This post continues a series of extracts from a draft chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 (forthcoming, d.v.). Read the series.
The Suffering Servant
God’s Servant reappears in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This passage is of great significance because in it the Holy Spirit puts emphasis not on the reign of Messiah (if I may at this place call Him that), but upon His sufferings. It is a singular fact that the Old Testament prophecies are more concerned with the reign of the coming Ruler than with his death. This point has even caused interpreters to question whether we are dealing with the same person or with two “servants, ” a sufferer and a conqueror. This passage answers that question decisively I think.
It starts with the exaltation of the Servant (Isa. 52:13), but immediately the mood changes to His degradation (52:14ff.). Since Philip identifies the Suffering Servant as Jesus in Acts 8:35, and 52:13-15 is really part and parcel of that portion of the prophecy in chapter 53, we might look at these verses as a kind of prelude to it. Verse 13 certainly draws a parallel with what has been spoken of the great King to come in Isaiah 9:7 and 11:2-5. The exalted One who shall “deal with prudence” over the earth’s affairs will also have to undergo great humiliation in the earth. As we know that His reign will be eternal (Isa. 9:7), we are compelled to conclude that His degradation will occur prior to His being coronation (hinted at in Isa. 53:12a).
Even without seeing Jesus in the remarkable words of Isaiah 53 one feels sympathy for the man being described. Oppressed and afflicted, yet having the meekness not to object (53:7). A man despised by men (53:3) and “smitten and bruised by God” (53:4, 10), and yet one who bears our iniquities so successfully (53:5, 6, 11, 12) that He can be made a sin offering to God (53:10), even making intercession on behalf of sinners in a way impossible for any mere animal (53:11). This again is the Servant (53:11), but it is not Israel by any stretch of the imagination! In no believable circumstances could Israel, who remember were under a complex sacrificial cultus, ever be thought of in this fashion. This impression is intensified when we consider that those justified by the Servant (who though afflicted by God was nevertheless serving God – 53:4, 10), included Israel (“My people” in 53:8).
While the Servant is subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of men the prophecy makes it clear that it is for mankind that the transaction was allowed to happen. No wonder then that after all He has to endure God exalts Him (53:12). What a wonderful verse is verse 11:
He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)
The righteous servant does all this not only for God but for Himself! “The labor of His soul” is such a beautiful phrase. Once we couple this together with the developing portrait of the Messiah and we recall His connection, in fact His identification with the New covenant, and we remember how the New covenant gives new vigor to the other covenants I think we begin to see how the covenantal Creation Project comes together in and through the Person of Christ.
Humiliation before Exaltation
We might do well to pause here for a moment to reflect on the remarkable fact that the Old Testament dwells far more upon the victorious ascendancy and rule of the Promised One than with His being dishonored and put to shame by His enemies before coming to the throne. Even in the first promise in Genesis 3:15 the serpent is said to crush the heel of the woman’s seed before He vanquishes the serpent. In Genesis 49:10 and Numbers 24:17 speak only of His glory, as does Micah 2:13 and 5:2. Psalm 22:1-21 is the only other passage so far in the progress of revelation where a similar shameful treatment is recorded, but there the specific individual remains prophetically uncertain until the death of Jesus. In Isaiah the prophecies in 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 32:1; 40:10 all refer to the reign of the Lord, there is no mention of any suffering. This will be the consistent theme of Isaiah from chapter 54 onward.
We shall observe the same phenomenon all the way through the Prophets. Zephaniah 3:15-17 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-16 teach us to expect someone who will usher in righteousness under His purview. The “smiting stone” of Daniel 2 and the great Ruler of Daniel 7:13-14 again draw the reader’s attention to the glory of the Coming One, not to His misery. Zechariah’s post-exilic visions do briefly mention that Yahweh will be valued at thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:13), and then there is the enigmatic pronouncement that “they will look on me whom they pierced” in Zechariah 12:10, but otherwise that writer’s more Messianic predictions follow the descriptions of splendor we find nearly everywhere else (e.g. Zech. 2:10; 3:8; 6:12-13; 8:3; 9:9; 14:3-5, 9, 16-17). Finally, Malachi 3:1-3 and 4:1-3 raise the same expectations.
What does this tell us? I think it teaches us two very important things. Firstly it hints at not one but two comings of the Messiah. Few would have thought this until the time of Jesus, but when one thinks about the promise of the virgin born child of Isaiah 7:14 who will be “Immanuel” and who will be given to Israel to rule for God (in fact as God) in Isaiah 9:6-7, and who will appear as the bloody Conqueror of Isaiah 63:1-6, it is hard (though I admit not impossible) to reconcile that with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. If the prophet is referring to the same person in these prophecies, then perhaps a coming to suffer and another coming to reign are envisaged? Additionally, the fact that the Servant is to be made a covenant per Isaiah 49:8 might well involve His death (as the covenant-making creature – later described in Hebrews 9:16-17), and if that is what is needed to “restore the earth” and to save both Israel and the nations (Isa. 49:6; 55:5; 56:6-7) then it must happen before His glorious reign is inaugurated.
But the second thing it tells us is, I think, more interesting. The Old Testament’s insistence upon stressing the kingship of the Messiah above His suffering surely means that our main theological emphasis should likewise be upon the glorious earthly reign of the King and not His humiliation. I know what that sounds like, so let me quell any fears which may be raised by that statement. I am not denying that the cross of Christ is locus of Christian preaching. What I am saying though is that the cross is not, or should not be, the principle thing by which we understand the telos of God’s kingdom program. The consummation of the Creation Project is not the cross, and it is not the resurrection and ascension. It is the earthly kingdom of Christ in realization of the unchanging covenants of God. The covenants with Abraham, with Phinehas, and with David; even the covenant with Noah and the creatures, are all dependent upon the removal of guilt accomplished at Calvary, and the “new life” achieved in the resurrection, but it is the completed provisions of the New covenant which lend them their power of fulfillment. And the completion will not occur until (as the prophecies above prove) after the Second Coming of Jesus.
What does this mean in plain terms? It means that the theologies which focus on the cross and the First Coming and find their hermeneutical center there are off-kilter and will never be able to properly handle all the information contained in the Messianic promises, weighted as they are decidedly toward the events surrounding the Second Advent and its aftermath. They will be forced to reinterpret the Messianic prophecies, and the biblical covenants which anchor them, which will mean that they will be forced to employ typologies* and symbolisms weighted in favor of the First Coming. In short, they will interpret Second Advent truths through the First Advent. Much realized eschatology looks through the telescope backwards.
* I am convinced that typology follows theology, and that therefore any system which employs typology to prove itself is guilty of begging the question. Typology may be used to illustrate theology, never to validate it.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.