Isaiah 52:13-15: The Mystery of the Servant Jesus
If you are on a journey to discover who Jesus really is because all the other belief systems you’ve pursued have proved wanting, and all of the life endeavors you’ve poured your life into have left you empty, I’m here to tell you it is interesting how the living, true God orchestrates events in your life to give you the answers you crave to spiritual truth about His Son. Take the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as recorded by Dr. Luke in Acts 8 as a case in point.
The unnamed eunuch was in charge of all of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. As a side note, Ethiopia in this day probably references Nubia, which was located in southern Egypt. Religiously, her royal son was worshipped as the offspring of the sun-god, hence trivial matters like running the country rested with his mother and her devoted entourage.
Interestingly enough, the eunuch, a Gentile, had not found the belief system in his land satisfying, so he traveled in his expensive chariot to worship the God of the Jews. Although the Mosaic Law forbid eunuchs from entering the Lord’s assembly on the Temple mount (Deut. 23:1), the spiritually inquisitive and desperate man went anyway. One his way back to Gaza across the trackless, arid, hot desert he read from the scroll of Isaiah. Since reading was typically done audibly, it is no shock to learn that Philip, who had been sent to this region by the Spirit of God, actually heard him.
7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? (Isaiah 53:7-8).
Immediately, Philip knew the quote originated from Isaiah chapter 53. Realizing this, Philip posed a logical question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). The confused eunuch responded, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” (Acts 8:34). The eunuch knew these haunting verses didn’t speak about the Jewish nation, but a Jewish man, hence the nature of his question. Did this prophecy apply to the man Isaiah, or to some other unknown man?
Philip seized the moment and explained how this entire prophecy applied to Jesus, the God-man. He didn’t speak up when unjustly afflicted by mean-spirited, blood-thirsty people. He went to his unjust death like a sheep to the slaughter. He endured being snatched by the authorities and eventually brutally murdered on trumped up charges . . . and He did it all to bear and pay for man’s sin so sinners could be saved when they turn to Him, the Savior, in unflinching faith. Hearing this truth caused the eunuch to see, for the first time in his life, his utter need of the Savior, not another religious experience, or additional ritualistic practices. Hearing this truth caused the eunuch to see the vanity of his past religious/intellectual pursuits, and the absolute truth about the Messiah who came first to mankind as the Savior long before He would come as the King. Hearing this truth caused the eunuch to connect all the loose ends of his life, to find the answer to all answers as to how to find peace and meaning with the living God. Within a few minutes the chariot became a confessional and the eunuch embraced the Savior who had come to die for his sin as prophesied with specificity in Isaiah 53.
You just might be able to identify with this politician right now. You’ve been looking for the story of all stories, the story which answers all of your spiritual questions, the story which is not just historically true, but is spiritually awash in truth. That story, my friend, is the same one the eunuch heard. In Isaiah 53, you run headlong into the story of how God, who is holy, longs for a relationship with his sinful creatures. In this prophetic story we learn how He did something about the broken relationship by lovingly sending His only Son, Jesus, to definitively pay for our sin so, at the moment of belief, we, too can be part of a relationship of all relationships, and to enjoy a community to end all communities.
So, if you are searching for spiritual answers to your perplexing questions, if you feel the weight of your sin pressing down on you but don’t know what to do about it, if you are searching for spiritual truth but don’t think you have found it, I can tell you today that in Isaiah 53 you will find that your search is over. Within this 2,800-year-old prophecy, which was fulfilled to the letter some eight hundred years after the prophet spoke it in the person of Christ, you will encounter a redemptive rags to riches prophetic/historical story only the divine mind could have constructed. Yes, within this fourth of Isaiah’s Servant Songs (the other three are as follows: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:3-9), I pray the Spirit of God will cause you to cognitively and spiritually grasp the truth of this prophetic word:
Salvation Is Grounded On Christ, The Servant’s, Degradation And Exaltation (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)
The Lord informs us in chapter 55:8-9 how His thoughts and ways are far beyond ours. This premise is absolutely true when applied to how He worked in and through the Servant of all servants to deal with our sin problem so we could be forgiven, cleansed, and made holy in His sight.
Who is this Servant? Is it the prophet? No, because a sinful man would not ever qualify to bear the sins of others. Is it the nation, Israel? No, everything about this passage speaks of one man bearing the sin of mankind. The Jewish Christian converts who wrote the New Testament understood how only one man, the God-man, Jesus, fulfilled this tough job description to the letter. Seven times they directly quoted from this precise prophecy and directly linked it with Jesus, the Servant who did the Father’s redemptive bidding (Matt. 8:16-17; Luke 23:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:32-33; Romans 10:16; 15:20-21; and 1 Peter 2:22-25). They did this because they had personally seen how Jesus, the selfless Servant, moved from prophesied degradation to final exaltation (Acts 1:9ff).
