Yahweh’s Plan

In his superb essay in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources , Bernd Janowski argues for a “place-taking” interpretation of Isaiah 53. The Servant takes the place of the people to bear their sins. Along the way, he notes some important nuances of the passage, especially as regard to what he describes as the “offensive” statement in 53:10: “Yahweh planned to crush him.” Janowski asks, “What kind of God is it . . . who surrenders his ‘chosen one’ (42:1) and delivers him to the power of his foes? . . . What kind of ‘plan’ is is that leads Yahweh to surrender the life of his chosen one?” (65).

He answers by pointing to the plan that is announced in 42:1-4, when the Servant is introduced. Janowski explains,

“In his actions and suffering the Servant takes up an ‘alien’ fate that has its full effect on him. Yet why this dramatic ‘role reversal’ that brings with it the rejection, suffering, and death of the innocent? It is in order to release others from the evil consequences of their evil actions, or more concretely, ‘to bring Israel back’ to Yahweh after the catastrophe of 587 B.C.E. (49:5-6; cf. 44:21-22). Any other way – such as that followed by preexilic judgment prophecy with its proclamation of disaster – was apparently no longer viable for the Deuteroisianic tradition, for it would have driven Israel even deeper into despair. Therefore the Servant’s suffering is, at its core, about the salvation of Israel and – in the context of the Servant Songs – about the salvation of the nations” (66).

He disputes that Isaiah 53 teaches that the Servant is a sacrifice, taking asham not as a reference to the “trespass offering” but to the more general idea of “wiping out guilt” but “taking over the consequences of others’ actions” (68-9). I think he’s wrong about this, as he is about the existence of a “Deuteroisianic tradition.”

But he’s right in the way he understand Isaiah 53 as the fulfillment of God’s plan and good pleasure. It is God’s plan to redeem Israel and the nations, and in pursuit of that plan He stretches out His arm and sends His Servant to be crushed, wounded, rejected, and so to bear sin away.

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