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”.

May 6: Isaiah 53:11

Isaiah 53:11

“From (the) labor of his soul he shall see and be satisfied,
with his knowledge my just servant shall bring justice for (the) many,
and their crooked (deed)s, he shall carry (them) along.”

This verse continues the theme from verse 10 (cf. the previous note), regarding the Servant’s reward for remaining faithful, enduring the suffering and punishment (from YHWH) on behalf of the people. In v. 10, the promise is that the Servant will see his descendants (“seed”) flourishing; here, the same verb (ha*r*) is used, but in a more general sense. There is no object provided in the MT for what the Servant will “see”, but the Qumran MSS 1QIsaa and 1QIsab include the word roa (“light”)i.e., “…he shall see lightand this reading would seem to be confirmed by the LXX. Whether or not this represents the original text, it probably reflects the sense of the line accurately enough.

The “light” seen by the Servant, and the satisfaction (vb ub^c*) experienced by his soul, indicates his presence in a heavenly/blessed afterlife. This is the reward for the labor (lm*u*) and suffering of his soul during his lifetime. He is now freed from this toil in the afterlife. If the setting of the passage, as suggested, is the heavenly court, then these verses reflect the decision passed down on the Servant’s behalf, in his favor. The announcement is made by YHWH Himself (“my servant”), or in His name.

The second line shows that the Servant, in his new heavenly position, will, in many ways, be continuing the service he performed on earth. That is to say, he will act on the people’s behalf, functioning as their intermediary and intercessor. With his just/right character having been confirmed, before YHWH in the heavenly court, the Servant is now able to establish justice/righteousness for the people of YHWH. Here he is called the “just [qyD!x^] servant” of YHWH (“my just servant,” or “[the] just [one], my servant”). And he will work to make/bring justice (vb qd^x* in the Hiphil causative stem); the religious aspect of this work would be emphasized by translating this verb form as “do righteousness, make righteous”. However, we should perhaps understand the verb here in the fundamental sense of “make right”, in terms of the covenant between YHWH and his people (but cp. the Servant’s role in bringing justice to the nations in 42:1-4). The Servant’s role in establishing the new covenant, likely reflects the role of Moses as the mediator of the first covenant.

It is not entirely clear what the knowledge (“with/by his knowledge”) is through which the Servant will accomplish this work. There are two possibilities: (1) it refers to his knowledge (i.e., the experience, etc) of his suffering, especially its purpose and significance; (2) the focus is on his new heavenly position in the presence of God, which gives to him a new awareness and revelatory knowledge. I would lean toward the first option. Since the emphasis in the entire passage is on the suffering of the Servant, it seems likely that his “knowledge” must be related to it as well. In any case, this knowledge and understanding is fundamentally given to him by YHWH (on this theme elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah, cf. 40:14; 41:20; 42:16ff; 43:10; 50:4-5; 51:7; 52:6; and cp. 11:2).

In the final line, it is declared that the Servant will carry the “crooked (deed)s” (or “crookedness,” in a general sense) of the people. This continues the motif from earlier in the passage, only here the verb lb^s* refers, not so much to the lifting of a heavy burden, but of transporting it, i.e., carrying it along. In other words, the Servant now does not merely bear the sin of the people, he transports it; likely a sense of expiation is in view herethat is, the sins of the people are taken away. However, this does not apply to all the people, but to the “many” (<yB!r^).

The motif of the “many” was introduced at the beginning of this passage (52:14-15), and is taken up again at the conclusion (53:11-12). The significance is perhaps best understood in light of the traditional “remnant” motif in the Prophets. In a time of great wickedness only a small portion of people are declared holy or righteous, with the implication that only they will survive or be rescued from the judgment. Now, with the dawn of the New Age, and a new covenant established between YHWH and Israel, the situation is reversed: a multitude (“many”) will be righteous and faithful throughout to YHWH. The same even applies, it would seem, to the nations— “many” of them (and their rulers) will come to be holy and righteous in the New Age. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on v. 12).

 

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.

May 4: Isaiah 53:9

Isaiah 53:9

“And He gave his burial (to be) with (the) wicked (one)s,
and his high (place) with (the) rich,
(even) though he (had) not done (any) violence,
and (there was) no deceit in his mouth.”

