A Tender Shoot in Parched Ground
“Lo, Your Salvation Comes” – The Messiah in Isaiah Special Series
It is difficult to deny the Messianic significance of Isaiah, chapter 53, in light of its use in the New Testament. While the purpose of this particular article is to focus on the first three verses of this great text of scripture, it would be an oversight not to introduce the topic at hand by emphasizing its varied uses in the New Testament. Not only was it quoted from directly by several of the inspired writers, it was alluded to frequently. Whether it refers to Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for sin (1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10) or it is used to explain the reality of those choosing not to follow the Messiah (John 12:38) by obedience to the gospel message (Rom. 10:16), it is clear that this prophesy has Jesus as the Messiah (The Servant) clearly in view. On one occasion in the New Testament, the context of Isaiah 53 is the starting point that leads a seeker to an obedient faith in Christ (the Ethiopian eunuch – Acts 8:26-40). Therefore, this powerful passage of scripture demands our close attention.
The prophetic chapter starts with two questions, “Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord ben revealed?” (Isa. 53:1, NKJV). The first question is a prophetic acknowledgement that many would not accept the reality of the Messiah when He was presented to them. This passage is cited twice in the New Testament to explain that exact occurrence.
In his gospel account, the apostle John cites this passage as fulfilled in that there were those who saw the many signs Jesus did, but did not believe in Him. John writes, “But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him, that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke: ‘Lord, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’” (John 12:37-38). It is easy to look at the Jews of that day and say, “How could they not believe?” Yet, today there are many who struggle with the same disbelief, despite having firsthand testimony and written evidence showing that Jesus performed signs and wonders and proving that He was indeed the son of God (cf. John 20:30-31).
The apostle Paul, in His great treatise to the disciples in Rome, acknowledges the same dilemma and fulfillment of prophesy. He writes…
“How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:14-17, NKJV).
An important relationship is established between the idea of “our report” (as spoken of in Isaiah 53:1) and “the gospel” (Rom. 10:15 as cited from Isa. 52:7 and Rom. 10:16). This “report” was not something that was just to be “believed” (as it would seem from just reading Isa. 53:1). It was the gospel and it was to be obeyed! Paul makes this direct correlation when he writes, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel” and then equates it to Isaiah’s question in Isaiah 53:1. This same correlation is realized in the introductory and closing thoughts of the book of Romans, as Paul speaks of “obedience to the faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). As Paul concludes, he writes, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
The second question in Isaiah 53 begins to point to the object of this great report that should be heard, believed and obeyed. Isaiah asks, “And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Isa. 53:1b). Before we can recognize the “whom” of this passage, it would serve us well to identify “the arm of the Lord.” Clearly, based on the already explained context of John 12:38, Jesus is “the arm of the Lord.” But why refer to Him as such. Homer Hailey rightly notes, “The arm of Jehovah is metonymy for the power of God which is revealed in the message and exerted in the salvation which results from believing it” (cf. Is. 51:5; 52:10).” [i] Isaiah 52:10 reveals, “The Lord has made bare His holy arm In the eyes of all the nations; And all the ends of the earth shall see The salvation of our God.” As the prophet Simeon blessed God and declared as he held the baby Jesus in his arms, “For my eyes have seen your Salvation” (Luke 2:30).
An important application to the reality of the saving “arm of the Lord” is that those who fail to believe and obey His gospel separate themselves from His salvation. Isaiah writes, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2). As a beloved brother states it, “It’s not that God can’t hear, and it’s not that His arm is too short, that his hand can’t reach us. Isaiah was telling them, ‘Until you repent of your sins and obey the word of God, He won’t hear your payers, nor save you from your sins.’ For it’s only the word of the Lord (Jesus is the word of the Lord, the arm of the Lord – cf. John 1:1, 14, jlp), that has the strength to lift us up—out of sin.” [ii]
In verse 2 of Isaiah, chapter 53, Isaiah begins, “For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground” (NKJV). Notice that the “arm of the Lord” in verse 1 is clearly a person in verse 2 (the pronoun “He”). This divine “He” would grow up before “Him” – the Lord God of Israel and the divine Husbandman of John 15. Jesus said, “I am the vine, and my Father is the husbandman” (John 15:1, KJV). Isaiah writes, “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1). It is a vine that will shoot forth “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground.” In the days of Jesus, the spiritual ground was political, barren, religious and doubting. The priesthood had grown corrupt. The crossroads of many key Old Testament prophesies were upon them. Thus the “dry ground” was the fallen nation of Israel. Homer Hailey cites Ezekiel 17:22-24 to illustrate this fact.
