Isaiah 52:15-53:3 - Start of the greatest passage in the Old Testament

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The Messiah in Isaiah Bible Study

Isaiah 52:15-53:3 - Start of the greatest passage in the Old Testament

by I Gordon

'It would require much exotic calculation to deny that the single most powerful figure - not merely in these two millenniums but in all human history - has been Jesus of Nazareth.' (Time, Dec. 6, 1999)

'It has been truly said that the prolonged description of chapter 53 suits only one figure in all of human history - the Man of Calvary!' (J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book)


Well, you'll be pleased to hear that in the preparation for this study I learnt a new word. Seems like just when you think you know them all... bam... along comes another one! This new word was 'Globaloney'. It's been around for a while apparently (longer than I have anyway!) but it was new to me. This word, as it obviously sounds, is a fusion of 'Global' and 'Baloney'. It is quite a cool word. Now there are some in this world that think that Christianity is 'Globaloney'. That is, they think the beliefs of Christianity are baloney on a global scale! So how do we know that the Bible and the Christian beliefs are not just a whole lot of baloney?

One way (and there are others) is through Bible prophecy. I have said this before but I'll say it again because it is very important in the age in which we live with so many falling from the faith and turning against the belief in God's word... In the book of Isaiah God challenges all other so called 'gods' and belief systems with a simple test - if they can achieve this then they pass their test as a true 'god' or a true belief system. And here is the test - simply, but accurately, declare the end from the beginning. The God of the Bible puts forth His challenge like this:

Present your case, says the LORD. "Set forth your arguments," says Jacob's King. Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. (Isaiah 41:21-23)

In this study we are going to start a series looking at the greatest prophetic passage in the whole Old Testament - Isaiah 52:13 - 53:13 [1] . This passage contains the most quoted Old Testament verses in the New Testament. It has been called 'the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament' and 'the most important text in the Old Testament'. So... no pressure then! Argh, excuse me while I just pop away and do a little more research and study! Anyway, let's make a start in this series and look at verses 52:13-53:3.

The One coming will prosper...

Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. (Isaiah 52:13 NASB)

Our text starts with the introduction of the 'servant' once again. This is obviously not the first passage that speaks about this coming servant for He has been discussed already in Isaiah chapters 42, 49 and 50. This passage starts by stating that He will prosper. This word can also be translated 'act wisely' or 'succeed'. But I like prosper. Now it is good to remember right from the start that the servant will prosper and succeed for as we continue in this passage we will see a lot of things written that would make one wonder whether such an outcome could be achieved. You see, as we read through the passage we'll see that this servant will be despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted, pierced and crushed, marred beyond human likeness... yet, through it all, HE WILL PROSPER! [2]

Not only will He prosper but He will be lifted up and greatly exalted. But before this Heavenly exaltation by God, Jesus would first be raised up on this earth... and that by man on a cross. Yet through the wisdom of God, this very act would be the reason that the servant would be given a name above all names and would be the one before whom ALL would one day bow and bend the knee. The New Testament says it like this:

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11)

But what a path to get there...

Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men. (Isaiah 52:14)

There are two themes that start to develop early in these verses. Firstly, the great heights that the Messiah would attain to and secondly, the great depths He would go through to get there. The prophets knew and spoke of both as Peter tells us:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow . (1 Peter 1:10-11)

As we can see from Isaiah 52:14 above, the road to the throne [3] for the Messiah-Servant would go through Golgotha - the place of crucifixion, and His appearance would be marred beyond human likeness. What Jesus experienced even leading up to the cross was more than what some men could endure and deaths through the scourging alone were quite common. The whips used for scouring included metal and sharp pieces of bone to both bruise and rip open the flesh. And this was just the entrŽe so to speak. The main course of crucifixion was still to come. [4]

Sprinkled and startled!

So shall He startle and sprinkle many nations, and kings shall shut their mouths because of Him; for that which has not been told them shall they see, and that which they have not heard shall they consider and understand. (Isaiah 52:15 AMP)

Depending on the Bible version you use, the result of the suffering described in verse 14 will be one of two thoughts - the nations startled or the nations sprinkled. The Hebrew word used can mean either and so both are included in the Amplified Bible quote above. Let's start with sprinkle. The thought here is that just as the Old Testament Priests had to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice for cleansing [5] , so Jesus' sacrifice will bring cleansing from sin for all the nations. If the word means 'startle' as many believe, then the thought given is that the nations will be startled at what the King of kings allowed Himself to go through for the sake of mankind. 'Kings' will be startled and speechless when they see that the one who was 'beyond human likeness' is actually the King of Glory - the creator of the Universe! Jaws will drop. Eyes will stare. Words will fail. Men will also be startled and speechless at the wonder of the plan of God to bring many sons to glory through this one 'marred beyond human likeness'. This thought is encapsulated in the following verse that sums up the awe and admiration that will be given to Jesus when He returns as His image and glory is seen reflected in the saints!

