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Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant

LISTEN: Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant – Part 1 (mp3)

READ: Isaiah 53 – The Suffering Servant (pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 53 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verses:

Isa. 53:5-6 – But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment   for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.  We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.

Quick summary:

Isa. 52:13 – 53:12 make up the fourth Servant Song in which the Servant dies in the place of the guilty to satisfy God’s judgment of sin. Warren Wiersbe (Be Comforted, S. Is 52:13) sees this song unfolding in five parts:

  1. Exaltation – the shocking Servant (Isa. 52:13-15)
  2. Humiliation – the sorrowing Servant (Isa. 53:1-3)
  3. Expiation – the smitten Servant (Isa. 53:4-6)
  4. Resignation – the silent Servant (Isa. 53:7-9)
  5. Vindication – the satisfied Servant (Isa. 53:10-12)

Take note:

Many Jews today reject the notion that Isaiah 53 is a Messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Instead, they say, this chapter is a reference to the nation of Israel, which has suffered great violence throughout history – in Isaiah’s day at the hands of the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, and more recently by the Nazis and the Arab nations that surround modern Israel. But this interpretation is fraught with problems, as Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney explain: “Early Jewish interpretation of this passage understood the ‘servant’ (52:13) to refer to the Messiah. This also was the interpretation by the early church (cf. Acts 8:30–35). Not until the twelfth century was it suggested that the ‘servant’ of Isaiah 53 was the nation of Israel. But the nation of Israel has not suffered innocently (53:9) or willingly (53:7). Nor did Israel’s suffering provide substitutionary atonement (53:5)” (Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, S. 267).

As we will see, this passage is naturally and wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

Despised and Rejected (Isa. 53:1-3)

The chapter opens with a depiction of the Servant as a nondescript “young plant” shooting up out of “dry ground.” When Jesus appears seven centuries later, He is not the Messiah the Jews are expecting – handsome, charismatic, flush with political and military designs for the oppressed nation of Israel. Rather, He is poor and plain, a Galilean carpenter with seemingly little interest in the Romans, who says His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Although His words and works attract great crowds, His appearance does not distinguish Him from other Jewish men. Further, His religious views are at odds with those of the Jewish leaders, and His refusal to be declared king infuriates the political zealots of His day. He is, indeed, a young sprout in barren soil. Warren Wiersbe summarizes Isaiah’s use of horticultural imagery to describe Jesus: “Messiah is the Branch of the Lord (4:2); the remnant is like the stumps of trees chopped down (6:13); the proud nations will be hewn down like trees, but out of David’s seemingly dead stump, the ‘rod of Jesse’ will come (10:33–11:1). Because Jesus Christ is God, He is the ‘root of David’; but because He is man, He is the ‘offspring of David’ (Rev. 22:16)” (Be Comforted, S. Is 53:1).

So how do the people respond to this unlikely Servant? They treat Him as a common slave. They despise Him, reject Him, put a cheap price on His head, and look the other way when he passes by. The apostle John puts it this way: “He was in the world, and the world was created through Him, yet the world did not recognize Him. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11). This Servant does not value the same things the people of His day – or ours – value: wealth (Luke 16:14), prestige (Luke 14:7-14), self-reliance (Luke 18:9-14), and self-indulgence (Matt. 16:21-28; Luke 22:24-27).

But what does the phrase “a man of suffering who knew what sickness was” mean? While it could refer to a sickly person, or one who experiences much pain and illness, more likely it describes the Great Physician who gives Himself to those who are suffering for the purpose of providing relief. This is how Matthew sees it, quoting from Isa. 53:4 in Matt. 8:16-17: “When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. He drove out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick,  so that what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He Himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases.”

Struck Down by God (Isa. 53:4-6)

These verses capture the essence of the sacrificial system and point us to the heart of the gospel: the innocent dying for the guilty for the remission of sins. Just as the blood of spotless animals atone for people’s sins under the Old Covenant, the blood of the sinless Servant, who fulfills the Law, takes away the sin the world (John 1:29). Jesus bears our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), but He also addresses the consequences of Adam’s sin by ministering to people in need. Matthew 8:14-17 applies Isaiah 53:4 to Jesus’ healing ministry, not to His death. Those who apply this passage today and teach that healing from all sickness is a “right” of the believer fail to understand Isaiah’s prophecy and Matthew’s application of it. It is true that the effects of the fall, including illness, will be reversed in our bodies in resurrection and glorification (1 Cor. 15:51-57), as well as in creation in the new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13: Rev. 21-22). But until these promises are fulfilled, believers must understand that we continue to live in this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) in a world that groans beneath the weight of sin (Rom. 8:18-22).

All that the Servant suffers is our fault, and for our benefit: He bears our sicknesses, carries our pains, is pierced for our transgressions, is crushed for our iniquities and heals us by His wounds. Yet we regard Him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted (vv. 4-5). Note the graphic depiction of the Servant’s suffering. He is “pierced because of our transgressions.” Nails pierce His hands and feet (Ps. 22:16; Luke 24:39-40), and a spear pierces His side (Zech. 12:10; John 19:31-27; Rev. 1:7). This is not a Jewish form of execution. Isaiah foresees a Roman crucifixion centuries before it is introduced. The Servant also is “crushed,” not physically because not a bone of Jesus is broken, but in His soul and spirit as He who knows no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He is punished for our peace. The only way a lawbreaker may be at peace with the law is to be innocent or to pay the penalty the law requires. Jesus is innocent, yet pays the penalty for our sins so that we may stand blameless before God (see Rom. 5:1, 8:1). Finally, the Servant heals our wounds. The reference to healing in verse 5 concerns sin, as Peter makes clear (1 Peter 2:24). Sin is sometimes compared to sickness that only God can cure (Isa. 1:4-6; Jer. 30:12; Nahum 3:19).

