With Surprising Results

Here is a paper I wrote for Old Testament 1o1. I was rather pleased with the result and thought it might be nice to share with a larger audience that my preceptor and my professor. I know it's longer than the average blog post, but I think you might enjoy it!

In Isaiah 52:13-53:12, we encounter the fourth, and final, Servant Song. In this passage, we are witnesses to a dramatic plot, involving YHWH, the servant, who has been identified as many, diverse people and entities, and the nations. In this paper, I will explore the ways in which the structure of Second Isaiah’s poetry serves to heighten the drama, demonstrating the surprising nature of the text.

In the first six verses of this passage, the reader is introduced to the servant first by the Lord and then the nations; these two perspectives stand in stark contrast to one another. The first three verses of this passage are written from the Lord’s perspective (52:13-15). As one might expect, the Lord declares that the servant shall “prosper,” “be exalted and lifted up,” and “be very high” (52:13). However, verses 14 and 15 shift unexpectedly, describing how the servant will be so “marred” that his appearance will “startle many nations.” Yet, in the Lord’s words, the servant’s disfigurement does not preclude his exaltation, but makes it more glorious and unexpected (52:14-15). In the next three verses, the nations chime in, describing their reaction to the servant (53:2-3). This highly exalted servant is not seen as such by the people among whom he lives, in fact, his unexceptional appearance wins him only neglect and rejection (52:2-3). His suffering makes those around him so uncomfortable that they cannot even bear to look him in the eye (52:3). These people do not see with the same eyes that the Lord sees.

In 53:4-9, the nations continue to speak, beginning to contemplate “that which they had not heard” (52:15). We see that despite the suffering and rejection that the servant experienced and the nations’ initial inability to look upon his face, that he successfully startled them. The speaker for the nations recounts the astonishing truth that the servant was willing to suffer for the wrongdoing of others, even the transgressions of those who despised and rejected him (53:4). Parallelism reinforces the severity of the suffering and the selflessness of the servant, re-presenting the idea of the servant’s vicarious suffering on behalf of the nations in more than ten different ways. The nations cannot understand how someone could willingly be “cut off from the land of the living” for “my people” (52:8). Perhaps this understanding is most shocking for the nations because they are forced to recognize they are the instruments through which the Lord caused a non-violent, honest person to suffer and that it had to be done in order to account for their transgressions (53:9).

This poetic crescendo leads to the surprising climax, in which we, the readers, are startled to learn that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53:10). Is this not the very servant whose exaltation was promised by the Lord? It is not surprising that the nations viewed the servant as “struck down by God,” but we are shocked to learn that this statement is true (53:4). It is here that we discover that the Lord was the one crushing, afflicting, wounding, and punishing God’s own servant and we struggle with what this reality says about God.

Verses 10 and 11 can be seen as the climax of this song. Here we learn that God is the cause of the servant’s affliction, but that his suffering had a purpose is also confirmed (52:10-11). Though the servant bore terrible pain, his torment would “make many righteous” (52:11). One might wonder whether the servant knew that his suffering was necessary or that it would have a redemptive effect. Unfortunately, the servant’s voice is not heard.

The palpable absence of the servant’s voice could be seen as a dramatic device used by Second Isaiah to reinforce the threefold repetition of the fact of the servant’s silent suffering (53:7). One can imagine God and the nations taking center stage to sing the song of the suffering servant while the servant stands alone, stage left, in silence. Even in the face of perverted justice, the servant did not speak, he did not defend himself, he did “not open his mouth” (52:7, 8). Considering the many laments found in the Hebrew Scriptures, it seems strange that the servant of the Lord does not get (or take) the opportunity to express his honest complaint against whose who have caused his suffering.

Some satisfaction is given to the reader when the Lord repeats the promise to reward the servant, which began the passage (52:13 & 53:12). One might say that this passage has a happy ending, in which the hero, who has been undeservedly knocked around by life, is finally given his just reward. However, no matter how noble the cause for which the servant suffered, one might still be surprised that redemption was so costly and could be paid for by one representative.

There is some debate about who the servant may be. According to Walter Brueggemann, most scholars now agree that Israel is the suffering servant, because it makes sense in the poetic context of the rest of Isaiah.[1] Christian traditions reflect on this passage on Easter, viewing it as a prophecy fulfilled in the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. I tend to agree with Brueggemann’s assertion that “the text permits Jewish and Christian interpretations to stand side by side.”[2]

Second Isaiah’s final servant song is a short, but dramatic, journey through the idea of vicarious suffering. We may be surprised by the twists that are necessary in order to “make many righteous” or the realization that the Lord can cause suffering, even the suffering of his chosen ones (53:10 & 11). However, even through the story of the servant’s suffering and our own heavy questions about the methods God chooses, we recognize that the Lord is working, transforming the sacrifice and pain of his servant into the redemption of the nations.

[1] Walter Brueggeman, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 205.

[2] Ibid., p. 205.

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