...When He comes to be glorified in His saints [on that day He will be made more glorious in His consecrated people], and [He will] be marveled at and admired [in His glory reflected] in all who have believed [who have adhered to, trusted in, and relied on Him], because our witnessing among you was confidently accepted and believed [and confirmed in your lives]. (2 Thessalonians 1:10 Amplified)

The greatest message from the greatest Saviour yet they still will not believe!

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. (Isaiah 53:1-2)

From the heights of the glory of the Lord Jesus at His second coming in the previous verse, we now plummet back down to earth (and two thousand years) to the reality of the events surrounding His first coming. We go from the wonder of kings standing speechless in His presence at His return to the humble beginnings of the king of Kings! And what do we read? Well, something crazy really. It starts with the loaded question 'Who has believed our message?' [6] You've got the greatest message this world has or will ever know, preached by the greatest preacher this world will ever know (not to mention the greatest miracles!) and yet the prophet was still led to ask 'Who has believed the message?' Crazy. Is there anything in creation that is harder than the heart of man? And what about now? Are the hearts of the people in the Western world especially any better?

But let's look at one reason why they found it so hard to believe. Isaiah tells us that Jesus was 'like a root out of dry ground'. The hard dry ground represents the nation of Israel at that time yet this tender shoot was able to break through this ground and grow. [7] Isaiah then adds that He 'had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him.' [8] In other words, Jesus was NOT what the people were expecting the Messiah to be like! They thought of a 'tall handsome powerful deliverer' [9] who would vanquish Israel's enemies and lead the nation into everlasting peace. And what they got was a humble poor common-looking carpenter who spoke of His own death a bit and didn't seem interested in being exalted or leading the nation as their king. Moral of the story?... God is not like us. His thoughts are different, His ways are different and His goals are different. He is not like us... thank goodness.

A man acquainted with sorrows... yet ever joyful.

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. (Isaiah 53:3)

We said concerning the last verse that God's ways are different to our ways. Well, look at the path that God chose for His Son in this verse - 'despised', 'rejected', 'sorrow', 'suffering', 'not esteemed'. Great! After thousands of years God finally comes to His people in person and what kind of response does He get? They hate Him. What was it do you think that grieved Jesus and caused Him sorrow? Our sorrow is often self-pity is it not? Yet there was no self-pity to be found within the Saviour. No, the cause of His sorrow was external. It was the hard heart of His people that caused Him sorrow and He openly wept over the state of Jerusalem. He came in love and was rewarded with rejection. He came with grace and was rewarded with hatred.


We started this study with a verse that says that Messiah will prosper. He will succeed. This last verse however gives us a reminder of what He had to go through to fulfil that purpose of God. How do you feel when you are rejected by a friend? How do you feel when you are spoken against or ridiculed or despised or ignored? We may get glimpses of this but God was rejected and despised by an entire nation. His nation! It was His people that He came to with His hand stretching forth in grace and mercy that didn't want to know. And yet, despite it all, we still read that because of the JOY set before Him he endured it all. And, as we will see in the next three verses, there was a lot more that Jesus had to go through than just rejection and hatred. We'll look at that next as we continue this study through

[1]  This passage has led to the salvation of many believers. Here is a testimony from Dr. Louis S. Lapides, a Jewish Christian from Newark, New Jersey concerning the impact of Isaiah 53 in his life (as mentioned in Lee Strobel's 'The Case for Christ')

'As Lapides progressed through the Scriptures, he was stopped cold by Isaiah 53. With clarity and specificity, in a haunting predicÐtion wrapped in exquisite poetry, here was the picture of a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of Israel and the world - all written more than seven hundred years before Jesus walked the earth... Instantly Lapides recognized the portrait: this was Jesus of Nazareth! Now he was beginning to understand the paintings he had seen in the Catholic churches he had passed as a child: the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus, the Jesus who he now realized had been "pierced for our transgressions" as he "bore the sin of many."... So breathtaking was this discovery that Lapides could only come to one conclusion: it was a fraud! He believed that Christians had rewritten the Old Testament and twisted Isaiah's words to make it sound as if the prophet had been foreshadowing Jesus. Lapides set out to expose the deception. "I asked my stepmother to send me a Jewish Bible so I could check it out myself," he told me. "She did, and guess what? I found that it said the same thing! Now I really had to deal with it."

