Preview

In August 2005, I had one of the unique and most enjoyable and uplifting experiences of my life. It was aesthetic, and not spiritual. I attended a writer’s conference in Columbus, Ohio, to see whether I could jumpstart my fiction writing. That was not to be at that time, but I was privileged to be able to meet, to spend time with and to hear Ted Kooser. Ted was then ending his time as the Poet Laureate of the United States. He had actually spent almost his entire career in the insurance industry, and he had retired as an insurance executive. Yet he never forgot his dedication to poetry, and I found it extremely impressive how much effort  he put in over the years to learn and improve his poetry, and I was privileged to be able to spend some time simply talking with him and one evening to hear him recite his own poetry. Over the decades this tremendous care and effort put his poetry resulted in a unique achievement, a modern day poetry that reaches ordinary people and speaks to their experiences. His books of poetry sold at ten times the number that were usual for books of modern poetry, and it was because of this that he was honored with the Poet Laureate title.

In the Bible there are many poetic passages, and other than David, the prophet Isaiah could be known as a Poet Laureate of the Old Testament. Isaiah had a ministry in Jerusalem, in close contact with the kings, for at least 60 years. It may be that his actual seal has been recently found in Jerusalem; the name on it is actually Isaiah, and several letters from the Hebrew word for prophet follow. It was as if this seal would have read in English, “Isaiah the proph . . .”. His poetic prophecies came first of all for the guidance and comfort for Israel after the defeat of the Assyrian army on the doorstep of Jerusalem, in 701 B.C.E. Yet after this historically attested devastation of the immense army from the world empire of the time, God have Isaiah spiritual awareness of a different world power that would threaten the people of God in the future. Isaiah prophesied, in some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry of the Bible, about the survival of the remnant from the Babylonian exile after the destruction of Jerusalem. In this section of prophecy, the book of comfort from chapters 40-66, gives four Servant songs for the comfort and spiritual awareness of the people of God for what was then the future and for all the people of God for all time. In these songs he was speaking about someone special who would be coming, in the future, the virtual representative of the nation in one person. The first Servant Song established that this special Servant was the ruling Son promised to the house of David far earlier in the book and the ministry in 9:-17, and the one on whom the Spirit would dwell in 11:1 and following. All these Songs came together to provide pieces of a preview of what was to come, and the cumulative effect of the pieces of the previews was to give a picture of the Messiah to come. Among all the Servant Songs, the fourth Servant Song is and remains the most familiar and the most influential, among the most beautiful and well known.


Messianic prophecy is in a way like the previews and trailers for upcoming movies that we see in our day. In Messianic prophecy God gives a brief series of word images as a preview of what he would do through the Messiah who was to come to a prophet, and the prophet describes what God had shown him. In this fourth Servant Song telling the people of God for all time what was to come. His previews of the Messiah to come were not not a series of videos but word dramas, and previews, in most beautiful, highly crafted poetry, with metaphors, similes, verses, stanzas, rhythm and all the other aspects that distinguish what we call poetry from prose. Most often in the ancient world prophecy was expected to be poetic, and it fully met this expectation in the Old Testament and in the work of Isaiah, to convey God’s words strikingly and memorably. Ancient Hebrew poetry was not so much rhyme as in popular poetry and songs in English, but parallelism and rhythm. Though modern rap is somewhat lost on me, the parallelism and rhythm might have seemed somewhat like rap. In a way it seems like the fourth Servant Song was the masterpiece of the great prophet. It seems evident to me that he put great care and love put into fabrication of the prophecy of the Messiah as the suffering and exalted Servant – and if there’s anything that Ted Kooser taught me, it’s that quality poetry that speaks to people is very hard work and takes great loving care and concern. This, shows how precious the truth was to him, how much he wished to communicate it appropriately, and how much the Holy Spirit was working within him to bring it to us in his writing as the inspired Word of God. But we now live after the fulfillment of this prophecy, in the New Testament, and the fulfillment of this prophecy in the New Testament is like having in front of us the whole spoiler alert, of the whole drama as the whole fourth Servant Song was enacted before us now. What was then a prophecy is now a  reality for all of us now on the other side of the prophecy, for those of us who have already seen the preview for the entire drama of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And we can now live with the realization that this was not a drama for our entertainment, enjoyment and distraction but for the fulfillment of our deepest needs now and forever.


