What Does Isaiah 53:5 Mean?

This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.—Isaiah 53:5

Understanding Context

To understand this great verse we must first look at its context in the book of Isaiah, and two things can be said. The first is that it deals with the problem at the heart of Isaiah 1 where the nation is summoned to God’s court because of its sin which is leading to exile and judgment. Their condition is also described as dangerous; indeed, mortally ill (Isa. 1:5-6). How can the covenant God redeem and restore his people, and can even grace save them when they seem to have sinned away their blessings?

As the book develops we realize that salvation is not going to be cheap or easy but will involve exile in Babylon with healing and restoration beyond that. In particular, in Isaiah 42 we are introduced to the figure of the Servant through whom Yahweh’s purposes will be carried out. Four ‘Servant Songs’ have been identified: Isaiah 42:1–4 (some add Isa. 42:5–9); Isaiah 49:1–6; Isaiah 50:49, and the present one, Isaiah 52:13–53:12. But that should not be overemphasized, and it probably is better to see the servant theme as dominating these chapters and, indeed, introduced much earlier in Isaiah 6:8: “Here am I, send me.”

ESV Expository Commentary

Four biblical scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.

So who is the Servant? First of all, Israel herself, but she failed and needed to be saved herself (see Isa. 49:8ff). Yet the true Son of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ, is to fulfill the Servant role which Israel failed to carry out. Just as he is the true vine (John 15:1–17) which replaces the spoiled vine (see Isa. 5 and Isa. 27). Thus, Philip the evangelist has no difficulty in answering the Ethiopian’s question, ”about whom does the prophet say this?” (Acts 8:34).

As we turn now to the detail of the verse, we see that these blessings are rich and varied and answer exactly to the needs which the prophet has identified. The language here is precise but also richly evocative, as is characteristic of Isaiah. “He” is emphatic—“it was he” or “he was the one”—there was no one else through whom all God’s blessings were to come. These blessings were to flow far beyond Israel and come to the whole world.

“He was pierced.” His wounds were necessary for our salvation. The word “pierced” interestingly occurs in Isaiah 51:9 of God’s smiting of the dragon and thus shows that the destruction of the powers of darkness was at the heart of the cross as God not only smites the devil but smites himself and removes the curse of sin. Thus, he took the “chastisement”, or “punishment”, which our transgressions deserved. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

“Crushed” is used in Lamentations 3:41 of the bitterness of exile which was the consequence of the people’s sin. “Iniquities” is our twisted nature which results in sinful attitudes and actions, once again identified in Isaiah 1:4. So peace is secured by the Servant undergoing the punishment for us. This is not only substitution but penal substitution, because before we can be forgiven God’s just anger against sin must be propitiated so that we can have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Only the manifold grace of God can heal the manifold sicknesses of the human heart.

But there is more than forgiveness; there is healing. Isaiah 1 showed that the whole nation was a wounded, dying corpse (Isa. 1:5b-6). Isaiah is going on to talk of the new creation, especially in Isaiah 65 (anticipated in such chapters as Isaiah 11, Isaiah 12, and Isaiah 35). The salvation the Servant brings is not just of souls but of bodies in a new and glorious world. Bodies like Jesus’s “glorious body” (Phil. 3:21) are the full result of the suffering of the Servant. Only the manifold grace of God can heal the manifold sicknesses of the human heart.

We cannot leave this verse without thinking of its application, for Bible study is never simply a theoretical exercise. First, truths like these lead to repentance and humility. When we were helpless and, indeed, unaware of our plight, God intervened to provide a way back to himself. Second, we are in the face of a great mystery. Charles Wesley gives us words to express this:

‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies,
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain, the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!1

These lead to praise and worship, for, ultimately, theology must end in doxology.


  1. “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley

Bob Fyall is a contributor to the ESV Expository Commentary: Isaiah–Ezekiel (Volume 6).

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