October 5th, 2014

“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  (James)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

October 5, 2014

A good problem

Isaiah is a problem for many Bible readers.  For one thing, he has a credibility problem, and he knows it:  “Who has believed our message?” (53:1).

Even today, Isaiah is one of the most hotly debated books of the Bible, in part because he speaks to different historical contexts spanning two or even three centuries.   You probably recall that the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms rather soon after its establishment under King David about 1000 years before Christ.  The northern kingdom fell to Assyria about three centuries later.  Assyria also threatened the southern kingdom, but they survived miraculously, then fell to Babylon 150 years after that.  Isaiah lives and writes before the Assyrian invasion in Part 1.  But in Part 2 he also speaks to his people during and after the Babylonian captivity.  That problem leads many modern scholars to insist there had to be two or even three Isaiahs.

Isaiah’s problem is not only the timeline.  Isaiah behaves rather like Steve Martin in the Pink Panther movie.  He’s both bad cop and good cop.  Judgment dominates Part 1:  “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who…have no regard for the deeds of the LORD….Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding” (5:11-13).  Part 2 begins, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  He speaks both judgment and mercy.

If you are going to have a problem, Isaiah is a great problem to have.  The book of Isaiah is biblical literature at its finest.   Several years ago, when I read through the Bible in a year, I kept the discipline of copying memorable quotes from each book of the Bible.  My document of Isaiah quotes is eight pages long, from “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!” (6:3) to “For unto us a child is born” (9:7) to “Seek the Lord while he may be found” (55:6).  His poetry and his prose soar.  His grasp of God is unmatched.  And make no mistake. The book of Isaiah is a book about God.

The Suffering Servant

From now through Christmas, we will be reading and reflecting on the book of Isaiah on Sunday mornings, and in our sermon-based Bible studies and classes.  This is a great time to join one of those groups that studies the sermon text each week.  Even if you can’t join a group, I can send you study questions each week.  E-mail me.

We will not be journeying through Isaiah from front to back.  Instead, we will be hopping, as it were, from mountain top to mountain top, enjoying the peaks of this “problem book” in a somewhat random order.

Our time is especially brief today, so I am going straight to the text of Isaiah 52:13-53:12.  And once again, we have a problem.  You realize that we share the first two-thirds of the Bible with the Jewish people.  It was their book before it was ours, before it was joined with what we call the New Testament.  The Jewish people have a problem with what we do with Isaiah 53.  They believe we stole this text from them.  Before I come to what “we” do with this passage, let’s look at the text itself.  Turn with me to Isaiah 52:13.

Virtually everyone agrees on a few basic facts about this song (or poem).

  • The last three verses of chapter 52 and all of 53 comprise a single poem.
  • There are five stanzas of three verses each.
  • The theme of the poem is “The Suffering Servant.”
  • This is one of at least four songs about “the servant” in Isaiah, Part 2.
  • The identity of “the servant” in Isaiah seems to vary.

With that in mind, let’s look at these five stanzas.

Surprise (52:13-15).  The first stanza creates curiosity by previewing the themes of the entire poem.  The servant will “act wisely and be “highly exalted” (13).  But he will not be pretty.  Instead when people see him they will be “appalled” (or “astonished”) because his physical appearance is “disfigured” (14).  Still, his impact is wide.  He will “sprinkle” many nations (15).  This word is most often used of a religious ritual, as when priests sprinkle blood or water to cleanse.  The servant’s spiritual impact will be international, and kings will be “shocked into silence” (Message).  The last part of verse 15 says this servant will cause people who formerly were ignorant to understand.

Does Isaiah have your attention?  Who could possibly be both exalted and disfigured, and yet have such a pervasive impact on the nations and their rulers?

Misery (53:1-3).  Isaiah begins stanza 2 with an advance admission that what he’s getting ready to say will be hard to swallow.  “Who has believed our message?” (1).  Apparently what he is getting ready to say can’t be reasoned.  It must be “revealed” (1).  This servant begins small (“tender shoot”) and unexpectedly emerges from nowhere (“dry ground”).  He is not attractive or desirable physically (2), and as a result he is “despised and rejected” (3).  His life is marked by “suffering,” “pain,” and scorn (“despised” and held “in low esteem.”  He’s not the kind of person who draws a crowd or sustains a following of admirers.  This servant does not seem at this point noteworthy.

