It is utterly astonishing that the faithful servant of the Lord, the promised deliverer of Israel, would be put on public display in a horrifying, humiliating fashion. That is the very word Isaiah uses: “Many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isa. 52:14).

That verse is an abrupt and startling interruption set between two verses that describe the servant’s honor, influence, and exaltation. It is written in a way that purposely magnifies the reader’s astonishment. The sudden shift in topics—from exaltation to humiliation with no warning or transition whatsoever—illustrates the reason “many were astonished.” Putting it simply, as we keep stressing, the death of the promised Messiah was profoundly shocking. It seems no one besides Jesus himself was prepared for his death.

Incidentally, the Hebrew word translated “astonished” is a rich one. The English word is capable of being used in a very positive sense. It’s used, for example, in Mark 7:37, where it describes the people’s fascination and delight after Jesus healed a deaf man, and Scripture says “they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well.’” When he taught the multitudes, “they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority” (Luke 4:32). And when he healed a boy with an unclean spirit, “all were astonished at the majesty of God” (Luke 9:43).

Isaiah 52:14 is speaking about a different kind of astonishment. Isaiah uses a Hebrew term (shamem) that is never used to describe a positive reaction. It’s closer to the English word appalled. But it’s even stronger than that. It speaks of being totally devastated. In fact it’s a term that can describe the total defeat of an army or the utter desolation of a vast region that has fallen into ruins. (Isaiah used this word in 49:19 to describe the land of Judah after the Chaldean armies had demolished almost every trace of human habitation. He spoke of “your desolate [shamem] places and your devastated land.”)

DEVASTATED AT THE DISFIGUREMENT OF CHRIST

The same Hebrew word is used quite frequently in the Old Testament, and it is usually translated “left desolate” or “laid waste.” But when used in a context such as Isaiah 52:14, the word has the connotation of horror. It speaks of a shock so staggering that one loses control of all rational faculties. It could be translated “numbed,” “petrified,” or “paralyzed.”

So this is a very strong word with a broad range of uses but a very clear meaning. Leviticus 26:32 uses the word twice in a kind of play on words that shows its wide semantic range. God himself is speaking, and he says, “I myself will devastate [shamem] the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled [shamem] at it.”

Isaiah employs the term to describe the dismay of those who would witness the atrocious injuries inflicted on the suffering servant. They were devastated. But the damage done to him is indescribably worse: “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (Isa. 52:14). In other words, he would be so disfigured from the sufferings inflicted on him that his face and body would not even appear to be human.

The marring and disfigurement in view here are of course a description of what took place immediately prior to our Lord’s crucifixion, while he was on trial. Jesus’s disfigurement actually began in Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal and arrest. Scripture describes the deep, inward anguish and utter physical exhaustion he experienced as the sinless Son of God contemplated sin bearing and separation from his Father. He was literally sweating blood at the thought of what he would suffer on behalf of sinners. So he would have been weak and haggard-looking even before he was dragged away and put on trial.

THE DESOLATION OF CHRIST

But what left him “so marred, beyond human semblance” were the many tortures inflicted on him by those who put him to death. We know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus was struck on the head, spat upon, mocked, and flogged. He was beaten and abused by the chief priests (Matt. 26:67–68), the temple guard (Mark 14:65), and the Romans (Matt. 27:27–30). Added to that was the terrible scourging he received on Pilate’s orders (John 19:1).

To be flogged with a Roman scourge was a severe, even life-threatening punishment. The victim was lashed mercilessly with a flagellum, a short whip consisting of a wooden handle to which long leather thongs were attached. Each strip of leather had sharp pieces of bone, iron, and zinc held in place by knots spaced an inch or two apart (for a foot or more) along the business end of each thong. The victim would be tied to a post with his hands above his head and his feet suspended off the ground, stretching his body taught. As the biting strands of the flagellum tore into his back, muscles would be lacerated, veins cut, and internal organs exposed. So massive was the trauma inflicted that the scourging itself did sometimes prove fatal.

Of course, when the sentence called for crucifixion, death by the scourge was an undesirable outcome. A skilled lictor (the officer wielding the scourge) knew just how to apply the instrument in a way that would maximize the pain and injury, yet keep the victim alive so that the sentence of crucifixion could be carried out.

Crucifixion was the most brutal form of public execution ever devised. The injuries inflicted in the process were unspeakably savage. Nevertheless, the New Testament narrative makes very little mention of the actual wounds Christ suffered. After the resurrection, Jesus himself spoke of the wounds in his hands and side (John 20:27). But the New Testament doesn’t attempt to describe in detail the severity of Jesus’s injuries. Anyone within the realm of Roman influence would already be familiar with the awful damage done to a person’s body by crucifixion.

