The Messiah Would Be the Suffering Servant
Reference: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Fulfillment: Matthew 8:16-17, Matthew 20:28, Matthew 26:28, Matthew 27:59-60, Mark 10:45, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, John 12:37-38, Acts 8:32-35, Romans 10:16, Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 2:21-25
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 has been a contentious passage between Jews and Christians over the centuries. Is it about Israel? Is it about the Messiah? Is it about someone else? Because of this, and also because the passage has been so influential for many Jewish people who have come to believe in Jesus, we will expand the usual short commentary into a longer four-part article. (For convenience, we’ll refer to the entire passage, as others often do, as simply “Isaiah 53.”)
Part I: What Has the Jewish Community Said About Isaiah 53?
An Early Suffering Messiah
The targums are interpretive translations (sometimes referred to as paraphrases) of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. They date from around the time of Jesus on into the following centuries and have a variety of names. Targum Jonathan is a targum of the prophets, usually dated around the second century AD. This targum identifies the servant of Isaiah 53 as the Messiah; however, it also attributed the sufferings described in that chapter to the nation and the victory to the Messiah.
In the synagogue, the Torah and its accompanying portion from the rest of the Tanakh are generally read in a one-year cycle. In the past, however, a three-year cycle was also used, and in the early cycle of synagogue readings, it seems that a messianic interpretation was given in which the Messiah suffers. Says Asher Soloff, “We know that messianic homilies based on Joseph’s career (his saving role preceded by suffering), and using Isaiah 53 as the prophetic portion, were preached in certain old synagogues which used the triennial cycle.”1
Scholar Jacob Mann similarly says, “The addition of 53.4-5 [to the cycle of synagogue readings] was evidently of a Messianic purport by reason of the theory of a suffering Messiah. The earlier part the Haftarah (52.7ff.) dealt with the redemption of Israel, and in this connection the tribulations of the Messiah were briefly alluded to by the recital of the above 2 verses.”2
But the sufferings of the Messiah in Jewish contexts have often – though not always – been different than the Christian idea of a vicarious atonement (meaning an atonement by a death made in substitution for one’s own death). For example, the “suffering Messiah” referred to in the Mann quote above may reflect the idea of a Messiah ben Joseph who suffers and dies in battle in preparation for the reign of Messiah ben David. In that conception, the sufferings of the Messiah are not atoning and certainly not vicarious (in our place).
In his Dialogue with Trypho (second century AD), Justin Martyr’s Jewish dialogue partner seems to admit the possibility of a suffering Messiah but cannot agree that it is Jesus.
A Variety of Opinions
By the third century AD, Origen in his work Contra Celsum (Against Celsus), portrays his Jewish opponent as interpreting Isaiah 53 refer to the people of Israel, whereby Israel’s suffering and worldwide dispersion are for the purpose of gaining proselytes.3 Thus speaking very broadly, it seems that two kinds of interpretations – national and individual-messianic – were found in the Jewish community of the first few centuries.
Actually, if we go back to the first century, Acts 8 in the New Testament gives evidence for a third kind of interpretation that we can call biographical, in which Isaiah 53 is taken to refer to Isaiah himself or another contemporary figure:
And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
Back to an Individual Interpretation
An individual interpretation is found in the Babylonian Talmud (compiled in the sixth century AD) in Sanhedrin 98a. There, the Messiah is spoken of as a “leprous one,” and Isaiah 53:4 is cited. Similarly, Ruth Rabbah (mid-first millennium AD) cites Isaiah 53:5 and the Tanhuma (perhaps ninth century AD, though incorporating earlier material) quotes Isaiah 52:13. Both interpret the verses in regard to the “King Messiah.” These are not fully formed commentaries but Midrashic snippets, compiled before the medieval era of Jewish biblical commentary writing had begun.
The Polemics of Medieval Times
Indeed, by medieval times and following, Isaiah 53 played a key role in both Jewish and Christian apologetics and polemics. Most of that discussion focused on whether the servant was Israel or the Messiah. We have already seen that the national interpretation can be found in earlier times alongside the individual interpretation. In medieval times, though, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and David Kimhi (known by his acronym as the Radak), made the national interpretation “go viral” in the eleventh century and following. Today that is the usual interpretation within the religious Jewish community.
Joel Rembaum notes this “shift in the emphasis of the Jewish interpretation.”4 According to him, the shift was catalyzed by (1) the Christian argument that the Jewish diaspora was “proof of God’s punishment”;5 (2) the then-standard Christian messianic interpretation of the chapter as portraying Jesus (thus the need for the Jewish community to offer a differing viewpoint); and (3) the “one-sided struggle” against Christians – for example, in the Crusades.6 This last factor led Jewish commentators to attempt to give meaning to the Jewish suffering that, which accompanied the Crusades in the form of pogroms and massacres. Rashi’s commentary was very possibly compiled following the First Crusade, responding to the events of his time. The national interpretation of Isaiah 53 offered a reason for the great suffering that the Jewish people were enduring. Thus, both the refutation of Christian views and comfort for the people of Israel enabled Rashi’s interpretation to become mainstream.
