My favourite Easter hymn is “Man of Sorrows” by Philipp Bliss (1838-1876). Its first line and title comes from the most famous Old Testament prophecy of all, one of Isaiah’s so-called Servant Songs.
Isaiah 53:3 speaks of a mysterious Servant figure from Israel this way:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
The next verse 4 explains that these troubles are not something he’s brought on himself.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows…
And Isaiah 53:5 makes it explicit: there was a substitution going on. The Servant pays the penalty for sinful humans like us. We gain from his awful loss. A great exchange!
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
The first verse of my favourite hymn says “Man of Sorrows” is the terrible, but magnificent name that rightly belongs to Jesus:
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
The second verse puts the substitution into poetry… how the great exchange, foretold by Isaiah, occurred on the cross. (I think the rhyme works if you sing it with a Welsh accent!)
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
The third verse confronts, because it pulls no punches in describing us, in contrast to Christ.
Guilty, vile and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he:
Now of course, I can always make myself look better if I choose to stand next to someone further down society’s moral pecking order. But I’ve talked to criminals, adulterers, drunks, addicts, liars. And people who know me well know my strong streak of wanting to be right. If I’m honest, it’s a temptation to self-righteousness. But I also know something of my callous pride and other hidden thoughts and secret sins. I’m no better than anyone else.
And left to my own devices, I am helpless to stop it. Not only am I guilty, I am vile. So I’ve said it. Can you own that line of the hymn too, and not just as hyperbole?
I need Jesus to stand beside me; in fact, to stand in for me. Only he can provide the “full atonement”, something the hymn finds almost too good to be true.
Little wonder, the refrain in each chorus is, “Hallelujah! What a Saviour!”