Isaiah 53
William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
Isaiah Chapter 53

Here we have the confession and wondering complaint over the unbelief of men, yea, over their own unbelief; for Israel, now broken down in sense of sin, acknowledge that it was not merely those without who heeded little the report of the Messiah, but that they too themselves had been hard and rebellious against Him. "Who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of Jehovah been revealed? For he shall grow up before him as a tender sapling, and as a root out of dry ground; he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we see him, [there is] no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and shunned of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom they hide [their] faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he [it is] hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he [was] wounded for our transgressions, [he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (vv. 1-6).

The close of the last chapter (vv. 13-15) gave us Jehovah's contemplation of His Anointed, once put to shame, and now on the summit of glory before every eye. His deity introduced His humiliation in Isa. 50, here His humiliation leads to His glory: expiation was the divine aim in that humiliation. Then in Isa. 53 His people trace, in view of Him, their past and most guilty blindness, as they think of His wondrous humiliation, their misjudgement of His life and death, and their present perception of its cause in their sins and misery from which He had come to save them. When they had of old beheld His path of shame and sufferings from first to last, they understood neither the grace which brought Him down so low nor the glories that should follow. They now justly feel and own (vers. 1-3) the power of unbelief in the chosen people: a far more humbling fact in them than among the nations sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. Israel had ample testimony; yet what scepticism! The very humiliation of the Messiah which should have endeared Him only drew out aversion. They misread Himself utterly, as if He were under ban like another Gehazi or Uzziah. But now (vers. 4-6) being taught of God, they avow before Him and men that underneath all that humiliation, and, as they wrongly thought, personal obnoxiousness or liability to God's judgement a deeper work was being done: first, the fullest identification with their burden on His own heart, as He went up and down the land, Immanuel's land, entering into the weight of all that He healed (v. 4); and finally atonement before Him (v. 5). They had regarded Him, on the contrary, as an object of God's displeasure, and justly cast out and trampled on. But it was a total misconception of all His marvellous grace, a negligent oversight of their own deep necessities, both in the life that now is, and yet more for that which is to come. Hence Matthew 8:17 justly applies the first part of verse 4 to the Lord, as He relieved the afflictions of the Jews, and healed their diseases in His ministry, never bringing in bare power merely, but bearing all in spirit before God, while He cured them; as 1 Peter 2:24-25 applies verse 5 to His work for our sins on the cross. This recognition of the truth opens the mouth in lowly confession of sin; as the heart will then feel its past evil ways, and each judges himself before God.

In vers. 7-9 Jehovah expresses His delight in the moral beauty which shone in the suffering One, affirming on His part the explanation of the enigma of the cross, though up to His death of shame man was allowed his way in disposing of Jesus. "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep dumb before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth. He was taken from detention and from judgement: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living; for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And they made his grave with the wicked, but [he was] with the rich in his death,* because he had done no violence, neither [was there] guile in his mouth" (vv. 7-9). The plague stroke was upon Him for the transgression of the people of Jehovah. It was not the outward fact simply of a rejected Messiah to which He was pleased to submit, the awful proof of man's and Israel's moral state; but there is this divine key, and the far more wondrous meeting of a more hidden and a deeper need, even expiation. Yet even in His ignominious death God wrought so that by His resurrection from among the dead He should have honour unexpectedly.

*The phrase used here is most expressive and points to the intensive and exceptional death of the Holy Sufferer as concentrating many - countless - deaths in that one. Henderson takes the phrase to mean "after his death."