“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”


“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?
He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”


“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”


“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Dale’s own translation; see here for other translations)


The salvation which God brings is the ultimate shock to this world. The salvation that God brings amazes to silence the greatest that the world has to offer; the high and mighty shrink to insignificance before the person who brings this salvation. The person who brings the salvation, the suffering servant, has brought it about in total contradiction to the conventional wisdom of this world. The salvation of God, despite all the expectations of this world, would come about through a servant who had experienced the ultimate suffering.


The exaltation of the suffering Messiah is the ultimate wonder of the world. All the world of mankind diminishes with nothing in itself beside the suffering and exaltation in triumph of the suffering Servant of God. The preview that the prophet gives, that he had seen, and then explained and celebrated, was about a shocking disfigurement and a shocking exaltation to power and authority.


Ancient poetry is divided into strophes (pronounced strof –ee). The word comes from Greek, and is a common term in the study of ancient Greek poetry as well. The first strophe – or stanza, or first verse of the fourth Servant Song – is in Isaiah 52: 12-15:

“Look! My servant will achieve success;
He will be lofty, lifted up and exalted.
Just as so many were amazed at him,
So was he abused beyond even appearing to be a human being,
More than the children of Adam,
So has he sprinkled many Gentiles!
Kings have shut their mouths at him,
Because just as it was not told to them they will see,
And what they had not heard they will understand.”

In accord with much literature, and in ancient literature particularly, Isaiah begins the fourth Servant Song at the conclusion. He describes the wise success and exaltation of the suffering Servant, after his suffering has taken place. Through the prophecy of the fourth Servant Song, then, God calls the world to behold the exaltation of his Servant. This song starts with the wonder of the world at the ultimate wonder of this world, the exaltation of the Servant after his suffering. Though he was upon the hill of Zion, behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem, the vision of the Suffering Servant in the fourth Servant Song goes far beyond the Jewish nation. What would happen with the Suffering Servant would astonish the world to speechlessness and it would be something spectacular about which the world had no clue. What would come about from him would even be a priestly work even to sprinkle the vast nations and hordes of Gentiles, which would be entirely the action of a High Priest to sanctify but entirely unprecedented in that no High Priest of the line of Aaron of the nation of Israel every came close to doing such a thing, let alone at the cost of severe personal suffering. And in the context of the previous prophecies about that Suffering Servant would be the ruling Son of the House of David, this tells that the path to the fulfillment of these promises of rule would be his severe suffering! Rather than taking up political rule, this establishes that suffering would be the path to the promises of the rule for the ruling Son of David. For a nation which had experienced severe setbacks and reduction from the past glories of political power in the ancient Middle East, the expectation would be that military and political power would be the path to triumph against the imperial war machines of that day. Yet this establishes that the shocking work of the wisdom of God, in the suffering of the royal Son of David, would follow after the return from the captivity in Babylon – which had just been mentioned in the previous context in the earlier verses of chapter 52 of Isaiah.


The preview of the coming attraction shows something that no one of this world would consider attractive from the start. The worldly wise who do not begin from the fear of the LORD (Proverbs 1:7) would never have figured it out beforehand. The great reversals characteristic of how God works through the coming of Jesus into our world, to bring the rulers and authorities of this world to bow down before the pierced feet of the Messiah in wonder and outright astonishment that such a thing could happen, and how it would show them to be next to nothing besides him.


Even more, the life and times of the suffering Servant would not be what the world as a whole would ever find as a suitable beginning of God’s ruler of this world. The path of the Suffering Servant to supreme power and authority over the universe would never be the path of someone that they would ever consider for the person who would become vastly superior to all of them with all authority and power in heaven and earth. So this is what we find in the second verse – not the same as the first! The second stanza and the second strophe, in Isaiah 53:1-3, goes like this:

“Who, then, has come to believe what they have heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord explained this?

He rose up before us like a sprouting plant,
Like a sapling from dry ground.
He had no visage or beauty to draw us to him,
Nor an outward appearance that we would find compelling.
Rather, he was despised and rejected by mankind —
A man of sorrows and acquainted with what breaks our hearts.
We hid our faces from him; he was despised
And we were not impressed by him.”

