Isaiah 53 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 53
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?

(1) Who hath believed our report? . . .—The question has been variously interpreted as coming from the lips of the prophet or of Israel. The former view commends itself most, and the unusual plural is explained by his mentally associating with himself the other prophets, probably his own disciples, who were delivering the same message. The implied answer to the question may be either “None,” or, “Not all.” St. Paul (Romans 10:16) adopts the latter.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
(2) For he shall grow up . . .—The Hebrew tenses are in the perfect, the future being contemplated as already accomplished. The words present at once a parallel and a contrast to those of Isaiah 11:1. There the picture was that of a strong vigorous shoot coming out of the root of the house of David. Here the sapling is weak and frail, struggling out of the dry ground. For “before Him” (i.e., Jehovah) some critics have read “before us,” as agreeing better with the second clause; while others have referred the pronoun “him” to the Jewish people. Taking the received text and interpretation, the thought expressed is that Jehovah was watching this humble and lowly growth, as a mother watches over her weakest and most sickly child.

He hath no form nor comeliness.—See Note on Isaiah 3:14. The thought which has been constantly true of the followers of the Christ was to be true of the Christ Himself.

“Hid are the saints of God,

Uncertified by high angelic sign;

Nor raiment soft, nor empire’s golden rod,

Marks them divine. “

J. H. NEWMAN (Lyra Apostolica.)

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
(3) He is despised and rejected.—Better, for the last word, forsaken. This had been the crowning sorrow of the righteous sufferer of the Old Testament (Job 17:15; Job 19:14). It was to complete the trial of the perfect sufferer of the New (Matthew 26:56).

A man of sorrows . . .—The words “sorrow” and “grief” in the Heb. imply the thought of bodily pain or disease. (Comp. Exodus 3:7; Lamentations 1:12; Lamentations 1:18.) Men have sometimes raised the rather idle question whether the body of our Lord was subject to disease, and have decided on à priori grounds that it was not. The prophet’s words point to the true view, that this was an essential condition of His fellowship with humanity. If we do not read of any actual disease in the Gospel, we at least have evidence of an organisation every nerve of which thrilled with its sensitiveness to pain, and was quickly exhausted (Luke 8:46; John 4:6; Mark 4:36). The intensity of His sympathy made Him feel the pain of others as His own (Matthew 8:17), the “blood and water” from the pierced heart, the physical results of the agony in Gethsemane (Luke 22:44; John 19:34), indicate a nature subject to the conditions of our humanity.

We hid as it were . . .—Literally, As the hiding of the face from us, or, on our part. The words start from the picture of the leper covering his face from men, or their covering their own faces, that they might not look upon him (Leviticus 13:45). In Lamentations 4:15, we have a like figurative application. (Comp. also Job 19:13-19; Job 30:10.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
(4) Surely he hath borne our griefs . . .—The words are spoken as by those who had before despised the Servant of Jehovah, and have learnt the secret of His humiliation. “Grief” and “sorrow,” as before, imply “disease” and “pain,” and St. Matthew’s application of the text (Matthew 8:17) is therefore quite legitimate. The words “stricken, smitten of God,” are used elsewhere specially of leprosy and other terrible sicknesses (Genesis 12:17; Leviticus 13:3; Leviticus 13:9; Numbers 14:12; 1 Samuel 6:9; 2 Kings 15:5). So the Vulg. gives leprosus. The word for borne,” like the Greek in John 1:29, implies both the “taking upon himself,” and the “taking away from others,” i.e., the true idea of vicarious and mediatorial atonement.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
(5) He was wounded . . .—Bruised. Both words refer to the death which crowned the sufferings of the Servant. That also was vicarious.

The chastisement of our peacei.e., the punishment which leads to peace, that word including, as elsewhere, every form of blessing. (Comp. the “reproof of life” in Proverbs 15:31.) In Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 5:8-9, we have the thought which is the complement of this, that the chastisement was also an essential condition of the perfection of the sufferer.

With his stripes we are healed.—The words stretch wide and deep. Perhaps the most touching application is St. Peter’s use of them as a thought of comfort for the slaves who were scourged as He, their Lord, had been (1 Peter 2:24).

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(6) All we like sheep have gone astray . . .—The confession of repentant Israel (Psalm 119:176), of repentant humanity (1 Peter 2:25), was also the thought present to the mind of the Servant, as in Matthew 9:36; John 10:11.

Hath laid on him.—Better, as in the margin, hath made to light on him. The words express the fact, but do not explain the mystery, of the substitutive satisfaction. The two sides of that mystery are stated in the form of a seeming paradox. God does not punish the righteous with the wicked (Genesis 18:25). He accepts the suffering of the righteous for the wicked (Mark 10:45).

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
(7) He was afflicted . . .—More accurately, He let himself be afflicted, as implying the voluntary acceptance of the suffering.

Opened not his mouth.—The silence of absolute acquiescence, as in Psalm 38:14; Psalm 39:9.

As a lamb to the slaughter.—It is suggestive, as bearing both on the question of authorship, and that of partial fulfilment, that Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:19) appropriates the description to himself. In our Lord’s silence before the Sanhedrin and Pilate it is allowable to trace a conscious fulfilment of Isaiah’s words (Matthew 26:62; Matthew 27:14). (Comp. 1 Peter 2:23.)

He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
(8) He was taken from prison . . .—The Hebrew preposition admits of this rendering, which is adopted by many commentators, as describing the oppression and iniquitous trial which had preceded the death of the servant. It admits equally of the sense, through oppression and through judgment; and, on the whole, this gives a preferable sense. The whole procedure was tainted with iniquity.

