The text of Isaiah 53 is one of what are called the Servant Songs—portions of Isaiah’s prophecy that refer directly to Jesus Christ and His work of redemption. It can’t be overstated how good these words must have sounded to the people of Israel. Isaiah writes at the end of the Assyrian occupation of the Northern Kingdom, before the destruction of Assyria and subsequent occupation of Babylon.
A Silent Redeemer
Not only did Babylon later conquer Jerusalem and subjugate its people, but this foreign empire also took many of Judah’s best and brightest into exile. To those languishing in a foreign land, surrounded by a people, culture, language, and religion not their own, the exiled Israelites were glad to hear such hopeful news of a Redeemer.
Strangely, this Redeemer is silent, as verse seven attests. What are we to make of this? We can imagine that this phrase, “yet He opened not His mouth,” confused the exiled readers. Wouldn’t a redeemer come with a loud, victorious shout? How could such a meek redeemer free them from the bonds of mighty Babylon?
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of My people? And they made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth. (Isaiah 53:6–9)
- Verse six presents a foundational, albeit underappreciated teaching in the Bible: the total depravity of every human being. It is often falsely taught that there are “good” people and “bad” people, that even unbelievers have good and evil in them, and that we are not responsible for our sins until a certain age. The truth is that every human being is a sheep that has gone astray, not merely making the occasional mistake but rather being conceived with a sinful nature, guilty of sin in body, speech, and mind. In this condition, we are beyond repair and must be re-created. We are lost and condemned.
- As we consider verse seven, we need no convincing that Jesus was oppressed and afflicted. Those He trusted abandoned Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas betrayed Jesus, and Peter denied Him three times. The religious establishment, the entity that should have embraced and assisted Jesus, had Him arrested, falsely accused, and put to death. The Roman soldiers stripped and beat Him, pressed into His head a crown of thorns, and nailed the Savior to a criminal’s cross. We often underestimate, however, the degree to which Jesus was oppressed and afflicted in His life leading up to the passion. The eternal, almighty God deigned to take on frail flesh, bore temptation from the devil and other human beings, and was rejected by the Jewish religious establishment.
- As Isaiah compares Jesus to a sheep, it’s vital to bear in mind that Jesus chose to submit. Christ could have disobeyed His Father and put an end to His Passion at any time. He elected to keep His mouth closed during the false testimony and the mockery, though He was fully capable of calling angels to His rescue and to the destruction of His enemies. A sheep is silent for the simplicity of its mind. God in human flesh was silent to fulfill Scripture.
- It is interesting that Isaiah notes in verse eight that Jesus was “cut off out of the land of the living.” As they are today, a spouse and children were considered central to life in Jesus’ day. To live without these was considered not merely a tragedy but perhaps evidence of God’s punishment for sin. This was especially true for women. Jesus’ ministry was never about marriage and children, yet He died without either in the normal sense. Jesus did take a Bride, the Church, and His Holy Spirit makes spiritual orphans children of their Father in heaven.
Law and Gospel
Indeed, we have all gone astray, and thanks be to God that He redeems us in the Son and calls us to faith by His Holy Spirit, granting us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in Holy Baptism. As much as we turned away from God prior to our conversion, we continue to turn from God in our daily lives now, embracing sin. The Holy Spirit convicts our hearts and brings us back to the Gospel, lest we grow so accustomed to sin that we throw away such a great salvation.
The exiles in Babylon would be released and allowed to return home, only to suffer oppression from the Greeks and finally Rome. Christ delivered us from a far greater exile. The sheep, who before the shearers was silent, took our iniquity on Himself, suffering a criminal’s death, that we would not be led to an eternal slaughter but, instead, be welcomed into our heavenly Jerusalem.
Teach this story and others to Sunday School students of all ages with the Enduring Faith Bible Curriculum.