Christmas Prophecies: How the Suffering Servant Defied Expectations

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The Christmas Prophecies series is provided courtesy of Family Research Council

 

As we approach Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth, it is helpful to consider what the Bible teaches about why Jesus came to earth. Isaiah 53, written 700 years before the first Christmas, provides a detailed description of this purpose. To fully understand Isaiah’s teaching, it is important to start a few verses earlier with Isaiah 52:13-15.

 

13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
  he shall be high and lifted up,
  and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
  his appearance was so marred [is an anointing], beyond human semblance,
  and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
  Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
  and that which they have not heard they understand.

–Isaiah 52:13-15

 

Verses 13-15 function as a prologue, previewing the issues that will be developed throughout the passage.

 

Despite being in the middle of a chapter, the phrase “Behold my servant” introduces a new section of thought in 52:13 (modern Bible readers must remember that chapter and verse divisions were not added until around A.D. 1200). Biblical authors often signaled new sections of thought by using stylistic elements. Such is the case in 52:13, with the attention-getting “behold.” However, this phrase does more than merely indicate a new section of thought; it also helps communicate the significance of the person about to be described, i.e., the Servant. Isaiah wastes no time in drawing attention to the person and work of the Servant.

 

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Isaiah continues by explaining that the Servant “shall act wisely.” The ESV and NIV render the Hebrew verb as “wisely,” whereas the NASB translates it as “prosper.” Although both contain an important nuance, neither conveys the full intended meaning. Isaiah is not merely explaining that the Servant will be wise. Rather, he is saying that he will “both know and do the right things in order to accomplish the purpose for which he was called.” This provides clarity to the rest of the verse: “he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Because he has completed the work for which He was sent, the Servant will be exalted to a place of prominence.

 

Next, verse 14 provides further detail on how the Servant will accomplish His purpose. First, the text explains that many will be “astonished” at Him. Why are people astonished at the Servant? The reason for this response depends on how verse 14a is translated. There are two options for translating the Hebrew noun used here— “anointing” or “destruction/marred.” Old Testament professor Peter Gentry argues that the first option—“anointing”—is to be preferred because of its pervasive use in other biblical texts. He notes that the imagery associated with “anointing” recalls the anointing ceremony that took place when a new high priest was installed into office (Ex. 29:29; Lev. 21:10). This special anointing served to differentiate the high priest from other priests.

 

On the other side, Professor Gary Smith proposes that the Hebrew term is better rendered “disfigurement.” Appealing to context, he argues that “disfigurement” fits with the physical description of the Servant in 53:2. Concurring with Smith, John Oswalt contends that “all suffering is encompassed here: physical, mental, and spiritual.”

 

However the term is best translated, the Servant’s appearance is evidently a shock, especially to those who expected a godlike deliverer. Reading this text informed by the New Testament, the connection between the Servant in Isaiah and Jesus is becoming clear. Those in Jesus’ day were anticipating a military and political champion to overthrow the occupying Romans. Jesus defied those expectations, and, following a Roman-inflicted beating, did not appear able to save.

 

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Moving on to verse 15, there is debate amongst biblical scholars on whether the Hebrew word should be rendered “sprinkle” or “startle.” The majority of interpreters prefer “sprinkle,” which best fits the progression of the text, especially if “anointing” is the correct interpretation in 14a. Peter Gentry summarizes his position for both disputed words by arguing, “The servant sprinkles because he is anointed.” He adds, “The idea of many being horrified at the Servant and of an anointing and sprinkling that goes beyond that of Israel so that it applies to all the nations best explains the exaltation of the Servant and why so many in the end are told something they have never before seen or understood.” Gentry’s argument prioritizes the literary structure by recognizing that the prologue previews the major ideas unfolding in subsequent stanzas.

 

Verse 15 concludes the prologue by describing kings’ reactions to the Servant’s work. In short, the Servant’s work will be unlike anything the nations have seen before.

 

Isaiah 52:13-15 serves as a helpful prologue for Isaiah 53. Isaiah has signaled that the Servant is the focus of this section and the one who is tasked with securing forgiveness of sins and a right relationship with God. As we see in the forthcoming verses, this will be accomplished through His mediating role of a priest, and it will apparently involve a type of sacrifice. Evidently, the Servant’s work will shock those who witness it, and ultimately the Servant will be exalted.