I said last week that in the weeks coming up to Christmas, instead of starting a new series of sermons which I’d have to interrupt for Christmas, that I’d preach on the book of Isaiah. Though Isaiah is a big book, and though it would take many months to go through it in detail, I’m going to divide it into three parts and we’ll look at one part each week in the first three Sundays of December.
And do you remember? I said last week that, in chapters 1 to 39, Isaiah speaks about God’s great king who rules on God’s behalf. And in chapters 40 to 55, he speaks about God’s suffering servant, who will make atonement for God’s people. And in chapters 56 to 66, he speaks about God’s messenger, who will proclaim God’s salvation. So, Isaiah tells us about a king, a suffering servant, and a messenger. And, of course, he’s talking about the Lord Jesus, who came into the world as a king, and who suffered and died for God’s people, and who proclaims salvation to all who believe in his name.
And so, last week, we spent our time in the first part which tells us about the great king God was going to send into the world to rule on his behalf. And that great king is the Lord Jesus, who came into the world the first time to suffer and to die for his people, and who is going to come a second time to condemn his enemies forever and to gather his people into a new and better world where they will live with him forever.
This week we’re thinking about the second part of Isaiah — chapters 40 to 55 — and on what it tells us about God’s Suffering Servant. But before we get to the Suffering Servant, we need to see how God announced salvation to his people in this part of the book of Isaiah.
The background to this message of salvation is found in chapter 39, where the Lord announced to King Hezekiah — who was king of the southern part of the land of Israel — that the time will surely come when God’s people will be sent away into exile to the land of Babylon. The Lord was angry with his people in Israel, because they had turned away from him to worship false gods and idols; and they had broken his laws and commandments; and they doubted all his promises. If you recall last week, almost the whole of chapters 1 to 39 was taken up with the announcement of judgment: God was going to judge Israel and all the other nations for their unbelief and sin. And in chapter 39, God announced to Hezekiah that one day the people of Israel will be sent into exile. Jerusalem will be left in ruins. The king’s palace will be left empty. Many of the people will be taken away to a far off land; those who were left behind would be destitute. Disaster was coming.
That’s how the first part of Isaiah ends. But the second part begins with a word of comfort. Look with me at the opening verses of chapter 40 where it says:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed and her sin has been paid off, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
When Isaiah says that Israel has received ‘double for their sins’, it doesn’t mean she’s been punished twice for her sins, but that the punishment she received exactly matches the sins she has committed. Being sent away into captivity was the appropriate punishment for all that Israel had done when they turned away from the Lord. But the Lord is no longer angry with his people. Instead of punishing Israel, he wants to comfort Israel.
And so, having announced the exile in chapter 39, from Isaiah 40 onwards Isaiah looked beyond the exile and anticipated a time when the Lord would rescue his people from it. Although he was angry with them for their sin and rebellion, he was not going to abandon them forever, but he was going to bring them back to the Promised Land.
And there’s another announcement in verses 3 to 5. This time there’s a voice calling and saying to the people that they’re to prepare in the desert a way for the Lord. The imagery of making straight a highway for the Lord and of raising up valleys and of lowering mountains and hills and making level the rough ground conveys the idea that the people must prepare for the coming of the Lord, who is their great king who is coming to deliver them from their misery. And so, this is a summons to repent and to turn from their false gods and to trust in the Lord alone who was coming to save them. And in verse 5, Isaiah promised that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and all mankind would see it. So, not only the people of Israel, but everyone would see the greatness and the glory of God, when he came to save his people.
And there’s another announcement in verses 6 to 8. This time a voice says:
And Isaiah replied:
What shall I cry?
Well, he’s to cry out that while we are like grass, because we’re here today and gone tomorrow, the word of the Lord stands forever. So, what God has promised, what he has announced, will not fail, because God’s word does not perish; and his people can rely on him to do all that he has promised.
And there’s another announcement in verses 9 to 11. The NIV assumes that this announcement was being made to Zion, which is another name for Jerusalem. However, other English translations make Zion, or Jerusalem, the one who makes the announcement. In that case, Isaiah was calling on the people of Jerusalem to announce good news to the towns of Judah and to say to them:
Here is your God!
For years they had been overrun by their enemies and left destitute and deserted. But now, the Lord was coming to save them. And look at verse 10: their God is the Sovereign LORD. In other words, he’s the one who rules as king over all. Isaiah mentions his ‘arm’ which symbolises his power to save. So, he’s coming with power to save. And he’s coming with reward and recompense, which probably refer to his salvation. And though he’s the Sovereign Lord who comes with power and authority, he’s also like a shepherd, who was coming to tend his flock and to gather his lambs. He’ll carry them close to his heart and he’ll gently lead those that have young. In other words, he loves his people and will be gentle towards them.
