A non-penal understanding of Isaiah 53

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I got an email recently asking me to explain how the song of the suffering servant in Isa 53 can be understood a non-penal substitution way. So I decided to turn my (rather long) answer into a blog post.

One question that was brought up was the difference between the LXX (the Greek Old Testament read by the Apostles) and the Hebrew OT. For example take verse 10 where it says in the Hebrew

"Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering..." (NIV)

but the LXX has,
"The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if you give an offering for sin..."

These two texts clearly have different meaning, but let's step back for a moment and look at the big picture. The whole narrative of Isa 53 is one of a travesty of justice. It begins in 52 by saying that "kings will shut their mouths" when they finally get what no one was able to see coming. Then in 53 it begins by saying "who has believed this message?" and goes on to show how everyone in fact completely got it wrong and did not realize that the one who " took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows" was not someone they should despise as "stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted." The picture here we are seeing is one of a travesty of justice. The servant is treated unfairly. Though the people thought the servant deserved to suffer, really we were the sinful ones. It is not at all a picture of the fulfillment of justice, but of something is lamented as horribly unjust "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth... By oppression and judgment he was taken away."

Clearly this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice. No legal system would ever say it is just to punish the innocent. This goes completely against the entire thrust of the OT law, and indeed against all legal systems. Luther commenting on this says that it goes against "all law, custom, and reason." And that is the whole point. The big picture is that this is supposed to be a shock, something hard to swallow. Isaiah tells us this repeatedly. Paul similarly speaks of the cross as being "foolishness" and a "scandal". So with that in mind let's return to that verse in the LXX...

My guess is that a scribe changed it from "crush" to "cleanse" in an attempt to make sense of the text. The idea that this travesty of justice was somehow God's will was too much for him. So he "fixed" the text. Penal substitution tries to do the same thing by presenting the cross as a reasonable fulfillment of law, even though as I said this really makes no sense (punishing the innocent is not just). Here we who want to get away from a punitive understanding of the cross might also want to adopt the LXX reading and avoid the idea that Christ suffered for us too. But I think that is a mistake. The cross needs to stay a scandal and a shock. It needs to be intimidating. As Moltmann says "if we do not have the feeling that we must flee the cross of Christ, we have not yet understood it in a sufficiently radical way"

The crazy picture we get is that even though it is totally unfair, the servant bore our sickness, suffering, and hurtfulness and that somehow acts to cleanse us. Isaiah does not directly deal with how that works. He says that we are healed, brought peace, and carried, and alludes to the idea of sacrifice, speaking of lambs and guilt offerings (i.e. offerings of restitution). As I have argued here and here, sacrifice has nothing to do with punishment (sacrifice is the alternative to punishment) and everything to do with cleansing - that is with sanctification. So the purpose of Christ bearing our pain, doubt, fear, and ugliness is not so that God can be appeased, but so that we can be made new. This is as I have argued in my article here the way that the early church understood Christ's death for us. So with that in mind, let me "fix" the LXX

"The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of us by His wound, and if you give an accept his offering for sin..."

While I'm at it, let me offer a thought about doing biblical exegesis. Most people read the Bible one verse at a time. When doing this it is very easy to miss the larger story or narrative point (like the one we saw in Isa 53) and instead to simply plug in our preconceived doctrinal understandings onto the words and phrases we see in those little verse snippets. This is not at all helped by the fact that the majority of biblical scholars read in this same way, fussing over single words, arguing about the exact grammatical form of this or that word. Commentaries go on for pages like this, and if you asked me the result is that we focus on the crumbs and miss the cookie. We get so focused on some minute detail that we miss the big picture - not just of this chapter, but of how atonement works throughout the entire narrative of both Testaments, how it was understood by the Apostles, and by the early church. How all the pieces fit together. It is that BIG picture we need to focus on as the primary goal of biblical interpretation, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense. If we were interpreting any other novel or story we would certainly not fuss so much over some little sentence fragment or tense of a verb, we would read the whole story and talk about that. Likewise when people read this blog post I hope they focus on the points I am making and don't write a dissertation on my use of the word "of". It is really not that hard to interpret Isaiah 53 if we simply read it as a whole and look at the theme that it is developing. You don't need to know Hebrew or Greek, you just need to read the whole thing and get your head in the narrative. Someone who does this really well is Eugene Peterson. Here's his rendering of Isa 52:13-53:12:

13-15"Just watch my servant blossom!
Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn't begin that way.
At first everyone was appalled.
He didn't even look human—
a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes,
what was unthinkable they'll have right before them."