Again, the fourth Servant Song centers on the life of a single person. The previous astonishment of the entire world at the exaltation of the suffering Messiah gives way to the utter; astonishment of the Prophet at the few who believe and receive the news about the suffering Servant. The suffering Servant would be someone who would come from humble beginnings, yet he would be ultimately and exclusively ‘the arm of the Lord’. This world looked for the beautiful person with the aura of power and magnetism. But this world could not and would not realize the real power was in the life and ministry of the man who dealt with people who had griefs and sicknesses, and that very man who received the disdain and rejection of the high and mighty at the culmination of his ministry.


The people of this world seek often enough the attractive, dominating, attractive and magnetic persons to lead. From them often arise the false Messiahs of this world, the earthly figures of politics, entertainment and human religion. But God continues throughout history with the great reversals of value that come with Jesus, when he changes the price tags on so much that this world has held to be of value. In the ultimate reign of God over our world and over the course of time that we dare to call human history it all comes down at the end to be the history of the Son of Man, the Jesus of the scriptures. There is ultimately nothing compared with the Savior who came and lived among us already. This certainly gives us sufficient reason never to lift up any human being on a pedestal, to see another person as the Messiah for us when the true Messiah has often come. This was once brought home tragically to the frontier hero Kit Carson. He was part of the rescue mission for a woman named Annie White who had been captured by the Apaches, and she tragically did not survive. He later wrote, “In camp was found a book, the first of the kind I had ever seen, in which I was made a great hero, slaying Indians by the hundreds … I have often thought that Mrs. White read the same … [and prayed] for my appearance that she might be saved.”


The suffering of the Suffering Servant, though, is not at all suffering for the sake of suffering. It is by no means the infliction of suffering of a vengeful God upon an helpless and unwilling victim. Rather the suffering Servant suffers entirely and willingly for the ultimate good of his people. He came as the deliverer who delivers not by conquest of evildoers but by being delivered to the worst that the evil doers could do, and yet through that conquering the evil of this world by providing the path of peace and reconciliation for the entire world. This is what the prophet celebrates in the third verse, the third stanza or the third strophe (53:4-6):

“Certainly he has shouldered what breaks our hearts,
And he has taken our sicknesses upon himself.
We regarded him as someone who was suffered;
Struck down by God and utterly beaten down.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
Beaten to a pulp for our wickedness.
The punishment to bring us peace was upon him,
And by the whipping marks on his back we have been healed.
All of us, just like sheep, have wandered off;
Each one of us have rebelled to follow our own way,
And the LORD has brought down upon him the iniquities of us all.”

The prophet now includes himself among the people of God. Here he is speaking of the reason for the suffering of the Servant before he describes the suffering. He describes the suffering of the servant as bearing sickness and sins, as one who takes it and bears it away. Certainly his affliction and torment came as divine punishment, but not for anything he had done wrong at all. In fact, the prophet emphasizes the innocence of the Servant here emphasized as he describes how he was pierced and pulverized. Again, all this was totally unprecedented and totally contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. In this fourth Servant Song the Suffering Servant then provided the satisfaction of justice to bring about peace and reconciliation between mankind and God – an amazing, unbelievable accomplishment in a world where all people were regarded as separated from each other by their national cultures, families and clans and national god and myths. Here is the image of mankind as sheep who were going astray, since like sheep we are all prone to wander off and get lost, and find ourselves in need of someone stronger and wiser to save us from where our ignorance, follies and transgressions have taken us. So many of us see it as justice for the fools that we see around us to suffer the consequences for their folly, but here the prophet tells us all that the penalty for the single-minded, hard headed wandering around which is the life of sin, which is the way of all of us, has been taken entirely by the Suffering Servant of the fourth Servant Song.

So then, this is what we find out here, and it should be terribly shocking and eye opening to each one of us: in a world where you don’t get what you deserve, someone else got what you deserved. In this world which is stuck on stupid, stuck on hardheaded, stuck on defiant, it ended up with someone else getting what everyone in this world deserved. But this not something that we find as meaning anything for us without a real personal connection to what it was all about. It falls to each one of us to be one of those who realizes what it’s all about and makes that personal reception of it for ourselves. For someone raised in church, or comes to church through marriage or family, this is often the step not taken in that person’s life, to take it for himself or herself. For with what the Messiah has done for each one of us, there is still that personal connection to him that is needed, that there is no secondhand faith that can save, but that each of us rather need to make one’s own peace with God, to receive the gift that came when that Suffering Servant took what you deserved and what he did not deserve.


