THE SUFFERING SERVANT
Through Isaiah, God introduces us to His suffering Servant. In chapter 51, Isaiah records how God is trying to get our attention:
Vr. 1 “Listen to me . . .”
4 “Listen to me . . .”
7 “Hear me . . .”
9 “Awake, awake! . . .”
17 “Awake, awake! . . .”
Why these exclamations? Down in our valley of despair, behind that wall of societal indifference to everything right and holy, God is trying to get us to look at Him. Yes, He knows the calamities that have overtaken us. At the bottom of all pain, suffering, disease, ruin, destruction, famine and sword is sin. What can He do? What has He done?
“Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,
made drunk, but not with wine.
This is what your Sovereign Lord says,
your God, who defends his people:
‘See, I have taken out of your hand
the cup that made you stagger;
from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,
you will never drink again.’ ”
Isaiah 51:21, 22
The Cup and the Servant
Remember when Isaiah saw the Lord and realized that it was sin that distanced him and his people from the Lord? It is that same God who now describes for us how He will deliver us from that cup which He has taken from our hand. That cup was the cup of God’s righteous wrath which we deserved. The suffering Servant drinks the cup meant for us. He is described beginning with Isaiah 52:13, and going to 53:12.
The troubling aspect for us about the Servant is that His suffering exposes humanity’s undeniable and incurable affliction—sin. Nonetheless, we do not want to admit our transgression against God’s laws. And if we see no transgression, why go down the road where that would lead? Why accept a remedy we find unnecessary?
So within these verses, Isaiah voices the overwhelming response to his vision: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53:1). The vision he saw and reported was being rejected. That is the recurring response to truth. Centuries later in Jesus’ time, John wrote, “Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” (John 12:37). John then quotes the verse above, Isaiah 53:1.
Whether in Isaiah’s time, Jesus’ time, or today, the message of redemption is often one that is not welcome. To confirm this, read on.
“Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace
was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord laid on him
the iniquity of us all.” (53:4-6)
Pick out the words from that passage that cause us to ignore the truth of it. What was in that cup He took from our hands? How about the things that as humans we own: infirmities, sorrows, transgressions, iniquities, gone astray, our own way and iniquity. And what did the Servant receive on our behalf? He was stricken by God, smitten, afflicted, pierced, crushed, receiving punishment and wounds for our sins. The cup He took from our hands was done at His own personal sacrifice.
You see, there has been an exchange. From our hands, He took the cup which was full of our sin and transgressions and brought us forgiveness. We received His blessing while He took our punishment. He took our infirmities and restored us to spiritual health. He took the sorrow and despair and filled the cup to overflowing with hope and joy. Yes, there is hope because the events and circumstances of your past no longer have to continue into the future. It is your valley of despair that makes possible the valley of vision.
The Valley of Despair
Right now, you may feel you are in that Valley of Despair. Maybe it’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death spoken of by David in Psalm 23. Don’t let that valley blind you to God’s message of pardon and hope. Your despair can be transformed into the Valley of Vision. That is where you can see His hand even through the bitterness and pain of your tears.
Through the prophetic Vision of Isaiah and its historical fulfilment, God’s invitation continues to ring out across the years to our century: “Come . . . Listen . . . Seek!” even as you lay broken in that valley. Through His suffering Servant, God has invited you to receive mercy, pardon and relationship.
Listen to His appeal. It is meant for you.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
“Listen, listen to me, and hear
what is good,
and your soul will delight in the
richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant
my faithful love promised to David.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord,
and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“ ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ ”
Isaiah’s vision springs from the heart of God and the sacrifice of His suffering Servant. Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is rebellion. Yes, there has been separation. Yes, you are in a valley. But this is where you can see the vision of God’s greatness and grace that He offers you. David, too, described that ultimate promise when he wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4). Does this describe your valley?
What do you think of God’s promise? Isaiah reported that many had accepted.
“Yes, Lord, walking in the way
of your laws,
we wait for you;
your name and renown
are the desires of our hearts.
My soul yearns for you in the night;
in the morning
my spirit longs for you.”
But acceptance is not universal.
“Though your grace is shown
to the wicked,
they do not learn righteousness;
even in the land of uprightness
they go on doing evil
and regard not the majesty of the Lord.”