1 Who believes what we've heard and seen? Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?

2-6The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.
We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,
on him, on him.

7-9He was beaten, he was tortured,
but he didn't say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
and like a sheep being sheared,
he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he'd never hurt a soul
or said one word that wasn't true.

10Still, it's what God had in mind all along,
to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin
so that he'd see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
And God's plan will deeply prosper through him.

11-12Out of that terrible travail of soul,
he'll see that it's worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
will make many "righteous ones,"
as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I'll reward him extravagantly—
the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn't flinch,
because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

Labels: , ,


At 11:30 AM, Blogger Josh said...

Derek, about your use of the word "of"...(kidding).

I have long struggled with the use by many Christians of Isaiah 53 to support the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, so this post is of great interest to me. I recall, for example, the use by Mel Gibson of a passage from Isaiah 53 at the beginning of his bloody depiction of the passion of Jesus. Some additional thoughts:

1) I think any discussion of Isaiah 53 should acknowledge early on that the text in question was not originally written about the suffering and death of Jesus--much less penal substitution or any other theory of atonement. To claim otherwise would be anachronistic, as Isaiah was written several centuries before Jesus. Read in its literary and historical context, Isaiah 53 seems to be describing Israel as a suffering servant of God for the nations.

2) It should also be acknowledged that Christians have long reinterpreted Isaiah 53 (as well as other parts of the Old Testament); this Christianizing of the Hebrew scriptures has helped followers of Jesus see continuity between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus--which would have been especially important to the first-century church, since it was largely Jewish. In other words, there were missiological reasons for this hermeneutical approach; followers of Jesus wanted to attract and retain Jews to the Way, which required showing continuity between his story and their story. Thus, the Christian reinterpretation of Hebrew scriptures served a practical purpose; put simply, it made sense. As for a theological justification for this way of reading what Christians call the Old Testament, all that was needed was the example of Jesus--Jesus himself occasionally reinterpreted Hebrew scriptures, most obviously in the Sermon on the Mount.

3) The example of Jesus gives his followers permission to reinterpret Christianly Old Testament texts; in the case of Isaiah 53, Matthew further teaches us how to do so. In Matthew 8:14-17, Jesus is described healing the sicknesses and exorcising the demons of many people. Matthew concludes the passage with the help of Isaiah 53:4: "This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, 'He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.'" A number of observations may be made. First, Matthew reinterprets Isaiah 53, identifying Jesus with (but not necessarily as) the suffering servant of Isaiah. Second, Matthew highlights and connects the healing work of Jesus and the healing work of the suffering servant; it is reflection on Christ's healing life (not on his death) that causes Matthew to recall Isaiah's song. Third, Matthew connects healing and exorcism; they are both "infirmities" and "diseases" that are overcome or conquered by Jesus (note the Christus Victor theme emerging here). Fourth, Matthew does not connect Isaiah 53 to the death of Jesus--much less use Isaiah 53 to construct a theory of penal substitution.

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Good thoughts Josh. Let me add that the NT clearly identifies Jesus as the suffering servant. I am convinced that a theological interpretation of the Bible needs to prioritize a Christological reading over a historical-critical one, that is: the way the OT is read by the authors of the NT in the light of God's self-revelation in Christ trumps the original intent of the OT author. In this case, it is clear that the NT authors saw Isa 53 as applying to Jesus.

I agree with what you say about Matthew. I would add that Peter also quotes this same verse and does apply it to Christ's death. So if we assume a unity of the NT (I do), this would means it is "both/and". I would also say that the healings of Jesus have soteriological implications, that is, they are healings that involve Jesus overcoming the kingdom of Satan with the kingdom of God, salvation conceived in terms of a liberation from the bondage of sickness which in biblical thought is very connected to sin. This is very clearly a Christus Victor theme.

That means that the picture we have of what salvation looks like in Matthew here is not simply about forgiveness of sin (it is that too) but also about our healing on both a spiritual, physical, and emotional level. Isa 53 speaks of how our sin AND our sickness AND our sorrow is carried by the servant. That means that ANYTHING that can separate a person from God: grief and tragedy, debilitating disease... both the bad things we do, and the bad things that are done to us... all of that was borne by Jesus throughout his incarnation, death, and resurrection. That means that a legal conception of the atonement is simply to narrow to encompass all of what the Christ event and salvation is about. We need to think in much bigger categories that include physical illness, mental illness, oppression, poverty, sorrow, loss, guilt, doubt, and so on because that is the picture of salvation we see fleshed out in the gospels where we see an extended narrative of what the suffering servants actions (and therefore God's actions in our world) looks like.

