Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
Isaiah 53 has always provoked discussion with its clear prophecy of the Messiah: “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.” (Is. 53: 4-5) This description, as well as that which proceeds in the remainder of the chapter, is a concise and detailed description of the Jewish Messiah—the Saviour whom Christians know to be Jesus.
Thomas Kelly (1769-1855), the writer of this hymn, began life as an Irish Catholic, studying law, theology, and becoming a hermit before converting to the Anglican Church. He became such a popular and fervent preacher that the Anglican beaurocracy prohibited his preaching in official churches. He served the poor during the great Irish famine of 1845-49, still finding time in a ministry of almost 60 years to write a number of hymns, of which this is the most popular.
The first stanza makes clear Christ’s fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy in almost Advent-like tones, “He’s the long-expected prophet, David’s son, yet David’s Lord. Proofs I see sufficient of it: He’s the true and faithful Word.” Not only is Christ linked with the prophecies of an earlier time, He is linked to timelessness itself as Kelly refers to Him as the “Word.” In John 1: 1, 2 we know that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was God in the beginning.” The Greeks (to whom John was writing) knew well this Word, which they called logos (logos.) This logos was Truth, both in timelessness and universality. The Greeks found this universal truth particularly in math—two plus two is always four no matter where in the universe or when in time one does the problem. To the Greeks, this evidenced the mind of God, and indeed Christ came as the visible logos incarnate as a man. Christ is the “true and faithful logos” in the words of the first stanza.
The second stanza notes that “Many hands were raised to wound Him, none would intervene to save; but the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that justice gave.” People often wonder how the crucifixion could atone for the sins of the whole world. After all, as bad as Christ’s physical sufferings were, the Romans brutally killed many people, and certainly many suffered even more so than Christ. In this stanza Kelly reminds us that His physical sufferings were but slight in comparison to the “deepest stroke that pierced Him,” the stroke of God’s righteousness. The fact that God did forsake Christ on the cross (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”) indicates the depth of Christ’s suffering far beyond the average human’s. Indeed, if hell is the place where God is not, then Christ’s sufferings bear even greater meaning.
Again in stanza three Kelly reminds those “. . . who think of sin but lightly nor suppose the evil great” to “mark the sacrifice appointed. . . it’s the Word, the Lord’s Annointed, Son of Man and Son of God.” There are many in today’s world who think of sin but lightly. Many even in the Church think of it as merely a social club or a fraternal organization whose success is measured by the number of programs it operates or “members” it cherishes. Whole entire programs, ablazingly ridiculous as they are, are devoted to increasing the church’s beaurocracy and reach without really catechizing anyone—without teaching them doctrine or having them learn about the Christian faith through years of example. Some church leaders and entire denominations grow “churches” to the size of a small city, with their clergy obtaining superstardom, all whilst catering to “felt needs” and to what people want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear. They presume to give the gospel, but without the law they have merely dispensed cheap, worthless grace. Kelly’s observation of the problem 150 years ago demonstrates to us that history’s actors may change, but the essential problems do not.
This hymn concludes with the hope that “We have a firm foundation; here the refuge of the lost; Christ, the rock of our salvation, His the name of which we boast. Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on Him their hope have built.” Our hope in Christ is exactly because of, not in spite of, what He accomplished as the sacrifice for our sins. In these brief phrases are found both law and gospel.
The writer of music notes thinks this hymn to be such a good example of a hymn which proclaims the kergyma of Christian doctrine clearly and explicitly, whilst maintaining a high poetic standard. It is doctrinal but not pedantic, it is dramatic but not sentimental, it is poetic but not banal. It reminds us of doctrines we profess to believe but of which we are often uncomfortable speaking. Its bluntness perhaps relegates its use to a few days of the church year; perhaps the fact that it is so clear and uncomfortable to our innate beaurocratic tendencies serves as a good reminder of what good hymnody should be.