This is something like my personal connection to several Marvel movies that were extremely popular. With the first Avengers movie that was filmed in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, I went downtown on a Saturday to watch and take some personal photographs of the filming. It gave me the chance to be close to the set, see the extras, even to be considered a part of the crew. Then I also was extremely surprised as I recognized a number of scenes in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie, since I had already photographed them and had the images of those locations in my personal albums. There was even a scene in the Spiderman III movie where I could point out the place where I had waited for the Regional Transit Authority bus on my commute to and from my suburban home. But with all that, I was a witness to the locations and some of the filming but not a part of the films; even when I was close to the Avengers set I didn’t have the Marvel name tag that meant I was a part of the production. Many who are part of our churches and with whom we rub shoulders every day are close to our churches and believers, and may even be mistaken for a genuine believer, but they have never received that name tag, to be tagged with the name of Jesus Christ because one has put his or her faith in him for one’s own eternal salvation. This is what it means to have saving faith, like the testimony of John Wesley, who describes that moment came to faith in Jesus. When he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate, someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans and then, about 8:45 p.m. ” . . . while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”


But then, the effect of the suffering of the Servant is described in the fourth Servant Song before the cause of the suffering of the Servant. The earthly machinery of injustice would bring about the suffering and death of the suffering Servant. The innocent but suffering Servant would be caught up in the suffering of the innocent in this world, and would be the ultimate example of the suffering of the innocent as he suffered to the uttermost. This is what the prophet told about in the fourth strophe (53:7-9). So here’s the fourth stanza, the fourth verse:

“He suffered oppression and suffering,
Yet he did not open his mouth!
Like a lamb to the slaughter he was brought out to trial,
So he did not open his mouth!
By oppression and from trial he he was brought out —
And who can discover any of his descendants?
Because he was cut off from the land of the living.
And for the transgressions of my people the death blow came upon him.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
And was with a rich man in his death,
Though he himself had committed no crimes,
And no deception was found in him.”

So then, the prophet comes to the prophecy of the the earthly circumstances of the suffering of the Servant. He describes what was to come and gives the preview of the suffering and death of the Suffering Servant, through terrible miscarriages of human injustice. The Suffering Servant would be known for his meekness and patience throughout the oppressive, unjust judicial proceedings, and ultimately he would be led away after arrest and sentencing to execution. He would be treated as one of the criminals of this world, and yet he would not buried as a criminal but as a rich man. The mention of no posterity pointed to the young age of the Servant, that the worthless and futile miscarriage of justice in that day and age would deprive him of marriage and children; his would be a life short changed of what he deserved and cut short of a normal human existence, of the rewards of marriage, children and a ripe and pleasant old age. Instead, he took the blow, the plague, the curse upon himself, for the sin and transgressions of the people of God, and, though totally innocent himself, the innocent Servant would subjected to the ultimate injustice of this world, of the machinery of human justice gone insane and fatally dysfunctional.


This would ultimately be for the comfort for the people of God. In this world the innocent and the innocent among the people of God suffer, and this tells us that that their subjection to injusice and oppression is not in vain. Though the righteous people of God who suffer innocently, through no fault of their own, they have before them the  ultimate example in the Savior who already suffered the ultimate in oppression and injustice. But, though, the prophet didn’t end here with the suffering of the Servant; rather he concluded just as he began with the victory of the Servant.


The salvation which God brings comes as the victory of the Savior. The salvation of God is the the salvation which exalts and glorifies the Savior by the will of God, and it is the utter triumph of the suffering Servant of God. This is the happy ending of the song which is the happy ending of the Servant and and the happy ending for those for whom he suffered.