Interestingly, Rembaum tells us that in Rashi’s view, the Suffering Servant atones for humanity’s sins. This “universal vicarious expiation”7 is a new thought introduced by Rashi. In light of the Crusades, so explains Rashi, the Jews are innocent sufferers and the Gentiles are guilty, but Israel’s sufferings actually atone for the nations of the world. By this time in history, Judaism was teaching that martyrdom, such as what Jews underwent during the Crusades, had atoning value. But now this idea of atonement was applied not just to the sins of Israel but to those of the world – a thought “found nowhere in earlier Jewish sources.”8
Rembaum goes on to speak about three medieval Jewish ways of interpreting the nation’s suffering: the first he calls cathartic (the suffering expiates the sins of Israel); the second is missionary (the diaspora allows Israel to bring Torah to the nations – this was the view argued by Origen’s Jewish interlocutor in Contra Celsum); and the third is soteriological (that is, effecting salvation). In this last view, atonement is for the nations, the persecutors of Israel; this is influenced by a Christian “coloration.” Ibn Ezra adds a fourth interpretation, retaliatory: the nations’ persecution of Israel is a sin justifying God’s punishment, though this is not to do so much with the purpose of Israel’s suffering as with its eventual result.
An interesting, if isolated, development occurred in the 1990s when some among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish group known as the Lubavitcher Hasidim quoted Isaiah 53 in support of the view that their leader Rebbe Menachem Schneerson was the Messiah. A stroke that left him speechless was interpreted according to Isaiah 53:7: “Like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”9 The Messiahship of Schneerson has not been universally held by all Lubavitchers, and the entire notion caused an outcry among some other Orthodox Jews. Notably, David Berger took sharp issue with any idea that Schneerson could be the Messiah, even to the point of saying that the idea was outside the pale of Judaism.10
Finally, because the Scripture continues to be read weekly in synagogues worldwide, it is worth noting that according to one Jewish author:
Because of the christological interpretation given to the chapter by Christians, [Isaiah 53] is omitted from the series of prophetical lessons (Haftarot) of the Deuteronomy Sabbaths. These seven lessons are called the “Seven (Chapters) of Comfort,” and are taken from the preceding and following parts of the book: the omission is deliberate and striking. (H. L.)11
In general, the polemic discussions between Jews and Christians have tended to center more on the particulars of interpreting individual verses and words than on the larger context in Isaiah. The national interpretation continues to dominate Jewish thinking on the subject, especially when expressed in response to missionary arguments. However, modern Jewish scholars continue to offer various other interpretations of the servant’s identity, including that the servant is Jeremiah, Hezekiah, and others. In many cases, these scholars echo the conclusions of some Christian scholars, though also reinvigorating some earlier Jewish interpretations as well. And some have still maintained a messianic interpretation, such as Herz Homberg (eighteenth to nineteenth century) and some early twentieth-century prayer books (called machzorim) for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).12
This commentary takes the view that Isaiah 53 is messianic, both in its individual verses and in its larger context. In the following section, we’ll take a detailed look at the message of the passage.
Part II: The Message of Isaiah 53
Isaiah 53 is not an isolated chapter but is part of a larger context in the book of Isaiah. To understand this passage, we need to also understand its context.
Isaiah 53 is the final of four “Servant Songs” that occur in Isaiah. The four are:
Looking at all four passages shows us one reason why there is a debate over whether Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel or to an individual (such as the Messiah). Israel the nation is, in fact, called the servant of the Lord in some of these passages. In Isaiah 49:3, for example, we read, “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’”
Let’s step back a moment. Why did God create the nation of Israel in the first place? One reason was to be a “light to the world” (see Isaiah 49:6) in order to show God’s glory, His reality, and His redemption to the nations of the world. To that end, God gave Israel the Torah and asked Israel to “serve” Him (that is, be a servant of the Lord) and obey Him. From the days of the Exodus to the last pages of the Tanakh, the hope was that all the nations of the world would come to worship the God of Israel, the true God of all peoples.
Being a light to the world, however, proved to be a tall order. Isaiah 42:1-9 pictures the servant as bringing justice to the nations, never being discouraged until that happens, and being “a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” – not to mention giving sight to the blind and freeing the prisoners.
Isaiah 49:3 identifies Israel as the servant, yet two verses later, he seems separate from the nation since he is “to bring Jacob back to him [God]; and that Israel might be gathered to him.” Then in verse 6, the servant not only is meant “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel,” but to again be “a light for the nations.” Though Israel is the servant, in some way, the servant is not Israel.
How does it fit together? It seems that the collective servanthood of Israel is crystallized in a particular Israelite who will not only influence the nations of the world, but who will also restore Israel to its own relationship with God. It has been remarked that the ministry of the individual servant eventually will allow Israel (the nation) to take its intended place as God’s servant as a light to the world. In New Testament terms, what Jesus has accomplished not only brings salvation to the nations but also brings salvation to his own Jewish people, allowing them to fulfill their intended role.
With that background, we will now look more closely at Isaiah 53.
The Exalted Servant
Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
We start out learning that the servant will “act wisely,” which means to show insight or success. The same Hebrew word is used of Joshua (Joshua 1:7-8), David (1 Samuel 18:5), Solomon (1 Kings 2:3), and Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7). In those verses, nearly every occurrence either mentions following God’s Law or talks about the presence of the Lord in the lives of these leaders. This gives us a clue to the nature of this servant’s life. By the end of the fourth Servant Song, we are given to understand that even the servant’s death is subsumed under his wise life: his death was no failure but instead indicated that he walked in the paths God laid down for him. So 52:13 is a “spoiler” that gives away the plot: the servant will finally be vindicated at the end of chapter 53.