[2]  Never before, and never again, will so much rely upon one man. If Jesus had failed, if He had given in to Satan's temptation, if He had sinned or chosen to by-pass the cross... then we were all doomed. But thankfully the prophetic word tells us here, 700 years in advance, that Jesus will prosper and He will succeed.

[3]  And you too are asked to take up your cross and follow Christ. And in that respect, every test, every trial, every difficulty that crosses your path is used by God to conform and transform your will unto His will. Every one. Why? So that you too will have the eternal glory and reward that the Father desires for you. God acts in the present with eternity in mind. He sees the big picture. The problem is getting our little pea brains to comprehend the same!

[4]  Alan Carr lists the following references to what Jesus went through and the affects of the cross:
1. Beating - Luke 22:63-64; Psa. 129:3
2. Scourging - Matt. 27:26
3. Spitting - Matt. 27:30
4. Mockery - Matt. 27:26-29
5. Beard Plucked From Face - Isa. 50:6
6. Stripped - Matt. 27:35 - (They gambled for His garments.)
7. Nailed To The Cross - Matt. 27:38; John 20:25
8. Crucifixion Itself - A death on the cross is the most horrible form of execution known to mankind! We derive our word "excruciating" from it. When a man was crucified on the cross tremendous strain was exerted on the wrists, arms and shoulders, usually resulting in the dislocation of the shoulder and elbow joints. The arms, being held up and outward, held the rib cage in a fixed end inspiratory position which made it extremely difficult to exhale and totally impossible to take a full breath. The victim would only be able to take very shallow breaths. (Ill. This explains the brevity of Christ's statements on the cross.) As time passed, the muscles, from the loss of blood, loss of oxygen and the fixed position of the body, would undergo severe cramps and spasmodic contractions. Suffocation was the ultimate cause of death on the cross. Because of the position of the body, the muscles in the chest would be contracted, forcing the dying man to push against the nails in his feet to raise himself thereby allowing himself to take a breath. After a time, the victim would no longer be able to raise himself up to exhale and he would begin to suffocate. Normally, heart failure due to the accumulation of fluid resulted in cardiac arrest. The death of Jesus was a horrible affair!

[5]  Some quick examples for the diligent among you (let's see if that is you!): Lev 4:6; Lev 8:11; Lev 14:7. Of course the N.T doesn't let us down in this regard either with: Heb 10:22; Heb 11:28, Heb 12:24; 1Pet 1:2.

[6]  This is quoted in the New Testament in the following places indicating that even though Jesus did all that was needed for the people to believe, still their hardened hearts would not allow them to trust in Him:
'Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: "Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" (John 12:37-38)

'And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.' (Romans 10:15-17)

[7]  F.B Meyer writes on this verse: 'The tender plant; the sucker painfully pushing its way through the crust of the caked ground; the absence of natural attractiveness. Such imagery awaits and receives its full interpretation from the New Testament, with its story of Christ's peasant parentage, his manger-bed, and lowly circumstances - fisherfolk his choice disciples; poverty his constant lot; the common people his devoted admirers; thieves and malefactors on either side of his cross; the lowly and poor the constituents of his Church. This were humiliation indeed, though the irregularities of human lot are scarce distinguishable from the heights whence He came.'

[8]  My friend Brett would probably say that he looked 'a little Gordonary'. Beginning to think I should start looking for a new friend. : )

[9]  If you were God, and you were going to become a man or a woman, do you think you would make yourself good looking? Come on now... don't try to be spiritual... you know you would! You would make yourself be tall, athletic and well, quite striking - Someone that people stop and take notice of! Someone like the first king of Israel - Saul. Well, that's why thankfully you, and I, are not God! We would make a terribly self focused/self centred creator. But God is not like us. His ways and not our ways. He was content for His beauty to be inward. Recently I did a study series on the Tabernacle. One thing that I noticed (long after finishing the study - dooh!) is that the Tabernacle was covered on the outside with Badger skins. Thus, it was not overly attractive for those just looking at the outside. And yet, for those who entered into the Tabernacle, the inside was an array of gold and splendid colours and beauty. You know where I am going with this from the moment I said 'Badger' didn't you? The Tabernacle is a picture of Jesus Christ. Outwardly, in His humanity, there was nothing special to look at. Just old badger skins. But inwardly, oh, what immense beauty! One day, when He returns, that inward glory and beauty shall be displayed outwardly for all to see. And on that day if you are found among the 'sheep' then you too will display the same glory of the New Creation. Yep, bring it on!