Below are five logos. Take a good look at each of them. We have the Fed Ex logo, The Tostitos logo, The Toblerone Logo, The Goodwill logo, and the Tour de France logo (all protected and trademarked by their companies).
Okay, now that you have seen each of these, what didn’t you see? Did you see the arrow in the FedEx logo? Once you see it, it’s obvious. Do you see the two people with the Tostito chip preparing to dip it into the salsa? Now, I can’t unsee it. Do you see the happy bear on the Toblerone mountain? Is it a chocolate bar or a chocolate bear? In either case, it is unbearable; and once you see it, it jumps off the mountain. Do you see that the “g” in goodwill is the same half-face smiling on the logo, but with a different background? I’ve seen their logo a million times. All I can say is that it is not good that I have missed it. And “are” you able to see the rider (and his bike) in the Tour de France logo? “R” hope is that it is easily recognizable.
In my opinion, whenever you read Isaiah 53, Jesus is very visible. In fact, it is obvious. He jumps off the page. And once you see him in this passage, you can’t unsee him. After all, look at Isaiah 53:5-6 and answer, who else could it be?
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
More than any other passage, Isaiah 53 is one where you either see it or you don’t. I see it, but others don’t. In fact, even brilliant people like Levine and Brettler don’t see it. Here’s today’s question: Why don’t they see it? As it turns out, they have a handful of reasons for denying that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. We’ll look at four of them.
First, Isaiah never calls the servant, the Messiah. That does seem odd. One would think that if the suffering servant was a Messianic figure, Isaiah would have said so. But he doesn’t. And it is not because Isaiah never identifies the Messiah. In fact, eight chapters earlier, Isaiah calls the Persian King Cyrus, God’s messiah. But here in Isaiah 53, he never even hints that the Servant is the Messiah. Nor is the Servant ever cast as the ideal Davidic king. And that leads Levine and Brettler to conclude: “Thus, within second Isaiah, the servant is not a messianic figure – and cannot be one.”
Second, Levine and Brettler argue that a careful reading of Isaiah 53 shows that the servant does not die. After all, Isaiah plainly says in verses 10-11 that he will see his offspring, that he will prolong his days, that the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand; and after he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied. But what about all those other verses that speak of his death in verses 8 and 9 (where he is cut off from the land of the living and assigned a grace with the wicked)? They are figurative! Often, the Hebrew Bible uses death imagery to depict severe danger (e.g., Jonah 2:6; Ps. 86:13), so it is here. Had Isaiah really wanted to say that the Servant died, he could have said it in a way that leaves no questions, but he didn’t. As a result, Levine and Brettler say: “Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is therefore better understood as suggesting a horrific ordeal experienced by one individual, who survives.”
Third, while Christians see the suffering of the Servant as a sacrifice for sins, Levine and Brettler note that there is a significant lack of sacrificial terms in this passage. There is no mention of an altar or the sprinkling of blood or any other priestly language. And when Isaiah 53:10 says that his suffering is “an offering for sin,” it is better to understand what is happening here not as a sin offering, but as “compensation for guilt.” In fact, it could not be an offering for sin because as Jeremy Schipper notes: “Comparisons between the servant and an unblemished animal that dies a sacrificial death work only if one ignores or downplays the repeated images of disease or sickness throughout Isaiah 53.” Therefore, Levine and Brettler conclude: “In Isaiah 53, the servant is sick as a result of other people’s guilt, but this sickness is not depicted as a sacrifice.”
Fourth and closely related, since the servant does not die, his suffering could not be seen as an offering for sin. Instead, God sees the suffering of this individual and views it as representative of all the suffering of the exiles. In this way, his suffering has a vicarious guilt-removing effect on the people in exile. It does not atone for the sin of the people, but in God’s eyes, it absorbs their guilt. Levine and Brettler write: “Isaiah 53 originally referred to one of the prophet’s exilic contemporaries, whom he viewed as vicariously atoning for the guilt-ridden exilic (or early postexilic) community. We know neither this individual’s name nor anything about him beyond what this difficult passage says.”
So who is this servant? Some suggest that the Servant is the nation of Israel and that what we read is a picture of their suffering in exile. After all, several times in Isaiah 40-55, God calls Israel his servant (see Isaiah 44:1-2). Others argue it is Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentile nations (but that seems a bit of a stretch since the Gentles are not present in the servant songs). Others feel it is a well-known individual, maybe Isaiah himself, maybe Jeremiah, maybe Hezekiah or maybe Zerubbabel. But most people feel the servant is simply an unknown individual buried in Israel’s past. And that is why Levine and Brettler conclude: “We would love to know who the servant was – if indeed the prophet intended it to be a single individual. Identifying this person, and even determining whether the servant is identical in all of its uses in Isaiah 40-55 is impossible.”
As I said, more than any other passage, Isaiah 53 is one where you either see it or you don’t. Levine and Brettler obviously don’t see it. And I get it, their arguments have some weight to them; but personally for me, I can’t escape seeing Jesus in Isaiah’s words. But what about you? What do you see? Maybe looking at Isaiah 53 in light of the New Testament will help. And maybe looking at Isaiah 53 in light of Isaiah will really help. That’s what we will look at next week. In the meantime, I’ll close with this. What hidden message do you see in this logo?
In my opinion, if you don’t see the gorilla and the lion, you’re missing the whole point. It is the same with Isaiah 53. If you don’t see, you’re missing everything!
(All images are trademarked and are the property of the following companies: Federal Express, Tostitos, Toblerone, Goodwill, the Tour de France and the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium. Each image is both brilliant and amazing.)