The Leper-Substitute

Isaiah 53:3–4:

   He was despised and rejected by men, 
     a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; 
   and as one from whom men hide their faces 
     he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 

   Surely he has borne our griefs 
     and carried our sorrows; 
   yet we esteemed him stricken, 
     smitten by God, and afflicted.

Isaiah’s suffering servant will have no physical beauty to capture the eye-roving world, and this is partly because he will be “badly disfigured by persecution,” writes Ben Witherington in his new commentary on Isaiah. But that’s not all. On top of this disfigurement by violence, the servant appears to have been “stricken by some illness” (243). The term ‘stricken’ is a verb for disease, literally quasi leprosum in the Vulgate. This diseased condition is “one that probably causes disfigurement and repulsive appearance, and leprosy best fits this sort of description.” The badly disfigured shall be exalted by God — pure nonsense to a world that assumed outward beauty an evidence of God’s favor and disfiguring disease an evidence of God’s displeasure. Neither is a rule, and the suffering servant will destroy these divine stereotypes. Whether or not the servant will literally be disfigured by disease, he will be esteemed as such. “There is very little doubt that here we are talking about vicarious and substitutionary suffering,” Witherington states rightly of the text. “What is quite amazing is that it is not a person the people might have evaluated as suitable or exceptional who is called upon to perform this substitutionary suffering for God’s people, but one who to all outward appearances seemed ordinary, if not repulsive, the least likely candidate, humanly speaking” (245). Indeed, and this diseased one shall bear our diseases (Matt. 8:17).

Eating and Drinking in the Structure of Isaiah

“The appetite for studies on food and drink in the Old Testament is growing” (1). It’s a bad pun, but an interesting point which opens up a fascinating monograph by Andrew Abernethy, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

In his book, Eating in Isaiah: Approaching the Role of Food and Drink in Isaiah’s Structure and Message (Brill, 2014), Abernethy makes a strong case for exactly this point — symbols and metaphors of food and drink offer the reader key structural hints within each section.

Here’s a summary (184–185):

In Isa 1–39, there are many announcements that YHWH will use foreign powers (Assyria and then Babylon) to punish his people for disobedience by depleting their food and drink supply (1:7; 3:1, 7; 4:1; 5:14; 7:15, 21–23; 8:21; 16:7–10; 17:10; 30:20; 32:9–14; 36:12). This judgment through the depletion of food sources is aimed at Israel and Judah, the nations, and the entire cosmos (24:7–11), establishing coherence concerning the destiny of all nations between Isa 1–12, 13–23, 24–27, and 28–35. By doing so, the prophet is presenting YHWH as sovereignly using imperial tactics to punish a continually hardened people for disobedience. Not only does Isa 1–39 anticipate the destruction of food sources, there is the enduring promise that YHWH will provide food for the obedient (1:19; 3:10; 4:2; 25:6–8; 30:23–25; 32:20; 33:16; 37:30). At the climax of this vision is a feast that King YHWH will host for all nations upon Zion’s establishment (25:6–8). In light of Isa 36–37, these promises of eating by YHWH contrast with the offers of a wannabe king who wishes to usurp YHWH as provider for his people. Eating in Isa 1–39, then, takes on an “imperial-retributive” perspective as it warns of food destruction and promises food provision in a way that highlights YHWH’s sovereignty, the need for a response, and its relevance for all nations throughout all of time.

In Isa 40–55, food and drink passages have an exclusively comforting tone. Announcements of coming judgment in the realms of food and drink are absent. These chapters assume that the devastation of food and drink sources anticipated in Isa 1–39 has occurred (51:19). To bring hope to the weary, promises of food and drink arise in highly metaphorical language to convince the disheartened that YHWH will make all things new (41:17–20; 43:20; 44:3, 9–10; 48:21; 49:8–10; 51:14, 17–23). With water and food operating metaphorically to highlight YHWH’s ability to transform, Isa 55:1–3 uses eating figuratively to urge the audience to listen and turn to YHWH, not other gods, as they await restoration in all realms of life, including food and drink. In contrast to Isa 1–39, the use of the topic of food and drink in Isa 40–55 is highly metaphorical, focused on bringing comfort, and contributes in a greater degree to anti-idolatry polemics.

In Isa 56–66, exhortation continues from Isa 55, but it uses food and drink to announce judgment along with salvation in more of a material, eschatological, and universal fashion. In particular, food and drink establish boundaries between who will and who will not enjoy the benefits of God’s coming work of salvation. Those who engage in pagan eating practices (Isa 57:7; 65:3–4, 11; 66:3, 17) and ignore the hungry and thirsty (ch. 58) will experience hunger and thirst in the end (65:13). YHWH’s servants, however, regardless of ethnicity, will have the opportunity joyously to dine with YHWH (56:7; 61:6; 62:9; 65:13; 66:23) and see threats to their daily food production disappear (62:8–9; 65:21–22a).