Who shall declare his generation?—The words are, perhaps, the most difficult of the whole section, and have been very differently explained: (1) “Who shall declare his life, the mystery of his birth, his eternal being?” (2) “Who shall count his spiritual offspring?” as in Psalm 22:30. (3) “As to his generation (i.e., his contemporaries, as in Jeremiah 2:31), who will consider rightly?” (4) “Who shall set forth his generation in all the intensity of their guilt?”—to say nothing of other renderings, which render the noun as “his dwelling,” i.e., the grave, or his “course of life,” or his “fate.” Of these (3) seems most in harmony with the context, the words that follow pointing to the fact which ought to have been considered, and was not, that though the Servant of Jehovah was smitten, it was not for his own sins, but theirs.

And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
(9) And he made his grave . . .—Literally, one (or, they) assigned him a grave . . . The words are often interpreted as fulfilled in our Lord’s crucifixion between the two robbers and his burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. It has to be noted, however, (1) that this requires an inversion of the clauses; (2) that it introduces a feature scarcely in harmony with the general drift of the description; (3) that the laws of parallelism require us to take the “rich” of one clause as corresponding to the “wicked” of the other, i.e., as in the sense of the wrongfully rich, the oppressors, as in Psalm 49:6; Psalm 49:16; Psalm 73:3-5. Men assigned to the Servant not the burial of a saint, with reverence and honour (such, e.g., as that of Stephen, Acts 8:2), but that of an unjust oppressor, for whom no man lamented, saying, “Ah lord! Ah my brother! Ah his glory!” (Jeremiah 22:18), and this although (not “because”) he had done no violence to deserve it. (Comp. Job 16:17.) The rendering “because” has been adopted as giving a reason for the honourable burial which, it has been assumed, the words imply. It may be questioned, however, when we remember Isaiah’s words as to Shebna (Isaiah 22:16), whether he would have looked on such a burial as that recorded in the Gospels, clandestine, and with no public lamentation, as an adequate recognition of the holiness of the victim. The point of the last two clauses is that they declare emphatically the absolute rectitude of the sufferer in act, his absolute veracity in speech.

Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
(10) Yet it pleased the Lord . . .—The sufferings of the Servant are referred not to chance or fate, or even the wickedness of his persecutors, but to the absolute “good-pleasure” of the Father, manifesting itself in its fullest measure in the hour of apparent failure. (Comp. Psalm 22:15.)

When thou shalt make . . .—Better, if his soul shall make a trespass offering, he will see his seed; he will prolong his days . . . The sacrificial character of the death of the Servant is distinctly defined. It is a “trespass offering” (Leviticus 6:6; Leviticus 6:17; Leviticus 14:12), an expiation for the sins of the people. The words declare that such a sacrifice was the condition of spiritual parentage (Psalm 22:30), of the immortality of influence, of eternal life with God, of accomplishing the work which the Father had given him to do (John 17:4). The “trespass offering” was, it must be remembered, distinct from the “sin offering,” though both belonged to the same sacrificial group (Leviticus 5:15; Leviticus 7:1-7), the distinctive element in the former being that the man who confessed his guilt, voluntary or involuntary, paid his shekels, according to the judgment of the priest, and offered a ram, the blood of which was sprinkled upon the altar. It involved, that is, the idea not of an atonement only, but of a satisfaction, according to the nature of the sin.

He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
(11) He shall see of the travail . . .—Better, On account of the travail of his soul, he shall see, and be refreshed. We may find the truest explanation in the words, “To-day thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The refreshment after travail, because of the travail, was already present to the sufferer’s consciousness.

By his knowledge . . .—The phrase admits of two meanings, objective and subjective: (1) by their knowledge of Him; or (2) by His own knowledge; and each expresses a truth. Men are saved by knowing Christ. To know Him and the Father is eternal life (John 17:3). On the other hand, the Christ Himself makes His knowledge of the Father the ground of His power to impart that knowledge to men, and so to justify and save them (John 17:25). Without that knowledge He could not have led them to know God as He knew. If we dare not say that the prophet distinctly contemplated both meanings, we may rejoice that he was guided to use a phrase which includes both. Isaiah 11:2 and Malachi 2:7 are in favour of (2).

For he shall bear.—The conjunction is not necessarily more than and. The importance of the renewal of the assurance given in Isaiah 53:4 lies in its declaring the perpetuity of the atoning work. The sacrifice of the Servant is “for ever” (Hebrews 10:12). He “ever liveth to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25). He taketh away the sin of the world, through the æons of all duration (John 1:29).

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
(12) Therefore will I divide . . .—The “great” and the “powerful” are words which describe the kings and rulers of mankind. The Servant, once despised and forsaken, takes his place with them, though not in the same manner, or by the same means. We may have echoes of the words in our Lord’s language as to the “spoiling of the strong man” (Matthew 12:29) as to the contrast between the greatness of His Kingdom and that of the rulers and great ones of the world (Matthew 20:25; Mark 10:42; Luke 22:25). The LXX., Vulg., Luther, and some modern scholars render, I will give him the multitude as a prey, the spoil “of the mighty ones.”

Because he hath poured out . . .—The absolutely voluntary character of the sacrifice is again emphasised. The next clause is better taken as he let himself be numbered. So it was that he bore (and took away) the sin of many, and gained the power for availing intercession, both in the hour of death (Luke 23:34) and in the eternal triumph (Hebrews 7:25). The ideal Servant, contemned, condemned, failing, is seen, at last, to be identical with the ideal King.

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