It would have been difficult to sketch out the trajectory established by the ‘servant songs’ of the book of Isaiah and arrive before the fact at anything like the profile of Jesus. Retrospect and reflection are a different matter.
The New Testament writers found it natural to view Jesus within the frame established by the enigmatic figure of Isaiah’s ‘servant of the Lord’. These writers connected the dots, as it were, and found in the ancient prophetic text an intimation of a deeply effective agent of the Lord who would know painful rejection, sorrow, and shame. This looked, to them, just like Jesus.
He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
A defensible interpretative strategy allows the New Testament’s citations and allusions to draw our exegetical attention not only to the ancient words that are actually cited but to the larger contexts and passages to which those indicators point. In following this readerly strategy, one might permit the sparing but substantive allusions to the famous portrayal of the servant in Isaiah 53 to bring to mind that chapter’s entire Gestalt of the servant. Though the New Testament does not actually refer to Jesus by the poignantly beautiful descriptor ‘acquainted with grief’, these memorable words are thus treated as a component part of the servant’s—now viewed as Jesus’—profile.
Certainly the gospels’ narratives corroborate this picture of Jesus. He is not only comfortable in his own skin among the more raucous of society’s roster, those who are quick to seize an occasion to celebrate, to socialize, to hang out. He must have laughed often and well.
Yet the pages of the New Testament gospels also depict a man in whom grief lies undisguised near the accessible surface of his personality. There is no true contradiction of personality in this, only—at most—a subversion of caricature.
Jesus weeps at the grave of a friend. He grieves over the hard hearts of a city. He is familiar with the salt of tears that have reached his tongue via the warm, visible journey down his cheeks.
He is, in the prophet’s words, acquainted with grief.
If such messianic realia are not precisely empowering for the follower of Jesus who finds grief’s waves breaking over him like an angry, unpredictable surf, they are at least consoling. One does not roll alone amid such breakers, absorbing their corporeal violence in desperate, unseeing abandonment.
To the contrary, one shares the wet, cold, surging violence with one who also knows its sickening, hypothermic force.
The distance between a soul’s extermination and its survival sometimes comes down, in the darkest corners of life, to just this: the space between suffering alone and grieving in company.
It is a fearful, final thing to conclude that no one knows how this feels.
The tragedy of such finality meets its redemptive obstacle, the darkness of such despair finds a small light encroaching upon its tyranny, in one small, game-changing fact: he, too, was acquainted with grief.