Substitution (53:4-6).  We now begin to realize how wrong we were about his significance.  The servant’s suffering is not without meaning.  Suffering can have positive impact in many ways, and one of the most powerful is it if prevents or alleviates the suffering of others.  We learn in the middle stanza that not only did the servant suffer on behalf of others, he suffered for “us.”  We are not told explicitly who he means by “us,” but we do know that they are not good people.  They are guilty of “transgressions” and “iniquities.”  They are “like sheep” who turn to their “own way.”  For these sinners the servant suffered.  But he didn’t just suffer for them – he suffered for their sins.  He bore their punishment.  We “considered him punished by God” for his own sins (4), but “he was pierced for our transgressions” (5) and “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (6).  Oh, my God!  This servant we rejected was paying the ultimate price for our wrongs – the greatest of which was rejecting him.

Innocence (53:7-9).  There’s more to this servant’s story.  When someone is “oppressed and afflicted” (7), we begin looking for reasons.  Haven’t you heard those stories of someone on death row who was later exonerated by a witness or DNA, and you thought, “Well, he wouldn’t have been wrongly convicted if he hadn’t already been in some other trouble?”  That may especially be true of one who makes no self-defense, who accepts his punishment without objection.  The servant “did not open his mouth” so he “was taken away” (8).  No one else “protested” on his behalf either, so he died with “the wicked” and was buried with “the rich” (9).  In the moment of his death and burial, neither he nor anyone else defended him, but in retrospect “he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (9).  He was innocent!

Vindication (53:10-12).  Why?  “It was the LORD’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer” (10).  God was doing what only God can do – redeem suffering in the greatest possible way.  Or ways.  The first way is to alleviate suffering by allowing it.  This death creates life because the servant is “an offering for sin.”  The second way is to follow death with life.  The servant lives again!  “After he has suffered he will see the light of life” (11).  The image of him “dividing the spoils” (12) is an ancient military image.  He wins!  Why?  Because he voluntarily “poured out his life unto death,” “bore the sin of many,” and “made intercession for the transgressors.”

Don’t Give Up

This is what I mean when I say Isaiah is virtually unmatched as a writer, even in the Bible.  If you ever think of people who lived 2700 years ago as somewhat inferior to us spiritually or intellectually, read Isaiah.

But what message does the Song of the Suffering Servant give us?

There is a message for you and me, a model for what to do when we feel unworthy, unattractive, oppressed, or even threatened.  (I’m not speaking here of domestic violence – too long women have thought they should just “take it.”)  But in the vast majority of situations we should do what Paul teaches in Philippians 2, and have the same attitude as Christ Jesus – one of choosing suffering and humility for the sake of others.   There is a difference between being a martyr and having a martyr complex.

If any people collectively have a right to a martyr complex, it would be the Jews.  Jews believe they are, collectively, the Suffering Servant.  I don’t have to agree with their interpretation to empathize with it.  Having recently studied the length of Jewish history, I do think this passage reminds us that collectively, Christians have more often than not, consented to or even caused their suffering.  So while the Suffering Servant reminds us that we should be willing to suffer unjustly…at the same time it should remind us to be advocates for others who suffer unjustly.  Wherever injustice or oppression or hate reigns, we should speak out and take action.

But none of that gets to the heart of the passage, does it?  When you read Isaiah 53, you can’t help but join the early Christians in seeing Jesus Christ in every single line of this song – from humble beginnings to being “nobody special” at the beginning to unjust suffering to death for the sins of others to a glorious resurrection and vindication.

In my view, Isaiah 53 resolves the “problem of Isaiah.” For reasons that are too complex for this short sermon, I don’t believe there were two or more Isaiahs writing across three centuries.  But even if there were, Isaiah 53 would resolve the problem of the content – the disparity between judgment and mercy.

