Suffering Servant

Read: Isaiah 53

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5, NRSV).

It’s almost impossible for Christians to read Isaiah 53 without thinking about Jesus. While it’s not wrong for us to do so, we may be limiting our appreciation of this passage if we jump too soon to a New Testament interpretation.

One of my favorite professors used to press his students to explore the original context of Old Testament passages by saying, “It must have meant something to somebody sometime.” In the spirit of that assignment, and as part of the “What Brought THAT On?” theme of this series, I’d like to spend a few minutes wondering what the familiar words of Isaiah 53 might have meant to the people who heard them first. It’s pure speculation, of course. But it may give us a better sense of how the Holy Spirit prepared the way for the Messiah.

So, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, “entertain conjecture of a time” when the exiled people of God sought to make sense of their collective trauma. The Temple was a charred ruin, the promised land was lost, and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah sat down to weep beside Babylonian streams….


Reprisals. Our captors said that there would be reprisals if the “culprit” didn’t come forward. Nobody knew quite what that meant, but we weren’t eager to find out. So, the elders met late into the night and came out the next morning shaking their heads. How do you identify the guilty one when no one is guilty? They’re not claiming we’re perfect, by any means. But of THIS crime? No, the consensus was that we were being framed. Someone from outside the community was taking advantage of our disadvantage for their own gain.

You’d think we’d be used to that kind of thing by now, but one never really gets used to racial hatred.

So, as the noon deadline approached, we gathered in the square in front of city hall. The tension was palpable. Parents clung to their little ones. Teenagers glommed together with clenched fists, whispering angry words like “unfair,” and “injustice.” Some people prayed. Others—having given up on that activity long ago—waited silently, shoulders hunched, braced for the worst.

Then he stepped forward. Just as the governor was about to give the order. Just as the guards were about to grab who knows how many people to be made “examples” of. When everyone else was stepping back, he stepped forward.

Later, one of the prophet Isaiah’s students wrote a poem about him. Several, actually. They’re calling them the “Songs of the Suffering Servant.” They’re beautiful, of course. But they can’t come close to the beauty of what he did that day. It broke over us like a wave. Here was this man of whom no one expected anything. He wasn’t much to look at, and we hadn’t even treated him very well, if you know what I mean. And yet, he gave himself up for us.

You could have heard a pin drop. As the poet puts it, “upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”

The odd thing is, the whole episode has made us start thinking about our own suffering in new ways. Maybe there is more going on here than we know. Maybe God is up to something and we just can’t see it yet….

Ponder: How does this imagined story affect your understanding of the Christian story? Of inspiration?

Pray: May the beauty of your grace break over us like a wave, O Suffering Servant.