We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53:6
By the eighth century BC, Judah (the southern kingdom following Israel’s split into two) was in a moral mess. Isaiah announced that they would therefore face severe judgment at the hands of the Assyrians and, later, the Babylonians, including exile for many. But a remarkable reversal comes in the second part of the book, when Isaiah starts promising liberation.
In a series of intensely moving passages known as the Servant Songs, Isaiah reveals that God will rescue his people through his Servant. It becomes increasingly clear that he is also talking about something much bigger than rehabilitating the nation. Isaiah has in view both a liberator in the not-too-distant future, when God will once again comfort his people (51:3,12; 52:9) and bring them home (51:11), and a greater saviour through whom God will eventually do something far more remarkable (52:13ff).
Astonishingly, Isaiah anticipates the Servant dealing with the fundamental problem of human sin. Even more unexpectedly, Isaiah sees this Servant actually bearing the punishment deserved by those who have asserted their independence from God. It’s a rescue which goes way beyond Judah to embrace all nations (52:9–10,15). As the New Testament writers recognised, (e.g. 1 Peter 2:22–25) it is an extraordinary prophecy of Jesus who came to bear our sin on the cross.