The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53
One of the most perplexing questions pertaining to Old Testament studies is the question concerning what has been called the “greatest of all prophetic utterances” (Baron vi) — Isaiah 53. The question is, “Who is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?” Although this question directs attention to the chapter mentioned, this study will include the last three verses of Isaiah 52, since they form an integral part of the passage.
A study of the above question is most significant for various reasons: (1) scholars are greatly divided as to the identification of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, (2) the New Testament writers make numerous reflections upon this prophecy, and (3) the issue remains as to whether or not Isaiah’s prophecy is one of true prediction.
Scholars have advanced various theories as solutions to the problem. Some have suggested the collective theory which states that the Servant is a group, the nation of Israel, or some ideal portion of it. Others have advanced the individual theory which says that the Servant is an individual of the past, present or future. Still others contend that the Servant is not to be identified with any chosen single group or individual but that the conception of the Servant is a fluid and shifting one (cf. Hyatt 79). Such a concept is suggested by Torrey when he says that the Servant is “the personified nation Israel, or Israel’s personal representative” (135). I am convinced that the Servant in Isaiah 53 is an individual, and Jesus Christ is the only one who could have fulfilled it.
The method used in establishing this claim is twofold. First, the case for and against the collective theory will be set forth demonstrating that neither Israel nor any form of Israel is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that it is the Servant of Isaiah 53. Second, the case for and against the individual theory will be given showing that Isaiah 53 must refer to an individual. It will also be demonstrated that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one who successfully meets the requirements of the prophecy. The conception of the Servant as a fluid and shifting one will not be considered since even the advocates of this view admit that the Servant in Isaiah 53 is an individual.
The contention that Isaiah’s prophecy refers to Israel or some ideal part of it cannot, as Allan A. MacRae says, “be lightly brushed aside” (125). He points out that many related passages seem to state this very fact (125-26). Isaiah says: “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen” (41:8). Isaiah also says: “Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant: and Israel, whom I have chosen. . . . Fear not, O Jacob my servant. . . . Remember these, O Jacob and Israel for thou art my servant” (44:1-2, 21). Isaiah 45:4 says: “For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect.” Isaiah 49:3 reads: “Thou art my servant, O Israel.”
External testimony in support of this theory comes as early as Rabbi Sh’lomah Yizhagi (ca. 1040-1105), better known as Rashi. His testimony became authoritative among Jews but Frederick Aston notes that this is readily understood. Among the masses the consciousness of sin and of the need for salvation grew faint. As a result of Judaism’s polemic with the Christian Church, the idea of an atoning redeemer also became less welcome (“The Servant” 197). Many modern scholars attest to the wide popularity of such a view.
To avoid many undeniable difficulties, some have made an attempt to identify the Servant with the ideal Israel—the righteous remnant within Israel.
The collective theory, though it seems plausible, involves itself with some insurmountable objections. To say that the passage is a personification of the nation of Israel forces the following interpretations according to Aston: “Verses 1-10 refer to the Gentile nations: the death of the Servant symbolizes the exile, the end of Jewish national existence; and finally, the resurrection is figurative prophecy of the restoration of Israel, to be followed by the conversion of the heathen” (The Challenge 12). He goes on to say that no Jewish prophet would have represented the heathen expressing such thought and exhibiting the attitude depicted in that passage.
