While Israel and Judah were facing annihilation, Isaiah prophesied about God’s Servant and His mission of salvation. As Alistair Begg walks us through this ancient prophecy, he demonstrates how each element was fulfilled by Jesus. Victory was accomplished, Christ was exalted, and the nations were purified—but only after Jesus walked the path of deepest degradation. Because God punished sin in His Servant, who died in the place of sinners, we can rest in our Savior’s accomplishment rather than our own futile efforts.
Our reading this evening is again from Isaiah and this time from chapter 52. It’s page 522 in the church Bibles. Page 522, Isaiah 52, and we’re going to read from the 13th verse of Isaiah 52.
“See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness—so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Amen.
Father, we thank you that into the darkness of our world tonight, this message of joy and peace and comfort in Jesus as a Savior is able to resound, and we thank you for the privilege of being able to tune our voices and take these words and use them as our song to remind ourself of the truth of who Jesus is and why he came and to stir our hearts in the company of one another, to be diligent about bringing this good news to bear upon the lives of friends and neighbors and loved ones. And so we pray that you will help us as we turn to the Bible, as we turn to the written word and then, as it were, to the word displayed on your table. We thank you that you’ve given to us a word that has been once and all delivered in the Scriptures, and that there on that table there is the reminder of a work that has been once and for all accomplished. And between that table that speaks of your finished work and this word of truth which introduces us to your Son, the servant, we pray that our hearts may be knit together in the joyous news of which we’ve sung. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.
Well, if you care to turn again to Isaiah 52, there is a sense in which our study this evening follows from this morning. But I’ve chosen not to continue in Isaiah 42. I felt that I owed it to the people who were present this morning for a somewhat truncated study that ended after point one. It’s only fair for me to allow everyone who was present to be here for the second half. And so instead, I’ve chosen to go to the fourth of these servant songs, recognizing that if it has taken us this long with the first one, we probably won’t be in a series for very long on this. Christmas will have come and passed, and we’ll be deep into January, and still we’ll be there. So, I decided let’s go directly to servant song number four, which of course you find here in verse 13 of 52. And, in the song of this morning, we were recognizing the fact that God has spoken and has commissioned his servant. His servant is going to go on a mission, and that mission is going to be the mission of salvation, and that mission is going to be accomplished.
And there is a sense in which, the writer at this point actually begins at the end. And in this song, I want you to notice just three things. We’re not going to go all the way through 53. We’ll make reference to it, but we’ll be primarily in these closing verses of Isaiah 52. Three words to help us get our thoughts in order: exaltation, degradation, purification. All right? And I think that’s enough for us, and we can probably have that to remember it, taking it into the week.
Well, first of all, this notion of exaltation. “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” That’s why I say to you that there is a sense in which the writer, the prophet is beginning at the end, because here he is describing the success of the servant’s mission. And the phraseology that is used here for “acting prudently” as it says in the King James Version, or here as in the NIV, “acting wisely,” is an expression of the accomplishment, if you like, or the success of what the servant does. It speaks to the fact that the mission of the servant is both intelligent and intelligible, and that that mission is an effective mission, and as a result of it being accomplished according to God’s purpose, this then will be the servant’s end. And you will notice the way these phrases are built upon one another, the servant will act wisely, accomplishing his purpose, and he will be raised, he will be lifted up, he will be highly exalted.
And one doesn’t have to have a very solid grasp of the Bible to recognize that there will be immediately in the minds of some, various phrases from the New Testament. And if you find yourselves going with others to Peter’s great sermon on the day of Pentecost, then you are on the right track. And you’ll remember how Peter, explaining to the people who are gathered around what has happened, why everybody is able to hear each other in their own language, speaking this news of Jesus, he says, “Well this is because of who Jesus is.” And he says, “and God has raised this Jesus to life and he has exalted him to the right hand of God.”
The same is true when Paul masterfully, in his opening chapter of Ephesians, speaks concerning the work of Jesus, and he says in Ephesians chapter 1, concerning the power that is at work in the Christian, he says “That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but also in the age to come.”
