Poetry and Penal Substitution in Isaiah 53

Tucked away in the Old Testament is some of the most profound and influential poetry around today. Yes, we’re still on Isaiah 53 – the (messianic) suffering servant song. This time, let’s consider it as literature. 2700 year old literature, written in an ancient culture and script by a brilliant and inspired prophet-poet.

From a theological point of view, this song has had a profound influence on Western Christian thought. It is the foundational text for Penal Substitution: all the other passages are debateable, but if you trust the Masoretic text, Isaiah has the swing vote (see previous post). And although it is by no means simple to translate and some have tried valiantly to obscure it, the suffering servant song stubbornly resists attempts to twist it into something else.

First, a bit of context

Isaiah 52:13-53:15 is in what is called Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), which is markedly different from the first part of Isaiah. It isn’t enough reason to doubt its authorship, but it should be read as a unit. It was probably written while Israel was in exile in Babylon in roughly 600 BCE. In Deutero-Isaiah, there are four famous servant-songs:

Song 1: God’s servant, Israel, has a mission to bring true religion to the world through gentle, unwavering persistence.

Song 2: Only a purified Israel can fulfil its mission. It is thus a mission to Israel (to purify her) as well as by Israel to the world.

Song 3: The servant Israel will experience shame and suffering during the mission. Some development occurs where the line between the collective Israel and an individual starts blurring.

Song 4: Israel is personified in an individual. The prophet realises that the suffering of the servant is not only a feature of the mission, but the organ of the mission.

Many books have been written about this, and so this post can only be a brief summary.[1]

The interpretation of Isaiah 53 is made difficult by the fact that there are forty six words in it that occur nowhere in second Isaiah, and a number of words that occur nowhere else in the Bible. These are called hapax legomena, and they are bothersome to translators because if you can’t see how a word is used in other places, it is often difficult to deduce its meaning.

In the New Testament (NT), Jesus is identified as the Messiah and servant by himself and by others. There is also a sense in which he is viewed as the personification of Israel, being faithful where Israel wasn’t faithful. In fact, the saving power of (the NT phrase) pistis Iesous Christos can mean both “saved through faith in Jesus”, as well as “saved by the faithfulness of Jesus”, and probably contains both ideas. Furthermore, in the NT, “exile” was a punishment for sin, “forgiveness” is equated with the promised land, and Jesus came to “set the captives free”, and to bring about forgiveness. Israel was viewed as still being in spiritual exile, even though they were back in Jerusalem. Compare this to Hans-Jüngen Hermisson’s summary of second Isaiah: “A highway is built on which Yahweh leads his liberated people through the desert. Wonders are performed on this highway, as well as at its end, that the whole world is overcome and is being saved, streaming in and confessing the one and only God, the only saviour of Israel and the world.”

It is poetry

And like most good poetry, the text is also often ambiguous and contains wordplay (dubbelsinnig is such a descriptive Afrikaans word). Isaiah 53:8 may be a good example of this. Translators note that it is “notoriously difficult” to render in English. Was he delivered from these things, taken away because of these things, or taken away because he is deprived of these things? Observe how these respected translations differ:

ESV: By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered…

NRSV: By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?

MKJV: He was taken from prison and from judgment; and who shall declare His generation?

ISV: From detention and judgment he was taken away—and who can even think about his descendants?

Septuagint[2]: In his humiliation, his judgement was taken away, who shall declare his generation?

JPS[3]: By oppressive judgement he was taken away, who can describe his abode?

The same ambiguity is evident in 52:15: “He shall nazah many nations” where nazah could mean to sprinkle or to startle. The sprinkling here would refer to atoning for their sins through the sprinkling of blood as in the rite of Lev. 16. It fits in well with the overall theme of the text. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t startling – especially to a Jew.

One last comment on the poetry. Hermann Spieckermann (who wrote a book on this) notes that there seems to be a deliberate repetition between vv. 6 and 12, so as to identify the will of the servant with that of the Lord. v.6 says pana Jehova paga: Jehova laid our iniquity on the servant, and v.12 says nasa pasha paga: [the servant]intercedes for transgressors. The same verb is used of the Lord and the servant. Interesting, no?