The servant’s vindication in this verse is described by three terms: “high,” “lifted up,” and “exalted.” Two of these terms were previously used together in Isaiah 6:1 in reference to God on His throne (“high and lifted up”), and both are also used in Isaiah 33:10 and Isaiah 57:15 of God. On the other hand, in Isaiah 2:12, Proverbs 30:13, and Daniel 11:12, they are used to describe the arrogance of nations or people. The image is therefore positive when applied to God but negative when applied to human beings. In Isaiah 52:13, the positive vindication of the servant is unusual, spoken of in terms usually reserved for God Himself. This, at the very least, gives us a clue that this servant may be more than meets the eye.
The three terms in 52:13 contrast with three different terms in 53:2, which describe the servant as having no “form” or “beauty” or “majesty.” They are also in contrast with three words in 53:4, which describe how we counted the servant “stricken,” “smitten,” and “afflicted.” This puts the exaltation of the servant in the greatest possible contrast with his suffering. This is going to be some exaltation!
So this verse (1) is a “spoiler” that looks ahead to the end of the passage when the servant is vindicated; (2) implies that God’s hand is at work in the life of this servant, both in the servant’s wisely lived life and in his vindication; and (3) suggests that the exaltation the servant undergoes is of the highest kind, usually reserved for God Himself. Who could this servant be?
As many were astonished at you –
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind –
The Hebrew literally reads “astonished at you.” Some translations try to smooth over this abrupt change in the same verse from “you” to “his.” In biblical Hebrew, though, we sometimes find unexpected changes from third person to second person and vice versa. This is unnerving to a modern reader but apparently did not pose much of a problem to an ancient Israelite reader.
In the end, the point is clear: the servant will have the kind of appearance that invites a reaction of astonishment.
So shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
What exactly is the servant is doing with the “many nations” (non-Israelites) in this verse? The English Standard Version (ESV) has “sprinkle,” but other translations say “startle” or “spatter” or something similar.
There are two possibilities here. The first is that the nations are startled. The Septuagint – the translation of the Old Testament into Greek originally made a few centuries before Jesus – has “startle.” This would match the remainder of the verse describing how the kings shut their mouths. The servant will startle the non-Jewish nations, and the kings of those nations will be left speechless.
The other possibility is to translate the word as “sprinkle,” a term from Leviticus that refers to splashing blood, water, or oil over people or things in order to dedicate or cleanse them. A good argument for the Levitical idea of “sprinkle” is that this passage is a chiasm (a concentric unit) with 52:13-15 matching 53:10-12. The first set of verses (52:13-15) speaks of the servant’s vindication and so does the second set of verses (53:10-12). In addition, the second set of verses contains the word asham which refers to a “guilt offering,” one of the prescribed offerings in Leviticus. Before the asham can be offered, the individual making the offering needs to be sprinkled. Therefore, says scholar Richard Averbeck, “The reference to the ‘guilt offering,’ in Isaiah 53:10 echoes the reference to ‘sprinkle’ in 52:15a. The Servant not only offers himself as a guilt offering but also cleanses the nations.”13
On upshot, either possibility is workable. One option emphasizes what the servant does for the nations; the other emphasizes how the nations respond to what the servant does. One focuses on the work of the servant; the other on the response to the servant. Either one fits in with the tone and message of the entire section.
The Servant and “Public Opinion”
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Many Jewish interpreters take “us” in this verse to mean the Gentile nations and understand the passage to speak of the value of Israel’s suffering on behalf of the nations of the world. The idea is that the Gentiles are exclaiming, “Wow! The Jewish people are suffering on our behalf! Who knew?!”
Yet, based on its context, the verse is speaking of those who disbelieved God’s word. In Scripture, disbelief in God’s Word relates to God’s people, not to foreign nations. It seems best to take the “us” as Israel. Here, “what he has heard from us” is parallel to “the arm of the Lord,” showing that it is, in fact, a message from God that is in mind. The “arm of the Lord” refers to God’s saving power and actually explains the nature of the message of the first part of the verse. Thus, the content of the message is clear: God’s salvation.
The Servant’s Suffering Described
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
Here, we begin a succession of verses that utilize Hebrew verbs that are normally rendered in the past tense in English but that grammatically can apply to future events. Often, such a usage is called the “prophetic perfect.” The argument that Isaiah 53 cannot refer to a future person because the verbs are in the “past tense” is not correct.
Verse 2 actually begins the account of “what he has heard from us” mentioned in verse 1. Verses 2-3 explain why the divine message has not been received – just look at this servant! “He grew up” utilizes plant imagery – this is not a healthy-looking plant, as the phrase “dry ground” implies. Yet that is not the end of the story. Even this dried-up plant is “before him,” referring to the Lord and meaning “in God’s presence.” The phrase is used that way some 49 times in Leviticus 1-16, giving us another hint of Levitical and sacrificial imagery in Isaiah 53. Rabbinic commentator Samuel David Luzzatto says that “before the Lord” means “with His help,” as in Genesis 17:18. So God has not abandoned this servant!
In 52:13, the entirety of the servant’s life, including his suffering and death, was focused on the servant (his “wise” or “successful living”). In this verse, it is focused on God: through all the ups and downs of the servant’s life – his suffering, death, and vindication – God was watching over him. While some refused to believe the report (53:1) because of the servant’s appearance, the following verses will show that their response was mistaken.