All of this is foreshadowed here in this anticipated exaltation of the servant in Isaiah 52. And of course, some of you will have gone also into Philippians 2 and to the verses that many of us know so well, and he has given him a name that is above every name, that at that name of Jesus, every knee should bow, things under the earth and so on. And every tongue confess that he is Lord.
So notice and notice carefully that the prophet is declaring that this ultimate outcome, this victory, this success, if you like, is going to be accomplished along a pathway that may take them by surprise. But before we come to that pathway, we should notice that once again this contrast is made very, very plain. And that is the contrast between the living God and all these non-gods. What Delitzsch, the Old Testament commentator, refers to as “these beingless beings whose personality consists of nothing more than the mood, than the wood and metal of which their images are composed.”
Turn back just for a moment a couple of pages in your Bible to chapter 46 and notice that in the lead up to these servant songs, 49, 50, and now here in 52, once again God is showing the futility of any attempt to find satisfaction and forgiveness anywhere else. And in the beginning of chapter 46, we read these words: “Bel bows down, and Nebo stoops low.” We should know that Bel and Nebo were on the top of the pops, as it were, in the Babylonian pantheon. Bel and Nebo were the two top deities. All the Babylonians, if they’d look to anyone for help and for encouragement, would have definitely been praying to Bel or to Nebo. And so the prophet says, well look at this. Bel is actually now bowing down. And Nebo is stooping low, and “their idols are borne by beasts of burden. The images that are carried about are burdensome, a burden for the weary. They stoop and bow down together; unable to rescue the burden, they themselves go off into captivity.”
And I’ll leave you for your homework if you choose to read through 46, but eventually you will notice that when he comes to verses 12 and 13, which is the conclusion of the chapter, God is speaking to the stubborn-hearted. And he says, “I want you to listen to me, you who are stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness. I’ve got good news for you. I’m actually bringing my righteousness near. It’s not far away. And my salvation will not be delayed, and I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendor to Israel.”
And how the people must have said, “Well I wonder how he’s going to do this. If God is promising to bring his righteousness near to us, if God is promising us a salvation that is intimate in this way, how is this to be accomplished?” And we sang of it this morning in one of our songs, didn’t we? Didn’t you enjoy singing that line,
See now what God has done,
sending his only son.
Christ the beloved One,
Jesus is Lord!
And all these years before, here the prophet standing on his tiptoes, as it were, writing under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, writing as a man, writing in the awareness of all that is going on around him, with the rise of the Babylonian empire, with the intervention of Cyrus and all these different things, still he points forward. And the pathway to triumph is along the Via Dolorosa.
So from exaltation, he turns to degradation. And indeed he started with exaltation, because the degradation is so deep. Indeed the degradation is as deep as the exaltation is high. And it’s almost as if he said to himself, again under the guidance of God’s Spirit, “I think I’ll start with exaltation so that people know how it ends just because I don’t want to immediately discourage them with the depth of the degradation that is the experience of the servant in this place.”
And so he says just as there were many who were appalled at him, his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness. This is something I think we often pay scant attention to. I think many of us still have a Jesus from our Sunday school books, don’t we? Who looks exactly the way we look, wherever you buy the book. Most of us who have lived in the west have always had a Jesus who was put together just to look like one of us, only a little bit different, with slightly longer hair. But very blue eyes. Highly unlikely that a Jewish boy would look like this. And certainly when he is described for us, he is not described in glowing terms. He’s like a tender shoot. Do you have any trees? Did you ever plant a tree? Did you ever notice how those tender shoots that emerge so easily and so readily are often the things that we lop off the quickest, because if we don’t, they will grow and thereby deprive the tree of the nourishment that it requires in order to grow strong and healthy? So tender shoots are broken off and trampled, and they’re thrown away. He was like a tender shoot. Don’t be a tender shoot and say, “Oh, isn’t that nice? Just like a tender shoot.” No. Just like a piece that you would just go, “we don’t need that, get rid of it.” And like a root out of a dry ground. The idea of a parched environment and a root emerging out of that parched terrain, a picture of struggling just to preserve life.
