Monday, May 10, 2010

Is Job the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah 53? - More Problems with Penal Substitution

Though Isaiah 53 is one of the primary OT proof-texts for the Protestant understanding of the Atonement, popularly termed "Penal Substitution," in this post I will briefly look at various verses in the chapter and show why projecting that erroneous doctrine onto this prophecy doesn't work.
As I go through Isaiah 53, I will highlight various words that appear elsewhere in the OT:
(53:4a)  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows  
(11c) he shall bear their iniquities
(12c) yet he bore the sin of many
St Matthew (8:16-17) directly quotes verse 4a and applies it to Jesus healing the sick and casting out demons; it has nothing to do with Penal Substitution. The term "bore" (H5375) here also appears in verse 12c, and the term "carried" (H5445) also appears in verse 11c. What the parallel usage in 4a (and Mat 8:16f) shows is that the notion of 'bearing' need not be literal nor so called "imputation", but rather a way of simply saying 'takes away'.
(4b) yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
(7a) He was oppressed, and he was afflicted
Job 2:5 But stretch out your hand and touch his [Job's] bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.

Job 19: 21 Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, O you my friends,
for the hand of God has touched me! 

Job 30:11 God has loosed my cord and humbled me
Many Protestants read 4b as saying people thought ("esteemed" H2803) Jesus was being punished for His own sins rather than ours, but that's a serious distortion and quite unwarranted. In fact, it ties back to 53:2-3, where it says the Jews "esteemed" (same word) Jesus as a nobody, and at the Cross thought was under God's displeasure because God didn't come to His rescue (cf. Mat 27:40-43) - though these folks were obviously jumping to erroneous conclusions. The term "esteemed" in Hebrew is very frequently used in reference to people "reckoning" evil thoughts or plans against others, or even down right mistaken (Gen 38:15; 1 Sam 1:13). The term for "stricken" (H5060) is also applied to Job (where the Devil challenges God to touch/strike down Job), as is the term for "smitten" (H5221, where Job states he was 'smitten by God'), and finally, the term "afflicted" (H6031, where Job states he was afflicted/humbled by God). Keep in mind that though the English words might be slightly different at times (depending on Bible translation), the color-coded Hebrew words are the same, and the context clearly is using the words the same way as well.
(5) But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.

(10) Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him
Job 6:9 that it would please God to crush me

Job 5:17 blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty
Prov 20:30 Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.
As with the previous verse, a similar theme emerges: The Hebrew terms "crushed" (H1792) and "chastisement" (H4148) are applied to Job. One important note here, some translations render the term "chastise" as "punishment," but this is inaccurate since the term refers to fatherly correction and not a judicial punishment (note how frequently the book of Proverbs uses the term!). With that in mind, while the term "stripes" (H2250) doesn't appear in Job, the reference to Proverbs above shows it can fit the 'chastise' concept as well.
(6b) the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all

(12c) he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors
The term "laid" (H6293) in Hebrew means to "encounter, meet, make intercession," and this is how it's used in verse 53:12c. Taking into account the parallel in 12c, the notion that should be drawn from 6b is that the Servant took upon Himself the burden to correct the sins, and interceded (not substituted) to make atonement. Examples of intercession (again, not substitution) appear all over the OT, for example: Jer 15:1; 18:20; Num 25:10-13; Deut 9:16-20.

Conclusion:  The purpose of this brief exercise is to show that just because someone - in this case the Suffering Servant - is having pain inflicted upon them, even by God's decree, that this automatically entails God's Wrath must be upon the individual, for that is a serious logical fallacy. The prime example of this false assumption being soundly disproved is that Job is explicitly described as being "stricken," "smitten," "afflicted," etc, by God - yet the very lesson of the Book of Job is that God caused all this suffering to fall upon Job yet God's Wrath was never upon him. Why can it not be the same for the Only Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ? This is not to put Jesus and Job on the same plane, God forbid, for their status and merits are without comparison. Rather, Job would be a foreshadowing of a more excellent Person, Jesus Himself, which is something the Early Church Fathers saw very clearly.

For more information on how Isaiah 53 is incompatible with Penal Substitution, see Section 3a of this Essay.


Mostyn Roberts said...

From Harp from the Willows

An answer to your comment on my April blog on Chist's obedience and to your Jan 2009 article on penal substitution is at my blog 12th May 2010.

Zachary Wyse said...

Hi Nick

Surely, you can't make such a distinction between intercession and substitution. One who intercedes *stands it the place of* the one interceded for. Intercession depends on substitution.

Matt. 8:16-17
The whole of the Gospel is leading to the cross. Healings like this one are meant to explain what Christ accomplishes through the cross (i.e., the sign and thing signified). In the same way that physical prosperity under the old covenant tells us of the eternal blessings under the new covenant, we learn that spiritual and physical blessing will ultimately come from Christ's work on the cross. At this point, the woman is healed and people that were possessed were freed; later at the cross, Jesus would be undone and placed in bondage. If viewed in this way, we see that physical healings were a sign of the spiritual work he was performing. These were signs of the benefits of the cross. This hinges upon Christ's self-substitution at the cross, though. Is Matthew explicitly teaching imputation in these few verses? Of course not. Does it fit with substitution/imputation? Definitely, if the Gospel is taken as a whole.