Israel then reiterate the blessed truth with their Amen, pursuing the glorious consequences as far as it is theirs to see them. "Yet it pleased Jehovah to bruise him; he hath put [him] to grief: when thou shalt make his soul (or, when his soul shall have been made) an offering for sin, he shall see a seed, he shall prolong [his] days, and the pleasure of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand" (v. 10). Here the atoning work, in the suffering of the Lord for sin, is dwelt on with its issue as far as was suitable then to speak. It is blessedly true that the death and blood-shedding of the Saviour must be for propitiation; but it is as false a thought as any that the enemy of souls ever insinuated that this propitiation or atonement is or could be, according to God and His word, without His sufferings specifically, yea, that suffering which was the deepest expression of God's judgement of our iniquities, when He Who knew no sin was made sin for us and forsaken of God. His blood and death when viewed as expiatory, and not as the evidence simply of man's wickedness, are the blood and death of Him Who really bore our sins in His own body on the tree, and endured the to us unfathomable judgement of God, when not the Jews only but God hid His face from Him. Can a Christian slight this divine abandonment of Him Who suffered, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God? He may, but only as he may be guilty of grievous, not to say fatal, error.* God's part in atonement is and must be the deepest.

*It is notorious that Jesuit preachers are wont to draw moving pictures, as of the physical torments of the lost, so of the external sufferings of our blessed Lord (i.e. the human rather than the divine side) Nor does one deny the substantial truth of what they reason is obvious. Unspiritual themselves, they appeal to that which strikes the senses and can excite the feelings or the fears of their least spiritual auditors. But men of a different stamp have always recognized that the word of God reveals a far deeper truth, not of what was before the eye or by the hand of man, merely, but of what passed unseen between God and Christ in that awful hour. So, to take an instance from one of the better sort, Archbishop Leighton rightly distinguishes this: "In that outside of His sufferings there was an analogy with the end and main work which was ordered by the Lord with regard unto that, being a death declared accursed by the law, as the Apostle Paul observes, and so declaring Him that was God blessed for ever to have been made a curse, that is accounted as accursed for us, that we might be blessed in Him, 'in whom,' according to the promise, all the nations of the earth are blessed. But that wherein lay the strength and main stress of His sufferings was this invisible weight that none could see that gazed on Him; but He felt more than all the rest. In this are three things: 1. The weight of sin. 2. she transferring of it upon Christ. 3.His bearing of it.

"1. He bare sin as a heavy burden: so the word of bearing in general, ἀνήνεγκεν, and those two words, particularly used by the prophet to which these allude are the bearing of some great mass or load, and that sin is. For it hath the wrath of an offended God hanging on it, indissolubly tied to it; of which who can bear the least? . . . Yea, to consider in the present subject where use may best read what it is, it was a heavy load to Christ, where the psalmist, speaking in the person of Christ, complains heavily, 'Innumerable evils have compassed me about. Mine iniquities' (not His, as done by Him, but yet His by His undertaking to pay for them), they 'have taken hold of me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of my head: therefore my heart faileth me.' And sure that which pressed Him so sore, who upholds heaven and earth, no other in heaven or earth could have sustained or surmounted, but would have sunk or perished under it. Was it, think you, the pain of that common outside of His death though very painful, that drew such a word from Him, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me? Or was it the fear of it beforehand, that pressed a sweat of blood from Him? No, it was this burden of sin, the first of which was committed in the garden of Eden, that then began to be laid upon Him, and fastened upon His shoulders in the garden of Gethsemane, ten thousand times heavier than the cross which He was caused to bear that might be for a while turned over to another, but this could not. This was the cup He trembled more at, than that gall and vinegar after to be offered Him by His crucifiers or any other part of His external sufferings. It was the bitter cup of wrath due to sin that is rather put into His hand and caused Him to drink the very same thing that is here called the bearing our sins in his body.' . . . Jesus Christ is both the great high priest and the great sacrifice in one. And this seems to be here implied in these words, 'Himself bare our sins in his own body'; which the legal priest did not: so 'He made his soul an offering for sin.' He offered up Himself, His whole self. In the history of the Gospel it is said, His soul was heavy and chiefly suffered; but the bearing in His body and offering it, that is oftenest mentioned as the visible part of the sacrifice, and in His way of offering!, not excluding the other. Thus we are exhorted to give our bodies in opposition to the bodies of beasts, and they are therefore called a living sacrifice, which they are not without the soul. Thus His bearing in His body imports the bearing in His soul too." - The Works of R. Leighton, Jerment's edition, 1805, i. 370-376 It may be added that this was a point of objection by Cardinal Bellarmine to Calvin who maintained the same doctrine as is carped at now-a-days, and not merely by rationalist speculators, such as Mr. F. D. Maurice and his friends. It seems rather a peculiar mind which could cite 1 Peter 3:18 in a paragraph designed to prove that reconciliation or atonement is never in connection with Christ's sufferings specifically. It is false that the statement they oppose separates His sufferings from His blood and death; on the contrary while distinguishing the other points, the object was to insist on the inseparableness of His sufferings with His blood and death for atonement. The admission that they are not separated in the Spirit's mind for atonement is the true thesis, which is yielded. But it is wrong to say, "the two are never separated." It is merely inattention to scripture (which distinguishes them), and it claims no answer.]