Finally, the ultimate prize for the universe goes to the suffering Servant of God. Though that is a contest that no one would want to enter, yet the one who endured such humiliation and suffering would receive as his reward more than anything that the high and mighty would ever manage to take for themselves by force or command. He would be the ultimate conqueror who conquered ultimately by allowing himself to be treated as if he was conquered completely. This is the triumph of the fifth strophe (53:10-12). So this is the conclusion, the fifth stanza and the fifth verse:

“Yet God was satisfied when he was crushed and when he suffered,
Though he makes his life a guilt offering,
He will see his offspring, he will stretch out his days.
After the suffering of his soul he will see light;

By his knowledge my Servant will justify many;
And he will carry away their sins.
Therefore I will assign to him his place among the great ones,
And he will divide up the prizes with the strong,
Because he poured out his life to the death,
And he was numbered with the transgressors,
Because he bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for sinners.”

So the fourth Servant Song repeats the theme of unexpected exaltation and triumph as it returns back to the conclusion; in many songs we see this and call it the familiar A-B-C-B-A structure. And then here at the conclusion there is the return to the exaltation of the suffering Servant. The conclusion of the song is all about his victory, and it centers on his victory over sin and death more than his unexpected exaltation before the powers and authorities of this world. The Suffering Servant had  literally had become a guilt offering for this world, and what happened was the will of the God of Israel. In fact, the Suffering Servant provided way for sinful people to be accounted righteous by personal knowledge of him. Even more, he performed the High Priestly duty of making intercession for the wrongdoers, and even more he played the part of the priest who was himself the sacrifice. His suffering, then, preceded his ascension to the power and authority to deal with the mighty and powerful of this earth as he pleases, To him alone came the results of great victory, the spoils, the booty and the prize for which all the high and mighty of this earth were seeking and striving. The description sounds as if he were leading all his enemies in a victory parade – and that is a very New Testament depiction of the victory of Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-12). And in this passage resurrection definitely implied if not indicated by the textual variant which was preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscript of Isaiah (“he shall see light”). But even if the actual text of Isaiah was different, the whole description implies resurrection of the Suffering Servant, since his suffering was suffering to death and the victory means that he must be alive afterwards.


The conclusion is that the ultimate victory is that of Jesus, who suffered and died according to the will and predetermination of God. Understand that all the rivals, such as Mohammed, Buddha, Krishna and Joseph Smith did not die for you; they are in their graves, they cannot save you, and they will not judge you at the end. Ultimately we will all face Jesus, and this will be the reversal for those who turn out at the end to have been on the wrong end of the machinery of injustice of this world. And with this comes the need for each one of us, the need to turn to Jesus, to be on the right side of the Son of God. For those who are not on the side of Jesus, they will find themselves in a worse predicament than the German soldiers in World War II who invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. They believed from the promises of the false Messiah Adolf Hitler that they would be in a victory parade in Moscow after the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they were; but as it happened, but they were there as the prisoners of the other side.


So the preview of the suffering of the ultimate Servant of God came to us as a carefully crafted song. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit it came not as a rant against injustice but a song of sadness and beauty which ended in the ultimate victory. It remains even if we are unaware of its poetic nature and beauty as one of the ultimate hit songs of all time, since it previews the ultimate happy ending for the people of God that came through the Suffering Servant. In our age, then the believer in Christ should definitely read and meditate on this song with the under stand that he or she knows exactly who the prophet was writing about. It may be that for us a modern song speaks to our hearts, but this one can and should speak to our hearts in a deeper way if we recognize who it is speaking about. This one came from the prophet through the Holy Spirit about the most precious realities that we can understand experience now and in the future. This song is the preview of what would happen through Jesus Christ in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. This song leads us to the ultimate, unshakeable hope in this world that has no hope in itself.

First of all, it should lead us all to recognize that all of us need a Savior, the Suffering Servant of this song. If you are reading this, your time is now to believe and receive eternal life through the Son of God. And just as much it should mean that we give no human being anything close to the worship and admiration that we give the Savior, since they will all fade to nothing, like the picture in an old television that shrinks to a dot and disappear, before the glory of the risen Savior, to whom all power and authority has been given in heaven and on earth. And finally this should mean that we also bow before the Savior in submission to him, for he has died and is risen again, and he is worthy!

2 thoughts on “Preview

  1. Thanks for sharing this– fascinating! I skimmed through it and look forward to reading it at a deeper level. I will make an appointment with myself to do that!

    Libby

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s