This illustrates one of the most profound truths about the atonement that is often missed in PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement): The trinity. Christians believe that God is one being in three persons. While we should avoid the trap of modalism[4], there is a sense in which God is “laying the iniquity” on himself, and that it pleases the Lord to crush him(self) to forgive our sins. Forgiveness is costly. In wrath-terms, as PSA is often framed, God is absorbing his own wrath. Christians often turn to the other extreme of tri-theism when talking about atonement, as if God and Jesus were different, independent beings. God then punishes Jesus, and we are free. But this is not so. “I and the Father are one”. Jesus’ wounds are God’s wounds. God is not this unmoved, impenetrable fortress who metes out retribution for wrongdoing. He takes it upon himself.[5]

Does it apply to Jesus?

Some have tried to say that the song doesn’t really refer to Jesus. This is difficult to defend, however, since eleven of the twelve verses are cited in the New Testament when referring to Jesus, both by himself and by others[6]:

Is. 52:15:  Rom. 10:16, 15:21
Is. 53:1: John 12:38
Is. 53:2-3: Mark 9:12 and Psalm 22:6-7 (Jesus applies it to himself), Acts 3:13-15
Is. 53:4: Matt. 8:17, 1 Peter 2:22-25
Is 53:5-6: 1 Peter 2:24
Is. 53:7-8:  Acts 8:32-33, 1 Cor. 15:3, 2 Cor. 5:21,
Is. 53:9: 1 Peter 2:22-25, Matt. 27:57-60
Is. 53:12: Luke 22:37 (Jesus applies it to himself), 1 Peter 2:22-25

This is a wide variety of authors, books and themes: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and Peter. Only Hebrews, James and Jude may have been written by other authors and don’t mention this song, but they make op only 1.2% of the New Testament.

It is interesting, though, that the one verse is not applied to Jesus in the New Testament: 53:10 – The big Penal Substitution verse. “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief”. I don’t know if we should make anything of it (I can already hear some PSA opponents citing this fact in an argument). Maybe it is because the New Testament writers didn’t have that in the Septuagint which they were reading. The Septuagint renders it “The Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow”. Some NT passages referring to this vindication does come to mind, and follow the pattern “You killed him, but God raised him, not allowing his holy one/servant to see corruption (Ps. 16:10): Acts 2:32, 3:26. Also Col. 2:13-15.[7]

Furthermore, when the other verses quote Is. 53, they are not talking about Penal Substitutionary Atonement. For example, 1 Peter 2:22-25 uses Is. 53 as exemplary, but then bases the suffering slaves’ ability to persevere in what was accomplished at Jesus’ death. Peter doesn’t couple it to forgiveness for the guilt of sin per se, but to the believer being freed from the power of sin.

Is all of this ambiguity and poetic richness reason enough to reject PSA wholesale? I don’t think so. There is just too much of it in the song, and too much of the song in the NT. That said, I do think it is much more nuanced than we make it out to be. This poem has its own message – one that certainly refers to Jesus, but not in the way some would like it to. Although we understand aspects of the atonement as defined by PSA and “competing” theories, as long as they are in competition, we are missing the forest for the tree(s). When we try to shed light on the atonement, all I’ve ever seen is a glancing reflection. Do you not feel it? We focus on the oblique facets, but miss the gem itself.


[1] Much of this post is taken from Why did Christ die? An exegesis of Is. 52:13-53:12 by Sue Groom – a paper delivered at the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement and published in The Atonement Debate ed. Derek Tidball, David Hilborn & Justin Thacker (Zondervan 2008).

[2] 2nd Century BCE Greek translation of the Hebrew text by Jewish Rabbis. It is used more than the Masoretic text by New Testament writers. See the previous post.

[3] Jewish Publication Society’s English Translation of the Hebrew Bible

[4] Modalism says that Jesus is identical to the Father – just a different mode – and there is no trinity.

[5] Note that there is no mention of “justice” here. My feeling is that seeing atonement in exclusively judicial terms confuses the matter, and we should stick to the text. Justification is a separate discussion, and to ask whether it is “just” or “unjust” is to ask the text questions that it is not setting out to answer.

[6] Also Mark 9:31, 10:33, and 10:45 refer to Jesus’ death as ransom, and Paul in Romans 4:25 and 1 Cor. 15:3 seem to refer to the song and Jesus’ death as atonement. Many of the other servant songs are also applied to Jesus throughout the New Testament, but that would be a series on its own.

[7] Some would cite 2 Cor. 5: “He made him sin who knew no sin” or Gal. 3 “He was made a curse for us” or Rom. 8 “He condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus”. However, these verses are not quotations of Is. 53, and read in context, talk about other things.