In what many consider to be the most well-known prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Isaiah foretold of the sufferings that Christ would endure amid His trial and crucifixion, saying (as if it had already happened):
But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.... He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth (53:5,7, emp. added).
According to Isaiah, not only was the Messiah going to suffer cruel punishment on His way to the grave, but He also would do so without opening His mouth. He would be as silent as a sheep is before its shearers.
The problem that some have with this passage is that the gospel writers indicate that Jesus did open His mouth before His accusers, and also later while hanging on the cross. After Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the high priest questioned Jesus, saying, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus responded, not with silence, but with two statements that infuriated the Jewish council. He said: “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus then was sent to Pilate, where He was asked another question about His identity, “Are You the King of the Jews?” As he had done earlier that night, He did not keep silence, but answered Pilate with these words: “It is as you say” (Mark 15:2). Even while hanging on the cross a few hours later, Jesus made several statements, including, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34), and “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34). So how could the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 be referring to Jesus, since He did, in fact, “open His mouth,” both during His trial, and while hanging on the cross?
Obviously, if the phrase, “He opened not His mouth,” meant that the Messiah would never speak one word while being oppressed and afflicted, then Jesus could not have been the prophesied suffering servant, and the inspired writers, preachers, and prophets of the first century who applied this passage to Him were mistaken (cf. Acts 8:32-33). A proper understanding of this phrase, however, reveals that it does not literally mean the accused “did not open his mouth.” First, not even the skeptic would interpret this verse to mean that the suffering servant literally kept his mouth closed—that if he ever separated his lips so as to allow air, water, or food to enter his mouth, then the prophecy would be annulled. Such would be a ridiculous interpretation of the phrase “He opened not His mouth,” because in this passage Isaiah clearly used the word “mouth” to refer to what the mouth does—it aids in speaking—a figure of speech known as metonymy (where one name or word is employed for another). Second, the phrases “open the mouth” and “do not open the mouth” are Hebrew idioms (appearing both in the Old and the New Testaments), which frequently are used to refer more to the length, freedom, and/or kind of speech, rather than whether one or more words actually are (or are not) spoken.
When Jephthah (the ninth judge of Israel listed in the book of Judges) spoke to his daughter following the victory that the Lord had given Israel over the Ammonites, He said: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it” (Judges 11:35, emp. added). The phrase “I have given my word to the Lord” in the New King James Version is literally “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord” (NKJV, emp. added; see ASV). Jephthah had earlier made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). The reason that Jephthah was so distraught after returning home from war and seeing his daughter was not simply because he “opened his mouth” and prayed to God, but because included in this prayer was a promise to God—one that caused himself and his daughter great sadness (see Miller, 2003). Jephthah could have spoken to God all day without making such a significant and life-changing statement, and it not have been described as a time in which Jephthah “opened his mouth.” The phrase “opened my (thy) mouth” (Judges 11:35-36) meant that something extremely noteworthy was stated; a promise to God was made that could not be broken.
Notice also how the idea of “opening one’s mouth” is used on occasion in the New Testament. Sometime after Philip had spoken with the eunuch from Ethiopia about the passage of Scripture from which he was reading (Isaiah 53 ironically enough—see Acts 8:30-33), the text states: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to Him” (Acts 8:35, emp. added). Notice that Philip already had been speaking with the eunuch (8:30), and most likely had made other introductory comments to this stranger that are not recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. However, it was not until Philip began to speak at length to the eunuch, and to preach to him the good news of Jesus, that Philip was described as one who “opened his mouth.”
In chapter ten of the book of Acts, Luke recorded Peter’s visit with a Gentile named Cornelius. After being summoned by the Spirit of God (10:19-20) to travel to the city of Cornelius (i.e., Caesarea), Peter departed on the next day. Upon his arrival, Peter spoke to Cornelius about several things (Acts 10:25-29). He first rebuked Cornelius for worshipping him, saying, “Stand up; I myself am also a man” (10:26). He proceeded to speak with him about other things not specifically mentioned in the text (10:27). And then he revealed to Cornelius and his household that God had shown him (a Jew) that Gentiles should no longer be considered unclean. After several minutes (or perhaps even a few hours) of conversation between Peter and Cornelius (10:24-33), Luke then recorded that “Peter opened his mouth” (10:34) and gave a defense of the Christ and the Christian faith. Had Peter’s mouth been “open” before this time? Yes. Had he already spoken to Cornelius about several things? Certainly. Now Peter really begins to speak. He had already been speaking, but now he “opens his mouth.” Now he preaches the Gospel of Christ.
In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul once made the comment: “Our mouth is open unto you, O Corinthians” (2 Corinthians 6:11, ASV, emp. added). This statement obviously carries more meaning than simply, “Paul spoke to the Corinthians.” Certain modern versions translate this verse using such words as “openly” (NKJV) or “freely” (NIV) to describe how Paul and Timothy spoke to the Corinthians. Rather than suppressing various truths that would be beneficial to the church at Corinth (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:2-3), they spoke openly and without restraint. They unreservedly commended themselves and their ministry to the Corinthians in order that they might accept their message (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:1-2; see Jamieson, et al., 1997). This is how Paul used the phrase “to open the mouth.”
When the prophet Isaiah wrote that the suffering Servant “opened not His mouth” while being oppressed and afflicted (Isaiah 53:7), he did not mean that Jesus never uttered a word from the time He was arrested in the garden until His death on the cross. The thought behind this phrase is that the Jesus would not speak freely and unreservedly in defense of Himself. Whereas Jesus could have responded to His accusers with “an open mouth” and given a strong, lengthy defense of His innocence (similar to how Philip, Peter, and Paul testified of both Christ and their own ministry with “an open mouth”), Jesus chose to restrain Himself before His accusers and tormentors. Rather than calling twelve legions of angels to fight this battle for Him (cf. Matthew 26:53), Jesus humbly submitted to His enemies. Rather than performing some notable miracle before Herod so as to gain His freedom (cf. Luke 23:8), and instead of striking the high priest with blindness in an attempt to convince the Sanhedrin that He truly was the Son of God, Jesus suppressed His powers. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, Jesus had healed Malchus’ severed ear, yet Jesus did nothing to lighten His own affliction during His trial and crucifixion—not even mentioning this miracle so as to defend His deity. In light of what Christ could have done to His accusers and what oral defense He could have given before them on His own behalf, Christ’s passive submission before them is remarkable. Truly, “[w]hen He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23).
To prophesy that the Suffering Servant “opened not His mouth,” is to use a Hebrew idiom and hyperbolic expression which means that Jesus refrained from giving an exhaustive legal defense on His own behalf. During much of His affliction and oppression He was completely silent (cf. Matthew 26:62-63; 27:12-14). At other times He spoke only a few words—none of which comes close to being the kind of defense He could have offered on His own behalf had He been trying to avoid persecution and crucifixion.
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Jephthah’s Daughter,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2320.
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