The first two lines make reference to the Servant’s death—specifically, his burial—continuing the line of thought in vv. 7-8 (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The Servant’s burial, as described here in v. 9, is simply an extension of his suffering, and of bearing the guilt of the people’s rebelliousness. Even after death, he faces the effects of punishment for the people’s sins. This is most strikingly expressed in the first line, where it is stated that the Servant’s burial place (rb#q#) is “with the wicked.” The precise meaning of this is unclear. If one draws upon the type-pattern of Moses (for the figure of the Servant), it could be a reference to Moses’ burial outside the Promised Land. He was buried in the land of Moab (Deut 34:5-6), among pagan Canaanites (i.e., “wicked ones”). The proximity of Baal-Peor is significant, since that was the locale of a notorious incident where the Israelites were influenced by Canaanite religious beliefs and practice (i.e., wickedness), marked by immoral behavior (cf. Numbers 25; 31:16; Deut 4:3; Josh 22:17).

The Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) has “And they gave…” instead of “And He gave…”; however, it is best to understand this verse as a continuation of the Divine judgment—that is to say, as an action by YHWH.

There are two points of difficulty in the second line. First, what is the significance of the adjective “rich” (ryv!u*)? The parallelism with the first line indicates that it must be generally synonymous with “wicked (one)s”. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of the general (ethical-religious) tendency of associating wealth with wickedness. We see this throughout Old Testament tradition, both as part of Wisdom literature (including the Psalms) and in the writings of the Prophets. The righteous tend to be characterized as “poor”, while, by contrast, the wicked are seen as “rich” —the implication being that they achieve their wealth and power, in large measure, through sinful conduct, including violence, deception, and oppression of others. The Prophetic texts are rife with denunciations along these lines.

The second difficulty involves the word that is parallel with orb=q! (“his burial [place]”) in line 1. The reading in the Masoretic text is wyt*m)B=, which would literally mean “in his deaths”, which does not make particularly good sense. A better parallel would be derived from a form of the noun hm*B* (“high [place]”), which could either refer to burial on an elevated location, or to the burial itself as an elevated mound. In this case, the Hebrew text would presumably be otm*B* (or possibly, otm*oB, cf. Baltzer, p. 417, citing the proposition by W. F. Albright). The Qumran Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) seems to confirm this view, and I have (somewhat tentatively) adopted it in my translation above. However, it must be admitted that the use of hm*B* for a burial mound or tomb is poorly attested, and also that a suffixed singular form is rather rare (the plural being more common); indeed, the wording “his high (place)” does not occur anywhere else in the Old Testament.

If a form of hm*B* is correct, then almost certainly there is a play on the traditional connotation of a Canaanite “high place” (mountain or hill, etc) where deities (other than YHWH) were worshiped. It was such pagan associations that led to the prohibition of such sites being used for the worship of El-Yahweh. If the Moses tradition of Deut 34:5-6 is in view here (cf. above), then there may be an allusion to the proximity of Mt. Peor, a “high place” associated with the worship of Baal Haddu—Peor being viewed (by the Moabites) as a local manifestation of Baal’s cosmic mountain-dwelling. Such “high places” make for a natural (and fitting) parallel with wickedness (line 1).

The final two lines make clear that, though the Servant may have been buried among the wicked, he himself was certainly not wicked. Unlike the wicked (including many rich/powerful men), the Servant did not commit any acts of violence (sm*j*), nor did he ever speak anything false or deceitful (hm*r=m!). Thus his apparently ignoble fate of being buried among (or near) the wicked was not at all appropriate to his nature or character. Rather, it reflects the guilt and punishment he endured on behalf of the people. This theme of the Servant’s vicarious suffering—including the bearing of guilt that belonged to the people (not himself)—is repeated throughout the passage, as we have seen. It will continue to be developed in the remaining verses, beginning in v. 10, which we will examine in the next daily note.

References marked “Baltzer” above (and throughout these notes) are to Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, translated by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001).

May 3: Isaiah 53:8

Isaiah 53:8

“From oppression and from judgment he has been taken,
(and now) his (life) cycle—who thinks on it?
For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living;
from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch (came) to him.”

