May 5: Isaiah 53:10

Isaiah 53:10

“But YHWH delighted to crush him, (and so) weakened (him);
if his soul would set (itself as bearing the) guilt,
he shall see (his) seed, he shall lengthen (his) days,
and (the) delight of YHWH will succeed in his hand.”

This verse summarizes the description of the Servant’s suffering and death, explaining how and why it happened. That is to say, it explains why YHWH chose to have His Servant suffer in this way. In the scenario of the passage, there seems to be a shift from the testimony of the people, to an argument that affirms the righteous character of the Servant. The important point in this regard involves the guilt (<v*a*) borne by the Servant. Why was the Servant punished by YHWH? It was not because he was deserving of the punishment, through his own guilt. However, as the wording in these lines is difficult, it is necessary to examine each component of the description carefully.

First, let us note the structure of the four lines. The ‘outer’ lines (1 and 4) emphasize the role of YHWH, while the ‘inner’ lines (2 and 3) focus on the role of the Servant. There is a thematic consistency to the framing lines on YHWH’s role, referring to His will and intention (to act) in terms of His “delight” (Jp#j@). The suffering and death of the Servant came about simply because YHWH wished it to be so. This is declared bluntly, and strikingly, in the first line:

“But YHWH delighted to crush him, (and so) weakened (him)”

The verb ak^D* (“crush”), also used in verse 5, alludes to the death (and burial) of the Servant. By “crushing” him, YHWH ultimately turns him into dust (cf. Psalm 90:3ff, a poem attributed to Moses by tradition). In order to bring about his death, the Servant first had to be weakened (vb hl*j*, cf. also in vv. 4-5). This idea of “weakness” often implies the presence of sickness, illness, disease, etc., though a person can similarly be ‘worn down’ (to the point of death) in other ways.

In the final line, the “delight” of YHWH is expressed in a different way. Instead of God’s will being directed against the Servant, it will come to be realized through him. The phrasing here is:

“and (the) delight of YHWH will succeed in his hand”

In other word’s YHWH places the authority (and power) to exercise His will in the hand of the Servant. The Servant thus comes to function like a heavenly Messenger (Angel). This would especially fit the figure of Moses, as a type-pattern for the Servant, since Moses functioned in a comparable way at points during his ministry on earth. In particular, we may note the way that the power of YHWH was given into his ‘hand’ to bring about the plagues on Egypt (cf. Exod 4:1-9, 21ff, etc; cf. also Num 10:13). All the more, then, would this Moses-Servant act as a powerful instrument of God’s will in his new heavenly position (following his death and exaltation). Much the same could be said of other major Prophetic figures, such as Elijah.

The central lines (2 and 3) focus on the role of the Servant in this process. While the suffering came about through the sovereign will of YHWH, the Servant still had a choice in how to respond to this. His response is indicated in line 2, though, admittedly, the phrasing is unusual:

“if his soul would set (itself as bearing the) guilt”
ovp=n~ <v*a* <yc!T* <a!

The first word is the conditional particle <a! (“if…”); this implies that what follows in line 3 will only occur if the condition in line 2 is met. The verb <yc!T* is best understood as a 3rd person feminine form, which indicates that ovpn~ (“his soul”) is the subject. Some commentators would emend this to a masculine form (<yc!y`), which would yield a more straightforward line (“if he will set his soul…”). In any case, the condition is that the Servant sets himself (his own soul) for guilt (<v*a*). It is not necessary to view <v*a* here in the specific ritual sense of a sacrificial offering for guilt. Rather, the point seems to be that the Servant willingly accepts that he himself bears the guilt of the people.

If he willingly places/sets his soul in this way, for this purpose, then the promises in line 3 will be realized for the Servant. There are two promises involved:

    • “he shall see (his) seed”
    • “he shall lengthen (his) days”

If the Servant has died (and been buried), how are either of these things possible? There are several aspects to this promise that should be considered. First, is the obvious sense of a long life on earth, during which one lives to see many children and descendants (“seed”). Second, the exaltation of the Servant makes it likely that a heavenly existence (future life) is in view for him. If the proposed setting for the passage—a scene in the heavenly court—is correct, then the Servant has to pass through the judgment of this court to enter into his new position as YHWH’s servant, in heaven. Third, there is the idea that the Servant’s life will continue in the person of his descendants, understood either in a literal/biological or figurative sense. Finally, we must also keep in mind the close connection between the Servant and the people of Israel, since Israel/Judah is also referred to as YHWH’s servant (db#u#) in Deutero-Isaiah (and elsewhere in the Old Testament). Many commentators would interpret the Servant of these Songs as a representation of the collective people of Israel. However, here the collective interpretation is difficult to maintain; the text seems to portray the Servant as a distinct individual, with a life/career on earth, and offspring/descendants, etc.

Again, it is worth considering the type-pattern of Moses. In spite of the suffering and oppression he experienced, including the judgment brought upon him by YHWH that fated him to die outside the Promised Land, Moses lived an unusually long time—120 years, according to Deut 34:7 (cp. Psalm 90:10). Also, an important component of the Moses/Exodus traditions is how the restored covenant between YHWH and Israel (following the Golden Calf episode) was entirely dependent upon the mediation of Moses. Having broken the binding agreement (covenant), Israel now could only be considered the people of YHWH in a qualified sense. Technically, they were Moses’ people, and related to YHWH only through Moses as their representative and intermediary. For more on the complex narrative that deals with this situation, Exodus 32-34 should be studied carefully (in the overall context of the book of Exodus, esp. chapters 19ff). Following Israel’s violation of the covenant, YHWH wished to eliminate the people entirely, and to replace them with the descendants of Moses (Exod 33:1, etc). The promise expressed in these traditions is that Moses’ descendants (his “seed”) would be vast, and would inherit the land. Even after the covenant was restored, the idea of Moses’ descendants, and their importance, remained established within Israelite and Old Testament tradition. It is possible that verse 10 deals with this idea.

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