Isaiah 53:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1. The verse should probably be rendered,
Who believed that which was revealed to us,
And the arm of Jehovah to (lit. “on”) whom was it disclosed? The word which E.V. renders “report” is passive in form (lit. “a thing heard”); our report, therefore, is not “that which we reported” but ‘either “the report concerning us” (2Sa 4:4) or “that which was reported to us.” The last sense is alone admissible in this connexion, and the only question that remains is, What kind of report is referred to? Usually the word denotes a rumour circulated by the ordinary channels of intelligence (ch. Isa 37:7 &c.), and this meaning might be thought of here if we could suppose the words spoken after the elevation of the Servant. But this is objectionable, ( a) because the standpoint of the speakers is not subsequent to the glorification of the Servant, but prior to it (see above), ( b) the speakers, being Israelites, cannot readily be supposed to learn the Servant’s exaltation from rumour, and ( c) it would be necessary to render the verb “Who could have believed?” which although possible is not natural. The question implies a negative answer: “No one believed it.” It is better therefore to take the word in its religious sense of a Divine revelation (see on ch. Isa 28:9), a “thing heard” from Jehovah. “Our revelation” might of course be said by the prophet of a communication made directly to himself; but it might also be said by the people of a revelation which had reached them through the medium of the prophets. The reference will be to the prophecies bearing on the Servant’s glorious destiny, especially ch. Isa 42:1-4, Isa 49:1-6, Isa 50:4-9, and perhaps Isa 52:13-15.
The arm of the Lord is, as in ch. Isa 51:9, Isa 52:10 &c., a metaphor for Jehovah’s operation in history. It was He who raised up the Servant, and all through his tragic history God was working by him for the redemption of His people and the inbringing of eternal salvation. But this Divine power behind the Servant had not been “disclosed” to any of his contemporaries; they had neither perceived it for themselves nor believed it when declared to them, and so in the blindness and deafness of their unbelief they had misconceived him in the manner exhibited in Isa 53:2 ff.
ch. Isa 53:1-9. Having thus indicated the subject of his discourse, the prophet now proceeds to describe the career of the Servant, and the impression he had made on his contemporaries. This is prefaced in Isa 53:1 by a confession or complaint of the universal unbelief which had led to his being so grievously misunderstood.
The speakers in this section are certainly not the heathen mentioned in Isa 52:15, but either all Israel or one Israelite in the name of all. The “nations” and “kings” are surprised by the Servant’s exaltation because they had not previously heard of it; those who now speak confess a deeper fault, they have heard but did not believe. It is generally assumed that there is a change of speaker in Isa 53:7-9, where the use of the 1st pers. plu. is discontinued, and where ( Isa 53:8) we come across the expression “ my people.” This assumption is to be avoided if possible, because Isa 53:7 ff. continue the narrative of the Servant’s sufferings, and it is unnatural to think that the story begun by one speaker should be completed by another unless there were some clear indication that this is the case. There appears to be no difficulty in the supposition that the prophet himself speaks throughout; although in Isa 53:2-6 he associates himself with his generation, the contemporaries of the Servant. There must be some reason for his thus merging his individual consciousness in that of the community; and the obvious reason is that in depicting the Servant as he appeared to men, he writes as a spectator along with others, and realises his solidarity with his nation. In Isa 53:7-9 the description simply becomes less subjective; the emphasis lies less on what men thought of the Servant, and more on what he was and endured; and when the prophet again has occasion to refer to Israel it is natural that he should do so as “my people.” Another thing to be noted is that the language is consistently retrospective. Historic tenses are employed throughout, the speaker looks back on the completed tragedy of the Servant’s career, and on the people’s former thoughts of him as things that belong to the past. On the other hand, the exaltation of the Servant is always spoken of (both in Isa 52:13-15, and in Isa 53:10-12) as something still future. The standpoint assumed here seems therefore to be intermediate between the death of the Servant and his exaltation; and the great moral change which is described as taking place in the mind of the people is not the result of the revelation of his glory, but is brought about by reflection on his unparalleled sufferings, and his patient demeanour under them, preparing the people to believe the prophecies which had hitherto seemed incredible.
This is the last and greatest, as well as the most difficult, of the four delineations of the Servant of Jehovah, and in several respects occupies a place apart. In the previous passages the Servant has been described as the ideal prophet or teacher, conscious of a world-wide mission in the service of God, which he prosecutes amid discouragement and persecution with inflexible purpose and the unfaltering assurance of ultimate success. There has been no hint that his activity was interrupted by death. Here the presentation is quite different. The conception of the Prophet is all but displaced by that of the Man of Sorrows, the meek and patient martyr, the sin-bearer. The passage is partly retrospective and partly prophetic. In so far as it is a retrospect there is no allusion to the prophetic activity of the servant; it is only after he has been raised from the dead that he is to assume the function of the great religious guide and authority of the world. But the most striking feature of the passage is the unparalleled sufferings of the Servant, and the effect they produce on the minds of his contemporaries. The tragedy of which they have been spectators makes an impression far more profound and convincing than any direct teaching could have done, compelling them to recognise the mission of the Servant, and at the same time producing penitence and confession of their own sin. The whole conception here given of the Servant of the Lord makes the prophecy the most remarkable anticipation in the Old Testament of the “sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.”
The passage may be divided into three parts:
(1) An introduction, briefly stating the import of all that follows, the coming exaltation of the Servant in contrast to his past abasement (Isa 52:13-15).
(2) A historical review of the Servant’s career, as he had appeared to his contemporaries in the days of his humiliation (Isa 53:1-9).
(3) An announcement of the glorious future and the astonishing success in store for him as the reward of his obedience unto death ( Isa 52:10-12).
The middle section may be further subdivided into three strophes, yielding an arrangement (recognised by most commentators) of the whole in five strophes of three verses each.
Consult other comments:
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".