The allusion to the Servant’s death in verse 7 (cf. the previous note) becomes more explicit here. The verb jq^l* (“take”) in the first line should be understood in terms of his death: “he has been taken”, i.e., by God in death. In the preceding pair of nouns, framed as a dual prepositional expression, we have the means (and the cause) of his death:

    • rx#u)—the root rxu has the fundamental meaning “hold (back), restrain”, almost always in a negative sense; given the context of vv. 2-7, the noun here should probably be read as continuing the theme of suffering and oppression experienced by the Servant.
    • fP*v=m! (“judgment”)—that is, the judgment from YHWH that comes upon the Servant.

The oppression coming from the people, and the judgment from God, have together led to the Servant’s death. As previously noted, for commentators who would point to the figure of Moses as the type-pattern for the Servant, the reference may be to Moses’ death outside of the Promised Land. The punishment brought down on the people (the adult population of the Exodus) falls upon Moses as well: he is fated to die without entering the Promised Land.

The second line would seem to set the time of the Servant’s life (and death) in the generations past. The noun roD literally means “circle”, often in the sense of a cycle of life—that is, the period of a person’s life, along with others in his/her generation. The question of whether anyone “thinks on” (vb j^yc!) or “speaks of” the Servant’s life and time anymore now (or in the future) strongly indicates that it is a matter of the past. The implication is that people already have forgotten it. This would certainly fit the figure of Moses, as well as any number of Prophetic figures from Israel’s history.

The phrase in the third line, “he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living”, clearly refers to the Servant’s death; while the fourth line again emphasizes the cause of his death: the breaking of the covenant bond by the people. As previous mentioned in the note on verse 5, the noun uv^P* essentially means “breaking (faith)”, breaking the bond with YHWH, and rebelling against His authority. Even though the guilt of this rebellion belonged to the people, collectively, the punishment for it (by YHWH) fell upon him. This is emphasized by the suffixed preposition (oml*, “to him”) occurring in the emphatic (final) position. The Masoretic text reads yM!u^ (“my people”), but many commentators would opt for the reading of 1QIsaa, oMu^ (“his people”), as proper to the context; and I have followed this in my translation above as well.

The “touch” (ug~n#) refers to the punishment that comes upon the Servant from YHWH. While such usage often implies disease or plague, and that may be in view here as well, what is being emphasized is the “touch of death.” It is a mortal blow that the Servant endures on behalf of the people. This repeated stress on the empathic, vicarious nature of the Servant’s suffering is significant, and represents a key theme of the passage.

Verses 7 and 8 represent the portion of this poem quoted in the episode of Acts 8:26-40 (vv. 32-33), being interpreted in light of the suffering and death of Jesus. I will be addressing this Christian application of the passage in the concluding article of this study; in addition, I will be discussing the use of this Scripture within the Acts narrative in the next Saturday Series study.

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.

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.

April 27: Isaiah 53:5

Isaiah 53:5

“But he was pierced from our acts of breaking (faith),
crushed from our (own) crooked deeds,
(the) correction (for) our wholeness was upon him,
and with (the) binding of his (wound)s there is healing for us.”

The four lines of verse 5 build upon v. 4 (discussed in the previous note), combining together two key themes being emphasized in the description of the Servant’s suffering: (1) his suffering was the result of his bearing the burdens of the people, and (2) it was a manifestation of YHWH’s judgment. These two themes are presented most vividly here, with the idea of judgment/punishment drawing upon the motif of being wounded (as in battle).

This wounding is expressed, in the first two lines, by two verbs—ll^j* and ak^D*. The first of these literally means “dig/bore a hole,” i.e. “pierce,” presumably in the sense of being struck by a sword or spear. However, there is another semantic domain for llj, usually recognized as a separate root in the lexicons (llj, II), with the meaning “profane, defile,” etc. It has been suggested by some commentators (e.g., Baltzer, p. 410) that this second root/meaning is in view here, in which case the line would read something like:

“But he was defiled from our acts of breaking (faith)”

This could conceivably be correct, yet the parallel with the verb ak^D* (“crush”) makes the meaning “wound/pierce” of llj (I) a better fit.

