Saturday, March 24

A Message For All Non Five-Pointers: The Pronouns in Isaiah 53

It was during my college Doctrine III class that my theology professor said something similar to this:

"I once was a five-pointer--until I considered the pronouns and the all in Isaiah 53:6. Upon considering this verse, I changed my view. If all we like sheep have gone astray--and obviously that all is referring to the entire human race--then “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Since the first pronoun is universal (all we like sheep have gone astray), then the second pronoun (laid on Him the iniquity of us all) in the verse is likewise universal."
And I accepted what my professor said--up until four years ago.

So what convinced me that Isaiah 53 teaches a particular, purposeful, real (as opposed to hypothetical) view of redemption? The very same pronouns that had convinced my professor of a universal atonement.

How can that be? I mean, if we were reading the same Bible, and considering the same verse, how can we come to such opposing views on the meaning (extent and intent) of a single verse?

Well (and I do not consider myself nearly as theologically astute as my theology professor!), I began looking at the verses surrounding Isaiah 53:6. Doing so provided overwhelming evidence that the personal plural pronouns 'we' and 'us' did not--indeed could not--refer to the entire human race.

If you are willing to follow me through the personal pronoun path of Isaiah 53, I will attempt to show you what I discovered, and hopefully silence the undeserved ridicule surrounding my last post on the 'all' of Titus 2:11!!

PLEASE NOTE: I will use the KJV because it was the translation my professor was using at the time. Also, this is a rather lengthy post, but it is such out of necessity. Please read the entire post carefully before taking exception with my view!

Isaiah 53:1 – “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?” “Our” is the first personal pronoun used in Isaiah 53, and it is obviously not used in an inclusive manner. Isaiah is clearly speaking of a specific group of people—the elect of God; those who are proclaiming the report that God saves through the promised sacrifice of the Messiah. This first pronoun of Isaiah 53 is of extreme importance in seeking to determine the meaning of the personal pronouns throughout this entire chapter, specifically verse six.

Isaiah 53:2 – “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” Again, it seems rather clear in this verse that the first personal pronouns are referring to a specific person—Christ. Likewise, it is obviously clear that the two we’s are also referring to specific people—God’s own people—those who will see the Messiah and desire Him. They will not desire Him because of a physical attraction, but because He opens their eyes to His infinite spiritual beauty. Because we cannot divorce verse 2 from the context of verse 1, it is clear these personal pronouns likewise are limited in their scope.

Isaiah 53:3 – “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised and we esteemed him not.” Okay, here is where we run into a bit of a pronoun conundrum. At first glance it may appear that the personal pronouns we and our in the second half of the verse are referring to all men because “He is despised and rejected of men.” Yet this isn’t the case. The obvious purpose of Isaiah 53 is not to teach a universal depravity (although depravity certainly is universal), but to teach the extreme suffering of God’s servant Jesus. Therefore, the “despised and rejected of men” phrase is used to describe Christ’s suffering, and that He was spurned by His own people (specifically the Jews—John 1:11). So again this verse, when considered within its context, is not using the pronouns we and us in a universal sense, but a limited sense. (Note: This verse is Isaiah 53’s most problematic verse for the particular redemptionist! But if context determines meaning, the problem is alleviated.)

Isaiah 53:4 – “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” Here we discover more we’s and our's; yet they present no problem for the particular redemptionist. Certainly the elect of God are the only people who “esteem (literally, regard or consider) Christ stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" in any legitimate sense of the word. Therefore the “our griefs … and “our sorrows” of this verse are defined as those who esteemed Him stricken.

Isaiah 53:5 – “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Now we are getting into the meat of the discussion. Thus far each personal plural pronoun has referred to a specific group of people rather than to a universal group of people. So why should Isaiah suddenly turn from using these pronouns in a specific sense to using them in a universal sense? He doesn’t, and here’s why. The final phrase of the verse makes it clear: “with His stripes WE ARE healed.” No hypothetical atonement or redemption here. The we (and our) is referring to the people who are healed. Certainly we would all agree that this we could not refer to unbelievers in any sense. The context clearly supports this fact.