As you read, where do you find yourself? Are you in a blind alley, behind a wall so high there is no way for you to see? Do you feel your valley is so profound that no one else knows or cares? Is there no answer? Yes there is so let’s examine the Suffering Servant more closely.
Who Is the Suffering Servant?
Consider for a moment the graphic picture of the suffering Servant envisioned by Isaiah. Remember, nothing like that vision would be seen for hundreds of years. The words of Isaiah in 52:13-53:13 would not be fulfilled until flogging and crucifixion were the formal methods of punishment and execution.
Flogging and crucifixion were not practiced by the Jewish nation. However, they were the penalties of choice under the Roman Empire (see John 19). Why is that important? It becomes so when we again ask if Isaiah’s vision was reality or myth. Has not God intentionally brought us face to face with our sinfulness in order to show us His grace and mercy? Has not God used His Word, supported by His display in creation and His providence in our lives to reveal to us how we can enter into relationship with Him?
Earlier, we alluded to the dual meaning of the suffering Servant, one national in scope, the other individual. The Servant (individual) would suffer for humanity’s deliverance from sin. Final restoration and victory over evil will be completely realized at the end of this age. Through it all the Servant’s voice is heard.
Some seven hundred years after Isaiah wrote, the Servant repeated the invitation recorded here. To all humanity, He cried out, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
In the final chapter of the writings of the apostles, John the beloved disciple pens an open invitation to all mankind: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22:17).
Yes, friend, there is still room and there is still time. “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18). Perhaps you are still waiting for deliverance. As He did for Isaiah when he realized his sinfulness, God has provided a way for your deliverance.
“For God so loved the world that He sent His Son . . .”
The Servant is the Son of God
Why did the Servant have to be God the Son? Why the sacrifice? Was it necessary? Was there no other way? Why not our own good efforts?
First, the fact that we can’t see in our Valley of Despair in an indication of our need of God’s help. The fact that we have “fear in the valley of the shadow death” reveals our need of God’s assurance. Before we explore why God sent His Son as His suffering Servant, take one more look at Him through the eyes of Isaiah:
“See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up
and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who
were appalled at him–
his appearance was so disfigured,
beyond that of any man
and his form marred beyond
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths
because of him.
For what they were not told,
they will see,
and what they have not heard
they will understand.”
Who did Isaiah see? What person did he picture in his vision? We find the answer in the New Testament: “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”
Yes, when Isaiah penned those words, he saw the coming Messiah, Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. But Isaiah saw much more and his invitation to you is to look at the vision he encountered.
You will see something in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, that you never imagined or thought of. You may have looked at Him as a great religious leader with many followers. Perhaps you think He is a great moral teacher. Or, something less flattering. But you have never seen Him as God’s Servant who was disfigured and marred beyond human likeness for you. In this valley where you find yourself, God wants you to see something you were never told before; He wants you to hear something you have not understood. It is a vision of Himself.
God intervened on our behalf because there was no other way to reconcile us to Himself. When sin came into the picture and into our lives, that sin required forgiveness, God’s forgiveness. We cannot forgive ourselves for our sin against God’s laws. No other person, group or agency can forgive our sin against God. You see, if I sin against you, I can’t forgive myself for sinning against you. Only you can forgive me and no one else. So it is with our sin against God’s law. Only God can forgive us for our transgression against Him.
Now, when I sin against you and you forgive me, you also set the conditions for that forgiveness. Here is an example of how that works. When your child breaks one of your house rules, you set the conditions for moral restoration in your home. You say, “Son, you broke into the cookie jar. Don’t do it again. If you do, it’s no allowance for a week.” Or, “You stayed out past ll P.M. You are grounded for the next ten days.” When those conditions are met, everything is forgiven, the child is restored.
In that respect, God is no different from what we are. However, His laws are not in the cookie jar/curfew dimension. He says that our sin (we have all sinned) makes us unfit for fellowship with Him (we have fallen short of His demands). That is not our judgment, our friend’s judgment, or even the church’s judgment. That is God’s judgment, and that’s the only one that counts. Since our sin is against God’s law, it is only God who can forgive. It is only God who can set down the conditions for restoration.