As the Prophetic account of Israelite (and Old Testament) history makes clear, the judgment brought by YHWH on a people often involved military attack and conquest. In this regard, the punishment surely could be considered “crushing”, and might indeed entail people being wounded and put to death by the sword. Perhaps the terminology is being used more in a figurative sense here, but, in any case, the scenario has certainly intensified—from being “pressed down” (v. 4) to being “crushed”.

The cause of the punishment is also noted, using the preposition /m! (“from”) to indicate the source. The noun uv^P# is often translated as “sin, transgression, wickedness”, but this can be a little misleading in its generality and moral emphasis; the term properly refers to the breaking of a bond (of trust, etc), and can even indicate, more forcefully, an act of rebellion. In other words, the covenant bond, between Israel and YHWH, is primarily in view when uvp is used in the Old Testament. And, here, the plural (<yu!v*P=), specifically refers to acts (by the people) that break the bond,  that break faith with YHWH.

The term /ou*, on the other hand, is used to capture the moral and (general) religious aspect. It is best translated as “crookedness”, indicating something that has been “bent” or “twisted” (i.e., perverted). The plural tonou& is parallel with <yu!v*P=—sinful/corrupt behavior along with acts of disloyalty (and even rebellion) against YHWH.

What is especially emphasized here, however, is that the Servant is the one punished for the people’s deeds. This striking contrast is established by setting the pronoun aWh (“he”) in emphatic position—i.e., he was punished for our deeds.

The last two lines shift the focus slightly, from the punishment itself to the purpose for the punishment, and what results from it. The penalty inflicted by YHWH in judgment is not merely punitive; especially in the case of His people (Israel/Judah), there is also a corrective purpose. This is indicated in the third line by the (verbal) noun rs^Wm, from the root rsy, which captures the fundamental idea of “discipline, instruction, correction”. Thus, the punishment, however severe it may be, is intended also to provide instruction for the people, correcting their behavior, and as an example for future generations.

Here, the intercessory role of the Servant works in the opposite direction: he receives the correction (rs^Wm), but the corrective effect is realized by the people. In the wording of the third line, the correction was for “our wholeness” (Wnm@olv=), i.e., to make us whole. The noun <olv* is often translated flatly as “peace”, but the fundamental meaning has to do with being full, complete, whole.

The fourth line is parallel to the third, and so the terms used must be understood in this light:

    • “(the) correction…upon him” //  “(the) binding of his (wound)s
    • “our wholeness” // “healing for us”

The precise meaning and force of the noun hr*b%j^ (plur. torb%j^) requires comment. The basic meaning of the root rbj is “join, bind, unite”; however, the rather wide semantic range suggests that the Hebrew root, as it occurs in the Old Testament, may represent a convergence of several different Semitic roots. The noun hr*b%j^ seems to isolate one particular idea, that of a visible wound, parallel in meaning to ux^P* (which more properly means “wound”); it may be related to Arabic µbr (distinct from —br), indicating a bright color (like the shining red of a fresh wound).

In this regard, hrb%j^ is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring just 7 times. One important occurrence (and the only other instance in the Prophets) is in Isaiah 1:6, also in the context of YHWH’s judgment on Israel/Judah. Much of the terminology in vv. 3-5 here can be found in 1:5-6. The people’s sinfulness and breaking of the covenant bond with YHWH has led to their being struck and wounded, and their continuing rebellion means that their wounds continue to get worse. The message is that, if they were to repent, their wounds would be treated and bound up—that is, there would be healing for them. There is likely a basic cognate relationship between the roots rbj and vbj—both sharing a common meaning of “bind”. In Isa 1:6, the wound is the hrbj, while the binding of the wound is hvbj. I believe that the fourth line of verse 5 here alludes to the same dual-concept: both the wounds of the Servant, and the binding of them, and I have tried to capture both aspects in my translation above.

Again, the most important point is that the binding of the Servant’s wounds brings healing for the people, not for himself. In this regard, the effect of the suffering is akin to its purpose—it applies, vicariously, to the people, rather than to the Servant himself. The vicarious aspect of his suffering will be discussed further, in the next note on verse 6.