Is making such a close connection with Job really Isaiah's purpose? Surely, Leviticus 16 is much more clearly in the background of Isaiah 53. Hebrew words have a wide range of meaning. Finding instances where they have the meaning you desire doesn't mean it's a legitimate translation (I know, you're not saying that, but we need to identify the best passage(s) for comparison as well as understanding the range of meanings a word may hold.).

Consider Leviticus 16, the Day of the Atonement. The first goat is slaughtered as an offering for sin. These offerings are preceded by an act of imputation/identification of the sinner(s) with the offering. That first goat was then slaughtered (death penalty) for sin. Then, the priest confesses sins, transgressions, and iniquities over the second goats head and he bears/carries those sins into the wilderness. The sum total of these two instances of substitution (although both were symbolic and ceremonial) is that atonement is made!

Death (i.e., God's wrath) was the penalty for transgressing His covenant. It was the covenant curse that would fall on the sinner and nation. The death penalty had to be paid for. Imputation/identification happened in the two goats. The first goat takes the death penalty and the second carries the sin away. Our fulfillment is Christ, who "became a curse for us... cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree" (Gal. 3:13). The covenant curse comes from God in His wrath.

If all we had was Job, your reasoning would stand. But we have much more than Job. Rather than a whole bunch of verses scattered across Job, Leviticus 16 is closely connected to the chapter in question. The covenant curse of death (God's wrath) falls upon goats rather than sinners. Ultimately, the cross of Christ is our Day of Atonement. The sins of His people were "confessed over His head". He presented Himself as a sin offering. And in all of this, He carried our sin and uncleanness away, leaving us "clean" - not attempting to clean ourselves and seek more days of atonement.

I appreciate your interaction on this topic.

Nick said...


Thanks for your comments.

First off, I don't think you can say one who intercedes "stands in place of" as opposed to simply acting as a third party bridging the gap between two parties in conflict. Clearly, the examples I gave show heroes interceding but not substituting themself.

Next, while I agree with much of your second paragraph (Re: Mat 8:16f), it doesn't provide any positive evidence for Psub. At most, it's assuming.

You then asked if my making a connection with Job was Isaiah's purpose. While I don't think Isaiah had Job in mind, the point remains that Job certainly prefigured Christ and more importantly that one can experience all sorts of afflictions from God without being under God's Wrath. I readily grant Hebrew words can have a range of meaning, though in this case I have two points to make: (1) I don't know if the range of meaning is that wide in the terms I examined; (2) the burden is put on the Protestant to prove the terms in Isaiah must entail PSub. The *goal* of my post was to demonstrate one cannot simply read Is 53 and *assume* this or that based on what's said, which is what's been traditionally done by Protestants. One cannot assume the Hebrew words are being used in a way favorable to Psub, especially when I've shown they certainly don't have to mean that at all.

As for Leviticus 16, there are similarities but also differences, and I believe it's just as relevant as the foreshadowing of Job. That said, elsewhere I've shown that the Scapegoat of Lev 16 doesn't fit the Psub model, and nowhere do I know of the Scapegoat being linked to Christ in the NT.
If you read my Psub Debate Essay which I linked to at the end, you will see why the OT offerings didn't operate in a Psub framework. In that I show why the identification with "laying on hands = imputation" doesn't work, as well as other things.

Lastly, you speak of Death as God's Wrath, but you need to be more specific. Physical death is a punishment resulting from Adam, and even Christians experience it, so obviously Christ didn't die physically so we don't have to. The Civil Death Penalty is what the Mosaic Covenant prescribed, and could be carried out either by the Jewish Civil authorities or by God's supernatural intervention (e.g. snake bites, disease, army defeats, etc). Spiritual Death in terms of Eternal Damnation is something that only God has the power to do, and was not directly tied to the Mosaic Covenant (which never spoke of damnation or Heaven).
If Jesus was experiencing the curse of the Mosaic Covenant (which is what Gal 3:13 is speaking of), the most the Mosaic Covenant promised was humiliating physical death.

Derek said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for your comment on my blog. I like what you have to say here, and responded to it in detail over on my rebel God blog.

nannykim said...

Thanks, this was helpful. I have been having a hard time finding the Catholic explanation of Is. 53. This has helped as I am considering the Catholic faith and this passage has been troubling me.

newenglandsun said...

The word "dacha" as seen in Isaiah 53:10 means "humble, bruise, crush, break into pieces". As we see with Job, it does not refer to punitive action being taken on someone as Job was humbled, not punished for something that he did. Note that in the original Hebrew manuscripts, we don't have vowels. These were added in the 7th to 10th centuries when the Masoretes showed up. They carried a specific tradition they had taken to the text and added these vowels to indicate the form. It is possible they altered the translation slightly to affirm the interpretation being applied for Israel as a nation rather than the individual Messiah. This is something to consider.

newenglandsun said...

This is the Septuagint translation of Is. 53. Notice how it translates as if to indicate the servant will be cleaned. Odd.

Tim Catchim said...

Does anyone know of any other writing that explores the literary connection between Isaiah 53 and Job 6? I find this connection fascinating. Thanks!

Nick said...

Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote a famous book, Homilies on the Book of Job, where he connects the 'innocent sufferings' of Job to the 'innocent sufferings' of Christ. Job asks the age-old question, "Why do bad things happen to good people? Why would God allow this?", and this question is answered in the Mystery of Christ's Passion.

I don't know if Gregory's Book is available online in English, but I would love to read it some day because I'm sure I'd be blown away with his insights.