I often am asked how to interpret a certain troubling part of Isaiah 53 "Yet the Lord delighted to crush him and cause him to suffer" (verse 10). A typical way to understand this is in the context of penal substitutionary atonement, so that it means that God delighted
to see his beloved servant, Jesus, suffer. It was the will
of the father to "crush" his son.
That's a reading that makes God seem unjust, and even sadistic. That seems wrong of course. God the Father is not a monster, right? But what are we to do with that troubling phrase "Yet the Lord.."?
First of all we need to begin by recognizing the genre we are reading. This is poetry, which is a form of writing that uses dramatic descriptions to paint a powerful picture. In particular, this poem paints the picture of a tragic irony where the one who was thought to be guilty turns out to be innocent, the one who was believed to be bad turns out to be the one who brings healing to us all. It is a poem of reversal. We thought he was accused and condemned, but it is in fact we who are guilty.
To see this unfolding drama of reversal we need to take in all of the poem, which actually begins in chapter 52:13-15. It can be difficult with a more literal word for word translation because the flow of the poem, the unfolding story, can get lost in translation. So instead let's listen to a translation that keeps the poetic/dramatic flow,
Indeed, who would ever believe it?
Who would possibly accept what we’ve been told?
Who has witnessed the awesome power and plan of the Eternal in action?
Out of emptiness he came, like a tender shoot from rock-hard ground.
He didn’t look like anything or anyone of consequence—
he had no physical beauty to attract our attention.
So he was despised and forsaken by men,
this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend.
As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way;
he was despised, forsaken, and we took no notice of him.
Yet it was our suffering he carried,
our pain and distress, our sick-to-the-soul-ness.
We just figured that God had rejected him,
that God was the reason he hurt so badly.
But he was hurt because of us; he suffered so.
Our wrongdoing wounded and crushed him.
He endured the breaking that made us whole.
The injuries he suffered became our healing.
(Isa 53:1-5, the Voice)
Can you hear the unfolding story here? It begins with an expression of shock and disbelief, "Can you believe it?!" the poet asks, "Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?" It goes on to tell the story of suffering and affliction, and how the people--referred to here as "we" had assumed that this poor suffering soul was being punished by God.
If you are sick, it must be because you are guilty. If you are suffering hardship, or starvation, or misfortune, it must be because you deserve it. That's the assumption of the law, echoed by many of the Hebrew prophets. It's a huge theme we find all through the Old Testament. Yet in parts of the Old Testament, this assumption is questioned. It's questioned in many of the Psalms, certainly in Job, and it is questioned here in Isaiah. Here the idea comes forward that perhaps sometimes people can suffer for righteousness, people can suffer who are innocent.
The trouble with that idea is that if the innocent suffer, this begs the question, how can a good God allow this? Is God not good and loving? Or perhaps even more frightening to contemplate, is God not really in control?
That's where we have the turn in this poem, with the small but powerful word "yet" which in Hebrew is just a single letter. Up til now in the story, we should have our hands clasped over our mouths, shocked and ashamed at this picture of injustice, and the role we have played in it. The picture painted here is not at all one of justice fulfilled, but deliberately the polar opposite. It is a picture of a miscarriage of justice, of a grave injustice. "By oppression and judgment he was taken away" (v8, ESV), and we are not portrayed as passive observers in this story, but revealed as guilty. We caused his suffering, we hurt him.
But even still, we are told, God has a plan in this... a plan, Isaiah tells us, that God "delights" in. Again, this is Hebrew poetry which frequently uses hyper-dramatic descriptions to stress a point. So while the text literally
says that "the Lord delighted in crushing him" it seems highly unlikely that it was Isaiah's intent to make us think "Wow, Yahweh is really unjust and evil!" Rather, Isaiah wants to pull us into a riddle, he wants us to struggle with him in trying to figure out how
it can be that God can have a part in this crazy story of injustice, and how somehow out of that injustice good can result. How can this be? How does this work?
Now jump forward to the time of Jesus, and put yourself in the shoes of the disciples, post crucifixion, post resurrection, trying to make sense of what God has done in Jesus. They have seen Jesus unjustly accused by Rome, condemned and sentenced to torture and death. And yet, they say, as wrong and horrible as all that was, God had a plan to somehow bring about our healing and redemption.
Digging through their Scriptures, they come upon this poem in Isaiah and exclaim "Yes! Here it is! We've seen this story unfold before us!" Perhaps more than in any other part of the Old Testament, the writers of the New Testament identified the Servant Song with Jesus. What I want to propose is that it is also in this Christological reading that we can understand what Isaiah means. We need to read Isaiah 53 through the lens of Jesus.
Listen to how Peter frames this in his sermon at Pentecost, "This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:23-24, NIV). Note that Peter sees all of this as part of God's plan, but what happens is wicked and wrong. This can be summed up in Peter's phrase "You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead." (Acts 3:15).
We see this same pattern in the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers plot to kill him, but Joseph declares, "What you meant for harm, God meant for good" (Genesis 20:50). This is what that little word "yet" signifies. It's about how God takes evil and uses it to bring about good. Not because God delights in evil or injustice, but because God delights in taking what is broken and turning it into something good and beautiful. God uses the cross, and uses it to bring about our salvation. God delights in taking what is bad and evil, and making it good. This is the great reversal of the cross. Beauty from ashes. Life from death.
Our task is to learn how to walk in that same way as Jesus. How can we learn to practice self-sacrificing love? How can we learn to take what is truly bad in our lives, and yet somehow work with God to bring about good from it nevertheless? Not by calling evil good, not by denying the reality of our pain, not by ignoring injustice, not by glorying suffering. That's all wrong, and underscores that this is not easy. Yet... yet the cross points us to a way to turn that around, it points us to resurrection.