Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reflections on Isaiah 53:6,10


In an effort to set up my thoughts and reflections on Isaiah 53, I am going to provide some of the context around what led me both to study it, wrestle with the seeming paradox in it, and finally come to my personal conclusion as to how we should understand the Isaiah 53:6 in the context of the rest of the chapter.

Even before I really made a personally motivated effort to memorize Scripture on my own, I knew these verses. Now, I may not have remembered the exact reference right away, and I knew what verse 5 much better than verse 6, but I could come close to quoting these verses for you. And it was with this in mind that I planned to study Isaiah 53 to teach in Sunday school. In the past I’ve spent weeks on studying a single chapter, but because I didn’t have that luxury this time, I planned on briefly looking at some of less familiar parts of this Messianic prophesy. My goal was to simply wet the appetites of the class into looking back at this passage with a revitalized sense of awe that may have been diminished because its familiarity.

In my grand design, I wanted to end the last few minutes of the class dealing with verse 6 and how we should understand what “the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” means. I had planned the majority of my time with looking at Christ as the once for all sacrifice as contrasted to the ongoing priestly sacrifices, what “His offspring” and “prolong His days” (v.10) means, or even how it is so important to note that “the Lord was pleased to crush Him” and “if He would render Himself (as) a guilt offering” (v.10) showed both the willingness of the suffering servant and the pleasure of the Father.

We began by reading 52:13 – 53:12 out loud, and when we were done, I asked what impressed them or stuck out to them from what we had just read. Now, I thought that someone would bring up something form verse 10, or something relating to the silent lamb before the slaughter (v. 7) and that is where we would begin the lesson. It was a good idea until the first, and only, person to answer my question referred to verse 6 and marveled at how awesome it was that Christ bore all of the sins for everyone whoever lived.

Now I had a problem. This is exactly the issue and mindset that I wanted to deal with, somewhat briefly, at the end of the class. Primarily I wanted to deal with it briefly because of the potential powder keg that discussing my conclusions on this verse might lead to. What I mean is this: at this time, I don’t necessarily believe that Isaiah 53 teaches the doctrine of particular redemption (limited atonement), but I believe that the correct understanding of it would lead one to think along those lines. And from my experience in preaching anything that touches on the doctrine of election, much less on the doctrine of limited atonement, the reaction could be less than hospitable and even cause enough discord as to motivate people to leave the fellowship of our local body. This is not to say that I will not say what the Word is saying in a particular text or situation, but I am very aware that I must be delicate because it is not my place to be so “controversial” as to motivate people to leave be cause of me.

So when the observation was made that this verse said that all people had their sins placed on Christ, and He paid for them all, I reluctantly took the carrot and decided to begin to look into what this verse means in the context of the rest of Isaiah 53. So without further ado, here are my reflections on Isaiah 53:6 when taken in context (specifically verses 11 and 12).

5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being {fell} upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:5,6)

When looking at these verses, my initial gut reaction is to take them to mean exactly what the words plainly say. Namely, that Jesus bore the punishment for everyone’s sins to bring us all to peace with God because everyone of us have gone astray, but God has caused all of our iniquities to fall on Jesus. I don’t think that I go too by saying that this is the general understanding of the majority of Christians when looking at this verse in the same way. I don’t know if I heard this from someone, or if is simply what I have thought in the past, but these two verses come across almost as the equivalent of Romans 3:23 in the Old Testament. In other words, just as Romans 3:23 (built on the context of Romans 1-3) shows the universality of the sinfulness of man, this verse is portrayed as doing the same thing in the Old Testament.

I had believed that exact thing until studying this chapter for this lesson. It was not verses 5 and 6 that caused me to be up way to late struggling with how to understand it, but it was when looking at these verses in light of verses 11 and 12 that I almost pulled my hair out.
6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.

11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see {it and} be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53: 6,11 emphasis mine)

The language of “all”, “our”, and “many” may have caused some initial confusion, but in the past I had just understood them to be referring to different groups and had no problem with that. All people are sinful but only those who have faith in Christ will be justified. There is no problem with this because that is the glorious truth of the gospel. However, the problem that I encountered came from fact that the context indicates that those whose sins Christ bears will be justified, but if all people’s iniquities fall on Christ then all would be justified. In other words, then all people everywhere would be saved. Not that I would oppose universalism if the Bible taught it, but it blatantly does not. So how can I understand this in context?

Even though we understand that we are justified and connected to the death and resurrection of Christ through faith, Isaiah doesn’t address that. He simply states that “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” and that the “Servant justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.” So, as I understand it, whether the “all” of verse 6 and the “many” of verse 11 refer to the exact same people or not, neither can be referring to all people of all time because the Bible is clear that many people will be eternally condemned.

