January 23 – The poetry of Isaiah 53.

January 23, 2021 Randy Bushey

~by Randy Bushey

 

 

 

 

 

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
  he was bruised for our iniquities:
    the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
      and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

When we studied the Psalms together last summer, we grappled to understand what constitutes Hebrew poetry.

We observed that Hebrew scholars contend that almost one-third of the OT is written in an identified form of poetic expression.

All of the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Lamentations is composed in poetry, as is most of Job and Ecclesiastes. That may be more obvious as you look at the layout of the text in your Bible.

However, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, poetry was the communication genre employed in many prophetic books, too. Several minor prophets and large portions of major prophets including the well-beloved 2nd section of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) are written in poetry.

In fact, only a handful of OT books contains no poetry, including Leviticus as the only book of Pentateuch/Torah to contain none.

Bible scholars Hill & Walton comment: “…little is known about the exact nature of biblical Hebrew poetry. Unlike its classical and modern counterparts, ancient Hebrew poetry has no distinctive scheme of accentuation, meter, or rhythm to differentiate it from prose.” 1

Hebrew poetry expert Allen P. Ross explains further: “The fact that the psalms are artistic means that they display in fuller measure and with greater frequency the components of artistic form, including patterns, design, unity, balance, harmony and variation. The psalmist were imaginative and creative; they regarded their artistry as crucial to the meaning of its content.” 2

When studying the Psalms, we observed that Hebrew poetry was penned for audible processing – to be read aloud.

But rather than a rhythm of sound or words, Hebrew poetry frequently uses a rhythm of thought – or meticulously structured thought patterns.

And that structure provides mental “hooks” useful in the process of memorization.

Such is the case with Isaiah 53, the 4th of the Servant Songs of Isaiah.

Some see this text as the highest form of Hebrew poetry in existence, anywhere.

It uses simple parallelism – in this case synonymous parallelism as described in verse 5 above. Essentially this poetic structure contains much the same content, for the same theological purpose and says it four times.

Isaiah observes the punishment sustained by the Servant in the first few words of each line, concluding with the purpose for us in the final few words:
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
  he was bruised for our iniquities:
    the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
      and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

It is generally agreed among scholars – Jewish & Gentile – that Isaiah 53 has five strophes, or stanzas of 3 verses each. That’s why we started our study at the beginning of the poem: chapter 52, verses 13 to 15. In other words, the first strophe concludes chapter 52. Chapter 53 is comprised of 4 strophes.

Another example of “rhythm of thought” poetry – demonstrating the genius of the author – is seen in its “ring composition.”

And here’s what it means: “…a common literary style where an author presents a series of ideas, comes to a climax and then repeats the series of ideas backwards, returning to the starting point and thus creating a ‘ring,’ hence the designation ‘ring composition’.” 3

Consequently the 4th of the Servant Songs would be structured as follows:

A – Servant exalted because suffering brings salvation (52:13-15)
   B – No one believed He was the means of the Lord’s salvation (53:1)
      C – So He was rejected (v.2,3)
         D – Yet His suffering was for us and in our place. (v.4-6)
      C – He did not deserve to be rejected (v.7-9)
   B – The Lord was using His suffering to provide our salvation (v.10-11b)
A – The servant will be exalted because His suffering for us and in our place brings us salvation v.11b-12) 4

This structure – very different from what a western reader expects – demonstrates a configuration where the climax is not found near the end, but rather in the middle. In this case the centre of the 5 strophes would be verses 4-6 (labelled as D above):

4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.
6 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.

Takeaway: This mid-point climax demonstrates that the heart of the poem is the recognition by a Jewish audience – an understanding shared by Gentile followers of Christ – that He was our Substitute, the scape-goat Who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows and on Whom the LORD has laid…the iniquity of us all.

And one more thing that we must not miss demonstrating the creative genius of the Lord’s prophet writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit: the central climax of this Hebrew Song is the heart of the Christian Gospel, persuasively demonstrating the jaw-dropping coherence of the Bible, the eternal Word of God.

 

1 A Survey of the Old Testament, Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton; Zondervan,
Grand Rapids, 2000.

2 The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, John Walvoord &
Roy Zuck, editors; Victor Books, Wheaton, Illinois, 1985.

3 Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, Kenneth Bailey, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2011.

4 ibid. Bailey quoting A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah, John Goldingay & David Payne, T&T Clark Publishing, 2007.

~graphic by Edwin Pijpe, freeimages.com