No, we have to be fair and allow the Bible to be the Bible and allow it to give to us the servant as he is. The things that in the eyes of many of us are requisites for leadership were not found in the Lord Jesus. He was not a high school quarterback. He was not the homecoming king. He was not even the homecoming prince. In fact, when people looked at him, they were appalled. He was, in 53, as “one from whom men hide their faces,” verse 3. They looked at him as if he were stricken with some kind of repulsive disease. They didn’t esteem him. And the disfigurement of verse 14 in chapter 52, we should not read as if somehow or another the prophet is saying that Jesus was disfigured more than any other men. No. His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man. See what he’s saying? He’s saying that his disfigurement was so great that he no longer even appeared to be a man. The people did not look at him as he bowed down under the weight of the cross before somebody took it from him. People did not look at him coming out of the desolation that he had experienced in the beating on account of the temple guards, and say to one another, “Is this the Messiah?” They didn’t look at one another and say, “Is this the servant of God from Isaiah 52? Is this the servant?” No, they looked at one another and said, “Is that human? Is that a person? What is that bloody mess?” No. The exaltation that he was to know in all of its height, “The highest place that heaven affords, his by sovereign right,” was an exaltation that came by way of the deepest degradation. He was despised, and we refused to esteem him.
I don’t think we should ever, any of us, think that if we’d been present on this occasion, we would have been the one little group, you know, that would have said, “Oh yes, I understand this perfectly. Isn’t that one of the servant songs that we were doing not so long ago?” I don’t think so. E. J. Young, in his wonderful commentary, says the unbelief that Isaiah here depicts is the same unbelief found all about us today.
Men say pleasant and complimentary things about the Lord of Glory. They will praise his ethics, his teaching, declare that he was a good man and a great prophet, the only one who has answers to the social problems that today confront the world. They will not, however, acknowledge that they are sinners, deserving of everlasting punishment and that the death of Christ was a vicarious sacrifice, designed to satisfy the justice of God and to reconcile an offended God to the sinner. Men will not receive what God says concerning his son. Today also, the servant is despised and rejected of men, and men do not esteem him.
Well, that brings us finally to our third word, and that is the word purification. And you will see why that is if you are looking at the text. Although many were appalled at him, “so,” verse 15, “he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.” People look upon him mistakenly, regarding his condition as if he was there on account of his own sins. But nothing could be further from the truth. And so in verse 6 of 53, the familiar verse to many, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
What was Jesus doing there? The hymn writer says in a couplet, “Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.” And the picture here of the servant is a picture of ritual purification. It’s a picture of the work of the priest in the Old Testament, and if you choose to read through Leviticus, you will be able to find numerous references to this notion of sprinkling, in Leviticus 4, Leviticus 8, Leviticus 14, as well. I won’t turn to them with you right now. And in each of those instances, the issue was a ritual purification. It was that which was external, it was that which was transient, it was that which was, in every sense, beyond the real condition that it represented. But the sprinkling that is done of the nations by this servant is a real and lasting one, because the cleansing that is offered by this servant is a real cleansing. And it is in this, loved ones, that we find the offense of the gospel. It is in this notion that we find ourselves at the very heart of what it means to be an evangelical Christian, to affirm the scandal of the gospel, that God justifies the ungodly. That God justifies sinners. That it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.
In other words, the popular notion which goes like this—God rewards good people and punishes bad people—is turned on its head when we read the Bible. Because what we discover is that without compromising his righteousness—which he has revealed in his wrath, about which we sing—without compromising his righteousness, God justifies sinners through the redemption that he provides in the person of his servant his Son who, in his death, offers a blood propitiation for sin. And on account of his willingness to do so and the efficacious nature of his sacrifice, it is Christ and Christ alone who may sprinkle the nations with the news of his forgiving love—with the news of redemption. With his triumphant story that although he was there in all of the darkness and abject humiliation of Golgotha, that God has raised him to life. And that this ascended king speaks out—calls out through his word—in all of the Old Testament and all of the New and calls out to sinners and says, “Look what I have achieved for sinners. Look what I have managed and have accomplished by way of forgiveness and redemption.” You don’t have to go about the business of trying to fix yourself. You never could. You don’t have to try and justify yourself by blaming other people. You don’t have to try and make yourself feel better by simply blaming it on what someone else did in a previous generation.
