No one knows when or how it happened. But one day the Spirit led the young man Jesus to a fateful passage of Scripture, the “Song of the Suffering Servant.” Found in Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12 in our English Bibles, the Song has generated an enormous volume of scholarly literature. But, implanted in the heart of a young visionary 2,000 years ago, it was the seed destined to grow up “like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” It would anger the Jewish leaders. And it would mystify—then devastate—Jesus’s disciples, for it took their Lord to the cross.
Writing out of his own anguish at the loss of his wife, C. S. Lewis hints at the unsettling truth to which the Song can point us: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. . . . Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The incarnation is the supreme example. It leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
In my own search for the Messiah, the Song looms large. Against the backdrop of Christian rhetoric that revels in prophetic, scientific, and archeological “proofs,” the Song confronted me with the painful tension between the seemingly obvious, on the one hand, and the deeper truths taught by a life lived on the Golgotha road, on the other.
My search began under the direction of a God-fearing teacher, J. Paul Grove, who simply wanted us to hear what God’s original penmen were so eager to share. Such a goal might seem obvious, for the business of reading and hearing—often rendered mysterious and frightening by such words as “exegesis” and “hermeneutics”—comes quite naturally in our daily living.
Though the process is usually simple and straightforward, sometimes what we think the text should say gets in the way of what it actually says. And so it was that in the early 1960s Elder Grove patiently helped us hear Matthew. Everything else was off limits: No Mark, Luke, or John. No Desire of Ages. No commentaries. Just Matthew. Only Matthew. It was good for me. Painful, but good.
Sometime later, however—I don’t remember when—I began to look more carefully at how Matthew was reading his Old Testament. I was troubled, even alarmed. Matthew would have failed Paul Grove’s course—at least I knew I would have failed for doing what he did: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt. 2:15)—a “fulfillment” of Hosea 11:1? How, Matthew?
Then I discovered Jewish Midrash, a type of commentary which uses biblical words and phrases to illustrate and amplify convictions already in place. I began to understand why New Testament writers could so easily pull phrases out of context to illustrate their points. Matthew and John were especially good at it. And the book of Hebrews is alive with examples. In short, instead of calling Matthew’s quotations “predictions fulfilled with amazing accuracy,” it would be clearer to us if we described them as “old words filled full of new meaning.” Matthew 5:17 uses “fulfill” in this way: Jesus didn’t come to “abolish” the law, but to “fill it full” of deeper meaning.
It’s now clear to me that the rabbis and New Testament writers weren’t at all unique. The impulse to clothe convictions with older language, often ignoring the context, is deeply ingrained in the human mind. Christians, for example, love the Latin phrase “Carpe diem!” (Seize the day!) but depart dramatically from the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of the Roman poet Horace who said originally: “Seize the day, put no trust in the future.”
In the Old Testament, both Isaiah and Micah promise that God’s people would “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Yet Joel stands the phrase on its head with “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.” Context made no difference. And who knows which prophet grabbed the first plowshare or the first sword!
Similarly, in Adventism, the method of reading Scripture as a road map through history (historicism), prompted our forebears to move beyond the original context to see Matthew’s 10 virgins illustrating the 1844 Disappointment, Revelation’s seven churches as successive historical epochs, and the story of John’s call in Revelation 10 as another illustration of the Disappointment.
But if language is so flexible, you say, how can we know what is true? That brings us back to the story of my search for the Messiah. Reading in context as Elder Grove taught me to do, and with the help of Sigmund Mowinckel’s classic, He That Cometh, I found that the Old Testament “prophecies” fit rather neatly into four categories:
1) Passages clearly promising a Deliverer: the Prophet, the Star, the Shoot. The clarity of these passages explains why every Jew in Jesus’s day expected a Messiah. Everyone.
2) Passages Jesus used to define his mission: Isaiah’s Servant Songs. Here the crucial spiritual question confronts us as it confronted them: What kind of Messiah? The issue is crucial because many of the “clear” passages promise a Deliverer who strikes the earth with the rod of his mouth and kills the wicked with the breath of his lips, a temptation most of us are rarely able to bear. Suffering Servant? God incarnate on a cross? No one wanted to believe that—no one except Jesus, that is. Certainly not the disciples. The Emmaus road story tells us that the truth only came clear after the resurrection.
But somehow, somewhere, the Spirit nurtured in Jesus’s soul the conviction that his mission was to suffer and die. Contrary to all popular expectations, Jesus found his destiny in the Song of Isaiah 53. Was that why he didn’t begin his ministry until he was thirty? Was that why he would rise a long time before day, go out to a lonely place and pray? I wonder . . .
3) Out-of-context applications “discovered” after the Resurrection. For Jesus’s followers, the Resurrection made the Song believable. With a searing vision of the Risen one who had been wounded for our transgressions, they went out to change the world. And that’s when they began to discover lines in Scripture which illustrated what they already believed to be true: “Out of Egypt I have called my son”; “Rachel weeping for her children,” “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
4) “Discoveries” in later Christian centuries: the 70 weeks of Daniel 9. The first known evidence linking the traditional dates for the 70 weeks with Jesus’s ministry comes from the Reformation era. But that’s another story.
This survey would not be complete, however, without noting that, for some, the message of the risen Servant simply intensified their opposition to the essential message of the Song. The Aramaic paraphrase (Targum) of Isaiah 53, illustrates that impulse in dramatic fashion, transforming the Servant into a Conquering King. Instead of a “despised and rejected” Servant (vs. 3), the Targum describes him as being “contemptuous” of the other nations, making them “weak and afflicted”!
For my part, a pilgrimage to Isaiah 53 is something I need to repeat more often than I like to admit. Why? Because “my idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. . . . Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”
Notes & References:
. Isa. 53:2, NRSV.
. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1976 ), 76.
. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3; Joel 3:10.
. Deut. 18:15–18; Num. 24:17; Isa. 11:1.
. The best known is 52:13–53:12. Also 42:1–4; 49:1-6; 50:4–9. See Christopher R. North: The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (Oxford, 1948). Other passages from Isaiah are also sometimes included.
. Isa. 11:4.
. Hos. 11:1//Matt. 2:15; Jer. 31:15//Matt. 2:18; Ps. 69:9//John 2:17.
. “Johann Funck (d. 1566), court chaplain of Nürnberg . . . was probably the first in Reformation times to begin the 70 weeks in 457 B.C. and end them in A.D. 34.” Francis D. Nichol, ed., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 4 (Washington, D C: Review and Herald, 1955), 67.
. See Alden Thompson, “The Best Story in the Old Testament: The Messiah,” Chapter 7 in Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Gonzalez, FL: Pacesetters, 2003 ), 101–121.
. Samson H. Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 1974), 64.
Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.
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