“Thus says the Lord God: “I will take also one of the highest branches of the high cedar and set it out. I will crop off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and will plant it on a high and prominent mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it; and it will bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a majestic cedar. Under it will dwell birds of every sort; in the shadow of its branches they will dwell. And all the trees of the field shall know that I, the Lord, have brought down the high tree and exalted the low tree, dried up the green tree and made the dry tree flourish; I, the Lord, have spoken and have done it” (Ezek. 17:22-24 – NKJV).
Jesus, “as a tender plant” would be their salvation, their hope, and their deliverance—just as prophesied. Yet the question remains, would they know Him when He came. Would they believe their report? The same question remains for us today.
In the latter of half of verse 2, Isaiah prophesies regarding the appearance of the Messiah. He says, “…He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him” (NKJV). Jesus has been envisioned, portrayed, drawn, imagined, reimagined, and set forth in a million different ways. Still, no one knows how he truly appeared because we are not given a description of his physical appearance. All that we really know comes from Isaiah’s prophetic utterance, which does not describe His appearance, but rather describes how He will not appear.
Jesus would not be a man of kingly stature and appearance. As a “tender plant,” we could contend that He would be young. We know little of his childhood except that He was miraculously brought forth in the flesh from the virgin Mary, He was begotten into very humble circumstances (cf. Luke 2:1ff; Matt. 13:55) and He would spend the first few years of his life exiled in Egypt (Matt. 2:1ff). As a young boy, He would be “about His Father’s business” (Luke 2:49). And about the age of thirty, Jesus would begin His ministry (Luke 3:23). We are not given a picture of a man of great stature, background, or upbringing. We are not given a picture of a man of great wealth, means or earthly power. Instead, a picture is painted of a man who was devoutly followed for the word He taught (John 7:46) and the divine power He displayed (John 3:2). Jesus was not to be followed for His beauty or form or comeliness, as some kings of ancient were regaled. Even as he entered the city of Jerusalem for His coronation with a crown of thorns (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:17-20; John 19:1-5), we are taught, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of donkey” (Matt. 21:5). This is the Jesus of prophesy. This is the Jesus we are to follow. This is the Jesus that saves!
In verse 3, the prophesy of Isaiah 53, turns to another important and noted feature of the coming Salvation of Israel. The prophet records, “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (NKJV). This man, God in the flesh (cf. John 1:1-3, 14), who would not be noted for His appearance, would neither be noted for His acceptance by those He came to save. Quite the oppose, He would be “despised and rejected.” Just as Esau despised his birthright, selling it for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:34), the Jews would despise their birthright. Time and again, from synagogue to field, from the Temple to the Praetorium, from Jerusalem to Rome, from the manger to the cross, the Jews would despise and reject Jesus. At a critical moment of decision between two men, they chose the criminal Barabbas over the Lord of Hosts. This is illustrated in this most noteworthy exchange between the Jews and Pilate, which is most forcefully realized in its entirety:
“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.” But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children”” (Matt. 27:15-25 - NKJV).
John reminds us, “He came to his own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Adding insult to injury, not only would the Coming One be despised and rejected, He would be a “Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” We would hide our face from Him. Countless souls would turn their backs on Jesus even though it was for these very lost souls that He had been born in the flesh, suffered and died. The Hebrew writer expressed it well when He wrote…
“…who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him…” (Heb. 5:7-9 – NKJV).
In the Psalm that best encapsulates Jesus’ feelings as He hung on the cross, the Psalmist says, “But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by the people.” (Psa. 22:6). Isaiah acknowledges a portion of the great suffering and grief our Lord endured to save His people. Isaiah, chapter 53, gives even greater detail to capture that suffering as a soul-deep suffering. Other writers in this series will speak to those very points.
Much more could be and has been written about this great prophesy. Suffice it to say, the words of Isaiah reveal to us in great detail a picture of the Suffering Servant who would come in the name of God to seek and save those who were lost. The number of the lost extends from the beginning to the end of time, starting with the Jews of Israel, extending to the Gentiles of old and reaching to include all of us today. The challenge for us is to understand the part we play in this prophesy. Are we among those who would not believe their report? Are we among those who do not obey the gospel? Are we among those who seek for a Jesus much different than what this prophesy describes? Are we among the men who despise and reject this Man of Sorrows? Are we among those who hide our faces from Him? Are we among those who do not esteem Him?
[i] Hailey, Homer, A Commentary on Isaiah. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Baker Book House.1985
[ii] Sermon by Jeff Belknap
All texts taken from the New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise specified.
By Jonathan L. Perz
From Expository Files 22.7; July 2015