Isaiah refers to our sin as “transgression” and “iniquity.” Transgression means rebellion against God, deliberately crossing the line He has established. “Iniquity” refers to our sin nature, our natural tendency to live independently of God. In other words, the prophet understands that we are sinners by nature and by choice. In verse 6, he compares us to sheep that are prone to wander. “By nature, we are born children of wrath (Eph. 2:3); and by choice, we become children of disobedience (2:2). Under the Law of Moses, the sheep died for the shepherd; but under grace, the Good Shepherd died for the sheep (John 10:1–18)” (Wiersbe, S. Is 53:4).

Silent as a Lamb (Isa. 53:7-9)

As a slave is silent before his master, even though wrongly accused, the Servant does not speak in His own defense. This is fulfilled beautifully in Jesus, who is silent before Caiaphas (Matt. 26:62–63), the chief priests and elders (27:12), Pilate (27:14; John 19:9) and Herod (Luke 23:9). He holds his tongue while Roman soldiers mock and beat him (1 Peter 2:21–23). This humble endurance intrigues the Ethiopian eunuch as he reads the account in Isaiah (Acts 8:26–40). Is the Servant powerless? Is He somehow deserving of this treatment? Has He nothing to say in His own defense? Couldn’t He argue the unfairness – the illegality – of this judicial charade? What has He done? He has done no violence, nor has He spoken deceitfully (v. 9). So why does He remain silent in the face of this monstrous injustice? Perhaps Jesus answers it best: “Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). Anything He says in His own defense could lead to the release Pilate is inclined to grant. But escaping the cross negates His very mission. Therefore, His silence secures His death, for which He came into the world. “He was willingly led to death because He knew it would benefit those who would believe” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1108).

The Servant is compared to a lamb, a frequent symbol of the Savior in Scripture. A lamb dies at Passover for the sins of the household (Ex. 12:1-13). The Servant dies for His people, the nation of Israel (v. 8). Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Nearly 30 times in Revelation alone, Jesus is called the Lamb.

A victim of execution on a cross knows his corpse most likely will be left unburied. Yet the Romans release Jesus’ body to Joseph and Nicodemus, who bury Him nearby. There are two key facts to note here. First, the Romans never would have given Joseph Jesus’ body if the Servant were not dead (Mark 15:42-47; John 19:38-42). Second, Joseph, a wealthy man, never would have chosen an execution site for his own burial, especially when he lived so far away. What’s the explanation? The Lord planned it this way and gave us a unique prophecy through Isaiah that is fulfilled magnificently in Christ.

Joyful in Submission (Isa. 53:10-12)

The last three verses of this chapter reveal the cross from God’s perspective. Even though wicked men crucify Jesus, God planned His death long ago for the redemption of mankind (Acts 2:22-23; Rev. 13:8). There is a secret to the Servant’s death that Isaiah reveals: It pleases the Lord. “[T]he Lord was pleased to crush Him,” reads verse 10, and we later learn the Messiah is pleased to be crushed. He comes to do the Father’s will, not His own (John 6:38; Heb. 10:7, 9), and “for the joy that lay before Him” endures the cross (Heb. 12:2). In addition, the Lord makes the Servant sick, meaning He not only bears our sins but partakes in sin’s consequences. This seems unreasonable to the unbeliever, but it is an essential truth that spurs deep gratitude in the hearts of those who trust in Christ.

But even better news than the Servant’s death is that the Lord “will prolong His days” (v. 10), meaning He will be raised from the dead and live forever. Jesus’ words in John 11:25 prove the value of this truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.” Jesus is obedient to the point of death, and in His obedience defeats Satan and his works, claims the spoils and is highly exalted by the Father (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:8-10). His obedience also results in a spiritual family: “He will see His seed … My righteous servant will justify many … I will give Him the many as a portion” (vv. 10-12).

There also is satisfaction in these verses. The Servant’s obedience satisfies the heart of the Father. But even more, His sacrificial death satisfies the law of God. Warren Wiersbe explains: “The theological term for this is ‘propitiation’ (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). In pagan religions, the word meant ‘to offer a sacrifice to placate an angry god’; but the Christian meaning is much richer. God is angry at sin because it offends His holiness and violates His holy Law. In His holiness, He must judge sinners; but in His love, He desires to forgive them. God cannot ignore sin or compromise with it, for that would be contrary to His own nature and Law. How did God solve the problem? The Judge took the place of the criminals and met the just demands of His own holy Law! ‘He was numbered with the transgressors’ and even prayed for them (Isa. 53:12; Luke 22:37; 23:33–34). The Law has been satisfied, and God can now graciously forgive all who will receive His Son” (S. Is 53:10).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry writes: “When men brought bulls and goats as sacrifices for sin they made them offerings, for they had an interest in them, God having put them under the feet of man. But Christ made himself an offering; it was his own act and deed. We could not put him in our stead, but he put himself, and said, Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 53:10).

