April 28: Isaiah 53:6

Isaiah 53:6

“All of us, like a flock (of sheep), we have wandered,
a man to his (own) path, we have turned,
and (yet) YHWH has made it hit on him,
(for) the crookedness of all of us.”

Verse 6 is the climax of the description (in vv. 3-6) of the Servant’s suffering. The strands of this description are brought together here, giving us the cause of his suffering, and its effect.

The first two lines make use of traditional herding imagery, with the figures of the herd (the people) and the herdsman (the leader). This was a common and familiar motif in the ancient Near East. Kings were frequently referred to as ‘shepherd’, emphasizing two aspects of the herder’s role: (1) nurturing and guidance, leading the flock/herd to grazing land, and (2) protecting it from danger. David’s origins as a shepherd led to this line of imagery being applied to the idea of the royal (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). However, Moses also served as a herdsman in Midian (Exod 2:16-21; 3:1ff), before filling the same role, in a figurative sense, as leader of the Israelite people during the Exodus. The shepherd-motif thus can be applied to prophetic leadership as well (cf. Zech 10-11).

Following this traditional imagery, a people without effective leadership can be described as a flock/herd without the guidance of a herder; and, without such guidance, the animals can wander off, becoming vulnerable to various dangers. Ezekiel 34 gives us the most detailed exposition of this motif, but it can be found in numerous other passages (e.g., Psalm 119:176; Jer 50:17; Zech 13:7). The idiom ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was well-established in Old Testament tradition (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chron 18:16); most notably, it features in the Moses/Exodus traditions, where Joshua is appointed to take Moses’ place as the inspired/prophetic leader over Israel, so that God’s people would not be like “sheep that have no shepherd” (Num 27:17).

Interestingly, here in verse 6, it is the behavior of the people, acting like sheep without a shepherd, that has led to the Servant’s suffering. Their ‘crooked’ and rebellious actions (and attitudes) are like those of sheep that have wandered off (vb hu*T*). Each animal (i.e., each person) turns (vb hn`P*) and follows his/her own path. As a result, the unity and identity of the flock/herd itself is broken, no longer following the common path provided by the shepherd. This concept fundamentally applies to the people of Israel/Judah violating the covenant bond with YHWH—understanding YHWH as the true Shepherd of Israel.

Even though it is the people (the sheep) who have rebelled and gone astray, the corrective punishment falls upon the Servant (the shepherd). YHWH has made this punishment hit on the Servant (vb ug~P* in the Hiphil causative stem). It is their crookedness (/ou*), a bending or twisting away from the true path of God, that brings about the Servant’s suffering. The people bear the collective responsibility for this, as indicated vividly by the occurrence of WnL*K% (“all of us”) at the beginning and end of these four lines. Taken as a whole, vv. 3-6 function as a confession of guilt, an admission of error by the people, in how they dealt with the Servant.

Following the type-pattern of Moses for the figure of the Servant, it is possible to read v. 6 in light of the scene in Numbers 27:12-14ff. The wording used in those opening verses, and the association of ideas, is significant. Because of the rebellion of the people (in the episode of the ‘waters of strife [Meribah]’, Num 20:1-13), Moses was provoked to act/speak in a way that resulted in the judgment of YHWH being brought down on him. He would suffer the same punishment as the rest of the adult population: he would die without ever entering the Promised Land. Moreover, his departure would potentially leave the people in disarray, like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (27:17).

And, indeed, in verses 7-9, the focus shifts from the Servant’s suffering to his death. We will begin to examine this in the next daily note.

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