For Judah, the exile to Babylon is a national death. Once Judah had a king, but now he’s a prisoner in Babylon. Once Judah possessed a land, but now it’s depopulated. Once there was a temple in Jerusalem, but Nebuchadnezzar roared through and left charred ruins behind. Everything that made Judah a nation—king, temple, people, palace, power—is gone.
Isaiah portrays Zion as a grieving wife and a mourning mother. Her children are slaves in a distant land, and her husband, Yahweh, has abandoned her. Zion wears sackcloth and sits in the dust, stripped of her beauty. Shackles have replaced necklaces around her neck, like a yoke on a beast of burden.
From this grave of exile she cries out to an indifferent Lord: “Awake, Awake! Put on strength, arm of the Lord! Awake as in the days of old! Was it not You who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the [Egyptian] dragon? Was it not You who dried up the sea [and made] a pathway for the redeemed to cross over?”
Zion knows what she wants. The Lord’s arm strikes terror into enemies and turns them to stone. Plagues and signs and wonders are in his hand. Zion expects him to scatter her enemies and strike her chains off. When the Lord rolls up his sleeves, she’ll toss away her sackcloth and put on a wedding dress. She’ll rise from the ashes to sit enthroned, queen at her husband’s right hand.
Isaiah 53 announces that Zion’s prayers are answered. The Lord’s arm has come: “Behold my servant!” Yahweh shouts. “The arm of the Lord is revealed!”
It’s not what Zion expects, not at all. There aren’t any signs and wonders, no piercing of dragons or splitting of seas. When the arm of the Lord is unveiled in the Servant, Zion gazes at a man marred and mangled beyond recognition, formless and faceless, like the void of original creation. Is that thing even human? He’s worse than a leper, and Zion turns away in disgust.
Everything is backward. The Servant isn’t a man of war but a man of sorrows. He’s not acquainted with victory but with grief. He doesn’t pierce dragons, but is himself pierced. He doesn’t crush and chasten enemies, but is himself crushed. He should be the scourge of Babylon. Instead, he is scourged. Zion wants the active arm of God. What she gets is a passion.
At the beginning of his prophecy, Isaiah gives a gruesome word portrait of the condition of Zion. She’s covered from head to toe with “bruises, welts, open wounds,” without bandages or balm. Zion longs for the Lord to bind up her wounds. She needs a physician, but the Lord sends another patient, as battered as she. She wants a makeover, but Yahweh sends a mirror: Behold my Servant! Behold yourself! How in hell does that help?
This can’t be the arm of the Lord. Like Job’s comforters, the people conclude that a man so disfigured must be cursed, and like Job’s comforters, they give God a hand in punishing him. They are the ones beating and whipping the Servant. They mock and insult him because they’re convinced he is “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
The people think that anyone who suffers so much must be loaded with sin. And they’re right, though not in the way they believe. The Servant bears more sin than a human can bear, but it’s not his own: “He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” It’s a paradox to end paradoxes. The people inflict violence on the Servant, thinking they are doing God’s will. And the violence they inflict is transformed into their peace. The wounds they cause heal them.
After the Servant, Zion the barren woman finds herself with so many children that she has to add a few wings to her house. Ruined city walls are rebuilt with jewels. Zion’s husband returns, whispering comfort in her ear: “In an outburst of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” Dead Zion rises again.
The Servant is the arm of the Lord, unveiled in all his sheer, naked, divine power. Spreading plagues is nothing. Any terrorist with a supply of anthrax can do that. You can knock down buildings with a wrecking ball or a hijacked airplane. It takes infinite power, though, to share Zion’s sin and sickness, absorb the blows of Zion’s rejection and hatred, bear evil all the way to death, and burst out the other side of the grave. How can you defeat a God who transfigures rejection into reconciliation, who choreographs a pageant of injustice into the salvation of the world?
And so we call this Friday good.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.