About 2000 years after Isaiah lived and wrote, the Bible was divided into chapters and verses.  I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not, but the Archbishop of Canterbury divided Part 1 of Isaiah into 39 chapters, and Part 2 into 27.  The English Old Testament has 39 books, and the New Testament has 27.

Part 1 (chapter 1-39) is the “Old Testament” of Isaiah.  It’s all about the gap between God and humans.  It’s not all judgment, but it’s dominated by frustration with human cycles of sin.  The more things change, the more sin prevails.  God the Judge is angry, and sin must be punished.  The Old Testament, 39 books, parallels Isaiah’s Part 1, 39 chapters.

Part 2 (chapters 40-66) is the “New Testament” of Isaiah.  It provides hope in the form of God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  God is still Judge, but he has displayed his mercy in Jesus – God among us who freely gave his life to accept all of God’s wrath on his body and soul.

There are 27 chapters in Isaiah Part 2, and the central chapter is 53.  This chapter solves the “problem” of Isaiah. How can God be both angry and comforting?  How can he be both holy and loving?  How can he dispense judgment and mercy?  By insisting that sin must be punished, and by himself becoming the sacrificial lamb.  There is as much New Testament in Isaiah 53 as there is in the New Testament.  It is especially poignant if indeed Isaiah is writing it before the Assyrian crisis, when the people deserve only judgment.

We have chosen as our theme for Isaiah, “Don’t Give Up on God.”  It is the hope theme, and we begin this week with “Don’t Give Up on God…for Mercy.”  Maybe you need mercy.  Maybe a family member needs mercy.  Maybe a friend is far from God and needs mercy.  Maybe our nation…or another nation…needs mercy.

We default to judgment.  I had an experience like that the other day.  Our neighbors are away this weekend, and I had promised to take care of their dog.  Friday afternoon I was trimming some hedges between our yard and theirs, and I had a panic attack.  “Oh my goodness, I forgot to feed Star last night and put her up!”

I dashed into my house to grab their key, not even taking my cell phone.  Thoughts of judgment raced through my head.  “Poor Star.  She’s going to be hungry.  The Cogswells will hate me.  I’ll have to admit what I did.  They take such good care of our pets when we’re gone.”  I opened their door and called for Star.  I went in the back yard and called for her.  I didn’t see her anywhere.  “What if Star’s dead?  I mean, one day without food won’t kill her, but what if this was the day she died and I have to tell them I didn’t find her for 24 hours?”  “Judgment” raced through my mind.

About then their burglar alarm started to wail.   “What do I do?  I don’t have my cell phone with me!”  I raced back to my house.  When I came back over, a voice demanded over the screaming burglar alarm just like the TV commercial:  “Identity yourself!” I answered, “I’m their neighbor, and I’m supposed to take care of their dog.”  “What’s your name?”  “Bob Thompson, and I’m a really good guy…I’m even a pastor!”  (No, I didn’t add that part.)  Then it dawned on me.  The Cogswells weren’t leaving until Friday.  I was a day early.

I called Cheryl Cogswell and got the code to disarm the alarm.  She said the security company had already called her.  And then…she apologized for setting the alarm!  Really.  Like it was her fault I got caught.  Our neighbors are such gracious people – full of mercy on my invasion of their home and privacy.  My point is that I jumped too quickly to judgment on myself.  Don’t we all tend to do that?

I’ve been reading the New Testament book of James in my devotions recently.  James is another “problem” in the Bible, for different reasons.  Some Christians don’t think James gets the Gospel like Paul does – or even Isaiah.  James isn’t a problem for me – I just think he puts a different lens on the Gospel, and I love that.

As I was reading James and getting ready for this sermon, this line jumped off the page at me:  “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).  That’s the sermon in a nutshell.  We’ll find lots of ways and reasons not to give up on God from now through Christmas as Isaiah speaks to us.  For today, remember this:  No matter how much you feel you – or someone else – deserves God’s judgment, never give up on God’s mercy.  Because in the end, God’s mercy triumphs over judgment.  That solves the problem of Isaiah, and it summarizes the message of the Gospel.  Amen.

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