In the second part of 53:2, the servant has no “form,” “majesty,” or “beauty.” The first and third words are the same ones used in 52:14 to describe the servant. This verse picks up the same thought before beginning an extended description of the condition and suffering of the servant.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
“Despised” in Hebrew, nivzeh, is a common word used, for example, to describe Esau’s forfeiting of his birthright in Genesis 25:34, as well as in many other places. In the context of this passage, its use echoes Isaiah 49:7 (“to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation”).
“Rejected by men” has been nuanced in different ways. The Hebrew is roughly more like “rejected of men.” Does this mean rejected as if he were not a man, a human being? Medieval commentator Ibn Ezra interpreted it that way: “so despised that he is not considered even human.” And so did Kimhi in his rendering, “the least of men.” Given the rest of the verse, though, it would be better to understand it as meaning “rejected by men,” as it is translated in the ESV.
“A man of sorrows” could perhaps more accurately be translated as “a man of suffering.” The word “sorrows” is also used in regard to the sufferings experienced in exile (Lamentations 1:12). The connotation is that of an outcast. While in Lamentations, it is Israel cast out from its own land, here it is the servant cast away from his own people.
“As one from whom men hide their faces” again spotlights the reaction of other people to the servant. Among Jewish commentators, Kimhi, Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Luzzatto all also interpret it this way.
In sum, the verse indicates shame, or rejection based on shame. Kimhi, interpreting the passage as refering to Israel, thought that it was Israel’s shame in exile. But interpreting this verse as referring to an individual within Israel, the servant can be thought of as a man in exile from his own people.
Finally, note that we have another link conceptually with an earlier Servant Song: in Isaiah 50:6, also, the servant faces abuse and shaming.
The Meaning of the Servant’s Suffering
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
“Surely” translates Hebrew achen. Here is what medieval commentator Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, twelfth century) had to say concerning the same word in Genesis 28:16: “This is the meaning of every achen in the Bible: achen – ach ken – indeed it is thus, and not as I expected.” Rashbam interprets the single word achen to be comprised of the two words ach and ken, which, he says, indicates surprise. So, the idea is: “Wait a minute! We thought one thing about the servant, but the reality is much different!”
The actual reality comes in the next part of the verse: “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The first part juxtaposes the words nasa’ (“bear, carry, lift up”) and choli (“sickness” or, in the ESV, “griefs”). The same two words occur together in Jeremiah 10:19, there translated in the ESV as “this is an affliction, and I must bear it.” But unlike Jeremiah, in Isaiah 53, the servant is bearing the affliction of others.
Just as verse 3 had “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” so now in verse 4, “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” This is not simply repetition: in verse 4, we find out why the servant was a man of sorrows, why he was acquainted with grief. It was because he was carrying our griefs and our sorrows. His bitter experience was on our account.
Achen – to capture the full implication of the word, we might paraphrase: “Boy, were we surprised to find all this out!” It turns out to be the very opposite of what we originally thought: “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” The Hebrew word translated “stricken,” nagua’, is used in 2 Kings 15:5 to describe God striking Azariah with leprosy or skin disease, and the Talmud (b. Sanhedrin 98a) applies the title of Leprous One to the Messiah based on this passage in Isaiah. The connotation of leprosy is also found in some ancient Greek versions. We find the same word used also in Job and in Leviticus 13-14. Though the servant was not stricken with literal disease (we know this since verse 5 switches the metaphor to injury, not illness), the point is that we considered the servant to be under God’s judgment.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
This verse carries the thought still further: not only did the servant experience suffering (verse 3); not only was his suffering on our account, though we misjudged him (verse 4); but now in verse 5, we learn in what way his suffering was on our account: he brings us healing. This verse changes the metaphor to injury: we are healed by “his wounds.” Furthermore, here Isaiah becomes explicit: it is our transgressions and iniquities that have brought the servant to this condition.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions.” Pierced (Hebrew m’cholal ) is used in Isaiah 51:9 as well as Psalm 109:22. It indicates “puncturing the body with a sharp instrument,” literally in Isaiah 51:9, nonlethal or metaphoric in Psalm 109:22. The servant’s death is described as a violent one.
His chastisement also brings us “peace,” shalom. Isaiah 48:22 had previously told us, “‘There is no peace ,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.’” Here, we are finally brought shalom through what the servant accomplishes. The implication is that it is our sins and our wickedness that have been standing in the way of our shalom.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned – every one – to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Here, Isaiah becomes explicit: our iniquity is actually laid upon the servant.
“All we like sheep have gone astray.” The word tzon, translated here as “sheep,” denotes a collective; flock might be a better translation. Not just individuals have gone astray, but the entire people – the nation has gone astray. The Targum understands “going astray” to mean exile, which actually points us back to the cause of our exile: our sin.
The nation as a whole has strayed but so also, has each individual: “we have turned – every one – to his own way.” The expression “turning to one’s own way” is found elsewhere, in Isaiah 56:11: “They are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all.” In that verse, the shepherds are the leaders, but in 53:6, Isaiah speaks of all Israelites.
