Ancient Isaiah Scroll, One of the Seven Dead Sea Scrolls

Man of Sorrows

Author: Ray C. Stedman

It has become evident through this prophecy that Someone is coming. That dim and shadowy Figure which appears occasionally in the opening chapters is emerging ever more clearly as we move through this book. Here in the 53rd chapter the Messiah steps out into full and glorious view.

It is hard to understand how anyone can read this great chapter and not see Jesus in it. We have already commented on the fact that, through the centuries, Jewish people have held that it does not refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but rather that the nation of Israel is the "Servant of Jehovah." The primary reason for their feeling is that they expected a different kind of Messiah. The Jews had done like many of us do with Scripture -- they had selected verses that appealed to them and formulated from them a vision of a Deliverer who would come with military might and power. He would overcome the Roman tyrants, they thought, set Israel free, and fulfill the promises of God to make it the chief of the nations of earth. Because our Lord did not fulfill those promises, they have maintained that this prophecy does not apply to him. Yet here in this great chapter it is clear that God's suffering Servant is brought before us.

The passage actually begins in the closing verses of Chapter 52, which belong with Chapter 53. Taken together with it, these verses constitute five stanzas that depict various foreviews of the work of the Messiah, each one bringing out a different aspect of his work and life. Beginning in Verse 13, Chapter 52, we have God himself announcing the presence of the Servant.

Behold, my servant shall prosper,
  he shall be exalted and lifted up,
  and shall be very high.
As many were astonished at him --
  his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
  and his form beyond that of the sons of men --
so shall he startle many nations;
  kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
  and that which they have not heard they shall understand. (Isaiah 52:13-15 RSV)

This section, which describes the remarkable impact that the Messiah would make upon mankind, opens with a declaration that he would be successful in all that he did: "Behold, my servant shall prosper." That success would be accomplished in three specific stages, described here: "He shall be exalted; he shall be lifted up; he shall be very high." Commentators see in this the events that happened to Jesus after the crucifixion:

First, in the words, "He shall be exalted," there is a reference to the resurrection. Jesus was brought back from the dead, stepping into a condition of life that no man had ever entered before. Lazarus had been resurrected, in a sense, but he merely returned to this earthly life. Jesus, however, became the "firstborn from the dead," (Colossians 1:18). He was thus exalted to a higher dimension of existence.

Then, "he shall be lifted up." After his resurrection, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives and while he was speaking to them he ascended into the heavens until a cloud received him out of sight. So he was physically and literally "lifted up."

Thirdly, the passage says, "He shall be very high." The Hebrew puts it rather graphically: "He shall be high, very." We cannot but recall the words of the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Philippians. Speaking of Jesus, he says, "Wherefore God has highly exalted him and given him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father," (Philippians 2:9-11). Thus by his resurrection, his ascension, and his kingly exaltation the Messiah has made tremendous impact upon humanity.

Further, it is said of him here that "many were astonished at him." This happened in two different ways. First, as Verse 14 implies, many were "astonished" at his death: "His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men." This is descriptive of the face of Jesus after he had endured the terrible Roman scourging, the beatings, the blows to his face with the rod, which the soldiers mockingly called a king's scepter, and the crushing of the crown of thorns upon his head. By the time he was impaled on the cross, his face was a bloody mess. This is what the prophet sees: our Lord's appearance was so marred that those who passed by were "astonished" at his visage.

But Verse 15 describes another form of astonishment: "so shall he startle many nations." This refers to the tremendous accomplishments he achieved, not only during his ministry, but through the intervening centuries since. Many have commented on the remarkable achievements of Jesus. Kenneth Scott Latourette, a well known historian, has said,

As the centuries pass, the evidence is accumulating that, measured by his effect on history, Jesus is the most influential life ever lived on this planet.

G.K. Chesterton, that remarkable English Christian novelist and literary critic, has written,

There was a man who dwelt in the East centuries ago, and now I cannot look at a sheep or a sparrow, a lily or a cornfield, a raven or a sunset, a vineyard or a mountain without thinking of him. If this be not to be divine, what is it?