At this point in the description of the Servant, the parallels with the Moses type-pattern seem to break down. Even if we interpret the wounding and “crushing” here in a figurative sense, it is hard to find any clear parallels in the  Moses traditions. While Moses, on at least one occasion, in his intercession for the people, does ask God to punish him on their behalf (Exod 32:32), there is only one instance when the punishment for the people actually falls upon him as well. This is the episode of the “waters of strife [Meribah]” in Numbers 20:2-13. The rebelliousness and lack of trust among the people provokes Moses to act (and speak) in an impetuous way that does not give full and proper honor to YHWH; as a result, Moses meets with the same punishment as the rest of the adult generation of the Exodus—he would die without being able to enter the Promised Land.

References marked “Baltzer” above (and throughout these notes) are to Klaus Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, translated by Margaret Kohl, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2001).

April 26: Isaiah 53:4

Isaiah 53:4

“Certainly he has lifted our weaknesses,
and our sorrows, he has carried them;
but we considered him (to) be touched,
struck by (the) Mightiest and oppressed.”

Verse 4 continues the description from v. 3 (cf. the previous note), emphasizing the reason for the Servant’s sorrow and suffering—it is primarily due to his empathic and intercessory role in relation to the Israelite/Jewish people. He identifies with their suffering and takes it upon himself, carrying/bearing it on their behalf. In the previous note, I mentioned the importance of Exod 3:7 and the related Moses traditions. Indeed, Moses’ role as YHWH’s servant was closely tied to the suffering of the people, as well as to their deliverance from suffering.

The same words—yl!j( (“weakness, sickness”) and ba)k=m^ (“sorrow”)—from verse 3 are repeated here in the first two lines. This makes clear that the “sorrows” and the apparent “weakness” of the Servant, mentioned in v. 3, are those of the people themselves. The Servant has taken their weakness upon himself.

Two verbs are used to express this: ac^n` (“lift [up]”) and lb^s* (“carry, bear”). The latter verb is relatively rare in the Old Testament, while the former is the common verb used for lifting/carrying something. It can also be used in a figurative sense for the burden of leadership, etc. Following along with the Moses-pattern for the figure of the Servant, the episode in Numbers 11 should given special consideration. Moses feels the weight of his special role of leadership over the people, which puts him in the middle of any conflict between them and YHWH. The wording of his complaint in vv. 11ff would seem to be relevant to the portrait of the Servant here:

“And Moshe said to YHWH, ‘For what [i.e. why] have you caused evil [i.e. hurt, trouble] for your servant? And (why) have I not found favor in your eyes, for (you) to put upon me (the) burden [aC*m^] of all this people?'”

The noun aC*m^ is derived from the root acn, and literally means “lifting, (something) being lifted”. Moses, in his beleaguered state, views this burden (of leadership) as a kind of affliction by God. In the narrative, YHWH responds to Moses’ complaint and relieves some of the burden by having it be shared by other leaders among the people.

In the final two lines of verse 4, the focus shifts back to the how the people have viewed the Servant. It demonstrates how the people have misjudged the Servant, considering the burden of his mission as a personal weakness. Here, this misunderstanding is taken a step further: his weakness and suffering is (erroneously) viewed as a punishment by YHWH. Three verbs, all in passive participle form, are used to express this:

    • ug~n`, “touch” —u^Wgn` (“being touched,” i.e., “he was touched”)
    • hk*n`, “strike” —hK@m% (Hophal participle), “being struck, having been struck”
    • hn`u*, “press down, oppress” —hN#u%m= (Pual participle), “being pressed down, oppressed”

The passive form in these cases is clearly an example of the so-called “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied actor. In the Old Testament idiom, to be “touched” by God often has a negative implication—i.e., experiencing some evil or misfortune. To be “struck” by God is even more forceful, indicating a plague or other serious (or disastrous) situation. Being “pressed down” indicates the result or effect of the Divine action, and the punishment that YHWH brings down upon a person.

At the time, the people (apparently) did not realize the nature of the Servant’s suffering (his weakness and sorrow)—that it was the result of his intercessory role. The wording and context of the description indicates that now they do understand this, and recognize their error; indeed, it is part of their testimony now on the Servant’s behalf.

Between verses 3 and 4, there is a dramatic progression in this description of the tension (and conflict) between the Servant and the people. As it turns out, the Servant’s suffering is brought out by YHWH’s judgment—only it is judgment that was intended for the people, but which instead fell upon the Servant, who intercedes for them. This will be discussed further in the next daily note (on verse 5).

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.