There is a tendency among us moderns to regard ancient peoples as somewhat unsophisticated, living in a preliterate world and without our understanding of the world and how it works, their lives riddled by superstition and folk legend. Primitive is a word often used of these people.
Then we are reminded that some of the greatest works of literature were written at the same time as many of the books of the Bible, some even earlier. Homer, the great Greek writer of the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, lived in the 7th or 8th century B.C., about the time that the prophet Isaiah lived. Isaiah 40–66 is one of the greatest pieces of poetic writing in all history. A message of comfort and hope for God’s people in the hopelessness of exile, it constantly stresses the greatness and sovereignty of the one true God over against the idols of Babylon and those who follow them, including those who seem to be great kings and tyrants on the earth. But it also repeatedly plays off the power and faithfulness of YHWH against the folly and failings of Israel itself; Israel has not only given up hope, but seems to have abandoned faith as well.
So God is there in the middle, flanked on the one side by the cruelty and wickedness of Babylon and the failure and faithlessness of Israel on the other. In this juxtaposition Israel more like the Babylonians than the God they claim claims them. Their rejection of Yahweh is every bit as wicked as the Babylonians ignorance of Him and their arrogance toward Israel.
Into this tension emerges a third figure, bearing the divine purposes into the heart of the storm. The “servant of Yahweh” is introduced in 42:1–9, and his work is to bring to fulfillment the rescue operation God has in mind. But this rescue operation is different than the kind Israel was accustomed to—and different than the kind that is heralded in Western culture. This is no Clint Eastwood riding in pistols drawn, gunning down all the bad guys. No, this rescue operation is accomplished through suffering and, ultimately, death. It is through his suffering and death, described here in terms of sacrifice (53:10), that the sins of the people find atonement and forgiveness. Throughout Isaiah 40–55, this “forgiveness” means, quite explicitly, return from exile; exile had been the punishment for the people’s sins, and their return is the embodiment of their forgiveness. But it is not just forgiveness that his suffering and death accomplishes, but the ultimate defeat of those powers like Babylon that depend on violence, force, and oppression. We are not talking about sin and death here as abstractions, but as those tools which the powerful use to terrorize, conquer, subjugate and exploit people. The ability to kill, to bring death to whole villages—even the mere threat of it—forces people to bow to the powers that be.
The way that these powers are defeated, however, cannot be by playing their game, only bigger and better; that just perpetuates the problem. It is by serving, suffering, and dying that these powers are defeated. It’s not for nothing that this character is called, “The Suffering Servant.” These are the means of rescuing the oppressed and bringing in the Kingdom of God. The result, in the great prophetic poem, is a new covenant and a new creation. “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” (Isaiah 55:3) Eventually it becomes clear that this Servant is no mere man, though man indeed he is; somehow, in his work and his death, he is doing what Yahweh himself had promised to do—rescue, redeem, and restore Yahweh’s kingdom. The return of Yahweh to Zion, on the one hand, and the suffering of the servant, on the other, turn out to be two ways of saying the same thing. And the overall point is that this is where the power of pagan Babylon and the failure of God’s people Israel are met with the sovereign, saving, kingdom-establishing rule of God himself.
Jesus died not just to forgive sins, but to establish God’s Kingdom. We tend to emphasize the former and neglect the latter, but we can’t ever separate the two.