Moral Failure Requires Divine Pardon
What God said through Isaiah and in other Scriptures is simply this: Your sin is against the infinite, eternal God of Creation. Your sin and that of the entire world, therefore, requires an infinite, eternal sacrifice or atonement. God says: I am the offended Person. I am setting down the conditions for moral restoration in My house (our universe, our solar system and our earth).
Here are My conditions: Since a Divine action is necessary to pardon your moral failure, I am sending My suffering Servant, Jesus, to clear your name and that of everyone else who will accept this pardon. Period! No other way.
Look at how the Apostle John explained it: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (I John 4:9, 10). A person without spiritual life is spiritually dead. Only God can give us spiritual life. So without God’s intervention on our behalf we are unable to generate life much less forgiveness for ourselves.
Another writer put it like this: “When you were dead in your sins . . . God made you alive with Jesus Christ. He forgave all your sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15). Do you sense the strength of that statement? We were dead. That is quite hopeless, isn’t it? Through Jesus, though, God will make us alive. He will forgive all our sins. He will take them all away. He sets up a new way of relating to God.
How has he made that possible? Listen again to Isaiah’s explanation: “We all like sheep have gone astray. Each of us have turned to our own way, but the Lord has laid on him (the suffering Servant) the iniquity us all.” (Isaiah 53:6). When did that happen? Seven hundred years after Isaiah wrote about it. When Jesus the Son of God was nailed to the cross. That is when He took our cup, full of sin and rebellion against God, making it possible for us to receive a cup full of hope and eternal life.
Why the Suffering?
An honest and sincere question frequently asked is, Why the suffering? Why that terrible cup of God’s wrath that the suffering Servant seized from our hand? There is no answer easy for humankind to understand. Even Jesus, as He was contemplating the suffering of the cross and the rejection by mankind and God Himself, struggled as He considered it: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39. Scripture tells us that from creation, Jesus was the Lamb of God, slain for the sin of the world (Revelation 13:8; John 1:29).
Does Isaiah help us understand God’s will for the salvation of mankind? Yes. After Isaiah described the Servant’s suffering, he wrote:
“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him
and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life
a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong
and the will of the Lord will
prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life, and
by his knowledge my righteous servant
will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.”
Isaiah 53:10, 11.
While we may not fully understand God’s ways in providing the Servant, His Son, for our redemption, we know that through it He will be satisfied. Because of the many who will accept God’s sacrifice, the suffering Jesus went through will have been worth it. That is God’s promise and God’s provision. In exchange for our iniquity, He gives us eternal life. Instead of the kingdom of this world, He brings us into the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God
Earlier, we talked about God’s kingdom. Like many of the pictures we have seen in Isaiah, again, there are two applications. We see God’s reign with physical, visible power and authority here on earth. That is the kingdom most frequently visualized and spoken of by the Old Testament prophets.. You will see that kind of kingdom pictured as you read chapters 60-62.
Yet, there is also another kingdom or reign of God which Isaiah unveils. You will see both kingdoms in the following verses:
“The Lord is exalted, for he dwells
he will fill Zion with justice and
He will be the sure foundation
for your times,
a rich store of salvation and wisdom
the fear of the Lord is the key
to this treasure.” Isaiah 33:5, 6.
When Scripture mentions “the fear of the Lord,” we may think it is the same fear we sense when we watch a horror movie. That’s not the meaning here. What Isaiah is describing is the sense of holy reverence and profound awe in our life about God. It is where the human heart reaches up and accepts the scepter of Almighty God as the sovereign in our life. God’s reign comes to earth, one person, one acceptance of His sacrifice and authority at a time. That’s the key to the other kingdom.
Perhaps you have been distressed at being in the valley, even the valley of the shadow of death. However, you are at the place where you are looking for the vision that Isaiah wrote about. Not everyone has reached that point. John the apostle spoke about the choice to be made, then and now. He wrote, “(Jesus) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him . . . Yet to all who received him to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born of God.” John 1:10-13. God has acted; it takes our response to complete the transaction.
