Note: To start from the beginning of this series, or to access the table of contents, click here.
What a wonderful gift God has given us in His written Word!
There are so many things we will never understand about God. Finite man is incapable of comprehending an infinite God. We would have no hope of knowing Him at all had He not chosen in His mercy to reveal Himself to us. As recipients of a new covenant, we have the benefit of the Holy Spirit to help us understand what God has revealed to us through Creation and the Word.
Those living in Old Testament times had no such luxury. Hebrews 1:1-2 explains that God spoke to the OT patriarchs in “many ways”, but it is always to the Scriptures that God’s people have been held accountable (think of all the times Jesus said, “Is it not written?”). It is by the Scriptures that Jesus Christ was recognized as the promised Messiah.
Try to imagine, then, reading Isaiah (the most quoted book in the Messiah libretto) and the rest of the prophets from the perspective of those who were looking ahead in anticipation of the Messiah before Christ’s arrival. In particular, think on the texts from today’s selections out of Isaiah 53. This is likely a familiar passage, but try to treat it as if it is not.
How, from this Old Testament perspective, could these passages of suffering and chastisement be reconciled with those speaking of a conquering king? Surely this man of sorrows who would be bruised, crushed, and ultimately killed could not be the Messiah sent by Almighty God to be the savior of the world!
Isaiah 53:4-5 — Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
Isaiah 53:5 — And with His stripes we are healed.
Daniel Block’s essay helps shine some light on the problems the Jewish scholars had with interpreting these passages (my comments in parentheses):
These Songs (the servant songs we discussed yesterday) present a vision of the Messiah that is unique within the entire Biblical record–the Messiah will play a substitutionary sacrificial role on behalf of his people. This picture comes into focus only gradually as one moves from one Servant Song to the next, but in Isaiah 53 the picture becomes crystal clear. But there is a glorious irony in this Song that generally passes unrecognized, even in the writings of Old Testament scholars. The debate over these Songs has generally revolved around the identity of the Servant. Is it Israel? Is it Isaiah? Is it some other prophet? Is it Hezekiah? Is it the Messiah? The question is best answered by asking who the Servant of Yahweh is elsewhere in the Old Testament. In Isaiah Israel is indeed occasionally referred to as Yahweh’s servant (44:1, 21). But prior to this the title has generally been applied to an individual (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob [Gen 26:24; Isa 45:4]); Moses (Exod 14:31; Num 12:7); Joshua (Judg 2:8); the prophets (2 Kgs 9:7; 17:13); even the foreigner Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). But it is clear from texts like 2 Samuel 7 and numerous references in the prophets that “the Servant” par excellence in the Old Testament is David and/or one of his descendants (2 Sam 3:18; Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25).
But the irony in Isaiah 53 lies in the unexpected and unprecedented change in the role played by the servant. As a descendant of David and the embodiment of the Davidic house, the servant could be expected to exercise a governing role (discussed previously on Day 6). Indeed, this is what Yahweh had promised David as an eternal right in the Davidic Covenant mediated through the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 7). Referring to his pastoral roots, Yahweh had declared to Nathan, “Thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says Yahweh of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the [real] sheep, that you should be ruler over my people Israel’” (v. 8). Hereafter the members of the dynasty are often called “shepherds,” a designation which functions virtually synonymously with “kings.” But in a glorious shift in Isaiah 53, the Shepherd assigned by God to lead the flock takes on the role of a Lamb and gives his life for the sheep. Surely this view of the Shepherd underlies Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11), for which the Jewish leaders determine to kill him.
Musically, Handel continues the somber theme from the previous two numbers. As the text shifts from 3rd to 1st person (“he was despised” to “our griefs”, “our sorrows”, “we are healed”), the solo aria of #21 gives way to the chorus on the next three numbers. In the final text taken from Isaiah 53, though, the tone changes dramatically. Here Handel demonstrates both his genius as a composer and his grasp of Biblical interpretation. The music seems inappropriately lighthearted, considering its description of humanity as hopelessly lost in sin, until one realizes that Handel is painting a picture of our willful — even exuberant — wandering. The melisma on the word “astray” wanders off unpredictably and directionless, fading away into apathy: an apt description of man’s inherent sinfulness. Once the weight of the consequences of that sin are realized, though — the suffering servant will bear our iniquity — the chorus grinds to an end as the heaviness of this thought sets in.
Isaiah 53:6 — All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
[This number begins at the 4:59 mark of the video posted above]
This portrayal of man — all men and women — as stupid sheep who wander far from God was true in Isaiah’s time. It was true during Christ’s time on earth, and it is true today. Christians today have victory because of Christ’s victory over death, but until we are glorified at His second coming, we remain slaves to sin. As the old hymn says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”
Indeed, our similarities to our ancestral and spiritual forebears run deep. The Jews had these prophecies of the Messiah as suffering servant before He came, but because Jesus did not match the description of what they had hoped he would be (based on picking and choosing from among the passages about Messiah that appealed to them), they rejected and despised him. They wanted a political and military leader who would defeat their political and military enemies, so they grasped on to the prophecies of Messiah as a mighty conqueror. They did not understand that only though coming in humility and mercy, and by suffering in the place of those unworthy of His grace, could He defeat the ultimate enemy: Death.
The world today is not much different. Even with the gift of the Spirit to guide us, we still tend to pick and choose the things about Jesus that we “like”. How many will reject Him when He comes again?! His own Word tells us that those who follow the Way that leads to life will be few, just as Isaiah foretold that He would be rejected at His first coming.
When Christ returns, He WILL come as a conquering warrior. How ironic then, that so many — even within his own Body — gravitate today toward the verses that speak of his humility and his love for the world, to the exclusion of verses that show that true love requires justice, and that He is the righteous Judge. The boxes into which we try to make our Savior fit are different than those of 2000 years ago, but our sin is the same. We do not want I AM as He is, but try to create the Creator in our own image.
The Jews were confident in their ability to uphold the Law, but craved a Messiah who would defeat their enemies. Today, we are confident in the ability of our military to defeat our enemies, but crave a Messiah who will conform to our popular desire for antinomianism (leaving us accountable to no Law). Jesus is not a half-way Messiah. He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). He shows us in His Word our complete inability to save ourselves through the Law or through our own might. Only Christ was able to fulfill the Law, and only Christ is able to defeat the last enemy.
Oh Lord, may I never be satisfied in anyone or anything but You. May I never desire less than your perfect will. May I continue to grow in grace and in the knowledge of who You reveal yourself to be through your Word and by your Spirit. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to bear my iniquity on the cross, dying the death that should have been mine. Thank you for raising Him again so that through His sacrifice I to may be raised on the last day because of His victory over death. I pray that your Spirit would do a mighty work in my life, and in the lives of my family, my church, and my nation. I pray that your Church would rise from the ashes to be salt and light in a fallen world in desperate need of salvation, yet which rejects the Savior. I look forward to the promised time when your Kingdom WILL come, and your will WILL be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Come, Lord Jesus!
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.