Isaiah 50: A Case against God

Listen: A Case against God (mp3)

Read: A Case against God (pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 50 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 50:8 – The One who justifies Me is near; who will contend with Me? Let us confront each other. Who has a case against Me? Let him come near Me!

Quick summary:

This chapter is a contrast between two servants: faithless Israel and the faithful Messiah. Israel has failed God, not because He divorced the nation but because, in effect, the nation divorced Him. By contrast, the faithful Servant humbly learns from Yahweh and even endures persecution in carrying out His will. Ultimately, Israel must choose: The people can walk in God’s light or in the light of their own campfires, which already are only temporary comforts.

Take note:

The suffering of the Servant in verse 6 is a stunningly accurate portrait of Jesus’ physical torment at the hands of His Roman executioners. In obedience to the Father and for the sake of lost humanity, Jesus willingly endures flogging, scorn and spitting. Compare the elements of this verse with the New Testament fulfillments:

  • “I gave my back to those who beat Me …” (Matt. 27:26; Luke 22:63; John 19:1)
  • “My cheeks to those who tore out My beard” (while there is no specific reference to this in the Gospels, it is likely the Roman guards carried this out as a way to produce pain and humiliation; to pluck the hair is the highest insult against an Oriental)
  • “I did not hide My face from scorn and spitting” (Matt. 26:67; Mark 14:65, 15:19; John 19:3)
  • Yet the Servant does not strike back, knowing “the Lord God will help Me” (v. 7; see 1 Peter 2:22-23).

The Correction of Israel (Isa. 50:1-3)

Judah’s captivity in Babylon is a direct result of the people’s sins, and the Lord illustrates this truth in two ways. First, He compares the nation to a divorced woman. According to Mosaic Law, the husband could give his wife a divorce certificate detailing her faults and she would have to leave the home (Deut. 24:1). Judah has so transgressed its covenant relationship with Yahweh that He is compelled to send her away. Second, the Lord compares the Jews to children being sold into indentured servitude because of a great debt (see Ex. 21:7; 2 Kings 4:1; Neh. 5:5).

Yet there is another way of looking at these verses. Since Yahweh is posing two questions – “Where is your mother’s divorce certificate?” and “[W]ho were My creditors that I sold you to?” – it’s possible that He is assuring the people that He has not completely written them off or abandoned them because of their sins. In fact, this perspective is more in line with the whole of Isaiah. While the people have indulged in grievous sins and the nation has turned a cold shoulder to Yahweh, the Lord must discipline them as an act of love but will fulfill His promises to them. The Babylonian captivity is but for a time; it will not last forever.

In verse 2, the Lord reminds the people that their rejection of Him is unreasonable. He has sent the prophets and performed miracles among them, yet like an unfaithful wife the nation has preferred idolatry and social injustice. If only the people would call to Him in repentance. “Is My hand too short to redeem?” He asks, using Oriental imagery of weakness. “Or do I have no power to deliver?” Of course He does. He dries up the sea by his rebuke, a reference to His work in the exodus (Ex. 14:21). He turns rivers into wilderness, perhaps an indication of the coming disaster for Israel’s wealthy and powerful enemies. He causes the enemies’ fish to rot, a reminder of His judgment on the Egyptians (Ex. 7:18, 21). And He dresses the heavens in black, another of Yahweh’s judgments on the Egyptians (Ex. 10:21). In short, the people are responsible for their sins and deserve divine discipline, yet their gracious and all-powerful God will remain faithful to His promise never to forsake them.

The Obedient Servant (Isa. 50:4-9)

The Lord teaches the Servant to comfort the weary, and the Servant obediently carries out His will. From a New Testament perspective, we can see that Jesus, the Suffering Servant, comes to do the Father’s will (see, for example, Matt. 26:39, 42) and in His humanity learns obedience (Heb. 5:8). Jesus provides comfort through His teaching, miracles and physical presence among the outcast. He willingly endures hardship, including rejection, false trials, mocking, scourging, slapping and crucifixion. Undeserving of any of this, He walks through His ministry with His face set toward Jerusalem and a destiny with death. Ultimately, He knows He will be vindicated (through His resurrection and exaltation to the Father’s right hand) and sit in judgment over those who have rejected Him.

Four times in this passage the Servant uses the name “Lord God.” Coming from the Hebrew Yahweh Adonai, this name may be translated “Sovereign Lord.” According to Robert B. Girdlestone, the name means that “God is the owner of each member of the human family, and that he consequently claims the unrestricted obedience of all” (Synonyms of the Old Testament, p. 34). So the emphasis in this passage is the Servant’s willing submission to the Lord in every aspect of His life and ministry.

Warren Wiersbe notes that the Servant’s mind and will are yielded to the Lord. His mind is submitted so that He may learn the Word and will of the Father. Everything Jesus says and does is taught to Him by the Father (John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 8:28). He prays to the Father for guidance and meditates on His Word (Mark 1:35; John 11:42). At the same time, His will is submitted so that those who see Him see the Father (John 14:9). The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day are neither willing nor obedient, but the Servant models perfect yieldedness to the Lord God even though His obedience results in severe persecution and even death (Matt. 26:67; 27:26, 30-31).

Finally, it’s vital to remember that the Servant, though divine, operates on faith while ministering on earth. “Keep in mind that when Jesus Christ was ministering here on earth, He had to live by faith even as we must today. He did not use His divine powers selfishly for Himself but trusted God and depended on the power of the Spirit” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Comforted, An Old Testament Study, S. Is 50:4).