No, there’s a sense in which he says, “There’s only one person to whom you can pass the buck in these circumstances, and that is to me. Because what I want you to do is to take off those clothes you’re wearing, those filthy rags of your righteousness, those filthy elder-brother rags in Luke 15.” Those rags that refuse to come in to the party because we thought that we deserved a party and that God gave parties for good people, and we’ve been good people, and we don’t have a party, and the brother’s been a bad guy and he does have a party. How does that work? Well, this is how it works. This is how it works. God was not winking at sin. God was punishing sin in his servant. And the sinless servant dies in the place of the sinner.
Let me give you just one final picture since I’ve alluded to it, and that is the picture of a scapegoat in Leviticus again and chapter 16 in the work of the priest. We won’t read all of this, you may be relieved to know, but let me just read this one part to you. This is the day of atonement and all of the description of what has gone before by way of sacrifice is now complete. And then in verse 20 we read,
When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. And he is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. [And] The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
And there in this day of atonement, you have this amazing dual picture of the sacrifice dying in the place of the sinner and of the scapegoat going out and bearing away all of the sin that has been atoned for. And this is what needs to be at the heart of our communion celebrations: that when we take this bread and when we drink from this cup, that we are saying to ourselves again and again, “Thank you servant of God, the great servant of God, that tonight you are exalted to the highest place. Thank you, Lord Jesus Christ that you descended to the deepest abyss, and that is why ‘when life has plunged me in its deepest pit, I find the Savior there.’ Thank you, Lord Jesus, and thank you that I don’t have somehow or another to fashion for myself a robe of righteousness, but that you have provided it for me. And thank you that as far as the east is from the west, so far have you borne away all of my sins and transgressions.”
Charles Simeon was a vicar in the Anglican Church in Cambridge for a long time. And in his writings, he tells how, on one occasion in Passion Week, in Holy Week, he had sat to read Bishop Wilson, who had written on the Lord’s Supper. And this is what Simeon says. “As I read, I met with an expression to this effect. That the Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” In other words, Luke 16, that they understood what was happening in that transfer, symbolic as it was. And Simeon writes:
The thought came into my mind, What? May I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an offering for me that I may lay my sins on his head? Then God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer. Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus.
That’s the gospel. He comes to us and he says, “All of your guilt will be mine. And all of my righteousness will be yours.” Degraded, exalted, glorified servant.
Father, we just pause before the wonder of your truth. It’s more than any religion would ever conceive. Because any human religion always has man at the center of it. It’s always man fixing his own problems. But here we find that man is completely unable to rectify, to remedy the predicament. And how we thank you that in Jesus Christ you have given to us, your righteousness has drawn near, your salvation has come out of Zion’s hill. Write these things, we pray, upon our hearts so that in believing them and loving them, we may share them. So that we may tell people this wonderful news. That it is not, “do what is right and God will accept you. But it is God has done what is right and is necessary and has provided acceptance in Him.
Forgive us, Lord, when we are resting not in the gospel of the accomplished finished work of Jesus, but we’re resting in a gospel that is our own invention, finding our security in how well we’re doing rather than, than in looking to all that you have done. Remind us again of such “amazing love, how can it be, that you, O God, would die for me.” And then fill us with that same love, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 Acts 2:32–33 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 1:19–21 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 2:9–10 (paraphrased).
 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1890), 215 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 46:1 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 46:1b–2 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 46:12–13 (paraphrased).
 Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Name of All Majesty” (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Company, 1984).
 Thomas Kelly, “The Head that Once was Crowned with Thorns” Public Domain.
 Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 344.
 Unknown Author, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” Public Domain.
 Romans 5:8 (paraphrased).
 Leviticus 16:20–22 (NIV 1984).
 Stuart Townend & Mark Edwards, “There is a Hope” (Thankyou Music, 2007) (paraphrased).
 Psalm 103:12 (paraphrased).
 William Carus, ed., Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1848), 16.
 Robin Mark, “Days of Elijah” (Daybreak Music, 1997) (paraphrased).
 Charles Wesley, “And Can it Be?” Public Domain (paraphrased).