52:13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
52:14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals-
52:15 so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
53:1 Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
53:2 For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
53:3 He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
53:4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
53:5 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.
53:6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
53:7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
53:8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
53:9 They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
53:10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
53:11 Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
53:12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
A Question or Two:
- Why does Isaiah (and not just in this passage) focus so much on oppression and real injustice?
- Who is the “servant?” Is there more than one answer?
- If there is more than one answer, what does that suggest?
Some Longer Reflections:
Read the words of Isaiah 53:4 slowly and carefully. This has been read as the seed of atonement theory, as the setup for the idea that the Messiah substitutes for us somehow. Read the words slowly and very carefully.
They do not say what we have often made them say.
The first thing to notice is that the sentence is structured as a contrast between what the servant did and how we assessed him. The servant is weak the way we are weak. The servant is sick the way we are sick. The servant is just like us, maybe more like us than we would like to admit.
And that is why we carefully keep the servant at a distance.
This little verse reflects with painful accuracy a basic truth of human life: we fear our fragility, and we protect ourselves from it by rejecting it when we see it in people around us.
When we see a fragile person, marked by mortality, we blame them: with lungs like that, you must be a smoker; with teeth like those, you must not care about hygiene; to be stuck in a job like that, you must be lazy. We even invoke God, because “God” (in this instance) functions as the guarantor that everything that happens has a reason. So if disease and disaster are the result of being “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted,” then we have no responsibility for those that are “less fortunate.”
Listen to the health care debate in the United States, and not just the comment sections on articles about the Affordable Care Act. Listen to the politicians themselves. They echo the words of internet trolls: both are incensed that ObamaCare “takes money from healthy people to pay for sick people.” (Of course, this is what ALL insurance programs do, but never mind.) This troll-speak is founded on the notion that we are all absolutely separate from each other, all atomized individuals with no connection to, and no responsibility for, each other.
This is a lie.
The key, I think, is the way Isaiah speaks about “our infirmities,” and “our diseases.” When it comes to fragility, we are all in it together. There is no other way to be human.
For Jews, the servant shines a sharp light on our tendency to protect ourselves by staying separate from anyone who reminds us of mortality. For Christians (since we can’t help but think of Jesus), the servant clarifies for us the impact of a crucified Messiah: the only redemption, the only atonement, is one that brings all people, and all of Creation together, united as one fragile, connected community.
Any other response, especially any response that imagines that the point of redemption is that we can all go to heaven, one by one, leaves us still accounting the servant as “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”
Isaiah is right: such an accounting is simply wrong. May this be a truly good Friday.