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
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"
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
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
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!
- "His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the
sons of men" (52:14).
- "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.
- "No form nor comeliness"
- "Acquainted with grief" (v 3) is literally "caused to know
sickness", the same word used of Hezekiah in Isa 38:9.
- "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).
- The Hebrew word translated "stricken" (v 4) is used 57 tines in Lev 13; 14.
- "Stripes" (v 5) is the same word as "bruises" in Isa 1:6, which describes
the "leprous" nation.
- "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).
- "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)!
- "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.
- "He shall
prolong his days" (Isa 53:10): Hezekiah's 15 extra years!
- "The pleasure of
the Lord shall prosper in his hand" (Isa 53:10); Hezekiah "prospered in all his
works" (2Ch 32:30).
- The "portion" and the "spoil" (Isa 53:12) point to the
wealth and armaments in Sennacherib's camp of 185,000 corpses (Isa
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"
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).
The five sections of this song may be summarized as
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.
- "My servant shall deal prudently" (52:13-15)
- "Who hath believed our
- "He hath borne our griefs" (53:4-6)
- "A lamb to the
- "The pleasure of the Lord"