“And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This is not an image of gently placing something on something else. “Laid on him” (Hebrew, paga’ b) indicates an encounter or meeting. The iniquity, which can also mean the punishment for iniquity, “hits,” or “meets” the servant, with even an overtone of violence. Like sheep, the people were vulnerable to attack (not by predators, such as wolves, but by the guilt of their sin), but the servant instead bears the brunt of sin’s attack. The image is, therefore, stronger than the usual “the Lord has laid on him.” Our sin, or the penalty for our sin, attacks the servant. It is quite a dramatic encounter.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
Here, we learn how the servant responds to his suffering: he submits to it in innocence.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted.” The Hebrew grammar may even imply the thought that, as in the NET translation’s notes, “he was treated harshly even though he humbled himself.” Or, “he was oppressed, yet even so, he remained submissive.” Significantly, the word “afflicted” is also used of the affliction of the Hebrews by the Egyptian taskmasters in Exodus. The servant, who is the nation Israel in some of the earlier Servant Songs, here appears to be an individual who identifies with his people Israel.
“Yet he opened not his mouth.” Like Isaiah 42:2, “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.” This does not mean that he lived his life in total silence. What it indicates is his humility and acceptance of his destiny.
“Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.” The imagery reminds us of the sacrificial Passover lamb in Exodus 12:3, the same imagery that John the Baptist drew on when he spoke of Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Commentator John Oswalt points out that the lamb metaphor is used throughout this chapter, and writes, “If the author did not intend his readers to think in terms of sacrifice, he certainly made a major blunder in his choice of metaphors.”14 At this point in the passage, we are dealing not merely with general images of suffering but specifically with the imagery of sacrifice.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” The Hebrew could mean “he was delivered from oppression and judgment” (meaning that he was freed or released) or that “he was taken away because of oppression and judgment” (meaning that he was put in prison). The problem is the Hebrew preposition min which can be interpreted either way.
But it is the context that points us to the more likely translation. This verse is not indicating something triumphant (deliverance from oppression) but continues the idea of suffering unjustly. The second reading is preferable.
“And as for his generation, who considered.” This could mean, “Who among his contemporaries (his generation) ever thought that the servant did what is described in the next part of the verse (that is, allow himself to be cut off from the land of the living) for them?” Or in the words of one commentator, “Who gave a hoot?” In this case, it would reiterate the thoughts of Isaiah 53:1-3.
The second option is: “Who considered his descendants (his generation)?” That is, no one could even think about his descendants: the servant, his life cut short, had no children, a sign of the absence of God’s blessing, hence another instance of injustice surrounding the life of the servant.
Either reading makes sense. Who in his generation cared, took notice, or thought much of it? Or, we can’t even speak about his children, since according to the second part of the verse, his life is cut short. Both readings are true of the servant.
“That he was cut off out of the land of the living.” Here there is debate as to whether “cut off,” nizgar, is literal or figurative. (The interpretation in the previous clause of “Who can speak of his children?” would demand a literal death.)
The word implies death or murder in Jeremiah 11:19 and Psalm 52:7. Given the explicit mention of death in Isaiah 53:9 and the fact that his life is a sacrificial offering in Isaiah 53:10, we are not speaking here of a metaphorical death but of a literal one.
“Stricken for the transgression of my people.” Literally, the phrase is closer to “for the transgression of my people – a stroke to him.” Who are “my people” here? It could be the prophet speaking of his own people, Israel (so says commentator John Oswalt, on the basis that the prophet has already spoken of “our” transgressions), or God speaking of His people (so says commentator Edward J. Young). The Qumran manuscript 1QIsaa reads “his people,” implying the people of the servant, thereby eliminating the problem of the sudden interjection of the first person here. The Qumran scrolls, written about one thousand years before the Hebrew manuscripts of the Masoretic Text show up, often preserves earlier and sometimes more correct readings. Whether “his people” or “my people,” it is a reference to the nation of Israel.
In the phrase literally translated “a stroke to him,” the word lamo (“to him”) can also mean “to them,” and in this verse, it has often been a red herring in the plural/singular debate surrounding the identity of the servant. Michael Brown observes that Isaiah also uses lamo as a singular reference in Isaiah 44:15.15 Walter Kaiser additionally cites16 a singular usage of lamo in Genesis 9:26-27. The grammar here is hardly as decisive as some advocates of the national interpretation think it to be. In the context of all the other individualistic references in this passage, “to him” fits contextually as well as grammatically.
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
“And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death.” “The wicked” seems clear enough. But who are – or is – “the rich”? (The Hebrew word could refer to a group collectively or to an individual.) Based on the Old Testament background, the rich could be oppressors: the servant is buried even among his oppressors. Or it could mean a wealthy person, reminding us of Matthew 27:57-60, in which a rich man uses his own grave for the body of Jesus. (Matthew, however, does not cite this verse.) As it turns out, there may be irony here: the servant was intended to be buried with his oppressors, the “wicked” and “rich” – but ironically the “rich man” of Matthew was actually a righteous person. This is kind of a variation of, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
The same words “crush” and “grief” appear in different forms in Isaiah 53:4-5. Here, some of the key points of the passage are reemphasized. And while verse 6 says that “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” here it is put even more strongly: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” This is not divine sadism. The end of the verse uses the same Hebrew word for “will” (from the root ch-f-tz) in saying that “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” How is this possible? It happens because “his soul makes an offering for guilt,” that is, he gives himself as a guilt offering. (Compare how Jesus says in the New Testament that he voluntarily lays down his life.) The Bible often speaks of God as the ultimate cause of something even if there is a secondary cause. The servant willingly gives his life, which dovetails with God’s own will on the matter.