Truly, our Lord has made an astonishing impact upon our world. He is the Man who cannot be forgotten.

The first three verses of Chapter 53 describe the Messiah's strange rejection. These words express the feelings of the repentant nation when at last they recognize him at his return. The prophet cries out as the voice of the nation,

Who has believed our report?
  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
  and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
  and no beauty that we should desire him.
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. (Isaiah 53:1-3 RSV)

These remarkable words are felt by any person who comes to Christ and remembers how lightly he regarded him when he first learned of him. Here the nation asks, "Who has believed our report, that which we have heard. The arm of the Lord was revealed to us, but we did not understand who he was." Looking back, they can see how he fulfilled these words.

He grew up before Jehovah as a "young plant." That speaks of the hidden years at Nazareth when, in the obscurity of the carpenter's shop no one knew who he was except his Heavenly Father. He was the "root out of dry ground." We have already seen Isaiah's prediction that a root would rise up from the stem of David, from whom Joseph and Mary were both descended. But the House of David had fallen on evil days. The royal line had become impoverished and no one recognized its claims to leadership within Israel. When our Lord came he was indeed a root out of very dry ground.

The passage continues, "He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." Again, these are words that refer to our Lord's appearance as he hung upon the cross. He was a pitiful figure to behold, hanging naked, blood covering his face, worn and shattered by suffering. Indeed he had "no beauty that we should desire him."

He was truly "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." There is no record in Scripture that Jesus ever laughed. I think he did laugh, for you cannot read some of his parables, or some of the things he said to his disciples, without sensing a smile on his face or hearing a chuckle in his voice. But there is no account that he ever laughed. He was "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief."

We must remember that all through his boyhood, and even into his manhood, he was pursued by nasty cracks about his birth, inferring that he was an illegitimate son, born to a faithless maiden who had broken her vow of betrothal. His brothers misunderstood him and did not believe in him. They were embarrassed at some of the things he said and did. It was not until after the resurrection that they believed in him. He was called a drunkard and a glutton, and was said to be possessed by a devil. He was called a Samaritan, a disparaging term. He had no home to go to. He said himself, "Foxes have holes, birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head," (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:50). Sometimes his disciples left him alone to go about their business, but he had to go out to the Garden of Gethsemane and sleep alone beneath the o lives trees. He became at one point "Public Enemy No. 1." In the weeks before his crucifixion the Pharisees offered a reward to anyone who would turn him in. Surely he was rejected of men! In the words of the Apostle John, "He came unto his own, and his own people received him not," (John 1:11 RSV).

The next stanza portrays our Lord's substitutionary sacrifice:

Surely he has borne our griefs
  and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
  smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
  he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
  and with his stripes we are healed.
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. (Isaiah 53:4-6 RSV)

This, of course, is the very heart of the gospel, the good news. Jesus took our place. As Peter puts it, "He bore our sins in his own body upon the tree," 1 Peter 2:24). He took our sins and paid the price for them. He had no sins of his own and Scripture is very careful to record the sinlessness of Jesus himself. He was not suffering for his own transgressions, but for the sins of others. One writer has put it rather well,

It was for me that Jesus died,
For me and a world of men
Just as sinful and just as slow to give back his love again.
And he did not wait until I came to him.
He loved me at my worst.
He needn't ever have died for me
If I could have loved him first.

That is the problem, isn't it? Why do not we love him first? Why is it that we can only learn to love our Lord when we have beheld his suffering; his excruciating agony on our behalf? Why is it we find such difficulty in obeying the first commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul, and all thy strength," (Deuteronomy 6:5 KJV). It is because of our transgressions, as this passage declares. They have cut us off from the divine gift of love that ought to be in every human heart.