As you can pick up in glints and glimmers in this quote, another major theme of Abernethy’s work centers on how these food and drink metaphors spotlight God’s sovereignty over all things, all peoples, and all nations. All that to say, when reading Isaiah, don’t pass too fast over the food and drink metaphors.


The annual liturgical calendar gives us seasonal excuses to set aside focused time to re-celebrate pinnacles of the biblical storyline, and to look at the same old, beautiful stories of redemptive history from different angles and using different lenses.

Ever since biblical theology found a happy home in Handel’s Messiah, Christmas has taken its rightful place as one of the most precious seasons for this type of reflection. And Advent itself has notoriously been targeted by publishers of devotionals and seasonal books for good reason. But as I’ve said over the years, I’m not much of a devotional-book reader. I much prefer to find my way directly to the pages of Scripture myself, and whenever I can intentionally focus my attention on a section of Scripture for a seasonal purpose, I take advantage of the opportunity. And that’s why this Christmas, I plan to invest extra time in slowing reading through the prophetic book of Isaiah.

It was something I did last year online, and a few dozen of you joined me on Twitter, and even more of you said they wanted to join along in the reading this year. So, welcome!

Why Isaiah?

Isaiah is a book specifically dedicated to Israel’s history — their past redemption, present disobedience, and the future promises of God’s deliverance. Isaiah is a stunning book, and not only is it essential to our faith — some calling it the fifth gospel — but it’s also a historically magnificent work to help return our redemptive gaze back to the highlights of God’s activity among his people. But it’s not an abstracted involvement. It gets very personal, as we’ll see in a moment.

If you thought our world was a mess of dissension and idolatry, enter the world of Isaiah. It’s (arguably) the darkest book in the OT and (inarguably) the second most concentrated book of “joy” mentions in the OT (only behind the Psalms), making it a perfect set-up read for Christmas, and one rooted deep in a broken world.

Immediately obvious are the important prophecies for the Christmas season — passages like Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:6 stand out. But the entire book offers key background that frames the majesty of Bethlehem. That’s why for the month leading up to Christmas I’m dedicating my devotional readings exclusively to the book of Isaiah.

What makes this opportunity so precious during advent is the reality that Isaiah separates into three sections, and each section develops around one particular character whom God promises to send. In the first 39 chapters, God promises a Davidic Ruler, a new king, will emerge. In the next 16 chapters, he promises a self-giving Servant will arrive. In the final 11 chapters, he promises a Messenger, a prophet of God’s redemption.

Breaking Isaiah into three sections is not unique; students of the Bible have been making these breaks for a long time. What’s unique is that the trio of sections is here studied with particular emphasis on the central character in each of the section breaks, making the overall reading experience more personal (literally).

The threefold distinction of these characters is illustrated in one handy chart from a new book:


bookI pulled this helpful chart from Andrew Abernethy’s The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach. It was one of my favorite reads in 2016 and it’s one of the most relevant texts for the Christmas season.

To this end I want to use the month leading up to Christmas to read through Isaiah, look for these three characters, and recognize all along that these three characters are not three people, but rather one Messiah — God’s incarnate Son.

I’ll give you the specifics of my reading schedule in just a moment, but first here are two important paragraphs from Abernathy’s book to set the stage for how Isaiah develops these three characters. Here Abernathy also provides a caution about what not to do in our reading, and instead what we should be looking for as we read Isaiah.

Here’s the first important excerpt.

“Isaiah does not envision only one lead agent; instead, there are at least three distinct lead agents whom God will use in each of the major sections of the book: (1) the Davidic ruler (1–39), (2) the servant of the Lord (40–55), and (3) God’s messenger (56–66). While Christians profess that Jesus ultimately embodies what the book of Isaiah envisions for these lead agents, I am not certain that these agents are necessarily understood to be the same individual throughout Isaiah. The book of Isaiah contains a range of expectations pertaining to the various roles God would need his lead agents to fulfill in the course of time. Instead of forcing all of these lead agents into one mold, it is better to allow the uniqueness of each figure to emerge. The common denominator, however, between these lead agents is that they are the divine king’s agents and feature into his plans within his kingdom. In fact, God’s Spirit empowers all three of these agents for the task assigned to them. These agents, then, are distinct, but are also united under God as king and overlap to some extent due to shared participation in God’s mission” (120).