And so, Isaiah looks beyond the time of the exile, which lasted around 70 years, to the time when the Lord will come to his suffering people in order to rescue them from their captivity and to lead them home to the Promised Land. The Lord was coming to save his people.
And a similar announcement was made in chapter 52. Turn with me to that chapter where we read in verse 7:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who say to Zion: ‘Your God reigns!’
To God’s suffering people, there came this announcement of comfort and peace and of hope, which was based on the fact that the Lord our God reigns. He reigns over all the peoples and nations of the world and he’s able to bring salvation to his people. And so, the watchmen of Jerusalem were instructed to shout for joy. And the ruins of Jerusalem were instructed to burst forth into songs of joy, because the Lord was going to comfort his people and he was going to redeem, or deliver, Jerusalem. According to verse 10 of chapter 52, the Lord would again lay bare his holy arm. In other words, he would once again act powerfully to save his people. And all the ends of the earth would see the salvation of our God. Not only the Israelites would see it, but everyone would see it.
And so, to God’s suffering people, Isaiah announced good news, because the Lord was coming to reveal his glory and to save his people. He would be their shepherd and would lead them gently. And they can trust in him, because he’s the Sovereign Lord who rules over all and his promises are true and last forever. And so, since he was coming, they needed to get ready by turning from their sins and by trusting in him to save them.
And to God’s suffering people in Babylon, Isaiah made clear that they should trust in the Lord and not in their false gods and idols which were nothing. Several times in this part of Isaiah, he makes clear that the Lord their God is far, far, far greater than other gods. For instance, there’s verses 6 to 20 of chapter 46 where he makes the point that a carpenter takes some wood and part of it is used to make an idol and part of it is used for fire to cook his food. The idol is only a block of wood which cannot do anything. The idol is something the carpenter made, whereas the Lord made the world and everything in it. And in chapter 46, the Lord says that they must carry their idols, whereas he’s the one who carries his people and he upholds and helps them continually from the time of their birth to the time of their old age.
Furthermore, whereas the Babylonians trusted in Marduk and believed he was the king of heaven and earth, throughout this part of Isaiah, the prophet made clear that the true king of heaven and earth and the only Saviour of the world is the Lord. And so, in chapter 43, the Lord declares:
I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me their is no saviour. I have revealed and saved and proclaimed — I, and not some foreign god among you…. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?
In chapter 45, he said:
Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
And whereas the Babylonians believed that Marduk was the creator, the Lord says in chapter 40:
‘To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
Whereas the Babylonians believed Marduk controlled their destiny, the Lord declared in chapters 55 that by his word he accomplishes all that he desires. Furthermore, in chapter 48, he declared:
I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.
The Lord was able to announce what would come to pass, because he’s the one who plans all things and rules over all things. So, instead of trusting in their idols, they ought to trust in him alone.
And so, no one should trust in these false gods and idols, because they are nothing. Instead they should trust in the Lord, who made all things and who rules over all things and who is coming to reveal his glory and to save his people. And he will be their shepherd and will lead them gently. And so, since he’s coming, they need to get ready by turning from their sins and by trusting in him to save them.
Fulfilled in Christ
Well, Isaiah was looking beyond the exile to the time when God would rescue his people and bring them home to the Promised Land. However, his promises are fulfilled in an even greater way by the coming of Christ into the world. In John’s Gospel we read that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his what? We have seen ‘his glory’, said John, which recalls what we read in Isaiah about God revealing his glory. And throughout John’s gospel, John made clear how the Lord Jesus revealed God’s glory in the signs and wonders he performed. And before the Lord Jesus began his work, John the Baptist fulfilled the words of Isaiah 40 by calling on the people to prepare for the Lord’s coming. And in John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, who knows and calls his people and who dealt gently with all who came to him, confessing their need. And, of course, the Lord Jesus came to save his people, not from exile in Babylon, but from their sin and misery and in order to lead them to the true Promised Land in the new heavens and earth. Isaiah comforted the people in exile with the news that the Lord was coming to save them. And the Lord did come and he saved them from exile in Babylon. In fact, in Isaiah 45 he foretold how he would save his people from exile by means of Cyrus. And, if you remember our studies in Ezra and Nehemiah, you might remember that Cyrus was the king of Persia who allowed the Israelites to return home from the exile. So, years before Cyrus was born, the Lord announced to his people that he would save them from their exile by means of Cyrus. But then, after that, the Lord came to save his people from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in the new heavens and earth by means of Jesus Christ, his Son. And this good news is not for the Jews only, but it’s for the whole world. It was to be announced, not only to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah, but to all the world. And through the preaching of the gospel, God’s glory in Christ is revealed to all mankind and to all the ends of the earth.