Sin is a disease that has afflicted our entire race. We cannot understand the depth of human depravity until we see the awful agony through which our Lord passed; behold the hours of darkness and hear the terrible orphaned cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 KJV). All this spells out for us what we really are like. Most think of ourselves as decent people, good people. We have not done, perhaps, some of the terrible things that others have done. But w hen we see in the cross of Jesus the depth of evil in our hearts we understand that sin is a disease that has infiltrated our whole lives. Man, who was created in the image of God and once wore the glory of his manhood, has become bruised and marred, sick and broken, his conscience ruined, his understanding faulty, his will enfeebled. The principle of integrity and the resolve to do right has been completely undermined in all of us. We know this to be true. No wonder, then, this verse comes as the best of news: He was wounded for our transgressions. The bruising that he felt was the chastisement that we deserved, but it was laid upon him.

There is no way to read this and fail to see that our Lord is the great divine Substitute for the evil of the human heart. We can lay hold of this personally by the honest admission stated in Verse 6: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way." How true that is of each of us! Who can claim anything else? I grew up in Monta-a-a-a-na, and I know something about sheep. Sheep are very foolish and willful creatures. They can find a hole in the fence and get out, but they cannot find it to get back in. Someone must go and get them every time. How true are the words, "We have turned every one to his own way."

Frank Sinatra made a song popular a few years ago, "I Did It My Way." When you hear that it sounds like something admirable, something everybody ought to emulate. How proud we feel that we did it "our way." But when you turn to the record of the Scripture, you find that that is the problem, not the solution. Everyone is doing things "their way," so we have a race that is in constant conflict, forever striving with one another, unable to work anything out, because we all did it "our way."

The way to lay hold of the redemption of Jesus is to admit that "All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way"; and then to believe the next line, "But the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." One Christian put his testimony in a rather quaint way. He said, "I stooped down low and went in at the first 'all,' and I stood up straight and came out at the last." Notice that this verse begins and ends with the word "all": "All we like sheep have gone astray." This man said, "I stooped down low and went in at that 'all.'" In other words, "I acknowledged that I, too, was part of that crowd that had gone astray." Ah, "But I stood up straight and came out at the last 'all.'" He understood that "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." He bore our punishment and took our place.

The next stanza foretells the silent sufferings of Jesus.

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 dumb,
  so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
  and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the and of the living,
  stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
  and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
  and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7-9 RSV)

Once again, Scripture preserves carefully the sinlessness of Jesus himself. He was without sin, but he bore the sins of others. That is why he did it in silence. He had no interest in defending himself, so he never spoke in his own defense. It is a striking thing that in the gospel accounts of the trials of Jesus he never spoke up on his own behalf or tried to escape the penalty. This amazed both Pilate and Caiaphas. When our Lord stood before the High Priest, he was silent until the High Priest put him on oath to tell them who he was. When he stood before Pilate, he was silent until to remain silent was to deny his very Kingship. Then he spoke briefly, acknowledging who he was. When he was with the soldiers, they smote him and spat him and put the crown of thorns on his head, yet he said not a word. Peter says, "When he was reviled he reviled not again," 1 Peter 2:23). Truly, "As a lamb before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth." When he went before contemptuous, sneering Herod, he stood absolutely silent. He would not say one word to him. He was returned at last to Pilate because Herod could find nothing wrong with him.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. (Isaiah 53:6a RSV)

It is very apparent to anyone reading the gospel accounts that the trials that Jesus went through were a farce. The Jewish trial before the High Priest was illegal. It was held at night, which was contrary to the law. Pilate several times admitted that he could find no wrong in him, and yet he pronounced upon him the sentence of death. How true are these words, "by oppression and judgment he was taken away."

He was "stricken for the transgression of my people." Remember that as the crowd was crying out, "Crucify him, crucify him," they added these significant words, "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children." Thereby they acknowledged that he was indeed "stricken for the transgressions of my people."

But when at last the deed was done and he cried with a loud voice, "It is finished" (John 19:30), his friends came to take him down from the cross. No enemy hands touched his body after his death, only those who loved him. As they removed his bloody body, the dear lips were silent, the wondrous voice was stilled, the light had gone from his eyes, and the great heart beat no more. But instead of throwing him on a rubbish heap, as the authorities intended, they "made his grave with the rich," just as Isaiah had predicted written 720 years before the event. Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, offered to put the body of Jesus in his new tomb that had never been used. Someone has put that rather remarkably, "He who came from a virgin womb, must be laid in a virgin tomb."