PROPHECIES OF THE SUFFERING SERVANT

Therefore, the Old Testament prophecies about Christ’s death tell us more about the humiliating injuries he suffered than the New Testament does. Isaiah 52:14 is the Bible’s most graphic one-verse description of our Lord’s extreme disfigurement—his face so marred that he no longer appeared to be human. Psalm 22 provides even more insight into what Jesus endured on the cross. That psalm begins with the very words Christ uttered on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalm also quotes the words of those who mocked the Savior as he hung there: “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” (v. 8; cf. Matt. 27:42).

So there can be no doubt what Psalm 22 refers to. This is Christ’s own testimony about the cross, given to us prophetically in a psalm that was written at least a thousand years before it was fulfilled. He says,

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me. (vv. 14–17)

That describes the crucifixion of Christ with uncanny accuracy, even though it was written centuries before anyone ever thought of executing criminals this way. The piercing of hands and feet refers, of course, to the nails used to fasten Jesus to the cross. Jesus’s bones would be wrenched “out of joint” when (after nailing him to the cross) the executioners would lift the cross upright and let it drop into a post-hole that had been dug deep enough to allow the cross to stand upright. The bone-jarring impact would dislocate multiple joints throughout the body. The bones could be counted because extreme trauma and dehydration left him an almost skeletal figure. The surrounding “company of evildoers” is precisely what the Gospel accounts describe (Mark 15:27–32). The phrase “my heart . . . melted within my breast” is the very image one gets from John’s description of the scene when “one of the soldiers pierced [Jesus’s] side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).

THE GRUESOME ORIGINS OF CRUCIFIXION

Again, Psalm 22 is a precise prophetic description of the results of crucifixion, more graphic than we get even from the New Testament eyewitness accounts. Yet the earliest mention of crucifixion in any historical record refers to an event that occurred five hundred years after David. When Darius I conquered Babylon for the second time in 519 BC, he had three thousand of the city’s most prominent men impaled and left to die slowly.[1] The practice was subsequently adopted as a means of public execution because of the way it struck terror into the hearts of those who witnessed it. Various forms of impalement and crucifixion were employed by world empires for the next five hundred years. The Greeks generally scorned the practice and used it only sparingly. It was the Romans who perfected a method that would keep victims suffering in agony for three days or longer.

A nineteenth-century English church leader, Frederic Farrar, wrote this description of the horrors of crucifixion:

[On a cross], in tortures which grew ever more insupportable, ever more maddening as time owed on, the unhappy victims might linger in a living death so cruelly intolerable, that often they were driven to entreat and implore the spectators, or the executioners, for dear pity’s sake, to put an end to anguish too awful for man to bear—conscious to the last, and often, with tears of abject misery, beseeching from their enemies the priceless boon of death.

For indeed a death by crucifixion seems to include all that pain and death can have of horrible and ghastly—dizziness, cramp, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, tetanus, publicity of shame, long continuance of torment, horror of anticipation, mortification of untended wounds—all intensified just up to the point at which they can be endured at all, but all stopping just short of the point which would give to the sufferer the relief of unconsciousness. The unnatural position made every movement painful; the lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened; the arteries—especially of the head and stomach—became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood; and while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of a burning and raging thirst; and all these physical complications caused an internal excitement and anxiety, which made the prospect of death itself—of death, the awful unknown enemy, at whose approach man usually shudders most—bear the aspect of a delicious and exquisite release.[2]

FROM HUMILIATION TO EXALTATION

Isaiah 52:14 must be understood in that light. The brutal treatment Jesus suffered left him so maimed and mangled that he hardly looked human.

The people’s astonishment expressed their contempt. It reflects the profound shock they felt as they saw Jesus’s humiliation. They found him repulsive, far from their conception of what the Messiah King should be like. His degradation was the deepest possible, the most severe, and the most horrible.

But in contrast, his exaltation would be the highest, most profound, and most glorious.


[1] Herodotus, Histories, 3.159.

[2] Frederic William Farrar, The Sweet Story of Jesus: The Life of Christ (New York: Common- wealth, 1891), 619. For an analysis of the medical aspects of crucifixion, see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (March 21, 1986): 1455–63.


Content taken from The Gospel according to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament by John MacArthur, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

John MacArthur is the pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, where he has served since 1969. He is known around the world for his verse-by-verse expository preaching and his pulpit ministry via his daily radio program, Grace to You. He has also written or edited nearly four hundred books and study guides. MacArthur serves as the president of the Master’s University and Seminary. He and his wife, Patricia, live in Southern California and have four grown children.