“Offering for guilt” is one word in Hebrew, asham. In Leviticus, it refers to what is variously translated as a “guilt” or “trespass offering” (and sometimes it refers to the trespass itself). We are back to sacrificial imagery here: the servant will be a sacrificial offering for sin.
Final Vindication of the Servant
The second part of verse 10 segues from suffering into vindication: “he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days.”
Much ink has been spilled over whether zera’, “offspring” or “seed,” here refers to literal descendants (hence, excluding Jesus from fulfilling the passage) or spiritual descendants – and whether the latter can be a legitimate understanding of the word zera’. We get some insight from Psalm 22:30, where the psalmist says, “Posterity [literally, ‘seed’] will serve him,” indicating future generations, whether literally descended from the psalmist or not.
Additional insight comes from the inter-testamental book The Wisdom of Solomon, which is usually dated to the second century BC. Preston Sprinkle writes that the rewards and punishment that Deuteronomy ascribes to right and wrong living, respectively, are also in The Wisdom of Solomon but are applied in a different manner:
Transferred to the afterlife, since in this life the righteous are persecuted and the wicked prosper, which is seen clearly in Wisdom 3. Here, the author argues that “the barren woman who is undefiled” and therefore has the appearance of transgression (Deuteronomy 28:4, 11, 18) is actually “blessed” since “she will have fruit when God examines souls” on judgment day (Wisdom 3:13).17
This suggests that before the first century AD, some Jews would have been comfortable with the idea of seed, progeny, fruit, etc. being applied in a non-literal way, or transferred to a time beyond one’s normal lifespan.
Having progeny (literal or not) and a long life were considered indications of God’s favor. The phrases are part of a package of metaphors for restoration, wellbeing, and shalom. This, as well as the view hinted at in Wisdom of Solomon, makes much sense of the passage. As such, it would seem pointless to argue over whether “seed” can be symbolic as well as physical, or can refer to disciples as well as physical children. The point is that the servant will be restored to a normal life – in this case, to a resurrected life.
“The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” The Hebrew words for “prosper” and “will” are found together also in Isaiah 55:11, which says about God’s Word that “it shall accomplish that which I purpose , and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Just as God’s Word will always accomplish His will and His purposes, so the life and death of the servant will also accomplish the purposes of God.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
As a result of his suffering, the servant will “see” – but see what? There is no grammatical direct object. Some Jewish commentators, therefore, suggest that what the servant sees is the “offspring” just mentioned. Among those who interpret it this way, we find Eliezer of Beaugency (twelfth-century French rabbinic commentator), Isaac Abravanel (fifteenth-century Portuguese rabbinic commentator), and Samuel Luzzatto (nineteenth-century Italian rabbinic commentator). Others add tov, “good,” as the object: “he will see good”: we find this interpretation in Ibn Ezra and Kimhi. The Septuagint and the documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls known as 1QIsaa,b have the word or, “light” – “he will see light.” The Dead Sea Scrolls possibly preserve a more original text. Everyone wants to know just what the servant sees, and we cannot be sure!
“By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” The Hebrew words avon (“iniquity”) and sabal (“bear”) are picked up from earlier verses, reinforcing the message of the passage.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
The imagery in the first part of the verse suggests a victory parade – just as the suffering was enormous, so now its counterpart is a great victory! Jewish commentators say either that the “many” are his portion of the spoil (Ibn Ezra), or that God will give him a share among the many (Rashi and Luzzatto). Similarly, for the next clause: either he receives the many as spoils or he shares the spoils with the many (depending on whether et is the Hebrew direct object marker or the preposition “with”). The imagery can work in both directions: the servant, whose sufferings were on behalf of the many, now figuratively receives them as the spoils of war, so to speak. He is the victor and he takes them in as a result of his work. Or, the spiritual results of what the servant has accomplished can now be shared with the many on whose behalf he died. Either fits, though the former is a more startling image.
“Because he poured out his soul to death.” Mavet, “death,” and nefesh, “soul,” are picked up again from an earlier verse. This phrase, it would seem, is as strong as one can get to portray a real, physical death.
“And makes intercession for the transgressors.” Peshe’im ,”rebels,” is noted by Oswalt as being a term of condemnation in Isaiah.
“Yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” There are a number of words here that echo earlier verses in the passage: rabim, “many,” pesha’, “transgression” (used in the previous clause), and nasa’, “bear, carry” – as well as hifgia’, used earlier as “attacking” and here as “interceding.”
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 continues the servant theme found in earlier chapters of Isaiah. But, as some of the earlier Servant Songs have hinted, we are dealing here not with all of Israel but with an individual from within Israel who bears the sins of the nation through a sacrificial death that ends not in defeat but in victory. In this way, the individual servant prepares Israel the nation to continue and ultimately complete its designated role as a servant-nation.
Next, we’ll look at what the New Testament has to say about Isaiah 53.
Part III: Isaiah 53 in the New Testament
The New Testament provides a rich assortment of quotations and allusions to this passage. Thematically, we can break these out as follows:
The Passage as a Whole
Now the passage of the Scripture that he [the eunuch, an Ethiopian court official] was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The conversation then follows:
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.
