When Jesus spoke in the New Testament, he used many parables. Often his disciples did not understand his meaning. Consequently, Jesus would have to take them aside to explain to them privately the interpretation of what he had said (see Luke 8:8-11 for one example). But one day Jesus did speak plainly to his disciples. The Apostle John records their reaction.
25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father… 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” 29 His disciples said, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! (John 16:25-29 ESV)
Speaking personally, nothing in all of Isaiah has been simple for me. I have had to struggle with every bit of it, sometimes for days or a week on end. For me, the process of reading Isaiah has resembled seeking meaning from a secret code. But God has treated me graciously. Speaking for myself alone, the rewards have been great. I want to say that I am a different person than I was when I began.
But Isaiah 52:13-53:12 LXE is different. Here, the prophet and the text speak with plain speech. Isaiah uses everyday language to describe the suffering God’s Servant will endure. He does not change topics, but speaks of one subject throughout the passage. If I were to describe the “texture” of the text, I would say it is rounded, whole, smooth. There are no sharp, jagged edges to prick and puzzle.
What about specifics?
Specifics of Style
This portion of text differs from others in just a few ways.
1. Isaiah Speaks (Isaiah 52:13-53:12 LXE)
God himself has spoken through Isaiah for most of the previous chapters. Isaiah the writer has said very little. Here in the Fourth Servant Song, Isaiah speaks as narrator. He speaks in first person plural on behalf of God’s people as a whole in verses 1 through 6. He also uses third person singular when describing the Servant. This pattern begins in chapter 52:15 and persists throughout chapter 53. One exception occurs in 53:9. There, God apparently breaks in with his own first person. Except for verse 9, Isaiah appears to speak in his own voice throughout. This has not happened for many chapters.
The consistency of person Isaiah uses results in ease of reading and comprehension. In other portions of Isaiah, the frequent changes of person often indicate a change of speaker. Isaiah’s sudden changes result in difficulty of interpretation. Generally, Isaiah does not announce his changes. He uses very few transitions. The result is that the text hops about in an unpredictable way that makes following along difficult. This section about God’s Servant is not like that.
Isaiah maintains a singular focus throughout the servant’s song. The Servant is the topic, and Isaiah adheres to his description of him throughout. When reading other portions of Isaiah, the reader often faces the dilemma of not knowing of whom the passage speaks. While it is true that all of chapter 53 never names its subject, Isaiah 52:13 LXE clearly states “my Servant” in God’s own voice. Because verse 13 begins the Fourth Servant Song, readers know of whom Isaiah speaks throughout chapter 53. (Readers may confer the prior post for details on the identity of God’s Servant.)
3. An Unusual Description
The prophet continues for fifteen verses describing the specific and intimate details of the character and life of a single individual. This fact in itself is unusual. For example, the book of Isaiah consumes four chapters relating the events surrounding the life of King Hezekiah (Isaiah 36-39). Isaiah writes about Hezekiah by means of dramatic narrative. Readers must read the stories and deduce for themselves what kind of person Hezekiah was.
Contrary to the chapters concerning Hezekiah, Isaiah writes bluntly and directly about the nature of the Servant and the events of his life. After reading these fifteen verses, readers will be able to describe the kind of person the Servant will be. They will know his personality even. In the book of Isaiah, the fifteen verses of the Fourth Servant Song form an unusual segment.
The verses of Isaiah 53:4-8 LXE read like a confessional. The prophet assumes the identity of God’s people and confesses in first person plural on their behalf the iniquity of them all. This portion resembles Daniel’s prayer of confession on behalf of his people in Daniel 9. It also resembles Nehemiah’s confessional prayer in Nehemiah 1:5-11.
Overall, the tone of the Fourth Servant Song is quiet, subdued, and non-dramatic. God does not express his righteous anger, nor does he condemn. In consideration of the identity of the Servant and the fact of his gruesome death in verse 7, Isaiah presents the entire description without dramatic outbursts of passion.
In contrast to the emotional understatement of this chapter, the first verse of chapter 54 breaks upon the reader with the suddenness of loud crashing cymbals. Unlike this chapter, those verses shout. The tone changes dramatically to one of excited commands: Rejoice! Enlarge your tents! Get everything ready, for the Gentiles will be bringing their children!
Unique in Isaiah, the closing verses of chapter 52 and the entirety of chapter 53 are like an orchestra of strings playing slow, meditative music. The overall effect is contemplative, inviting the reader to linger, to ponder, to identify, to confess…