The Challenge to Israel (Isa. 50:10-11)

This chapter closes with an exhortation from the Servant to follow His example: “Who among you fears the Lord, listening to the voice of His servant?” Jesus lays down a similar challenge when He says, “Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Me” (John 5:23b; see also Luke 10:16b). The Servant reminds his listeners that even the godly sometimes face dark moments and must trust in the Lord. Consider Jesus who, while bearing our sin debt on the cross, cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matt. 27:46b). “[T]he servant of God is never wholly without ‘light.’ A godly man’s way may be dark, but his end shall be peace and light. A wicked man’s way may be bright, but his end shall be utter darkness (Ps 112:4; 97:11; 37:24)” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, S. Is 50:10).

In contrast to the godly, the wicked face the darkness, not by trusting in God, but by trusting in themselves. They kindle fires and set ablaze firebrands (pieces of burning wood), walking in their manmade light that all too quickly becomes extinguished. Those who reject God’s light, preferring their own schemes, will “lie down in a place of torment” (v. 11). King Solomon once wrote, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it is the way of death” (Prov. 16:7), and one day Jesus will tell even those who claim the name of Jesus but seek salvation their own way, “I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:23).

The stark yet simple truth is that salvation is found only in the Lord and His Servant. Jesus proclaims, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Peter echoes this truth with these words, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). For those who reject the truth – and the Author of truth – there is a place of everlasting separation from God (Luke 16:23, 28; Rev. 20:13-15; 21:8).

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry comments: “Those that make the world their comfort, and their own righteousness their confidence, will certainly meet with a fatal disappointment, which will be bitterness in the end. A godly man’s way may be melancholy, but his end shall be peace and everlasting light. A wicked man’s way may be pleasant, but his end and endless abode will be utter darkness” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume,  S. Is 50:10).

Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips

Isaiah 43: Walk Through the Fire

Isaiah 43: Walk Through the Fire (audio file / mp3)

Isaiah 43: Walk Through the Fire (study notes and work sheet / pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 43 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance and the worldwide impact of the coming of Messiah.

Key verse:

Isa. 43:2 – I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and [when you pass] through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you.

Quick summary:

Despite Judah’s unfaithfulness, God promises to restore the nation after the Babylonian captivity.  The people are not to fear because the Lord created them, loves them and will carry out His promises to them. Just as God led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea, He will bring them out of Babylon, across the desert and safely back into their homeland. As a result, the people will witness to the world that He is the one true God and only Savior.

Take note:

The Lord repeatedly rehearses His uniqueness as the only true God. For the Jews, this is both a reminder and a prophetic prompt. The Babylonian captivity will finally cure the people of their idolatry, although it will take a spiritual revival in the last days to fully draw the redeemed of Israel into declaring worldwide the wonder of the Holy One of Israel and the salvation of the Messiah. Note how the Lord describes Himself to the people in this chapter:

  • “I [am] the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Savior” (v. 3).
  • “I am He. No god was formed before Me, and there will be none after Me” (v. 10).
  • “I, I am the Lord, and there is no other Savior but Me” (v. 11).
  • “I alone declared, saved, and proclaimed … I am God” (v. 12).
  • “I am He [alone] … I act, and who can reverse it?” (v. 13).
  • “I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, Your King” (v. 15).
  • “It is I who sweep away your transgressions for My own sake and remember your sins no more” (v. 25).

The Restoration of Israel (Isa. 43:1-7)

“These verses give Israel in eloquent detail the assurance Christ gives to his church, that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” writes D.A. Carson (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 43:1). Raging waters, scorching fires, brutal enemies and great distances will not prevent the Lord’s people from obtaining their inheritance. For the Jews in Isaiah’s day, this means a return to Israel and a rebuilding of the temple following the Babylonian captivity, and ultimately the coming of the Messiah. For the church, it means an irrevocable citizenship in the kingdom of heaven based on the finished work of Christ and the promise of His glorious return one day. All of this is assured, not because of human righteousness, but because of the faithfulness of the covenant-keeping Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah reminds the Jews of some of the strands that bind them to God: creation, redemption and calling (verse 1); the Lord’s omnipresence (verse 2); love (verse 4); adoption (verse 6); and the honor of His name (verse 7). This unique relationship between God and His people is pictured in the bold image of a human ransom. Nations fall and people are displaced to make way for Israel (verses 3-4, 14). God is not unjust to act this way for all the world’s people have rejected Him and gone their own way. In choosing Israel, the Lord demonstrates His sovereignty and grace. Even more important, whatever the nations lose to Israel is more than compensated in the ransom Israel’s Messiah would pay for the sins of the world, bringing into the kingdom people of every “tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

The Response of Israel (Isa. 43:8-13)

The Lord invites Israel, still spiritually blind and deaf, to stand before the nations as a witness of His uniqueness as the one true and living God. He challenges the nations to present witnesses. Can they point to past prophecies, made by their seers, which came true? Can they predict the

future? Of course not (see Isa. 41:21-23). In contrast, Israel, as God’s chosen servant, takes the stand and testifies that no god was formed before the Holy One of Israel, and there will be none after Him (v. 10). The Lord reminds His people, “‘I, I am the Lord, and there is no other Savior but Me. I alone declared, saved, and proclaimed – and not some foreign god among you. So you are My witnesses’ – the Lord’s declaration – ‘and I am God’” (Isa. 43:11-12). The Lord’s deliverance of Israel shows He is the true God. No one can successfully oppose Him or thwart His plans.

