The Fourth Servant Song Septuagint: Devotional 2.51 discusses the Septuagint report of Isaiah 53:7.
Content: Part Five
7 And he, because of his affliction, opens not his mouth: he was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7 LXE)
A Simple Solution to an Awkward Text: Verse 7
The way the Greek reads (as reflected in the majority of English translations), the text of verse 7 appears to the American ear to be saying something like this, He was afflicted, and because he was so afflicted, [therefore] he opens not his mouth. In other words, it sounds as though the affliction was causing him not to open his mouth in protest. Obviously, this meaning is difficult to understand in the context of the overall situation of the Servant.
But, the Greek language, wonderfully, has the amazing characteristic of not depending upon word order to generate meaning. This is due to the high degree of inflection (grammatical tagging) built into nearly every word. This character trait of Greek differs from English. English over the years has dropped most of its grammatical tags, or inflections. In exchange for these, English depends upon word order to establish a good degree of its meaning.
An alternate translation into English of the Septuagint text of 53:7 clarifies the meaning of the sentence as a whole. By simply exchanging the order of the phrases but nothing else, the sense of the entire sentence (as attested by nearly everyone) becomes so much clearer.
7 And he opens not his mouth on account of ill-treatment. As a sheep is led to the slaughter and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he does not open his mouth (1).
The above word order accords with the interpretation most English translations supply. The statement now gives the meaning, In spite of ill-treatment, he opens not his mouth.
The Metaphors of Verse 7
Isaiah uses two metaphors in verse 7.
- a sheep led to slaughter
- a lamb about to have its coat sheared
Why aren’t the Greek nouns switched around? Why not a lamb about to be killed and a sheep about to be sheared?
METAPHOR ONE: A SHEEP LED TO SLAUGHTER
1. An Image of Violence
The image of the first metaphor establishes the act, or action, that befell the Servant. The entire phrase, “a sheep led to slaughter,” is violent. The metaphor, as written, does not reflect the somber, reverential, and orderly sacrificing of a lamb to God, according to the law given in the Old Testament. While it is true that the New Testament characterizes Messiah as the “lamb” of God who was sacrificed for our sins (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7; and Revelation 5:12), the Septuagint phrase displays neither honor nor reverence.
The word “slaughter” in Isaiah and elsewhere refers to a negative judgment and punishment. See for example Isaiah 34:2, 6; 65:12; and Romans 8:36. The Servant of Isaiah 52:13 LXE will be “glorified exceedingly.” But this same Servant will be led like an unprotesting sheep about to be violently killed. In God’s eyes, the Servant was a sacrifice for sins. According to human eyes, the Servant was brutally punished in falsehood of having committed crimes of which he was innocent.
2. An Image of Human Identification
Verse 6 states, “All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins.” The Servant represents humankind so strongly that Isaiah refers to him in verse 7 as one of us, as a “sheep.” Whereas our being sheep led to sin and lostness, the Servant’s being a sheep led to a violent death. Our failure to stay close to the precepts of God led to the servant’s slaughter at the hands of unrighteous men. Our sheep-like nature led us into sin. The Servant’s sheep-like nature led him to follow God’s lead to his own slaughter, a violent death (see Philippians 2:8; Hebrews 4:15).
METAPHOR TWO: A LAMB BEFORE THE SHEARER
How many parents remember the first haircut they ever gave their child? Perhaps this occurred at home; perhaps in a professional salon or barbershop. The image of the second metaphor establishes the character of the Servant. The Servant behaved himself like a young sheep, a lamb, inexperienced and innocent. Some of our children behave as an inexperienced lamb when they receive their first haircut. More often, perhaps, the children cried and screamed when they saw the barber’s blade.
Little lambs have never had their wool cut. They can be led to the shearer quietly, without protest. This is the image Isaiah establishes. This image focuses on the character and nature of the Servant as he faces his “slaughter.” He is quiet, calm, and trusting of the hand that leads him. He does not defend himself. The New Testament paints the accurate fulfillment of this prophecy. See Matthew 26:62-63; Mark 15:4-5; Luke 23:8-9; and John 18:10-11.
It is good at this point to revisit Isaiah 53:1a, “O Lord, who has believed our report?” In paraphrase of that statement, These things are so astonishing that they seem beyond belief. That the Servant of God, portrayed cumulatively throughout Isaiah as divine, that such a one should silently endure this kind of treatment seems preposterous. Perhaps this is why no one recognized Christ the Servant when he came. Perhaps, refusing to accept this difficult report of Isaiah, they reinterpreted it or rubbed it from their minds.
To be continued… Content: Part Six, Verse 8
1 Watson, Francis B. (2009) ‘Mistranslation and the death of Christ : Isaiah 53 LXX and its Pauline Reception.’,
in Translating the New Testament : text, translation, theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, pp. 215-250. Available at https://dro.dur.ac.uk/8991/1/. Accessed on March 11, 2022.
In answer to the question, Why read the Septuagint of Isaiah? Watson writes on page 233, “From one perspective, Isaiah 53 in Greek is a seriously flawed representative of the Hebrew original. From another perspective, it can be seen as supplanting that Hebrew original, functioning directly as scripture in Greek-speaking Jewish and Christian communities with no possibility but also no need of recourse to the Hebrew. Thus it is this text that survives in multiple copies, whereas the more accurate translation of Symmachus must be laboriously reconstructed from scattered fragments of evidence. If the Greek text is at some points less lucid than the Hebrew. at other points it is more so – notably in its testimony to the Servant’s death and vindication. If each of its “mistranslations” represents the loss of an original semantic content, its place is always taken by a new semantic content, or at least by a semantic potential waiting to be realized. Ironically, it is precisely the deviations from the Hebrew that establish this as an independent text in its own right, not as a mere local representative of a distant foreign original. Without recognizing them as such, it was precisely in the deviations that early Christians first glimpsed the possibility of a positive soteriological interpretation of the death of Christ. In the light of such momentous discoveries as this, it is unsurprising that the Septuagint could be viewed as an inspired text in its own right.”