To say that the prophecy represents the ideal Israel does not help matters as we shall see with some further objections. An analysis of the text itself discloses certain characteristics which eliminate the possibility of the collective theory. The Suffering Servant is an innocent Sufferer who experienced suffering and punishment for no transgression or guilt of his own. Isaiah 53:8 says, “for the transgression of my people was he stricken.” The “my people” is an obvious reference to Israel, and if the Servant is the nation of Israel, how can he be stricken for Israel? The Suffering Servant was one who had “done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth” (53:9). Can such be said of Israel? Isaiah 1:4 speaks of Israel as a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers children that are corrupters.” Many passages in Isaiah bring out clearly the same thing (40:2; 42:24-25; 43:24-25; 44:21-22; 48:1-8, 18; 50:1). H. H. Rowley says:
It is improbable that that Song was written simply with Israel in mind. The prophet is not likely to have suggested that Israel had done no violence, and that in her suffering she had borne the guilt of others. At the opening of the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah he had said: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people . . . her iniquity is pardoned; . . . she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa. 40:1f). Some have understood this to mean that she had received twice as much punishment as she deserved, and the overplus was vicariously borne for others. This is highly doubtful. For if that were the prophet’s thought, he would not have said in the fourth Song that her sufferings were for no fault of her own. (“The Servant” 264-65)
Mowinckel would reason in a similar fashion that no Old Testament prophet would say Israel suffered innocently; nor would they say that her sufferings were borne silently and patiently. They certainly would not say that her sufferings were incomprehensible. All saw that Israel suffered as a logical consequence of her own sin (213).
The Suffering Servant is a voluntary Sufferer. The Servant “poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12). Hengstenberg observes, “The Jews did not go voluntarily into the Babylonish exile but were dragged into it by force” (337). The Jews never voluntarily suffered the oppression they had to endure but were always forced to submit to them by Gentile nations.
The Suffering Servant is an unresisting Servant led as a lamb to the slaughter. We find, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter and a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
In commenting on this George Adam Smith noted:
Now Silence under Suffering is a strange thing in the Old Testament—a thing absolutely new. No other Old Testament personage could stay dumb under pain, but immediately broke into one of two voices,—voice of guilt or voice of doubt. In the Old Testament the Sufferer is always either confessing his guilt to God, or, when he feels no guilt, challenging God in argument. (375)
When the temple was destroyed by Titus in AD 70, the Jews demonstrated the most stubborn resistance. The Jewish people at various times revolted against their Persian, Syrian, Roman and Moslem oppressors (Aston, The Challenge 9).
The Suffering Servant is one who suffered vicariously for others. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). On verses 6-7 Alexander observes, “If vicarious suffering can be described in words, it is so described in these two verses” (298). Delitzsch says, “We were sick unto death because of our sins; but he, the Sinless one, took upon himself a suffering unto death, which was, as it were, the concentration and essence of the woes that we had deserved” (319).
The “iniquity of us all” which was laid on Him cannot be a reference to any Israelite of the past or present; neither can it refer to the pious remnant of Israel. When it was observed that the Servant was an innocent Sufferer many passages made it clear that Israel was a sinful nation. If this be the case, she could hardly bare the sins of others.
The sufferings of the Servant end in death. Whether one considers the nation of Israel or the ideal Israel, surely this characteristic of the Sufferer cannot apply. The Jews are an unusual exception to the usual course of development and decline. Aston notes, “Every nation that played its role contemporaneously with Israel on the stage of Old Testament history has long since passed into oblivion. But the survival of the Jews is unique” (The Challenge 11). In spite of all the centuries of persecution, oppression and exile, Israel still lives on and still maintains her identity as a race.
How then can it be said that Israel is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53? Israel has not suffered innocently. She has not suffered voluntarily. Israel has not been the unresisting Sufferer. She has not suffered vicariously, and the sufferings of Israel have not ended in death. It is clearly evident, therefore, that Isaiah 53 cannot be applied to the collective body of Israel.
There is much evidence in support of the individual theory. The evidence presented here is a major objection to the collective theory which we just noted. However, this is the most suitable place for it. The individual theory has the earliest report with the question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch, “I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 8:34). The interesting thing to note is that the eunuch makes no mention of the possibility of interpreting the passage in a collective sense. There seems to be no doubt in his mind that the prophet is speaking about an individual, and his concern is with the identity of the individual.
Isaiah 53:3 calls the Sufferer a “man.” “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Isaiah certainly does not have a group in mind with these words. Mowinckel observes, “The servant . . . is clearly no collective entity. He is not the nation or the congregation, or a particular class or group within the nation. . . . The servant is regarded and described as a specific individual” (213).