The name “Savior” is one God gives Himself in this passage and Isaiah uses frequently throughout his writings. For example, the Lord is “the God of your salvation” in Isa. 17:10; “God of Israel, Savior” in 45:15; “a righteous God and Savior” in 45:21; “Savior and Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” in 60:16; and “your salvation” in 62:11. No foreign god can duplicate His wondrous works. No deity fashioned out of metal, wood or stone is able to save the people God created for His pleasure, purpose and glory.

Twice in this section the Lord calls the citizens of Judah “My witnesses.” Warren Wiersbe writes, “[I]t is in the history of Israel that God has revealed Himself to the world. Frederick the Great asked the Marquis D’Argens, ‘Can you give me one single irrefutable proof of God?’ The Marquis replied, ‘Yes, your majesty, the Jews’” (Be Comforted, S. Is 41:1). Matthew Henry notes that the Lord shows Himself as God by two proofs in this passage: “[1.] He has infinite and infallible knowledge, as is evident from the predictions of his word (v. 12) … [2.] He has an infinite and irresistible power, as is evident from the performances of his providence…. The cause of God is not afraid to stand a fair trial; but it may reasonably be expected that those who cannot justify themselves in their irreligion should submit to the power of the truth and true religion” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 43:8).

The Routing of Babylon (Isa. 43:14-21)

By God’s grace and for Israel’s sake, the Lord promises to destroy Babylon and deliver the Jews from captivity. Even though Assyria is the threat in Isaiah’s day, and Babylon is pursued as an ally, this powerful kingdom to the east will rise up and do to Judah what the Assyrians could not – conquer Jerusalem and destroy the temple. Even so, once God’s use of the Babylonians as His rod of punishment is completed, He will defeat Judah’s foes and bring His people home. This deliverance is the backdrop against which a greater work of God will be accomplished in the sending of Messiah and His redemption on the cross. As D.A. Carson writes, “For its real fulfillment we must look beyond the modest homecomings from Babylon of the sixth and fifth centuries bc, although these are certainly in view, to the exodus which the Son of God accomplished at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31; cf. 1 Cor. 10:4, 11), which alone justifies the language of this and kindred passages” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 43:1).

In verses 16-17, Isaiah alludes to God’s deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian captivity and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. The exodus is a standing illustration of God’s unchanging character toward His people and a reminder to the church today that the Lord is directing human history to its ultimate conclusion in the destruction of His enemies and the deliverance of His people into “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” (2 Peter 3:13). The works that God will yet do for His people are so wonderful, they will not remember the sins God already has forgotten or “the past events” such as the defeat of Sennacherib or the return from exile in Babylon (v. 18). The apostle Paul, quoting Isaiah 52 and 64, gives Christians a similar glimpse of the future when he writes, “What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man’s heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).

The Rebellion of Israel (Isa. 43:22-28)

With the temple destroyed and the nation exiled under Babylonian rule, the Jews in the coming days will not be able to offer atoning sacrifices. Nevertheless, their gracious God promises to forgive their mounting sins. “It is I who sweep away your transgressions for My own sake and remember your sins no more,” the Lord says in verse 25. At the same time, the people should not lose sight of why they’re going into captivity in the first place: “Jacob, you have not called on Me … Israel, you have become weary of Me … you have burdened Me with your sins; you have wearied Me with your iniquities” (vv. 22, 24).

Matthew Henry takes note of five sins of omission in this passage. The people have 1) “cast off prayer;” 2) “grown weary of their religion;” 3) “grudged the expense of their devotion;” 4) not honored God with their sacrifices, “and so they were, in effect, as no sacrifices;” and 5) “aggravated their neglect of sacrificing” because God had not made it a burden for them  (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 43:22).

Even though the Lord will forgive Judah, He must discipline them. He invites the people to court and urges them to state their case. He then offers His evidence against them. Their “first father” sinned and their “mediators” rebelled against God. The “first father” is Adam (see Hosea 6:7), Abraham, or possibly Jacob. If Adam, then the point is that his sin nature was passed to all people (Rom. 5:12). If Abraham, then even the father of the Jewish race was in need of a Redeemer. If Jacob, then God is reminding the people that even their ancestors were sinful and fallen men. In addition, the “mediators” – the priests and prophets – have rebelled against God and failed to lead the people to live in a manner pleasing to Him. Therefore, God is going to punish the nation at the hands of Babylon.

Closing Thought

God’s chosen people should never presume upon His grace. While we are the recipients of the “richness of His grace” (Eph. 1:7), we also are the receivers of the full weight of His divine discipline when we fail to “walk worthy of God” (1 Thess. 2:12). D.A. Carson comments: “Israel’s devastating response to divine ardor is a yawn of apathy. No rebuff could be worse … The final thrust [v. 28] is deadly, for destruction is the Hebrew term herem, reserved for such objects of judgment as Jericho or the Amalekites, with whom no compromise was to be endured. It is the strongest term in the language” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 43:22).

Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips

Isaiah 42: The Islands Will Wait

Isaiah 42: The Islands Will Wait (audio / mp3)

Isaiah 42: The Islands Will Wait (study notes and worksheet / pdf)


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment Part 2: Historical Interlude Part 3: Salvation
Chapters 1-35 Chapters 36-39 Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 42 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance and the worldwide impact of the coming of Messiah.