To appreciate the import of this lofty, moving prophecy, and to fully articulate how salvation from sin really is built upon a rags to riches story about Christ’s person and work, I propose we consider the main movements of the prophecy in the order presented by Isaiah. Almost all scholars are in agreement the prophecy begins in chapter 52, verses 13 through 15 and runs through chapter 53, verse 12. In chapters 49 through 52, Isaiah speaks about the salvation of God’s chosen people, Israel, and in chapters 54-55 he invites the people to participate in God’s salvation. The prophetic section before us, therefore, serves to link these two rhetorical panels together by giving us the means by which sinners secure salvation. Join me, therefore, as we sink our interpretive spades into this rich soil about the Redeemer, Jesus.
First, we encounter . . . (note: I borrow my sub points from Dr. Walt Kaiser’s article in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, pp. 98-107)
The Mystery Of The Servant, Jesus (Isaiah 52:13-15)
What’s so mysterious? Good question. These opening verses of this periscope/passage tell us what we need to know:
13 Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted. 14 Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men. 15 Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand.
Here God, the Father, speaks about His servant who will carry out His unbelievable redemptive mission. The opening particle, “Behold,” hinneh ( הִנֵּ֥ה ) is emphatically placed at the head of the sentence to grab your attention with the hopes of waking you up. What does God want you to know? That this servant is His chosen, special servant. Further, God demonstrates up front how this uniquely qualified Servant would be exalted based on His redemptive work; however, this exaltation would be preceded by unbelievable, unimaginable cruelty and horrific degradation. Presented in this concise fashion, the opening three verses serve to give us an overview of the entire prophecy, setting the stage for how redemption for sinners will be secured. The words also form a beautiful rhetorical inclusio, meaning the whole passage begins and ends on the same amazing, spectacular, and moving motif, viz., the exaltation of the Servant (Isa. 53:10-12).
The mysterious nature of the Servant’s work is first grounded in His ultimate exaltation which would occur after His sacrificial redemptive work. From the outset, the Holy Father informs us how the Servant’s saving activity “will prosper.” The Hebrew word, shacal (שָׂכַל), here more precisely means “to act wisely so one is highly successful” For instance, it is used in Jeremiah 23, verse 5, of the Branch, or the Messiah, who will rule successfully when He comes since He is wise. This is most interesting based on the fact the prophecy speaks about the ruthless and vile treatment the Servant would experience. From what is described about His unjust prosecution and execution, one could logically conclude it does not appear He would be successful. Such, however, is not the prophesied case. He “will prosper.” Are you glad He did? He could have walked away from all the pain and suffering which came His way, but He didn’t because He wanted to provide the means whereby you and I, as sinners, could have a relationship with the Holy Trinity.
God wanted us to know His Servant would not just be successful, but He would “be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted.” Anyone can be successful at a given task, but exalting them to a point of worship is another thing altogether. Worship here is order as we see from this particular phrase. Interestingly enough, this first phrase is only employed three other times in Isaiah (Isa. 6:1; 33:10; and 57:15) and each time it has God as the object. What does this mean? It means the Servant would be none other than God in the flesh, just as Isaiah had prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6. Isaiah is not in view and neither is the nation, Israel. God is in view.
Was Jesus, the God-man, exalted after His heart-breaking, bloody and brutal crucifixion? Yes. Jewish converts who saw the exalted Servant/Savior wrote about Him later. Speaking to the Jews at the Temple for Pentecost, Peter, who had seen Jesus rise to heaven from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9), informed the Jewish worshippers . . . many of whom had witnessed all the events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Jesus . . . of this salient truth:
32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. 34 For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: 'The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, 35 until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet” (Acts 2).
Other texts are worth considering when you have the time (Acts 5:31; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 7:26; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22). Please remember how Peter eventually paid for this theological statement by being crucified upside down (based on his request for he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified right side up like the Servant, Jesus) under the wicked rule of the despot Nero. This is why he is worth listening to as a witness. When he spoke about Christ’s prophesied exaltation, he knew what he spoke about.
Exaltation, however, was to build, first and foremost, upon a Servant nobody thought could be the divinely appointed Servant. Read on and you’ll see what I mean:
14 Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men.
Why would people be blown away, really shocked, when they would see the divine Servant working to secure redemption for sinners? His rough, rude, and ruthless treatment would leave Him looking sub-human. I remember walking into the hospital emergency room one sunny afternoon to see “Doc,” who was one of our elderly parishioners in California. He met a man who was interested in his car, but the man turn and beat him about his face with a tire iron before he stole the car in question. Pulling back the white curtain, I wasn’t sure “Doc” laid in the bed in front of me. I will not even attempt to describe what I saw. Let’s just say his face was so bloodied and swollen I could not even identify him.
