Summary: "A Song for the Substitute" is an exposition of Isaiah 53:1-6, which presents the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This message exhorts the hearer to praise God for (1) the life and (2) the death of our suffering Substitute.
A Song for the Substitute
The Prophesy of Isaiah consists of sixty-six chapters. The Bible consists of sixty-six books. The Bible is divided into Testaments – thirty-nine books in the Old, twenty-seven in the New. Similarly, Isaiah is divided into two sections. Chapters 1-39 warn the stubbornly rebellious people of judgment to come. Chapters 40-66 offer hope that God will restore his people by his sovereign grace and power. Isaiah 53 is at the center of this message of comfort. Moreover, it is the heart of the gospel. The centrality of this chapter to the good news of salvation through faith in Christ is indicated by the fact that portions of it are quoted or referred to at least eighty-five times in the New Testament. I repeat: This chapter is the heart of the gospel. If you want to know the facts of the life and death of Jesus, read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If you want to meditate on the meaning of his life and death, read Isaiah 53.
There are four so-called “SERVANT SONGS” in Isaiah about the one through him the Lord will bring redemption. These songs are recorded in Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12. In these songs, the identity of the Servant is shrouded in mystery. But Isaiah 53 makes it clear that this Servant is not a reference to Israel’s role among the nations. The Servant is a person, not a people. This person is identified by his SUBSTITUTIONARY WORK on the behalf of those guilty sinners. Isaiah 53 celebrates the substitutionary atonement accomplished by the Servant. It is what is called an ENCOMIUM – an ode to the greatness of a heroic figure. Isaiah 53 uses this poetic form ironically, as it celebrate this Servant whose life and death would be considered unheroic.
Isaiah 53:1 says, “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” These questions introduce the theme of the unheroic nature of the one who was sent to be a mighty deliverer. The first question is an exclamation: “Who has believed what they heard from us?” This question is to and for and about the people of God. Isaiah 52:15 says, “So shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not bee told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” But while the kings of the nations see and understand the true identity of the servant, the people of God did not believe what they heard. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah heard the Lord say, “Whom shall in send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah answered, “Here am I! Send me.” In Isaiah 6:9, the Lord instructed Isaiah say to his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.”
At the beginning of his ministry, the Lord told Isaiah that his message would not be received. As he reflects upon this, Isaiah asks incredulously, “Who has believed our report?” Answer: very few. This sad indictment continued after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Romans 10:16 says, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” This sin of unbelief continues today. Millions have trusted Christ as Savior and Lord. Yet billions do not believe, including many who have heard the gospel and refuse to believe. Who has believed what they heard from us?
The second question is an explanation: “And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The “arm of the Lord” refers to the saving power of God. Psalm 8:3 says the heavens are the work of the Lord’s fingers. Exodus 13:3 says the Lord delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt with a strong hand. But to redeem sinners, God flexed his mighty arm. Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” But Isaiah asks, “And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The arm of the Lord saves. But it is not recognized unless it is revealed. The people of God looked for the arm of the Lord in the form of a conquering military and political hero. But it came in the form of a carpenter from Nazareth. They missed it. Isaiah explains that few believe the message of salvation because you cannot recognize the arm of the Lord without divine revelation. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” In Isaiah 53:1, Isaiah laments that the unbelieving heart is blind and deaf and cannot understand or receive the way of salvation. Then verses 2-6 calls on those of us who believe to praise God for the life and death of our suffering substitute, Lord Jesus Christ.