Several things stand out in the Acts passage:
First, it appears to be the verses on death and humiliation that raise questions in the eunuch’s mind. Who is being slaughtered, deprived of justice, his life taken? It may be the unsettling image of this individual’s cruel fate that prompted his curiosity.
Second, the eunuch’s question gives us a glimpse of first-century interpretations of the passage. It seems that the two options that came to his mind were Isaiah himself or another person. The “biographical” interpretation, in which the passage speaks of Isaiah himself, may have been a widespread one in the first century. In any event, it is significant that the eunuch views the passage as referring to an individual, not to the nation of Israel as a whole.
Third, in explaining about Jesus, Philip begins with, but does not end with, this passage. Clearly the eunuch had questions as to the identity of this suffering person and had been exposed to some individual interpretations of Isaiah 53. This leads Philip to segue into talking about Jesus in this passage before moving on to other ones (which are unfortunately not named).
The Servant’s Sufferings and Their Purpose
And he [Jesus] said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?”
– Mark 9:12, emphasis added here, also in following passages
Jesus often spoke of his impending suffering, death (commonly referred to as his passion), and resurrection. (He also draws on Daniel 7 for his title “Son of Man.”) Similar passion predictions drawing on the general theme of suffering, betrayal, rejection, and death are found in Matthew 26:2, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33, and Luke 24:7.
On what scriptures did Jesus rely for the idea that he, as the Son of Man, must suffer, die, and be resurrected? Isaiah 53 and perhaps some of the other Servant Songs are the likely candidates. In this same cluster of passion predictions, Luke 22:37 explicitly quotes from Isaiah 53:
“For I [Jesus] tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
The purpose of his sufferings is described in Mark 10:45:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
This is more specific than the general theme of suffering seen in some other verses. Scholar Michael F. Bird translates Isaiah 53:12 as “pour out his soul to death” and notes the conceptual parallel with Mark’s “give his life as a ransom for many.”18
The Suffering Servant as an Example
First Peter 2:21-25 brings the passage not so much as a prophecy but as an exemplar. It cites Isaiah 53:9 and also alludes to several other verses in the Isaiah passage:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Peter is alluding to and cites Isaiah 53 as he recalls specific incidents in the life of Jesus, for example, Mark 15:5: “But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.” In this way, Peter brings out the import of the servanthood of Jesus to encourage the servanthood in his followers.
The Servant and the Proclamation of the Gospel
Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.”
Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him.
John combines Isaiah 53:1 with Isaiah 6 (in the third paragraph of the quote) to talk about the rejection of Jesus. John 12:38 appears to interpret Isaiah as the preaching and works of Jesus himself, though possibly John is referring to the proclamation by Jesus’ apostles. Here it is not the suffering of the servant that is in view but the proclamation concerning what that servant has accomplished.
I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
Paul uses this verse to explain his ambition to proclaim the gospel in new regions. In this regard, he sees the proclamation described in Isaiah as coming to fruition within his own gospel preaching.
The Servant and Healing
That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
What is interesting here is that Isaiah 53 is most likely portraying human sin under the metaphor of disease rather than describing actual physical ailments, yet Matthew uses the verse to refer to literal sicknesses. We should keep in mind that in the New Testament, physical and spiritual sickness are often seen to be two sides of the same coin. Thus, Matthew’s use of Isaiah is consistent with that view.
The Righteous Servant
Finally, “my righteous servant” of Isaiah 53:11 is reflected in Acts 3:14 (Peter’s speech), Acts 7:52 (Stephen’s speech), and Acts 22:14 (Paul’s speech), as well as in 1 John 2:1. The term “Righteous One” as applied to Jesus was therefore quite widespread, and if it does not directly reflect Isaiah 53:11, it certainly shows influence from various Old Testament passages.
Part IV: The Theology of the Servant
The Servant as the Messiah
Much ink has been spilled in ascertaining the identification of the servant, both in the other three Servant Songs and in this passage. Considering the context of the entire Old Testament, it is clear that Israel was called to be a servant (eved) to God in direct contrast to being a slave of Pharaoh (eved can also have the connotation of slave). The contrast is picked up in the New Testament when being a doulos Christou, a slave of Christ, is contrasted with being enslaved to other things. As the Old Testament proceeds, it becomes clear that Israel does not consistently act as the servant of God (nor does the church in the New Testament!). Some have argued that, in fact, it is actually the intention of the Torah to show that because of Israel’s sins, hope must be pinned on the future eschatological Messiah.19 In the fourth Servant Song, the description no longer matches the nation but a particular Israelite, who according to the New Testament is the Messiah Jesus. There is a certain ambiguity in the description of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 that does not reach clarity until its fulfillment.
The Nature of Fulfillment
Biblical prophecies vary in their nature. In the case of this passage, we can envision a narrowing to Jesus and then a widening out again. Israel was at first the servant, and in time, narrowed down to a particular Israelite, the Messiah. “Out the other side” of the cross, so to speak, followers of Jesus are also servants (and, in fact, as we have seen, Paul applies a verse of the passage to his own ministry) – and the hope remains for Israel to fulfill its servant ministry by coming to faith in its Messiah.