It seems evident that the prophecy refers to an individual, but the problem remains as to the identity of the individual. From the days of Duhm an attempt has been made to discover a historical individual, though not the traditional application to Christ, among the prophet’s contemporaries or predecessors of whom the prophecy could be interpreted. Numerous candidates have been suggested as H. H. Rowley notes, “Moses, Uzziah, Jeremiah, Cyrus, Jehoiachin, an unknown contemporary of the prophet, Zerubbabel, and Meshullam the son of Zerubbabel, are amongst those who have found advocates, while Deutero-Isaiah himself has found not a few to support his claims” (The Growth 97). Jerome says the Jews of his day interpreted the third Serv ant passage to refer to the prophet himself and apparently Ibn Ezra placed this same interpretation upon the fourth passage (cf. Young, Studies 110). Weiser says that by judging the use of the first person singular in 49:1f, and 50:4f, the simplest answer is that the Servant must be the prophet himself (201). We could cite author after author who regards some individual as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, but they are too numerous to mention.
There is a case, however, that can be presented against the individual theory. Although the prophecy refers to an individual, the prophecy does not have reference to the prophet or some contemporary of the prop het. It is obvious that Isaiah 53, if one is to stress the past tenses of the passage, is describing the suffering and death of the Servant as already having taken place; but, how could this be if the Servant were talking about himself? The prophet could not have described his own death. Further, the tasks assigned to the Servant in chapters 42 and 49 are so great that they cannot possibly apply to any known historical person. The descriptions are beyond the bounds of the capabilities of a mere human being (cf. Young, Studies 110-11).
Again, that the prophecy cannot refer to the prophet or a contemporary of the prophet is seen in the tenses of the verbs in Isaiah 52:13. Young says the introductory exclamation is not addressed to the prophet but calls the reader’s attention to a third person. It also describes His work in the future. The verb employed
. . . has reference not only to the outcome of the Servant’s work, but also to the work itself. It is as though the Lord has said, He shall deal wisely (i.e., “shall use the best means for the attainment of the highest end” Alexander) and as a result shall be exalted. The verb, therefore, brings to the fore the prudent or wise manner in which the Servant is to execute his task. Now the point to be noted is that this wise dealing is set forth as future, not as past. The three verbs describing the exaltation which is a necessary consequent of the wise dealing are placed, as might be expected, in the future.
It is this introductory future which sets the time of the whole description. The Lord here calls upon men to regard the Servant as one who in the future will wisely accomplish his work. Hence, we are prepared to regard the following perfects as prophetic. (121)
An example of the prophetic perfect is set forth in Joshua 6:2: “And the Lord said unto Joshua, ‘See, I have given into thine hand Jericho, and the king thereof, and the mighty men of valour.’” The terminology used is as if the Lord had already given the city to Joshua. However, this is not the case, for the details as to how the city was to be taken are given in the succeeding verses. Compare also Ezekiel 8:l-4 where the prophet can actually see the scenes as if before his very eyes.
Albert Barnes clearly shows how Isaiah’s prophecy refers to the future even though verbs appear in the past and present tenses when he says:
It is a feature of the true nature of prophecy that the prophet is placed in vision in the midst of the scenes which he describes as future. He describes the events as if they were actually passing before his eyes. . . . According to this, Isaiah is to be regarded as placed in vision amidst the scenes which he describes. He looks on the suffering Redeemer. He describes his humiliation, his rejection, his trial, his death, and the feeling of those who rejected him, as if it actually occurred before his eyes. He sees Him now rejected by man and put to death; but he also casts his eye into the future and sees him exalted and his religion spreading into all the world. Though, therefore, the events which he describes were to occur several hundred years afterwards, yet they are portrayed, as his other prophecies are, as passing before his eyes, and as events which he was permitted in vision to see. (253, 258)
Still another objection to making application to the prophet or a contemporary of the prophet is that it does not do justice to the New Testament interpretation of the Suffering Servant. The view that the Servant is a historical figure cannot speak of an actual fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The word “fulfillment,” unless it is practically emptied of all its real, historical significance, definitely includes the idea of reference. A prophecy cannot have its fulfillment in some person to whom it has not the slightest reference (Allis 93).