The chapter closes with Jehovah's confirmation, repeating the glorious results of both grace and government, and in each case connecting them with the work of salvation. "From (or, of) the travail of his soul shall he see, he shall be satisfied; by his knowledge shall my righteous servant instruct the many in righteousness; and he shall bear their iniquities" (v. 11). Such seems the simple, true, and exact sense of the verse which has been lost sight of often by translators, and still more by preachers, as well as (through a very different influence) by Jews. There is no need of importing an evangelical sense, which really misleads as if by the knowledge of Himself," meant the knowledge respecting or concerning the Messiah.* The broad facts in the Lord's history are before us: His ministry, when through His knowledge He instructed the mass in righteousness; His death when He bore their iniquities on the tree. The order is quite clear and sound; and there is no need for taking the copulative in a causal sense, or in any other than its own strict meaning.

*Even Dr. Henderson, who is often free enough from popular prejudice gives this straining of the phrase.

It was thus the Lord taught on the mount as well as in other places and times during His sojourn on earth. Then came another and mightier work which could be shared by none. Others might suffer in love or in righteousness; He not merely in both, but He alone for the sins of others at God's hand, as we were expressly told in the verse before. But the Spirit never tires of the wondrous fact, and loves to present it on all sides, from God to man, and from man to God. Daniel 12:3 proves irrefutably that the Hebrew will bear the sense of "instruct in righteousness" as well as of "justify": which of the two senses depends on the contextual necessity. There indeed it must mean the former; for, first, teachers cannot "justify" in the forensic sense (which is the true doctrinal force of the word, when thus employed as to the soul of a believer); and, secondly, as it is there a question of the many (the apostate mass of the Jews, which is the technical value of the words in Daniel), it must mean "instruct in," rather than "bring to, righteousness," for they do not bring them. Hence I doubt not it means similarly in Isaiah, though it may be here not so clear that "the many" has the same force. Still the burden of proof would lie on such as contend for a difference in the usage of the two prophets. To most minds their coincidence lends a mutual confirmation.

But sinful souls need far more than instruction, were it ever so perfect, as the Lord's surely must be. Hence it is added, "And he shall bear their iniquities." He suffers for them according to the scriptures, and His suffering for sin is efficacious. The change to "for" was due to the supposition that justification was meant in the previous clause, for which His bearing iniquities was the ground. Abstractly this is true, as all believers admit, according to abundant scripture; but the question here is, whether the text does not convey another truth, apt to be overlooked, in its plain unforced meaning with emphasis on "He."

Jehovah closes His answer with the assured triumph that awaits Messiah, based as it is, for Him alone of conquerors, on His sacrificial death so long misread, and His gracious use of it on behalf of the transgressors with whom malice had confounded Him. "Therefore will I assign him [a portion] with the great (or, many), and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out (or, bared) his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (v. 12).

