He grew up in his presence like a young tree,
like a root out of dry ground.
He had no form or majesty that would make us look at
He had nothing in his appearance that would make us
He was despised and rejected by people.
He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.
He was despised like one from whom people turn
and we didn’t consider him to be worth anything.
He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering
and carried our sorrows,
but we thought that God had wounded him,
beat him, and punished him.
He was wounded for our rebellious acts.
He was crushed for our sins.
He was punished so that we could have peace,
and we received healing from his wounds.
The Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran
I can’t claim this as a miracle. But I do find it interesting that Wikipedia describes the Great Scroll of Isaiah, found in a clay jar near the Dead Sea, as “the best preserved of the scrolls.” As a Roman Legion laid waste to Israel during and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Qumran community hid its precious texts and fled or died. They then were discovered by accident in 1946. Israel would become a nation state in 1948. The scroll was an amazing gift that proved the care that went into copying the texts and the reliability and authenticity of the text.
With the authenticity of the text comes the harder question. We know what it says, but what does it mean?
There are three choices:
1) It describes Israel as the Suffering Servant;
2) It describes a Messiah who has yet to come;
3) It describes Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah who has come.
If one considers the suffering of the people of Israel, especially discovering the Isaiah Scroll within a few years of the Holocaust, it would be fair to apply the text toward Israel in the collective. I personally don’t mind seeing it in that way, as “a view,” but not the only one. Jewish apologists offer this as the alternative to the text as messianic. I would insist on taking away the “or” and allow the “and.” One Jewish source I found that confronted the Christian interpretation of this text judged Christian Evangelism of Jews as “individual terrorism.” I think it’s at least compassionate to acknowledge the suffering aspect of the history of Israel and then, in love, to also direct it to the messianic prophecy.
My curiosity was how the Jewish source I found didn’t interpret this text as messianic in any way— even as hopeful of a Messiah to come. My assertion is that the firewall built around Isaiah 53 by its critics is proof of its fire. The fact that the idea of the Messiah in the text has to be made to disappear into the idea of Israel is remarkable. One has to work hard to stretch the singular “servant” away from an individual into the collective singular “Israel” as a nation. But then, this argument goes back to the Church Father Origen, who argued this interpretation with his Jewish neighbors around the year 250 AD.
The Gospel of John first summarized the issue in John 12:37-38,
But although He (Jesus) had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke:
“Lord, who has believed our message?
And to whom has the Lord's power been revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1)
Let’s look at two ways the New Testament helps us understand Isaiah 53. Here is the first:
An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.
The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”
Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage. This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:
“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?” (Isaiah 53:7-8)
The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.
The Book of Acts, written by Luke, makes it very clear how Isaiah 53 is to be interpreted. Here is the second from the Gospel of Matthew:
When Jesus went to Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Jesus touched her hand, and the fever went away. So she got up and prepared a meal for him. In the evening the people brought him many who were possessed by demons. He forced the evil spirits out of people with a command and cured everyone who was sick. So what the prophet Isaiah had said came true: “He took away our weaknesses and removed our diseases.” (Isaiah 53:4)
With due respect to the suffering of Israel, the text of Isaiah 53 is so much more than that when seen as the describing to us God’s plan for the salvation of all of His creation in a way that defies human logic and transforms our understanding of God’s great love for us. The text lifts us into a place before God singing, “Holy Holy Holy.” It places us in the Tabernacle and in the Holy of Holies beholding the Mercy Seat where our sins are forgiven and we are in the presence of God. We are there beholding the very Lamb of God, Jesus who is God.
“His Son is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact likeness of God’s being. He holds everything together through his powerful words. After he had cleansed people from their sins, he now holds the honored position—the one next to the majestic God [the Father] on the heavenly throne.” (Hebrews 1:3)
(Acrylic painting “Crucifixion” by Michael Waskowsky, Nick Kogan’s father, 1967)
When we gather in worship, in the Divine Service, we worship before an altar called Calvary. In Confession and Absolution, in our Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Altar, God touches us with the Servant’s blood bought forgiveness. The baptismal font is the seal of that new covenant. The absolution is its declaration and its promise. The Table of the Lord celebrates it; gathering us into Christ’s presence where we kneel before His throne and He delivers His Body and His Blood.
We have all strayed like sheep.
Each one of us has turned to go his own way,
and the Lord has laid all our sins on him.
In Holy Week, when we follow Jesus to the Cross and His way of Suffering, we are taught that this was God’s way of revealing to us His love, a love that sacrifices for us and gives us salvation.
Yet, it was the Lord’s will to crush him with suffering.
When the Lord has made his life a sacrifice for our wrongdoings, he will see his descendants for many days.
The will of the Lord will succeed through him.
He will see and be satisfied because of his suffering.
My righteous servant will acquit many people
because of what he has learned through suffering.
He will carry their sins as a burden.