by this weakness, meaning that it is a primary characteristic and a principal way by which people think about him—i.e., a man of sorrows and weakness. A passive participle of the common verb ud^y` is used here (u^Wdy+, “being known”). Again, this may reflect the commission of Moses at the burning bush, with the wording in Exod 3:7 (above): “…I know their sorrows”. It follows that Moses, as the servant of YHWH, in identifying with his people’s sorrows, would himself come to be known by that very suffering. This empathic character of the Servant’s mission will be discussed further in the next daily note, on verse 4.

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