Song 4 - New American Bible, Revised Edition
The Seven Penitential Psalms
During times when we wish to express repentance and especially during Lent, it is customary to pray the seven penitential psalms. The penitential designation of these psalms dates from the seventh century. Prayerfully reciting these psalms will help us to recognize our sinfulness, express our sorrow and ask for God’s forgiveness.
We are featuring here the newly released translations of the seven penitential psalms from the New American Bible, Revised Edition with reflections and discussion questions from Graziano Marcheschi, M.A. D.Min.
Song 4: Audio | Commentary
Suffering and Triumph of the Servant of the Lord*
13See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
14Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his features,
beyond that of mortals
his appearance, beyond that of human beings—d
15So shall he startle many nations,
kings shall stand speechless;
For those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.e
1Who would believe what we have heard?*
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?a
2He grew up like a sapling before him,b
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
3He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.c
4Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God* and afflicted,d
5But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.e
6We had all gone astray like sheep,
all following our own way;
But the LORD laid upon him*
the guilt of us all.f
7Though harshly treated, he submitted
and did not open his mouth;
Like a lamb led to slaughter
or a sheep silent before shearers,
he did not open his mouth.g
8Seized and condemned, he was taken away.
Who would have thought any more of his destiny?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
struck for the sins of his people.
9He was given a grave among the wicked,
a burial place with evildoers,
Though he had done no wrong,
nor was deceit found in his mouth.h
10But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain.
By making his life as a reparation offering,*
he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days,
and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.
11Because of his anguish he shall see the light;
because of his knowledge he shall be content;
My servant, the just one, shall justify the many,
their iniquity he shall bear.
12Therefore I will give him his portion among the many,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death,
was counted among the transgressors,
Bore the sins of many,
and interceded for the transgressors.i
Suffering and Triumph of the Servant of the Lord
This fourth Song of the Suffering Servant is likely one of the best known texts of the entire Old Testament. It is a plaintive dirge that declares God’s innocent Servant was punished for our sins and crushed for our iniquities. Like a “lamb led to the slaughter,” he went silently to his death, a death that bore away our offenses and made us whole. Though the “suffering” of the Suffering Servant is more evident in this text than in the other “songs,” this passage begins with a trumpet blast declaration of the Servant’s future glory. His exaltation, however, won’t spring from victory but from a well of deep sorrow. Though cast in the past tense, the Servant’s suffering is palpable.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the Servant is how unremarkable he is: “no majestic bearing” to attract, “no beauty” to please the eye. He was shunned and avoided the way one might recoil from a leper. And yet, says the prophet, it was for us that he suffered, for us that he endured shame. Foolishly, we assumed he was reaping the fruit of his own failures, but now we see the truth: it was our sins brought him low. In street parlance we might say, “We did the crime, but he did the time.” If at least he would complain, express anger, go resentfully to his death. Maybe that would assuage our guilt. But he accepts his fate in silent dignity. No finger pointing; no “woe is me.” Mercifully, he bore the wounds but we were healed. He did no wrong, Isaiah tells us, yet somehow it suits the will of God to make him a “reparation offering” and let him be cast aside “among the wicked.”
Such willing self-sacrifice is as surprising as the spin Isaiah gives it. Any religious person of his day would have viewed the Servant’s suffering as rightful punishment for sin. But the prophet sees through a different lens. With beautiful imagery, Isaiah announces ultimate vindication for the Servant whose vicarious suffering will “justify the many.” God greatly rewards the selfless Servant and turns his suffering into the ointment that heals the world.
This vision must have shocked Isaiah’s audience. A Messiah who would suffer and die instead of riding in with brandished sword to drive out their foreign dominators was plain preposterous. So was the notion that he would “justify the many.” The Messiah’s light was to shine on Israel, not upon the nations. It would be difficult, indeed, to long for such a universal Messiah.
Yet who could fail to recognize the suffering Christ within the contours of the Servant’s face? No one paints a better portrait than Isaiah of the Christ who suffered silently for our sins. But let’s not forget how this song begins: “My servant shall be raised high and greatly exalted.” Because he “surrendered himself to death,” the suffering, mocked Messiah is now the Lord who reigns and reconciles.
Questions for Reflection:
Does the assertion that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him with pain” raise any difficult questions for you?
Why do you think it would have been difficult for the people of ancient Israel to believe salvation would be extended not just to Israel, but to the whole world? Do you see a connection with Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard who were all paid the same amount for their various hours of labor (Matthew 20:1-16)?
What stirs within you when you observe innocent suffering?
What about your own pain? Do you feel you suffer alone, or do you sense Christ suffering with you?