Then in the last stanza his ultimate triumph is pictured. Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great; 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 made intercession for the transgressors.

The Hebrew in Verse 10 is rather remarkable. Our version says, "It was the will of the Lord to bruise him," but the Hebrew literally says, "It pleased Jehovah to bruise him. He has put him to grief." The question comes, "How could it please God to put his Son to death, in the agony and torture of a crucifixion?" How could God find any pleasure in that?

When the question is asked, "Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?" the world rather blatantly answers, "It was the Jews who put him to death." That is true. The Jewish rulers did deliver him up to be crucified. But it is also true that the Gentiles crucified Jesus. Pilate, as the representative of the supreme government of earth at that time, put him to death, so that both Jew and Gentile are responsible. But that still does not exhaust the matter. We must go beyond that to this mysterious statement, "It pleased Jehovah to bruise him. He has put him to grief." When we face the question of why and how could God the Father ever take any delight in the death of his beloved Son, the only clue we have is that remarkable promise in Verse 32 of Romans 8, "He who spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all, for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" As hard as it is to believe, we must understand that God loved the lost race of mankind more than he loved his Son, and was willing to deliver him up to death that our race may find a way out of the disease and death of sin. That is all we can say on that. Perhaps one of the hymns puts it best,

On Christ almighty vengeance fell,
That would have sunk a world to hell.
He bore it for a chosen race,
And thus becomes our Hiding Place.

Verses 10 and 11 describe a resurrection, and the satisfaction that Messiah feels when he sees what his sufferings have accomplished. We are told, "He shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days." That cannot be said of any human being who dies. How can a dead man see his offspring? How can a dead man prolong his days? But clearly, after death, after he has "made his grave with the wicked," here is One who shall "see his offspring and prolong his days." Resurrection is clearly in view.

"He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied." What a remarkable statement! Nothing else could satisfy Jesus than to see the redeemed brought to his Father. Nothing else could do it. This was the relentless desire that drove him through pain, tears and death-hell itself-to achieve what he always wanted: a world freed from pain, torment, death and injustice; a world of men delivered from crying, sorrow, sadness and heartache; a world in which men and women would live in peace and in power, fulfilling the tremendous possibilities that God incorporated in man when he made him in the beginning. This is what he is after, and nothing can satisfy him but that. As the writer of Hebrewssays, "For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame thereof," (Hebrews 12:2). This will at last bring satisfaction to his heart.

Verse 12 summarizes all this: "He will make many righteous and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great and he shall divide the spoil with the strong." This is a reference to Paul's word in Romans 8, that we are "heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:17), and that we will share with him the inheritance that he has achieved. It is for those who "out of weakness have been made strong" (Hebrews 11:34) by faith in his death and life. So the chapter ends, "Because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."

When I first came here as a pastor, many years ago, we had an unusual opportunity to have in our home a Japanese man who had become a Christian evangelist. His name was Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, the commander of the squadron that bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He told us in his broken English of that event and how he felt at the time he gave the command to drop the bombs. After the war he became a hero in Japan, yet he felt his life was empty. Then he heard the amazing story of one of the American fliers, Jacob DeShazer, one of Doolittle's bombers, who had been captured and put in prison in Japan. At first he was a very intractable prisoner, but someone gave him a New Testament and, reading it, his whole life was changed.

Fuchida heard about that change in the life of DeShazer, and Fuchida himself began to read the New Testament. When he came to the story of the crucifixion, he told us that he was so moved by the prayer that broke from the lips of Jesus as he hung upon the cross with his torturers and tormentors gathered about him, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), that his own heart broke. He could not understand how anyone could pray for his enemies and ask for them to be forgiven. In that moment he opened his heart to Christ, and ultimately became a Christian evangelist. For some years he traveled throughout this country, speaking especially to young people about the grace that could come into a life through One who was "numbered with the transgressors . . . and made intercession for them."

This is a love story. What kind of love is this that awakens within us a response of deep and abiding gratitude, a willingness to admit that we need help? Our only adequate response is found in the words of a hymn,

Oh, love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee.
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer fuller be.