It will now be shown that Isaiah 53 must refer to Jesus. It may be said at the outset that the Suffering Servant of the Old Testament is a New Testament figure. This is clearly the implication when Philip answered the eunuch’s question by beginning at the same Scripture and preaching Jesus (Acts 8:35). In the next few pages it should be made “clear that if Isaiah was not predicting the death of Jesus Christ, we simply do not know what he was talking about” (Young, Isaiah Fifty-Three 5).
Evidence from rabbinic literature, including the prayers of the synagogue, indicate that the Old Synagogue applied the passage to the Messiah. The conception of a Suffering Messiah was by no means foreign to the Old Synagogue as is evidence by Emil Schurer:
It is indisputable that in the second century after Christ, at least in certain circles of Jewry, there was familiarity with the idea of a Messiah who was to suffer, even suffer vicariously, for human sin. The portrayal of Justin makes it sure that Jewish scholars, through disputations with Christians, saw themselves forced to this concession. Thus an idea was applied to the Messiah which was familiar to rabbinic Judaism, that is, that the righteous man not only observes all the laws, but through suffering also atones for sins that may have been committed, and that the surplus suffering of the righteous benefits others. (qtd. in Aston, The Challenge 15).
Barnes summarizes much of the evidence from the ancient Jews.
Among the testimonies of the ancient Jews are the following:—The Chaldee Paraphrast, Jonathan, expressly refers it to the Messiah. Thus, in ver. 13 of this chapter, he renders the first member, “Behold my servant the Messiah shall prosper.” Thus, in the Medrasch Tanchuma (an old commentary on the Pentateuch), on the words “Behold, my servant shall prosper,” it is remarked, “This is the king Messiah, who is high, and lifted up, and very exalted, higher than Abraham, exalted above Moses, higher than the ministering angels.” (249)
Not only in the Old Synagogue but as late as the seventeenth century leading rabbis applied the chapter to the Messiah. Rabbi Naphtali Ben Asher Altschuler, in harmony with the Jewish liturgy, states: “I am surprised that Rashi and David Kimhi have not, with the Targum, also applied them (52:13-53:12) to the Messiah” (qtd. in Aston, The Challenge 17).
The New Testament supplies evidence which demonstrates that Jesus of Nazareth fulfills the description of the Suffering Servant. Attention will not be given to every passage in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 but only to those characteristics of the Servant dealt with in the discussion of the collective theory. It was observed that the Servant is an innocent Sufferer (53:8-9). Several New Testament passages indicate the innocence of Christ. Pilate said:
Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: No, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him. (Luke 23:14-15)
The sinlessness of Christ was asserted by Himself. “Which of you convinceth me of sin? And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?” (John 8:46). The Hebrews writer said: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Many other passages make clear the innocence of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
The Suffering Servant is a voluntary Sufferer (53:7). “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18).
Not only is the Servant a voluntary Sufferer, He is also the unresisting Sufferer (53:7). Peter comments on how Jesus fulfilled this when he says: “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Peter 2:22-23). When Jesus was before Pilate he was unresisting, “And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. . . . and he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marveled greatly” (Matthew 27:12, 14).
The Suffering Servant is a vicarious Sufferer (53:5-6). “Who his own self bare our sins in his body on the tree . . .” (1 Peter 2:24). Paul says: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Finally, the Servant’s sufferings end in death (53:8). This has a clear fulfillment in Matthew’s account, “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost” (27:50).
Two theories as solutions to the problem regarding the Suffering Servant have been examined. It has been shown why the nation of Israel or an ideal portion of it is insufficient to meet the requirements of the Servant in Isaiah 53. It has also been demonstrated that neither the prophet nor a contemporary of the prophet warrants the conclusion that a historical individual is the Servant. Finally, we have seen the inevitable conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.
David L. Lipe
David L. Lipe studied Philosophy of Religion and Apologetics under Thomas B. Warren at Harding Graduate School of Religion. He earned the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and was a Professor of Bible and Humanities at Freed-Hardeman University for twenty years. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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