Key verses:

Isa. 42:6-8 – “I, the Lord, have called you for a righteous [purpose], and I will hold you by your hand. I will keep you, and I make you a covenant for the people [and] a light to the nations, in order to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, [and] those sitting in darkness from the prison house. I am Yahweh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, or My praise to idols.”

Quick summary:

Isaiah introduces the first of his “Servant Songs” referring to the Messiah (vv. 1-17). Israel is called the Lord’s servant a number of times (for example Isa. 41:8; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) and so is the Messiah (49:3, 5-7; 50:10; 52:13; 53:11). The context and the characteristics of the servant in these passages determine which one Isaiah intends. “Israel as God’s servant was supposed to help bring the world to a knowledge of God, but she failed. So the Messiah, the Lord’s Servant, who epitomizes the nation of Israel, will fulfill God’s will” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1095). Israel, blind and deaf to God’s law, is unable to fulfill the servant’s role (vv. 18-25), and thus it will be left to the promised Messiah.

Take note:

The “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (42:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13ff; and 53:1-12) refer to different aspects of the Messiah’s ministry. The first depicts Him as the key that unlocks the captives’ chains. The second tells us His mission calls for suffering. The third points to His ultimate exaltation. And the fourth graphically portrays the Servant’s crucifixion.

“These servant songs not only display Christ in His essential beauty, but also serve to model the nature of all servanthood. Anyone who serves God must (a) have a desire to do so, (b) remain humble before others and dependent on the Lord, (c) be committed to winning others’ release from sin’s grip, (d) accept personal suffering, and (e) rely completely on God for guidance and strength (Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., 1996, S. 432).

The Servant’s Mission (Isa. 42:1-9)

The opening verses of this chapter clearly identify “My Servant” as a person and not the nation of Israel. The Lord calls Him “My Chosen One” and declares, “I have put My Spirit on Him” (v. 1). Matt. 12:18-21 quotes Isa. 42:1-4 and relates this passage to Jesus and His ministry to Israel. As the Lord’s Servant, He does what Israel could never do: perfectly carry out the will of Yahweh so that people everywhere believe in the Holy One of Israel. “Servant” is the position assumed by Jesus during His earthly ministry. He is chosen from the foundation of the world for the redemption of mankind (1 Peter 1:20; Rev. 13:8). Salvation is in the mind of God from eternity past and stretches into eternity future; it should never be seen as Alpha and Omega’s “Plan B” or an afterthought by a Creator who finds Himself backed into a corner by one of His creatures.

Because the Lord created the heavens and the earth and gives breath to all people, He is sovereign over the universe and is able to assist His Servant. Yahweh assures Him of several promises: His calling for a righteous purpose; His help from the Lord; His fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel; His role as light to the Gentiles; and His deliverance of people from spiritual darkness and bondage. Although Cyrus will release the Jewish people from captivity in Babylon, the Lord’s Servant will free mankind from captivity in Satan’s kingdom. As Jesus declares, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Later, the apostle Paul writes, “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Col. 1:13). The lost are spiritually blind and in darkness, but Jesus is sent to open their eyes and give them light (see John 8:12; 9:39-41).

Yahweh, Israel’s covenant-keeping God, makes these promises and refuses to let idols take the credit for their fulfillment. His people are called to remember all that the Lord has done for them and be assured that what He has promised will most certainly come to pass. Yahweh’s statement in verse 8 is especially important in the context of His relationship with His Servant, for if God will not give His glory to another, then Jesus’ claim to deity must either be true or blasphemy. Clearly it is true. Jesus not only claims to be God and demonstrates the authority of God by casting out demons, healing illnesses, controlling the world’s natural elements, raising the dead and forgiving sins; He also longs for the day when His work of redemption is complete and He returns to His glorified position at the Father’s right hand (John. 17:5).

A Song of Praise (Isa. 42:10-17)

Outburts of singing are frequent in Isaiah, and the songs of praise recorded here, as well as in Isa. 44:23; 49:13; 52:9 and other places are similar to Psalms 93 and 95-100 in theme and language. People everywhere are urged to sing and shout the praises of the Lord, who is victorious over His enemies at Messiah’s second coming. A “new song” (v. 10) is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament (Ps. 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9) and twice in Revelation (5:9 and 14:3) – always in the context of worship and specifically in Revelation in worship of the exalted Messiah, who has redeemed people by His blood from every tribe, language, people and nation. This new song is “called for by a new manifestation of God’s grace, to express which no hymn for former mercies would be appropriate” (Robert Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, S. Is 42:10).

The mention of Kedar and Sela is noteworthy. Kedar is the second son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13). He fathered a nomadic people in the northern Arabian Peninsula. Sela, or Petra, is in modern Jordan and defines people who carved their dwelling places out of rock. While the people of Kedar and Edom are at times Israel’s enemies, they will join their Jewish neighbors in praising the King of kings. The references to Kedar and Sela also may symbolize the world’s people who wander or remain in fixed locations. They, along with seafarers, desert dwellers and urbanites will join the chorus of nations to sing the Lord’s praise “from the ends of the earth” (v. 10).