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Josh said...


Certainly, some New Testament writers make use of Isaiah 53. I am not certain, however, that "the NT clearly identifies Jesus as the suffering servant." Of course, this interpretation is a possibility; but it is also possible that Jesus is identified "with" the suffering servant rather than "as" the suffering servant. If the intent of Peter (you seem to have 1 Peter 2:18-25 in mind) and the writer of Matthew was to identify Jesus with Israel, then a historical-critical reading and a Christological reading (what I termed Christian reinterpretation in my previous comment) of Isaiah 53 are not mutually exclusive. (Christians have read and will continue to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ, and I have no problem with giving more weight to Christological readings than to other readings; but in this case, there is no need to elevate a Christological reading over a historical-critical reading.) The suffering servant is both Israel and--by virtue of his identification with Israel--Jesus. Jesus fulfills Israel's vocation of suffering servant of God for the sake of all nations (cf. Genesis 12:1-3).

Neither Matthew nor 1 Peter expressly claims, "Jesus is the suffering servant." This fact may reflect their awareness that Isaiah has Israel in view. As New Testament writers reflected on the story of Jesus, they heard echoes of the Hebrew scriptures--which, as Jews, they knew well. So, for example, as he thought about the suffering and servantship of Jesus, Peter recalled Isaiah's song describing a suffering servant. Interestingly, Peter did so in the context of an argument that Jesus is an example to be followed. The atonement theory that comes closest to 1 Peter 2:18-25 is the moral example or influence theory.

In any case, Isaiah 53 was not written by a Christian reflecting on the meaning of the cross. Proponents of penal substitution tend to read it as if it were. (Did God punish Israel instead of other nations? Have other peoples not suffered?) If Isaiah 53 is reinterpreted to speak to the atoning person and work of Jesus, then the New Testament indicates that it should be used to support the Christus Victor theory (as both of us have argued) and the moral example or influence theory.

I appreciate your effort to expand the meaning of atonement beyond mere forgiveness of sin. Another way to expand its meaning is to move beyond individualism. Jesus not only heals me, a broken person, in any number of ways; Jesus also restores the whole of creation, conquering the powers and principalities that enslaved it and healing its wounds.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I like the subtly with which you are approaching this and would like to join in and dig together more. Let me first say I appreciate what you say about salvation involving all of creation and the cosmos. Together with what I said I think we get a picture that is both wide and deep.

Let's look at the identity of the servant. Even from a historical-critical perspective it is not at all clear that Isaiah intended the servant to be Israel. As I am sure you know the servant songs are Isa 42:1-9;49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. There we see the servant directly identified as Israel (Isa 49:3) but then just two verses later we read that the servant will restore Israel. So the text of Isaiah itself is enigmatic and there is no scholarly consensus as the the identity of the servant. John Goldingay (who you might know from Fuller) suggests that we should not try to approach this from a historical-critical perspective, but instead read it as poetry (which is after all what it is). So let me as an artist speak a bit to that:

A piece of art - a story, a song, a picture, and movie - takes on a life of its own as soon as it is shared with an audience. It leaves the control of the artist and is formed by how it is interpreted by the community. A song for example may take on meaning in your life that the singer never imagined. That meaning is real and valid. That is how art works. The servant songs in Isaiah are I think deliberately enigmatic which is why they are so powerful. That is, they allow for the hearer to inject the songs with meaning. They allow one to find their own situation in them.

So what we need to do is look to what the picture of the servant is about. Who is the servant in the sense of what is being embodied? I would say that the servant represents God's way of upside-down redemption, God's character, God's action in the world as the suffering God. The servant is God. Humanity was made in the image of God, and was to reflect God's image. To the extent that we do that we are truly human, and when we do not we are inhuman. Israel as God's covenant people had the special roll of being that true human to the world. They failed and were in exile. The servant needed now to redeem both Israel and the whole world (see Isa 49:5-6). Enter Jesus, who was that true human who thus truly reflected God's unexpected way. He was the awaited messiah who had VERY different ideas about what it meant to be messiah which even threw his friend Peter for a loop who like most Jews expected the messiah to use violence. But Jesus, as Isa 52:13-53:1 says, had other plans that were cross-shaped. What Isaiah envisioned in a poem, Jesus became in real flesh and blood. As Peter says,

"Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11trying 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. 12It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things." (1 Pet 1:10-12)

At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Minor correction: the commentator was Brueggemann not Goldingay (I have multiple commentaries I am currently reading on Isa and mixed them up).