Isaiah 53:6 – “All we like sheep have gone astray we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Finally we come to the verse my professor used as proof of a universal atonement. But this is not and cannot be the case—unless one is willing to rip this verse from its context. Again, the purpose of this text is to foretell the coming Messiah and to describe His willing sacrifice on behalf of His people. To make this verse say anything else, one must change the obvious plural pronoun usage Isaiah has employed thus far. Serious Bible students will not and cannot do so without undermining the entire context.

It is true that all—the entire human race—has gone astray. But in this text, Isaiah qualifies all with we. So he is qualifying the inclusiveness of his statement. It is true of all people within a specific group.

Isaiah 53:7-9 – “He was oppressed and he was afflicted yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.” There probably isn’t much to add here except for the fact that Isaiah again specifies the intent of Messiah’s sacrifice; it was specifically and particularly on behalf of my people. This verse seems to undeniably teach that Christ’s death was uniquely and expressly for His own. It fits the context, and again clarifies the personal plural pronouns used throughout Isaiah 53.

Isaiah 53:10 – “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” Again, this verse not only qualifies for whom Jesus was bruised and put to grief (“his seed”), it also implies that the redemption and atonement Christ provided was definite rather than hypothetical (“and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper”), and that there was a specific and explicit intention in the cross—the pleasure of God in bruising His Son on behalf of His seed.

Isaiah 53:11-12 – “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” The final two verses of Isaiah 53 provide more support for the particular redemptionist. Isaiah again qualifies whom Christ will justify—those whose iniquities he bore.

For all who find my verse 3 (and verse 6) argument(s) unconvincing, this verse provides proof that my interpretation is acceptable--even preferable. Notice what follows the phrase He was numbered for the transgressors:“he bare the sin of many.” So it is clear that Isaiah’s intention is not to draft a treatise on the universal depravity and utter sinfulness of mankind as a whole (like Paul does in Romans 1-3), because He qualifies the transgressors of whom he is speaking—many rather than all. Certainly Isaiah understands that all people are transgressors, but proving universal depravity is not the purpose of this chapter. Again, the context seems to overwhelmingly support a particular, purposeful, and definite redemption.

Little words like we and us have big meanings, and significant implications for our theologies. Because I am unwilling to change the clear meaning of these two little personal plural pronouns in Isaiah 53, I unashamedly and unapologetically embrace the historic, reformed doctrine of particular redemption. A careful stroll through the path of Isaiah 53's personal plural pronouns should encourage you to do the same.

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Blogger Don Fields said...

Very well done!

Okay, I give up. You win. You defeated my last argument. You put the final nail in my unlimited redemptionist coffin.

Just kidding! Did you think I would give up so easily? But be encouraged, you almost persuade me to be a definite redemptionist.

Have you been listening to Steve Lawson? He has a ten-part series entitled "Ten Reasons I Believe in Definite Redemption". Your post sounds eerily familiar.

3/23/2007 09:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Fields said...

Actually, Don, I was unaware of Lawson's series, although we are studying his book, Made In Our Image in our men's Bible study.

Definitely a great book. I've already read it twice!

3/23/2007 11:38:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Fields said...

Oh, and in response to your almost persuaded comment; looks like you have some company in the almost persuaded camp:

Acts 26:28, "Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

Being almost persuaded is a scary place to be!

3/23/2007 11:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fight the good fight Don! Don't let him get to you!

3/24/2007 01:02:00 AM  
Blogger Don Fields said...


I'm glad you so astutely picked up on my Agrippa reference! Nice catch! :)

3/24/2007 09:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Gordon Cloud said...

It's interesting that you would refer to King Agrippa being "almost persuaded".

I guess he exercised his free will and chose not to enter the elect. :-)

3/24/2007 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger Ken Fields said...


OR Agrippa's unwillingness to believe proved he was not a part of the elect!

Of course we all know that the sinner has the free will to continue in his sin, and to choose not to believe. And that's what Agrippa did!

3/24/2007 12:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Gordon Cloud said...

Of course we all know that the sinner has the free will to continue in his sin, and to choose not to believe.

It's only a choice if there are two options.

3/24/2007 08:54:00 PM  

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