The Lord is praised as He “advances like a warrior” and “prevails over His enemies” (v. 13). Silent for so long that people question whether He will come at all (see 2 Peter 3:3-4), He now “shouts” and “roars” (v. 13), laying waste the nations that reject Him and rescuing those who have waited patiently for His justice. It is interesting to note that the Lord groans “like a woman in labor” (v. 14). Earlier in the writings of Isaiah, the prophet says the day is coming when the Babylonians will be “in anguish like a woman in labor” (Isa. 13:8). This is just a foretaste of rebellious sinners’ plight in the coming Day of the Lord. So why, in this passage, does Messiah groan like a woman in labor? “Like a woman in parturition, who, after having restrained her breathing for a time, at last, overcome with labor pain, lets out her voice with a panting sigh; so Jehovah will give full vent to His long pent-up wrath” (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Is 42:14).

Finally, those who trust in idols rather than the living God will be “turned back [and] utterly ashamed” (v. 17). Their confidence in “metal-plated images” will come to naught. They will be ashamed that they ever said to inanimate objects, “You are our gods!” As the psalmist writes, “All who serve carved images, those who boast in idols, will be put to shame” (Ps. 97:7).

Israel’s Blindness and Deafness (Isa. 42:18-25)

Isaiah closes this chapter with a message about Israel’s sin and the suffering that results from it. We need to understand that “My servant” in verse 19 is not the Messiah, as in verse 1, but the nation of Israel. The people will not listen to or see what God has done. In fact they cannot listen or see because in their persistent rebellion they have stopped up their ears and closed their eyes. More than 700 years later the hardness of Israel’s heart is personified in the people’s refusal to receive Messiah’s message of the kingdom of heaven. Quoting from Isaiah 6, Jesus tells His followers that He uses parables, in part, to confound the self-righteous religionists: “For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them” (Matt. 13:13-15).

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is equally direct in his defense before the high priest: “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your forefathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51). What was the people’s response?  “Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him” (Acts 7:57). Later, the apostle Paul, quoting Isa. 29:10, notes that Israel’s rebellion is so complete that God has sealed all but the believing remnant in their hardness: “[A]s it is written: God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear, to this day” (Rom. 11:8).

Isaiah is clear that the fault lies, not with the Lord, but with His people: “The Lord was pleased, because of His righteousness, to magnify [His] instruction and make it glorious” (Isa. 42:21). But the people will not receive the Lord or His instruction. As a consequence, they are “plundered and looted,” “trapped in holes or imprisoned in dungeons” (v. 22). Who gives Jacob to the robber and Israel to the plunderer? “Was it not the Lord? … So He poured out on Jacob His furious anger and the power of war” (vv. 24-25). Even so, Israel is oblivious. “It surrounded him with fire, but he did not know [it]; it burned him, but he paid no attention” (v. 25).

Closing Thought

Judah’s coming captivity in Babylon will turn the people’s feet but not necessarily their hearts back to the Lord. They will cease their idolatry and return to their homeland yet fail to be fully transformed, waiting for God to grant them a “heart of flesh” in the last days (Ezek. 11:19). Lest we be too harsh in our judgment of the Jews, it’s helpful to note the all-too-frequent impact of God’s chastening on Christian lives today. His rod of discipline often succeeds in curbing sinful behavior but not reforming the heart. The fault is not the Lord’s, who punishes His own as a loving Father (see Heb. 12:3-13). Rather, the fault lies with us when we choose to stubbornly endure rebuke rather than tenderly embrace our Savior.

Warren Wiersbe comments: “How sad it is when God disciplines us and we do not understand what He is doing or take it to heart (v. 25). Israel’s captivity in Babylon cured the nation of their idolatry, but it did not create within them a desire to please God and glorify Him” (Be Comforted, S. Is 41:1).

Copyright 2010 by Rob Phillips

Isaiah 24: The Earth Mourns and Withers

Listen to “The Earth Mourns and Withers” (4.19.09)

Worksheet for Isaiah 24

Chart: The Tribulation and the Millennium – 4 Views


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Isaiah 24-27 forms a single prophecy. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the time in which it is given, it seems best to place it a short time before the attack by Sennacherib, king of Assyria, on Jerusalem in 701 B.C.

Key verses:

Isa. 24:21-22 – On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven above and kings of the earth below. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit. They will be confined to a dungeon; after many days they will be punished.

Quick summary:

This section of Isaiah begins with an end-times perspective explaining how the Lord will judge the whole world and set up His kingdom on earth (Isa. 24:1-3, 19-23). “These prophecies reveal how God will finally deal with the rebellious nations of chaps. 13-23 so that he can bring an end to the pride and violent sinfulness that has polluted the earth. God will destroy the wicked and establish peace on the earth, and then the holy people who remain will worship God alone and sing songs to exalt him” (Gary V. Smith, The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 405). Because of their description of the Tribulation and Millennium, chapters 24-27 are known as “Isaiah’s apocalypse.”

Take note:

Notice Isaiah’s description of end-time events that are reinforced in New Testament prophecies. For example, the earth will be stripped completely bare and its inhabitants scattered (vv. 1-3; cf. Rev. 8:6 – 9:21), and the sun and moon will darken in preparation for the full revelation of Messiah’s kingdom (v. 23; cf. Matt. 24:29-30; Rev. 21:23).

The Tribulation (Isa. 24:1-13, 16b-22)

While the immediate context of this chapter may refer to the Assyrian invasion of Judah, or to the Babylonian captivity that will occur more than 100 years later, it seems to have its ultimate fulfillment in the Great Tribulation yet to come. H.L. Willmington offers the following observations:

A. The Great Tribulationwhat it is (24:1-4, 6-13, 16b-22)

1.   God himself will lay waste to the entire earth (24:1): The earth will become a great wasteland, and the people will be scattered.