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Here's a bit more:

The servant is identified as Israel (Isa 418-9):

"But you, O Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,

I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, 'You are my servant';
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.

But Israel fails in that mission (Isa 42:19-24)

Who is blind but my servant,
and deaf like the messenger I send?
Who is blind like the one committed to me,
blind like the servant of the LORD ?

20 You have seen many things, but have paid no attention;
your ears are open, but you hear nothing."

21 It pleased the LORD
for the sake of his righteousness
to make his law great and glorious.

22 But this is a people plundered and looted,
all of them trapped in pits
or hidden away in prisons.
They have become plunder,
with no one to rescue them;
they have been made loot,
with no one to say, "Send them back."

23 Which of you will listen to this
or pay close attention in time to come?

24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot,
and Israel to the plunderers?
Was it not the LORD,
against whom we have sinned?
For they would not follow his ways;
they did not obey his law.

Thus the servant (not Israel), must save the remnant of Israel (Isa 49:3-5)

He said to me, "You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor."

4 But I said, "I have labored to no purpose;
I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.
Yet what is due me is in the LORD's hand,
and my reward is with my God."

5 And now the LORD says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD
and my God has been my strength-

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Hi, Derek--

For the most part, I agree with these comments. Certainly, I think it is important to identify the genre of the Servant Songs as poetry, a fact that is another point against using them as a foundation for a penal substitutionary theory of atonement--this theory belongs to the genre of systematic theology. That the Servant Songs are poetry also helps to explain their fuzziness. However, I do think it's clear that the suffering servant is Israel--as your most recent comment indicates. The suffering servant may be more than Israel (I've surmised that the suffering servant is both Israel and Jesus, by virtue of his identification with Israel), but the suffering servant is at least Israel (Isaiah 41:8-9).

Andrew Perriman has picked up our conversation at http://www.postost.net/2010/06/theology-interpretation-isaiah-53.

At 7:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Josh,

Thanks for pointing out Andrew's blog. I'll have a look.

Yes I agree that it is "at least" Israel. The question I would ask is: who is Israel? That is, what does Israel represent here? What is the roll of the servant in that narrative? I'd say it is Israel in so far as Israel reflects the image of God. If you will, I am applying Paul's (new) perspective on what makes a person Jewish - it is not about being part of an ethnic people, nor about participating in certain rituals, it's about what you embody, a circumcision of the heart.

You mention systematic theology, and I consider myself to be one, but I'd also like to re-think systematic theology a bit and instead of having things in neat categories, to think more in narrative terms. In a novel there are many overlapping and even competing plot lines. Things are messy, intersecting, complex, and even contradictory. But that does not mean it is just a sloppy jumble. A good novelist can weave all of that together into a cohesive story. I think that is how life works, and how we need to approach (systematic) theology. Kevin Vanhoozer has been helpful to me in that regard.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Nick said...

What most don't realize is that Job is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. You might be interested in this post:


At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Nick,

I read and enjoyed your blog post. If I could summarize: what you are suggesting is that the picture conveyed in Job of unjust suffering is the same model in which the suffering servant in Isaiah should be understood, and thus how we should understand Christ's suffering. That is, it is not a picture of punitive suffering, but one of God using (but not inflicting) unjust suffering to bring about a higher purpose. This is a subplot in the OT and thus easy to miss (which is why the disciples missed it!)

In particular, an emphasis that we see in Job is the role of Satan. This is of course a clear emphasis in the NT as well, but this can be missed when we read Isaiah in isolation (which does not convey a concept of the devil) and when we have a way of understanding the atonement like the legal theory of penal substitution which only takes into account two parties: (1) the role of God (the law giver) and (2) humanity (the law breaker), but leaves out the very important role of the devil (the accuser and captor).

When we leave out the roll of Satan, then the only conclusion is that God must be inflicting the punishment, and so it must be just. But that is wrong. Clearly the suffering servant is innocent. God did not punish Jesus, evil did. Sin did. Fallen humanity under the captivity of the devil did. And so what God overcame in raising Jesus from the dead was the power of death and hell that was keeping us in bondage.

So your insight of understanding Isa 53 in the context of the suffering of Job is a great insight!

At 6:23 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, this is very helpful as I wrestle out of the clutches of PSA.


Post a Comment

<< Home

This website and its contents are copyright © 2000 Derek Flood, All Rights Reserved.
Permission to use and share its contents is granted for non-commercial purposes, provided that credit to the author and this url are clearly given.