My concern was not that this text somehow teaches universalism, my struggle was how to understand this passage consistently so that it said what I know the Bible teaches elsewhere. And the first thing that I was drawn too was the pronouns used throughout the chapter. Isaiah uses “our” (1,4,5), “we ourselves” (4), “we” (5), “all of us” (6), “each of us” (6), “us all” (6), “my people” (8), “many” (11,12), “their” (11) to describe those to whom the action of the Suffering Servant relates.

At first, the “my people” from verse eight seems to be the best clue as to who Isaiah is writing about here. I believe based on Isaiah 52:14 as well as 53:8 that “my people” refers to the nation of Israel, God’s covenant people. But that still doesn’t resolve the “all” verses the “many” problem that we get from verse 6 and 11. And unless “all” refers to all Israel and “many” refers to the number of descendants as related to the rest of humanity, I don’t think that identifying “my people” is the final key to unlocking the who’s who of Isaiah 53. And I say that because of what we know; we know that much of Israel is and was apostate, and we also know that salvation came to the gentiles in Christ. So, my dilemma continues.

After more searching and scouring of the passage for another clue as to what might be the best key for understanding the “many” against the “all” language, I reread and reread the chapter and surrounding context for some help. It wasn’t until after having read it many times that I again noticed that the first possessive pronoun used in chapter 53 was used in verse 1, and it was the word “our”.
“Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1)

I believe that it is this verse, this statement or lament of Isaiah, which gives the key to understanding and making sense of the rest of this chapter. And the question that I think is important is this: who is the “our” that proclaimed the message that was to be believed? This is not the nation, it cannot be. The nation rejected God and rebelled against the laws of God and of worshipping and following Him alone from the very Exodus from Egypt. Because of their constant rebellion and hard hearts, God sent prophets who were to call the nation back to the Lord. We also know that there were devout priests and other people who remained faithful to God during the rampant apostasy of their land (see 1 Kings 19:14-18).

It seems best to understand the possessive and inclusive pronoun “our” in verse 1 as well as “each of us” and “all of us” in verse 6 to refer to those people who were proclaiming the Word of the Lord. And for lack of a better way to categorize them, I’ll call them the prophets, even though this group would include more than those who wrote the prophetic books in the Old Testament. Isaiah wasn’t commenting on the general sin of Israel in verse 6, he was referring to the faithful group of prophets who proclaimed the message. Remember, this is the same Isaiah who lamented his own sinfulness before the throne of God,
“Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." (Isaiah 6:5)

If Isaiah is referring to those faithfully proclaiming the Word of the Lord to the nations when he says “all of us” and “each of us”, then who are the “many” in verse 11? It seems best to understand the “many” in God’s ultimate redemptive sense. In other words, it is not simply the faithful among the prophets of God to Israel and Judah that He will save, but He is the savior of the gentiles too. The prophets knew this well, and that is why Jonah fled; he did not want God to be merciful to the Ninevites, even though he knew that He would be.

So in this case, “many” is actually a larger group than “all of us” is. Everyone who has been justified by faith is included in the “many”, but only Isaiah’s contemporaries proclaiming the Word of the Lord at that time would be included in the “all of us”. I could even be convinced that “all of us” refers to all of the believers of the message, not just the proclaimers of the message, in Isaiah’s time and in all time. And in this case, the “all of us” would include the totality of those chosen by God, and the “many” would refer to their numerical value.

This understanding of who the various groups are allow us to interpret Isaiah 53 consistently in its context as well as in the broader context of the Bible’s teaching on salvation. All of those people who have their sins imputed to Christ will be justified by His righteousness, and there will be many people who come from every tribe, tongue, and nation who receive God’s gracious gift of salvation through Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

1 comment:

dustin said...


Hi, I think you are on to something with your take on this prophecy. I am a missionary in Lviv, Ukraine. I was looking at Isa. 53 in light of John the Baptist calling Jesus "The Lamb of God..". I came to a conclusion similar to yours about the meaning of "all" and "many", based on 53:1. Then I Googled "Isaiah 53:6 limited atonement" and found your blog. I think I land in the space defined by your statement, "I could even be convinced that “all of us” refers to all of the believers of the message, not just the proclaimers of the message, in Isaiah’s time and in all time. And in this case, the “all of us” would include the totality of those chosen by God, and the “many” would refer to their numerical value." Thanks for a well-reasoned explanation.

Dustin Mullenix
Lviv, Ukraine

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