2.    All people and fallen angels will be judged (24:2-4, 21-22): No one will be spared from God’s wrath, and the fallen angels will be put in prison.

3.   Very few will survive (24:6): A curse will consume the earth and its people, who will be destroyed by fire.

4.   Happiness will no longer exist (24:7-13): All joy in life will be gone.

5.   Evil and treachery will be everywhere (24:16b-18): People possessed by sheer terror will flee from one danger only to be confronted with something even more horrifying.

6.   The earth will stagger like a drunkard (24:19-20): It will fall and collapse like a tent, unable to rise again because of the weight of its sins.

B. The Great Tribulationwhy it occurs (24:5): Humanity has twisted the laws of God and has broken his holy commands (The Outline Bible, S. Is 24:5).

Isaiah uses the word “earth” 16 times in this chapter to emphasize the global impact of God’s intervention in human affairs, wielding judgment and exalting His glory. No stratum of society is spared and no portion of the earth escapes unscathed. The reason for God’s plundering of the earth is provided in verse 5: “The earth is polluted by its inhabitants, for they have transgressed teachings, overstepped decrees, and broken the everlasting covenant.” That covenant “probably refers not to the Abrahamic or Mosaic Covenants but to the covenant people implicitly had with God to obey His Word. Right from the very beginning mankind refused to live according to God’s Word (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:1-6; cf. Hosea 6:7). And throughout history people have refused to obey God’s revelation” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1072). Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney add, “The ‘everlasting covenant’ must refer to the moral law of God revealed in his word and written in man’s heart (cf. Rom. 2:14-15)” (Tyndale Concise Bible Dictionary, S 263).

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that God is the one wreaking havoc on the earth. While people are responsible for their sinful actions, and these actions often produce great hardship for the perpetrators and for others in the process, the Lord of Hosts clearly is demonstrating His holiness and power in events that otherwise might be interpreted as a scorched-earth policy. After all, if God created the present heavens and earth out of chaos (Gen. 1:2) and judged the earth by water in the great flood (Gen. 6-9), He has every right to judge mankind’s sin in the latter days by reintroducing chaos to the created order. Ultimately, He will purge the heavens and earth of the last vestiges of sin by fire and create new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:5-13; Rev. 21-22). Even the imagery of Isaiah in verse 18 harkens back to the flood: “For the windows are opened from above, and the foundations of the earth are shaken” (cf. Gen. 7:11).

Matthew Henry summarizes well:

The Lord that made the earth, and made it fruitful and beautiful, for the service and comfort of man, now makes it empty and waste (v. 1), for its Creator is and will be its Judge; he has an incontestable right to pass sentence upon it and an irresistible power to execute that sentence. It is the Lord that has spoken this word, and he will do the work (v. 3); it is his curse that has devoured the earth (v. 6), the general curse which sin brought upon the ground for man’s sake (Gen. 3:17), and all the particular curses which families and countries bring upon themselves by their enormous wickedness. See the power of God’s curse, how it makes all empty and lays all waste; those whom he curses are cursed indeed (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 24:1).

One final note should be made before moving on. Isaiah writes that the Lord will punish “the host of heaven above and the kings of the earth below” (v. 21). The “host of heaven” may refer to the spiritual forces opposed to God, specifically Satan and demons. The “kings of the earth below” no doubt are the earthly political forces facing God’s judgment. “Those powers in the heavens and on the earth will become like cattle when the Lord herds them together and places them like prisoners . . . in a dungeon. Their punishment after many days refers to the great white throne judgment after the Millennium when all the unrighteous will have to stand before God and be judged for their evil deeds and lack of faith in Him (Rev. 20:11-15)” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, S. 1:1072).

The Promised Kingdom (Isa. 24:14-16a, 23)

A few will escape these terrible judgments, just as a few olives or grapes may be gleaned after the harvest (v. 13). The survivors will rejoice, raising their voices in songs of praise that may be heard from “the ends of the earth” (v. 16). This singing seems to come out of the scattered remnant, which in the light of the gospel may be seen as Jews and Gentiles alike (cf. John 11:52). “Out of this terrible devastation … will come the glorious light of Christ in his millennial kingdom (24:23; see 60:19-20; Rev. 21:23; 22:5)” (Willmington’s Bible Handbook, S. 365). If the sun and moon are to lose their luster in comparison with the Messiah, what a surpassing vision of glory awaits all who trust in Him (see Rev. 21:22-27).

It’s important to keep in mind that the concept of a remnant is central to Isaiah’s teaching (see Isa. 1:9; 10:20-22; 11:11, 16; 14:22, 30). The believing remnant will view the earth’s devastation as the righteous act of a holy God; it will not be viewed in the way the people of Isaiah’s day see the Assyrian invasion – as cruel and unjust punishment. Those who receive Christ by faith today may joyfully anticipate His future physical and visible manifestation of power, glory and holiness.

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry writes: “Those who through grace can glory in tribulation ought to glorify God in tribulation, and give him thanks for their comforts, which abound as their afflictions do abound. We must in every fire, even the hottest, in every isle, even the remotest, keep up our good thoughts of God. When, though he slay us, yet we trust in him-when, though for his sake we are killed all the day long, yet none of these things move us-then we glorify the Lord in the fires” (S. Is 24:13).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips