Key Verse: 52:13, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
In the introduction (52:13–15), what astonishing contrast about the servant is described, and what impact on the world will he have?
Review Isaiah’s words about “the arm of the LORD” (51:5,9; 52:10; 53:1). How does this expression point to the servant’s work? What questions are asked and why (53:1)?
What did the servant’s human condition look like (2)? What did he experience (3)? Why did men despise and reject him? Why did God make him “a man of sorrows” (4a)?
How did people misunderstand (4b)? What did they do to him (5a)? What do “transgressions” and “iniquities” mean? What was the purpose of his suffering (5b–6)?
What else is said about the servant (7)? What does it tell us about him? What did his death mean, and how did people respond (8)? What last detail is given (9)?
What was God doing (10)? What else is said about the servant (11)? What would God do for him, and why (12a)? How does his ministry continue (12b)?
How were these prophecies fulfilled through the death of Jesus (John 1:29; 1Pet.2:24; 2Cor.5:21)? What can we learn through this servant song about ourselves and about God? How can we “behold” God’s Servant, Jesus practically?
Who are you looking at? That can be a confrontational question, when we catch somebody staring at us. Or, it can have a broader meaning. We can be looking at someone we love, staring at a picture, watching someone closely to see if we can trust her, or looking at a hero, admiring his greatness. We even can be looking at someone who has served God and inspires us. But who should we really be looking at? In today’s passage God says, “Behold, my servant.” Why should we behold this servant of the Lord?
The book of Isaiah calls God “the Holy One.” This Holy God wants all the nations to see his glory. But throughout these prophecies, God grieves over human corruption. Our sins bring curse to the world (24:6) and injustice to society. What’s worse, our sins leave us inwardly sick, faint and wounded (1:4–6). Our sins separate us from God (59:2). Our sins make all our righteous acts like a polluted garment (64:6). Still, God wants to help us. But how? In this book God suddenly promises to send his servant. Four songs, woven into Isaiah’s prophecies, gradually reveal what God is going to do through this special servant of the Lord. This servant is going to bring about God’s salvation for this sin-sick world. One way is through the ministry of his word. But the ultimate way is through his one incredible act of obedience. The first song began, “Behold my servant…” (42:1). Now this last one also begins, “Behold, my servant…” (52:13). Because of this obedient servant of the Lord, God’s hope will be accomplished (51:5), and most of all, God will forever be glorified in his servant (49:3).
But this glory is not what anyone would expect. God’s servant would suffer in ways that leave us speechless. This final and fullest servant song is a poem filled with unforgettable words and deep humanity. It is often quoted in the New Testament, showing us how Jesus fulfilled it. It has five stanzas. First is the introduction (52:13–15); second is the appearance and rejection of the servant (53:1–3); third is the servant’s suffering and what it means (4–6); fourth is the servant’s character (7–9); and fifth is his ultimate outcome and victory (10–12). As we read these words we want to reflect on the servant’s character and work. We want to really receive what he has done for us. And we want to learn what it means to “behold” him, and how we can become useful servants of the Lord like him in our time. May God open our hearts and speak to us through his living words today.
Read 52:13. “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” At the end of the poem God again calls him “the righteous one, my servant” (53:11). Here, God says, “Behold, my servant shall act wisely.” It’s not human wisdom, which always ends up being foolish; it’s the wisdom of God, who confirms the word of his servant (44:24–26). It’s wisdom that comes from the Spirit of the Lord (11:2–3). And it’s not just in his head; it’s the wisdom to “act wisely.” As we’re going to see in this song, it’s the “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle…” (James 3:17). Next, God says, “…he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Elsewhere Isaiah uses these words for God himself. God will so highly exalt his servant that he will bestow on him the name that is above every name (Phil.2:9–11). These words “lifted up” point us to the glory of this servant, which is his death on a cross.
Read verse 14. “As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—” Here the word “astonished” is literally “appalled” or “stunned.” Why would so many people react like this? It says, “…his appearance was so marred.” “Marred” means “disfigured.” It goes on to say, “beyond human semblance.” In Hebrew this literally means “he no longer looked like a man.” It’s just a glimpse of his crucifixion. After being struck (Matt.26:67), beaten (Luke 22:48) and flogged (John 19:1) by strong soldiers, he was wearing a crown of thorns (John 19:5), and blood was streaming down his face. After he died, he would be pierced with a spear (John 9:34). With all the bruises and swelling from the beating, all the open wounds from the lashings, all that blood, he was no longer recognizable. But why?
Read verse 15. “…so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Here, the “sprinkling” is with his blood (1Pet.1:2). His blood ransoms “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev.5:9). His blood cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). Next, it says, “Kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” As they behold the appalling suffering of this servant, even the most powerful people in the world will stop their boasting. Even they will begin to understand, without words, what God has accomplished through his servant.
Read 53:1. “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” What the servant went through is so unbelievable; but these questions invite us to believe what we hear and experience the revelation of what it means. The “arm” of the LORD is repeated in Isaiah. It represents what God does in the world. 59:15–16 reads: “Truth is lacking…The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation…” The arm of the LORD reaches where no one else can. The arm of the LORD becomes real in this servant.
Read verse 2. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” We care about our appearance. But this servant of the Lord doesn’t look good. He looks like a root out of dry ground, dry and gnarled. Working for the Lord, he has totally spent himself. He has no beauty or majesty to look at. It’s a well-known fact that in the world, appearance matters. The well-groomed tend to get hired. But God wanted people to look at his servant, not to satisfy their vanity, but for other reasons. Even his appearance is part of “the arm of the LORD.” What does God want us to see through it?
Read verse 3. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” The servant of the Lord was treated like this? Really? “Esteem” means to respect or admire. We should respect and admire God’s servants, right? But twice it says here, “he was despised.” It means “treated with contempt.” It was heartless judgmentalism toward this suffering servant. Why did people look at him this way? Partly it was because of his appearance, partly because people of his time had some ideas about his human background. It’s so unfair to be judged based on our appearance or background instead of on who we really are. Why would God have his servant be despised and rejected like this? It was to reach the hearts of all those who are unfairly despised and rejected, to help them see that this servant came for them.
In the poetic structure, the middle of the verse is highlighted: “…a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Why was he “a man of sorrows”? Perhaps it was because of how people treated him. More than that, it expresses how he understoodothers. Simply, he identified with suffering people. He understood disadvantage, failure, sickness, tragedy, and all our sorrowful human experiences. Because he shared in our humanity, he could relate to the hurting and sorrowful. In this way, the arm of the Lord reached even more people through his servant.
Read verse 4. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” People totally misunderstood this servant. They thought his suffering was because of his own problems. It’s why they hid their faces from him (3). But that’s not at all what God was doing. The Hebrew here emphasizes the word “our.” God was using his servant to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows. Through his servant’s suffering, God bears and carries ours (46:4). In other words, God brings us healing.
Read verse 5. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Here, “transgressions” means the moral and ethical laws of God that we break so often. “Iniquities” means the inner depravity and perversion of our sinful nature. The servant didn’t do anything wrong. But he was treated so violently. He was pierced for our rebellion; he was crushed for ourtwistedness. The Holy God took our sins that seriously! As we “behold” him, we apply this truth not to others, but to myself very personally. As an old hymn says, “My sins nailed him there; my burdens he bare. He suffered all this for me.”
In the Old Testament, God told his people to bring a lamb without blemish as an offering, to atone for their sin. That lamb would pay for their sin only symbolically. It was just a shadow of what this servant of the Lord would do, once for all. Read verse 6. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The servant was the only person holy, innocent, and unstained by sin. He was the only one who could suffer in our places and truly take away our sins. What he suffered satisfied both God’s justice and his mercy, turned God’s wrath away from us (Rom.3:25), and brought us such a great salvation (Heb.2:3).
Through the suffering of this servant, now we can be free from our guilt (10) and have deep inner peace with God. It’s real forgiveness, from God himself. So John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Are we really looking at him? We need to behold this suffering servant, not just once in a while, but every day. Often, we’re living in guilt about many things, past and present. We’re frantically doing many things each day out of guilt. It’s not healthy. We need to behold God’s servant, who took away all our sin and guilt when he suffered and died in our place. Then we can experience God’s peace and begin acting out of genuine love.
The last part of verse 5 says, “…and with his wounds we are healed.” Do I need healing? According to this verse, I do; we all do. The wounds from events, people, or our sins are invisible, but they’re real, and they’re deep. But Isaiah repeatedly says that God wants to heal us. But how? We need to “behold” Jesus. We need to come before him honestly and look to him in faith. As we look at his wounds, we begin to experience his love. His suffering and death in our place is the greatest love ever known. We don’t just enjoy this love, then keep on sinning like we’re in some revolving door. The deeper we accept it, the more his love actually cures us. What does a healed life look like? Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pet.2:24). When we are healed by his wounds, we no longer live for sin; we start truly living for righteousness.
Let’s think briefly about his character. Read verse 7. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” It’s saying he’s like a lamb. What does it mean? It means he’s gentle and submissive. He’s especially silent. When he was on trial, being accused of many things by the chief priests, Jesus made no further answer, and Pilate was amazed (Mk15:3–5). We should not just appreciate him from a safe distance, but imitate him daily. Peter writes: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1Pet.2:21–23).
The servant suffered such abuse, such humiliation. It was the greatest injustice ever done. But it was not the end. Read verses 10–11. “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” This looks forward to the servant’s resurrection from the dead, and, to the abundant spiritual fruit of changed lives that his suffering will produce (John 12:24).
Read verse 12. “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” The servant song ends on a note of victory. God will make his servant like a conqueror. And notice that “makes intercession” is in the present tense. The Bible says that since he always lives to make intercession for us, he is able to save us to the uttermost.
Read 52:13 again. “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” May God help us to behold our Lord Jesus, who suffered so much to save us from our sins. As we behold him, may we experience his glory, his saving grace, his healing and his peace. May God help us behold him day by day and grow in his humility, his deep understanding, and his willingness to suffer to save others.
 1:4; 5:19,24; 10:17, etc.
 40:5; 42:8,12; 60:1–2; 66:18.
 1:21,23; 5:7
 49:2; 50:4
 50:5–6; cf. Rom.5:18–19; Heb.5:8–9
 6:1; 33:10; 57:15
 John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32–33
 30:30,32; 33:2; 40:10; 48:14; 51:5,9; 52:10
 John 4:44; 7:52; 8:48
 Heb2:14a,17–18; 4:15
 Perry, Jean and Camp, Mabel Johnston (1916). “That Beautiful Name” in Sing to the Lord, 1993. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, Hymn #128.