Such describes, in a faint fashion, the look of the Servant, Christ. He, of course, looked far worse because of what He endured in the Roman crucifixion process. During his second unjust trial before Caiaphas (the first one occurred with Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, John 18:13-14, 19-23), He was found guilty of blasphemy and summarily blindfolded and beaten by guards (Matt. 26:67-68; Luke 22:63-65). During his Roman flogging orchestrated by Pilate, Jesus was beaten mercilessly with a short whip called a flagellum. The whip consisted of a small wooden handle, replete with short leather strips woven together and sporting small iron balls or sharp sheep bones. Lictors strapped the victim to a post after they removed his clothing. The victim’s back, buttocks, and legs were flogged repeatedly by two lictors. Strikes to the head followed the scourging, and the crown of thorns placed on His head added to the disfigurement of His face (this occurred after the third Roman trail, John 19:1-5). When Pilate finished his final trial of Jesus, he released Barabbas and had Jesus flogged again (Mark 15:15). Walking up the hill to Calvary it is no wonder His appearance certainly shocked onlookers. Who was this? Was this Jesus? You couldn’t tell because of severity of the beating.
And all of this degradation of the Servant was prophesied eight-hundred years before the fact. Jesus fulfilled it willingly to the letter. Why? Why did He do this? Because He knew the prophetic outcome of His bold, courageous actions:
15 Thus He will sprinkle many nations, kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; for what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand.
The adverb, thus, ken ( כֵּ֤ן), once again, is emphatically placed at the head of the sentence to arrest your attention. Obviously, the Spirit wants us all to understand the cause/effect relationship between the Servant’s degradation and exaltation. The former led to the latter in time and space history. Why was the Servant ultimately exalted? Answer? His selfless action empowered Him and Him only, to be the One who could “sprinkle” sinful nations/people. What has this got to do with anything? Good question.
The word for sprinkle in Hebrew is intimately wedded to the concept of using sacrificial blood (as prescribed by God in Leviticus 1-7) to cleanse and purify that which is sinfully stained and unholy. Concerning its meaning, J. Alec Motyer states,
Naza, this verb (occurring twenty-two times in the Old Testament) deals with hallowing persons (Exod. 229:21) and things (Lev. 8:11), cleansing (Lev. 14:7), and atonement (Lev. 16:14-16) . . . The priestly idea of atonement sprinkling (e.g. Lev. 4;6, 17; 5:9) is suitable to this context, and the element of surprise that such tortured suffering is what makes kings shut their mouths, i.e., be dumbfounded. New truth has come to them, formerly untold, unheard before, but now seen and understood.
You are either sprinkled by His blood (at the moment of your personal faith in His salvific work) or you are not. This is the difference between being saved or unsaved, bound for heaven of destined for hell. Several New Testament Jewish Christian writers take this position. Writing to Christians, Peter opened his first letter with these insightful and comforting words:
2 who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance (1 Pet. 1:2 NIV).
One is hard-pressed not to associate the sprinkling here of Christ sacrificial blood over the life of new believer. To be sprinkled is to be saved, and the sprinkling was made possible by the One who suffered greatly in your behalf.
The same motif is embedded in Hebrews:
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9)
The argument here is a fortiori, or from the lesser to the greater. Since the blood of divinely prescribed animal sacrifices served to temporarily cleanse sinners, how much more does the blood of Christ garner this on an eternal plane? It will and does is the answer.
The spiritual cleansing nature of Christ’s redemptive work by means of His death by crucifixion is what cleanses people from the nations who come to Him. His work is what causes kings and politicians from Gentilic lands who might not have had exposure to His gospel to stand erect and take note. Really, this is what happens to any and all sinners when they come to terms with their sinful status before God, and then gain revelatory insight into what His Son did to secure spiritual cleansing, redemption, and eternal life for them. They stand in absolute awe before Him speechless and motionless thinking, “How did His utter degradation secure not only His exaltation by my salvation at the moment of faith?” Better yet, they ask, “Why did He do this?” The answer is simple: love. As Jesus stated,
16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him (John 3).
As we think about His love which sent Him on a mission which would eventually take Him from degradation to exaltation, we cannot help but reflect on the moving, powerful words of the old hymn, What Wondrous Love Is This?
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this That caused the Lord of bliss To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, For my soul, to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, When I was sinking down, sinking down, When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.
In light of all of this, I think a simple, pointed, and highly personal question is in order: Is your life sprinkled with the blood of Christ right now or not? He came down so you could have the possibly of going up. He lost His life so you could gain real life. He bore your sin so you could be forgiven of sin in His sight. Oh, how He must love us in order to do all of this to give us the opportunity to pass from death to life. He waits now for you to answer the question I just posed in the affirmative. Who is ready to step forward to be sprinkled and cleansed for all time before God’s holy throne?
 J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1999), 376.