The Kingdom in Our Hearts
Jesus expressed it to His disciples when He directed them to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The reign of God, or His kingdom, takes form when we accept His authority and His presence in our lives. That happens when we turn the control, the direction of our life over to God. In exchange for our “deadness” we receive His eternal life. Instead of our own will, we bow to the will of God. He reigns! That is an abrupt, dramatic change, isn’t it? It is a turning around of heart and mind.
God’s Reign in Your Life
When we see how hopeless our condition is and how magnificent is God’s provision for taking away our sin, we can see why Jesus opened His public ministry with a call to repentance. At the Jordan River and across the plains of Judea His proclamation was heard: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17). Yes, you are near God’s kingdom—His reign in your life. It is available to you right now.
You can’t get that close to the suffering Servant without realizing that the pain and agony of the cross was for your sin. Sin is what separated you from God. Jesus’ death is what makes possible restoration and reconciliation. How do you know? The God of all creation has said so. Remember, it’s His universe we are living in. It was His plan from creation. He revealed it to us conclusively through Isaiah’s vision.
What was it that Isaiah said about our sin and our condition? First, he declared, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save nor his ear too dull to hear.” Yes, he says, God is able and willing to bring us into His Kingdom. “But”, Isaiah continues, “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:1, 2). Repenting from what we have done let’s God know that we understand the nature of our separation from Him and the cost of that separation to Him.
Now go to Isaiah, chapter 53 and read what God had Jesus Christ do for you. Some 700 years before the cross of Jesus, Isaiah accurately described His death and what it could mean for you. See what it cost Him. Understand what He wants to free you from. You can begin to realize there is no valley on earth that He cannot deliver you from. Your deepest and darkest valley can become your Valley of Vision. With Isaiah you will say with confidence, “my guilt is taken away, my sin has been atoned for.”
The day you accept the sacrifice of the suffering Servant in your behalf, you will break out in the song that Isaiah wrote for you:
In that day you will say:
“I will praise you, O Lord.
Although you were angry with me,
your anger has turned away
and you have comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation,
I will trust and not be afraid.
The Lord, the Lord is my strength
and my song;
he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water
from the wells of salvation.”
In that day you will say:
“Give thanks to the Lord, call on his
and make known among the nations
what he has done,
and proclaim that his name is
Sing to the Lord, for he has done
let it be known to all in the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of
for great is the Holy One of Israel
among you.” Isaiah 12
Your Valley of Despair has become the Valley of Vision.
The Valley of Vision
God took Isaiah into a valley where he could not see so that He (God) could give Isaiah a vision of Himself. Earlier, I mentioned the pain, suffering, disease, ruin, destruction, famine and sword that we see in the world. In the Valley of Vision, God wants us to see Him. He wants us to understand the suffering that Jesus went through for us. Innocent, sinless and perfect in every way, yet for our sakes, He became the suffering Servant just described.
Does God understand? Does He see your valley of pain and bitterness and the loss you have suffered? Yes, because His Son suffered in a way that far exceeds any human pain. He has been there. And in that valley, He wants you to have a Vision of His presence with you.
Will He take away my cancer, restore my health, give me back my family? He will do all that—in His time. It may be today or in ten years or at the resurrection. In the meantime, He is there with us. And if He is not with us, of what ultimate value is anything else? Losing our soul, Jesus said, is a loss which cannot be made up even if we owned everything within sight in our time. (Luke 9:23-25).
I know we believe that what we accomplish in this lifetime is all important. But, it is the minutest of fractions in comparison to your life after death. The most profound thing about your life is that you will die. That’s not something we like to talk about at the dinner table. Most of us will die of our last illness. Some will die accidentally or even violently. The very week in which I am writing these lines, thirteen people (mostly teenagers) died brutally at the hands of two murderers at a high school in Littleton, Colorado. Regardless of the time or occasion, death is always an unwelcome visitor. But it will find us all.
Is that God’s plan for humanity? Does He bring us into being only to be snuffed out after a few years? No. The fact is that God’s original plan was to have relationship and enjoyment with Him forever. But as we have noted, sin has entered in. Likewise, it is not God’s plan that we become ill. But again, sin has entered into the human race and so illness and deformity of all kinds infect us. If God is offering us His presence and redemption, what is His solution to the problem of evil which inflicts us in the form of sickness?