The royal, the prophetic, and the priestly — three characters in three persons in the Isaianic storyline. Before we run them together, based upon what we know from later revelation, we should first let the book of Isaiah develop the three characters individually in the full richness of the expectations of God’s people.

Here’s the second paragraph from the book I want you to see.

“The Davidic ruler, the servant, and the anointed messenger are distinct figures in the outlook of the book of Isaiah, for they have fairly distinct purposes and operate in differing contexts. The Davidic ruler will be God’s agent in maintaining justice within Israel in the aftermath of deliverance from their oppressors. The servant will be God’s instrument among the nations in reconciling Israel and the nations to God through his suffering so that they may dwell with God, the holy king, in his holy city. The anointed messenger will emerge on the brink of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s coming as the warrior king who will reign in Zion to declare the gospel to the disheartened faithful. It is not unexpected for Isaiah to envision multiple lead agents in the light of other prophetic literature. As Boda [another scholar] argues, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi envision royal, prophetic and priestly figures who will all play an important role in the establishment of God’s kingdom. The claim here also does not undermine the New Testament’s application of all three of Isaiah’s figures to Jesus; instead, it displays the grandeur of Jesus and the surprise of recognizing how one person, Jesus Christ, can take on the role of all three figures, while also being the very God of these agent figures” (169).

As we work through the three figures in Isaiah, and as we approach Christmas, the connections between them in Christ should become clearer and clearer. As we work from the details of our personal reading, and as we come together in Christmas worship, we will see all three strands, all three characters, come together in our magnificent Prophet-Priest-King born in Bethlehem.

Finally, the schedule, which you are free to print out and slide into your Bible. I divvied up the book into a calendar, scheduled for weekdays, running from Monday, November 27 to Friday, December 22).

I would love for you to join me this year as we prepare for the birth of our Savior. May we together worship him in the full majesty of what his coming means for the world, and may we together praise him for his fulfillment of the multifaceted expectations of the prophetic anticipation.

☐ Nov 27	Isa 1–2
☐ Nov 28	Isa 3–6
☐ Nov 29	Isa 7–9
☐ Nov 30	Isa 10–13
☐ Dec 1		Isa 14–16
☐ Dec 4		Isa 17–21
☐ Dec 5		Isa 22–24
☐ Dec 6		Isa 25–28
☐ Dec 7		Isa 29–30
☐ Dec 8		Isa 31–33
☐ Dec 11	Isa 34–36
☐ Dec 12	Isa 37–39
☐ Dec 13	Isa 40–41
☐ Dec 14	Isa 42–43
☐ Dec 15	Isa 44–47
☐ Dec 18	Isa 48–50
☐ Dec 19	Isa 51–54
☐ Dec 20	Isa 55–58
☐ Dec 21	Isa 59–62
☐ Dec 22	Isa 63–66


Isaiah and cultivating imagination

“The most eloquent of all the prophets, the one from whom most can be learned as to preaching, is obviously Isaiah. Isaiah was the very opposite of Amos, the shepherd and gardener. He lived at court during several reigns, and in that of Hezekiah was high in influence. He was a highly educated man, a man of refined taste, and singular literary power and skill. He enjoyed in the best sense of that now often misused term, the advantage of Culture, with all its light and its sweetness. His writings, like all the other inspired books, take their literary character from the natural endowments, educational advantages, and social condition, of the man. They exhibit an imperial imagination, controlled by a disciplined intellect and by good taste. This imagination shows itself in vivid and rapid description, as well as in imagery. The careful and loving study of Isaiah has educated many a preacher’s imagination to an extent of which he was by no means conscious, and few things are so important to an orator as the real cultivation of imagination. True, the book of Isaiah presents the poetic more often than then strictly oratorical use of this faculty. But the two shade into each other; and we also, when we become greatly excited, and our hearers with us, do naturally use in speaking such imaginative conceptions and expressions as generally belonging only to poetry.”

“In part 1 of the book of Isaiah the oratorical element very distinctly predominates – it is direct address, aiming at practical results in those who hear. Sometimes the style even sinks into quiet narrative, but more often it rises into passionate appeal. And in part 2 (from the 40th chapter on), the orator is lost in the poet. The prophet’s soul is completely carried away by imagination and passion, till we have no longer an inspired orator directly addressing us, but a rapt seer, bursting into song, pouring fourth in rhythmical strains his inspired and impassioned predictions. He is like the angel that appeared to the shepherds, whose message soon passed into song. Besides the yet higher blessings which have come to the world from the devotional and practical, the predictive and theological contents of this grand prophet’s writings, who can estimate how much he has done in training servants of God for the highest and truest forms of all religious eloquence!”

– John Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1907/2004) pp. 14-16