The Agora
Behold My Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12)

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The Historical Background

The prophet Isaiah served in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Uzziah was the presumptuous king who entered the holy place and dared to assume the office of priest by the offering of incense (2Ch 26:16). For this arrogance he was smitten with leprosy upon his face, and was thus forced to withdraw from the throne and all public life, and dwell in a separate house for the remainder of his days.

But leprosy was not limited to Uzziah. His great-grandson Hezekiah, in the midst of his years and at the time of a great national crisis (Sennacherib's invasion), was smitten with a "boil" (Isa 38:1,21). It is generally recognized that this "boil" was a form of leprosy (probably elephantiasis, marked by swollen and blackened limbs resembling the legs of an elephant). The same word described Job's leprosy (Job 2:7; and cp the description in Job 19:13-21). It was "the botch of Egypt" (Deu 28:27; Exo 9:9-11). The same word also described leprosy four times in Lev 13:18-23.

In contrast, however, to the leprosy of his ancestor Uzziah, that of Hezekiah does not seem in any sense to have been a personal punishment. Rather, as is hinted elsewhere by Isaiah, it seems as though the real "leprosy" of sin had attached itself to the nation:

"Why should ye be stricken any, more? Ye will revolt more and more; the whole body is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment" (Isa 1:5,6).
The implication is that the righteous king Hezekiah suffered on account of the sins of a wicked nation. These sufferings served to turn a righteous man even more to trust in and pray to God. In beseeching God for a prolonging of life, Hezekiah certainly had in mind the benefit of his people, who would otherwise be left at his death like sheep without a shepherd. (Apparently, Hezekiah had no son at this time, since 15 years later his heir Manasseh was only 12 -- 2Ki 21:1.)

So the disease of Hezekiah placed him in the unique position of suffering for the sins of others. His ultimate recovery and healing (practically a "resurrection" from the dead) also put him in a unique role -- mediator for the nation, to turn away God's wrath in the person of Sennacherib's host (Isaiah 36; 37). And Hezekiah's lengthening of days for another 15 years provided, in the peace and prosperity of those times, a foretaste of the still-future and even more glorious kingdom of God.

In this brief sketch we may perhaps see the fitness of Hezekiah as a type of Christ -- suffering because of the sins of others, trusting in God, raised up from the dead to act as a mediator for his people, and prolonging his days to eternity as king upon God's throne. In turning to the greatest of Isaiah's "servant songs" (Isa 52:13 -- 53:12), it is well to keep in mind that Hezekiah, then, is the shadow of the substance, which is of course Christ. This beautiful and impressive Messianic prophecy is patterned after the almost equally impressive experiences of his forebear Hezekiah. (Here is the explanation of the past tenses in 53:1-10: the just-past experiences of Hezekiah provided Isaiah with special insight into the redemptive work of Hezekiah's seed!)

These circumstances in Hezekiah's life provide the background to Isaiah 53. The king was smitten, stricken with leprosy; the word used in vv 4,8 is the common word describing the leprous condition in Leviticus 13; 14. Furthermore, when a case of leprosy was healed, it was the priest's duty to pronounce the man healed; and the very word for this in Leviticus appears also in Isa 53: "With his stripes we are healed" (v 5).

A brief list of the most relevant details of this section of Isaiah (52:13 -- 53:12) will demonstrate its initial relevance to Hezekiah:

  1. "His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men" (52:14).
  2. "He shall sprinkle many nations" (v 15). The alternative suggested by some translators -- "startle" (RV mg) -- is obviously wrong; the same word appears a number of other times, all of which clearly mean "sprinkle". Four of these are in Lev 14 (vv 7,15,27,51). The one who is leprous suffers so that others (even Gentiles, a detail certainly much more Messianic than Hezekiac!) may be "sprinkled" and cleansed.
  3. "No form nor comeliness" (Isa 53:2).
  4. "Acquainted with grief" (v 3) is literally "caused to know sickness", the same word used of Hezekiah in Isa 38:9.
  5. "We hid our faces from him" (v 3) could signify "he hid his face from us" (AV mg). This may allude to the leper covering his face and crying "Unclean, unclean!" (Lev 13:45).
  6. The Hebrew word translated "stricken" (v 4) is used 57 tines in Lev 13; 14.
  7. "Stripes" (v 5) is the same word as "bruises" in Isa 1:6, which describes the "leprous" nation.
  8. "Healed" (v 5) is used of the cured leper (Lev 13:18,37; 14:3,48) as well as of Hezekiah (2Ki 20:8; 2Ch 30:20).
  9. "Who shall declare his generation?" (v 8). The words are especially relevant to the king, since he had no son at the time of his disease (Isa 38:5; 2Ki 21:1; 2Ch 33:1). In his own words, "Mine age (or generation) is departed and is removed from me" (Isa 35:12). But, after his recovery, "The father to the children shall make known Thy truth" (v 19); and "He shall see his seed" (Isa 53:10)!
  10. "He was cut off out of the land of the living" (v 8) is matched almost perfectly by Isa 38:10,11 in Hezekiah's song of thanksgiving at his recovery.
  11. "He shall prolong his days" (Isa 53:10): Hezekiah's 15 extra years!
  12. "The pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand" (Isa 53:10); Hezekiah "prospered in all his works" (2Ch 32:30).
  13. The "portion" and the "spoil" (Isa 53:12) point to the wealth and armaments in Sennacherib's camp of 185,000 corpses (Isa 37:36)!
As we proceed to consider this "servant song" as it pertains to the Messiah, the richness and subtlety of the imagery may be enhanced by remembering Hezekiah the type!

The Very Heart of Prophecy

The last great section of Isaiah's prophecy (Isa 40-66) breaks down naturally into nine blocks of three chapters each. Of these the central one is Isa 52-54. The middle chapter is of course Isa 53 (or more precisely Isa 52:13 -- 53:12). Further, these 15 verses subdivide into five groups of three verses each (a pattern identical to the 15 "Songs of Degrees" -- also products of Hezekiah's illness and recovery!). The middle set of these is Isa53:4-6. Thus, right at the very heart of the entire second section of Isaiah is the verse that provides the key of its interpretation:

"But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (v 5).
These are but four of the astounding twelve times, in this section alone, that Isaiah asserts that the Servant's sufferings are for the sins of others (the others: vv 4,4,6,8,10,11,12,12).

An Outline

The five sections of this song may be summarized as follows:

  1. "My servant shall deal prudently" (52:13-15)
  2. "Who hath believed our report?" (53:1-3)
  3. "He hath borne our griefs" (53:4-6)
  4. "A lamb to the slaughter" (53:7-9)
  5. "The pleasure of the Lord" (53:10-12)
The first section is an overview. The second describes the disbelief of the onlookers. The third and fourth concentrate on the sufferings of God's servant, first giving the reason and then the descriptive details. And the final section reveals the hand of Yahweh in the whole affair, as the witnesses are invited to receive and enjoy the benefits derived from this unique and perfect sacrifice.

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