Isaiah Chapter 53 Notes

Isaiah Ch 53 Commentary // larryhuntbiblecommentary.wordpress.com

Chapter Fifty-three:

v. 1:  “Who has heard what we have heard?”  Who indeed?  And who, having heard it, has been able to understand?[1] This question accurately predicts all the controversy that these passages about the Suffering Servant have inspired over the centuries.  This is the very chapter of Isaiah with which the Ethiopian eunuch is struggling in Acts 8:30-35.  It seems to me that the difficulties of this section can be divided into two types.  First, there is the honest difficulty of someone who has no historical knowledge of the life of Christ.  This is the Ethiopian eunuch’s difficulty.  Then there is the difficulty which people who have knowledge of the life of Christ make for themselves by refusing to concede that he and this Suffering Servant are one.

“To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”  The revealing of the LORD’s arm is a threat, a prelude to an attack from the LORD, like rolling up one’s sleeves, or taking off one’s jacket.[2]  Of course, everyone to whom the arm of the LORD is revealed may not necessarily be threatened by that arm.  For instance, if the LORD is defending someone against his enemies, then the revealing of the arm to that person may be an assurance of his deliverance.   Therefore, I am not exactly sure how to answer this question.  One answer may be that he has bared his arm to Babylon and by extension to all the evil forces that will oppose God and the Messiah[3].  I believe this is the proper interpretation of 52:10 where the LORD bares “his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations” who then witness his destruction of Babylon and deliverance of the captive Jews.

But I suspect that the person to whom the LORD reveals his arm here in 53:1 is the Messiah.  If so, then clearly one sense in which he reveals his arm is to conqueror the Messiah’s enemies, as the first part of v. 12 describes.  But I think there is another, ominous sense in which the LORD reveals his arm to the Messiah: He means to crush the Messiah, who has chosen to be “numbered with the transgressors” (53:12).  V. 10 says, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.”  In fact, I think this is the primary sense in which the question should be answered.  This whole chapter is mostly concerned with the Messiah’s shocking role as a scapegoat, “wounded for our transgressions” (v.5) on whom “the LORD has laid…the iniquity of us all” (v.6).  This role is so shocking that it would merit a question, almost of disbelief:  “Has the arm of the LORD really been bared to the Messiah?  Would God really have his Messiah undergo such things for our sake?”  This also would explain the first question of the chapter:  “Who is going to believe that?”

v. 2:  The young plant and the root in the dry ground are metaphors for the Messiah.  The young plant may symbolize the vulnerability and innocence of the Messiah.  It may also refer to the fact that the Messiah was a young man when he was sacrificed.[4] The root in dry ground could symbolize either the fact that the Messiah would appear in a place (Nazareth[5]) and time which nobody expected, just as people would not look for a plant to sprout in dry ground.  But it may also refer to the fact that a plant whose roots are in dry ground is not likely to look very impressive.  Because of the second part of this verse (which refers to the Messiah’s unimpressive form) I suspect that this last interpretation is the main one.  The young plant metaphor could be interpreted similarly since a young, fledgling plant is not as impressive to behold as its full grown counterpart.

If Christ’s physical appearance was unimpressive by nature (even before it was marred during his execution) as this scripture seems to imply, then that would compliment God’s decision to manifest himself on earth as a humble servant.  He would have come as a poor carpenter with an unremarkable body rather than as a handsome, powerful king.[6] I do believe, however, that the unfathomable beauty of Christ’s spirit would so have affected those who loved him that they would hardly have been able to see him as plain or unattractive in spite of his natural appearance.

v. 4:  The truly staggering quality of this chapter is how closely its description of the Suffering Servant matches Christ’s life.  Who else could this be but Christ?  Apparently some Jews since Christ have tried to interpret the Suffering Servant as a personification of the Israelites, or of the faithful among the Israelites.  However, who is the “our” of “our infirmities”?  The most reasonable answer seems to be that it is Isaiah and his readers, and surely Isaiah should be considered among the faithful of Israel, yet here he speaks of the Suffering Servant as being distinct from him.  This convinces me that the Suffering Servant is not a personification of Israel, or even of the faithful of Israel.  See also vs. 5 and 7.

v. 5:  Notice that this Servant suffers in the place of the guilty (like a scapegoat) not along side them.  Usually, however, the faithful as well as the unfaithful have suffered together throughout history.  Consider, as an example, the suffering of both faithful and unfaithful Jews during the Babylonian Captivity. The suffering of this servant is unique in this regard and goes even further to convince me not to read the Suffering Servant as a personification of the faithful people of Israel.  This servant is someone distinct from the people of Israel.  He suffers (even though he is innocent) so that they will not have to suffer.  Thus we see the terrible, beautiful irony of his purpose: “By his bruises we are healed.”

v.7:  Both the faithful and the unfaithful naturally lament when they suffer, whereas this Suffering Servant “did not open his mouth.”  This is yet another reason to read the Suffering Servant as Christ, who was very noticeably silent before his accusers; see Matthew 26:62-63.

v. 9:  This Suffering Servant not only suffers, he dies:  “His grave [italics mine] is with the wicked.”  As this relates to Jesus, I suppose that saying “his grave is with the wicked” may be a reference specifically to the fact that he was buried in tombs usually reserved for rich, worldly people, or to the fact that he was executed as a criminal between two criminals.  I believe that this and the next phrase “his tomb with the rich” are meant to be paralleled, to say basically the same thing twice.  I believe this because that type of parallelism was a common literary convention among the Hebrews and is present throughout the Bible.  According to Gesenius, the word translated as “rich” can be understood as connoting something like “worldly” (qtd. in Barnes 277).  Barnes does not agree, however, that that is the proper translation here.  He thinks it should be translated simply as rich, without the underlying suggestion of evil, because he sees this as a reference to the rich man’s grave which Joseph of Arimathea (a good man) provided for Christ.    I agree with Barnes that this is a reference to Joseph of Arimathea’s gift of the tomb, but I do not think Joseph’s goodness invalidates the fact that Jesus was buried “with the worldly,” in an area typically inhabited by people who had been worldly in life.  After all, he was not buried with Joseph of Arimathea.

vs.10-11:  In verses 8-9, one learns that this Suffering Servant actually dies.  He is cut off from the land of the living and has a grave.  Yet here in v. 10 we find that God will “prolong his days,”  and verse 11 says, “out of his anguish he shall see light.”  If he had not died, such language could be interpreted to mean that God would vindicate him after his suffering and bless him again in this lifetime, as he did Job.  But what could it mean if “his anguish” culminates in death?  To me, the most reasonable answer is that God would bring him back to life.  This is exactly what God did for Christ, and now Christ can see us, his metaphorical offspring, as a result of his sacrifice.

[1] See Isaiah 6:9-10

[2] See 52:10.

[3] See v. 12 for instance, where God has conquered the Messiah’s enemies.

[4] See John 8:57.

[5] See John 1:46.


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