So, from this part of Isaiah we learn how the Lord was going to come to save his people. We should therefore trust in him, and not in any other god.
But we also learn from this part of Isaiah that God would save his people by means of his Suffering Servant. So, last week, we thought about how God was going to send a Great King to rule on his behalf. And in this part of Isaiah, Isaiah makes clear that God would accomplish his purposes by means of this Suffering Servant. So, although Israel’s God is the Sovereign Lord who rules and reigns over all and who was going to bare his holy arm and act powerfully to save his people, nevertheless he would accomplish his purposes only through the suffering of this Suffering Servant.
We read about this Suffering Servant in several places: in chapters 42 and 49 and 50 and 52 and 53. The Bible scholars debate whether these servant passages refer to the nation of Israel or to one individual. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but one of the decisive bits of evidence that he’s referring to a single person is the fact that the Suffering Servant in chapter 49 ministers to Israel. In other words, the Servant is distinct from the nation.
And Isaiah makes clear that the Servant is definitely the Lord’s Servant. Look, for instance, at chapter 49 where the Servant speaks and says:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant…
And now the Lord says —
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant…
‘I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’
He is very clearly God’s Servant and God sent him to accomplish his work. We see the same thing in chapter 50, where the Servant says in verse 4:
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue.
And then, the Servant continues to describe the ways the Lord has helped and equipped him for his work. We find the same in chapters 42 and chapters 52 and 53. In chapter 42, the Lord declared:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.
And in 52:13, God calls the Servant, ‘my servant’.
Furthermore, Isaiah makes clear that God’s purposes for his Servant extend to the ends of the earth. In chapter 42, the Servant will bring justice to the nations and the Lord had made him a light to the Gentiles. In chapter 49, the Lord declared that it is too small a thing for his Servant to restore the tribes of Jacob only. And so, the Lord will make him a light for the Gentiles, so that he may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
And so, the Lord was going to send his Servant to bring salvation, not just to the people of Israel in exile, but to all the earth.
But the most important feature of this Servant is that he is a Suffering Servant. And we see this especially in chapters 52 and 53 which describe him as one who was despised and rejected by men; and as a man of sorrow who was familiar with suffering; and as one who took up our infirmities and who carried our sorrows; and who was stricken by God and smitten; and who was pierced for our transgressions and who was crushed for our iniquities. In other words, he suffered on our behalf and in our place the punishment we deserve for our sins. And the punishment he endured on our behalf has brought us peace; and the wounds that he suffered have brought us healing. We’re like sheep, because we have all gone astray from following God’s ways. But instead of punishing us, the Lord God laid the punishment we deserve on his Suffering Servant. And this was the Lord’s will for his Suffering Servant, because he suffered like this as our Great High Priest and in order to sprinkle the nations and to cleanse us from the guilt of our sins. Do you see that in 52:15? And then, according to 53:10, he offered his life as a guilt offering, which was also known as a reparation offering. This means that the Suffering Servant gave up his life in order to pay the debt of our sins and to make up to God for what we have done wrong. And so, we see that the suffering which the Servant endured included the giving up of his life to pay for our sins.
Well, in Acts 8 we read about the time when Philip the Evangelist met the Ethiopian Eunuch who was making his way home from Jerusalem. And on his way home, he was reading Isaiah 53 about the Lord’s Suffering Servant. The Ethiopian Eunuch asked Philip who the prophet was writing about. Who is the Suffering Servant? And Philip explained to the Ethiopian Eunuch that the Suffering Servant is the Lord Jesus Christ, because he is God’s Servant, sent by God, to save God’s people in all the world. He came into the world and revealed his glory. And he came into the world to save God’s people from their sin and misery and to give them eternal life in the new heavens and earth. And the way he saved God’s people was by laying down his life on the cross to pay for our sins. Whoever believes in him is sprinkled and cleansed from all that defiles, so that they have peace with God and the hope of everlasting life. And this good news is to be announced in all the world, to the ends of the earth, because this message of salvation is for everyone. And everyone who believes will be saved, because of Christ, God’s Suffering Servant, who was pierced for our transgressions and who was crushed for our iniquities.
And so, you should give thanks to God for sending Christ into the world to be the Suffering Servant who laid down his life as the guilt offering for sins. And you should ask God to pardon you for your many sins and to take away your guilt for the sake of Christ who died to sprinkle and cleanse sinners. And you should rejoice, because the Lord’s Servant who suffered so much for sinners, is also the Great King whom we read about last week. After he died, he was raised and exalted to heaven to rule over all. And the day is coming, when he will come to earth again to gather his people together — everyone who has believed in him — so that they will live with him forever and forever in the new and better world to come.