The notion of the later Jews, (represented by Dr. Philippson for instance), that it is Jacob as a whole is a mere subterfuge, or that Israel's sufferings conduce to the happiness of the nations. "They are become the martyrs of the acknowledgment of the ONE, and by their exaltation the nations will be directed with the strength of conviction to the sole and only God. This view of the prophet is truly sublime.... The doubts, therefore, which the Jewish commentators (Redak and Abarbanel) have raised here, that this procedure would be opposed to the justice of God, which must allow every one to bear the punishment of what he has himself committed, can only be applied to individuals, while the prophet had in view the whole development of mankind." Now the fact is admitted, even by the Rabbis who brought in the idea, that the ancient Jews referred the suffering but righteous Servant of the passage to the Messiah, and this is the admission not of some but of the elders with one mouth. However, not any such confessions are cited as authorities in the least, but scripture only. Here all is light. The "we" of this section, as elsewhere is unquestionably Jewish, not Gentile; as unquestionably distinct from the One Whose position and relation to God they confess had been so fatally misconceived. To understand the "we" of the Gentiles is an impossibility; to take both "we" and "he" as Israel, or the prophetic body, is too absurd and self-contradictory. "He" is a real individual Who suffers from and for Israel, instead of being the same.

Then also, to notice another plea, the interchange of tenses is no more difficult here than elsewhere. It is habitual with the prophets, and with Isaiah no less than others. That Israel was viewed as the servant is true; and Israel failed as such. Then comes Messiah the Servant, Who glorifies God, yet suffers and dies, but, as here we learn, it was for Israel, though not for Israel only; and then Israel, sifted and repentant and believing in Him, are viewed in consequence as servants for His glory by-and by. Such is the scope of these later chapters of Isaiah.

But the idea of Israel being here meant by the suffering One is as false morally as exegetically. For it supposes that the Gentiles will yet acknowledge that Israel had to bear this hard fate solely for their redemption out of their sinful state (vv. 4-6); so that Israel through the patience which they exhibit notwithstanding all their sufferings, since they never departed from the only God, shall be placed on a yet higher eminence (vv. 7-9). Assuredly the Gentiles will yet confess their sins, not only their sins against God, but their cruel persecution and jealousy and envy of Israel. Assuredly they will yet trust with the real faith that is to be, but alas! is not yet, Israel's. But a more flagrant mistake was never made than that Israel can take the ground of unswerving righteousness like the suffering Messiah here. Take alone the very first chapter of Isaiah: we see there Israel suffering; but is it for righteousness? Is it not for their own appalling sins? And if it be said that such they were of old but that all is changed when we arrive at a later day such as in Isaiah 53, I answer let them see their divinely-painted portrait in its neighbourhood, in Isa. 57-59, and let them say where is the conscience which can so trifle with the word of God and the facts of their own hearts and ways.

No; reading Isa. 53 we find ourselves in the midst of sacrificial imagery, of atonement for sin, of intercession for sinners; and these sins are pre-eminently Israel's, as will be the blessedness. We heartily admit this last, and rejoice and give God thanks for the grace He will yet extend to His ancient people. But they by grace will justly prove its genuineness by the confession of their own sins, above all against their own Messiah, not in self-righteousness pretending to have been a suffering Messiah themselves for the Gentiles. There is indeed vicarious suffering here, a holy substitute atoning for the guilty before God; but it is Messiah for Israel expressly, though not exclusively. For His death embraces every creature to be delivered from evil; and from first to last, not even the most distant hint of Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Jews suffered from them far, far too much; but they will never suffer for them. Jesus, the only spotless Lamb of God, Immanuel, died for that nation, for Israel, though - thanks be to God - for us also (John 11:51-52). Worthily therefore is He now exalted, and we are in living union with Him Who sits on the throne of God. This however is not the point here, but His exaltation over the earth and the nations when Israel come to own their sins in the recognition of their suffering but then glorified Messiah. Thus it falls in with the general bearing of Old Testament prophecy, though it contains also the most luminous testimony to His humiliation and atoning work.

The language of the last verse presents no real difficulty save to those who read the first clause in connection with the gospel; whereas it looks on to the day of the world-kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ, when He will come forth before every eye as the Lord of lords and King of kings, sharing with others the fruits of His victory. What gave occasion to the mistake is that the ground laid in the later clauses is His humiliation, atoning death, and intercession. This beyond doubt is the basis and the boast of Christianity. Only it is an inexcusable error to confine it to us who are now called from Gentiles as well as from Jews. The day hastens when the fullness shall have come in; and so Israel shall be saved. Then will this vision (Isaiah 52:13 - Isaiah 53:12) be fulfilled, and not as a whole till then.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
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