Such a narrowing and broadening is seen in many other ways. For example, Jesus fulfills the priesthood in himself, yet on the other side of the cross, God’s people are meant to function as priests in imitation of Jesus. “Fulfillment” means that Jesus is the apex of God’s promises and commandments to Israel, but in many cases, the people of God are meant to continue the same kind of obedience and roles that Jesus himself embodied.
Another way of envisioning this is the image of a wheel, whereby the Messiah is the hub, and roles such as priest or servant are spokes emanating to God’s people in both Old Testament and New Testament times. This image, perhaps, allows for more Old-to-New Testament continuity by picturing the relationship between God and His people synchronically (what happens simultaneously), while the narrowing and widening is more diachronic (what happens across time).
Messiah as Sufferer
As applied to the Messiah Jesus, Isaiah 53 indicates several things:
- His identification with the people of Israel, who similarly were oppressed. Ultimately his suffering enables the Messiah to identify with all who suffer unjustly.
- His divinity. While not stated outright, the servant is here identified with the “arm of the Lord,” God’s saving power. The startling thing is that while the arm of the Lord typically represents military victory over oppressive foreign states, here God’s salvation is in terms of sacrificial victory over sin, not by might, but by becoming the willing recipient and bearer of Israel’s guilt and sin.
- The Messiah is a martyr. Martyrdom is usually thought of in terms of something Messiah’s followers undergo. Similarly, in Judaism, martyrdom meant dying in the service of God rather than abandoning the Torah or converting to another religion. Thus those who in medieval times refused to convert to Christianity under duress and were therefore put to death were counted as martyrs who hallowed God’s name. But the identification between the Messiah and his people suggests that the image of martyr may not be inappropriate for Jesus, inasmuch as he died in the service of a “cause.” Interpreters have debated whether the servant could be the prophet himself suffering for a righteous cause or Israel suffering martyrdom for the sake of the nations. In the twentieth century, Eastern European Jewish writers and painters often utilized Jesus as a figure to encapsulate Jewish suffering. Inasmuch as Christians as God’s servants are to emulate the Suffering Servant, the Messiah can be viewed in Isaiah 53 as the proto-martyr.
The Trajectory of Messiah and His People
In Isaiah 53, the course of the servant’s life is laid out: humble beginnings, suffering on behalf of others, sacrificial death, and vindication by God afterward. Similarly, the New Testament indicates that we are to imitate Christ in his humility (1 Peter 2:21) and in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10), with the promise of our own eventual resurrection and vindication.
The Nature of the Servant’s Sacrificial Death
Some of the scholarly discussion has turned around the usage of the word asham. Richard Averbeck shows that in the larger context of Isaiah, as well as in the entire Old Testament, the sacrificial imagery here makes sense. “The exile from the Promised Land amounted to a desecration of sancta – the specific sancta being Israel itself as the Lord’s ‘kingdom of priests and… holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6). In this way, the sacrificial suffering of the Servant as an asham makes perfectly good sense in the context of Isaiah 40-66.”20 Moreover, just as the asham restored the status of the person defiling God’s holy things, “the Servant in Isaiah 53 offered himself as a ‘guilt offering’ (Isaiah 53:10b) to make reparation and atonement on behalf of Israel for its sin and corruption so that they could come out of exile to be restored to their Holy Land and to their holy ‘servant’ status. This is what the term when rendered ‘guilt offering’ brings to the interpretation of the passage; not just redemptive atonement and reparation, but actual restoration.”21 In this way, the ultimate Suffering Servant atones for and restores to God’s service and witness (1) the nation as a whole, (2) the remnant within the nation, (3) the prophet Isaiah himself, and (4) the Gentile nations. All need atonement and restoration because of sin. Those who receive atonement and, in the case of Israel, restoration (the Gentile nations were not originally called to be servants of God but now partake of that status for the first time), become the servant(s) of the Lord.
Theology leads on to applications. On the one hand, there is an unrepeatable nature to what the servant has accomplished for us. He has given his life for the atonement of our sins, and this calls for thankfulness and worship on our part. On the other hand, there is an aspect that is repeatable, namely, the calling to be servants. First Peter makes it clear that we are to emulate the ethical behavior of the servant Jesus in humility and in our willingness to suffer for his sake. These two aspects of Isaiah 53 were noted as well by some of the early Church Fathers who treated the passage in both a “Christological” and an “exemplary” way.22
Several times we have also observed the identification of the servant with the nation of Israel. The nation, though called to be God’s servant, needed its own cleansing in order to serve God as it was intended to. We, Jews and Gentiles, who are identified with Jesus as the Body of Christ, should also take time to come before God for cleansing in order to be equipped to serve Him. Reading the first part of Isaiah 6 on Isaiah’s call and preparatory cleansing from sin can help elucidate the atoning work of the servant in Isaiah 53 and remind us of our shortcomings and sins. Yet we always remember that by his death, Jesus the Servant has “made many righteous” in him and that the ongoing need for cleansing (see 1 John 2:1) and service are two facets of the Christian life that are always before us.
1. Rav Asher Soloff, “The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Commentators, to the Sixteenth Century,” (PhD diss., Drew University, 1967), 146.
2. Jacob Mann, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (New York: Ktav, 1971, © 1940), 298.
3. Michael L. Brown, “Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 64.
6. Ibid., 293.
7. Ibid, 297. Italics in the original.
9. Jim Melnick, “The Struggle within Chabad Lubavitch: Views on King Messiah and Isaiah 53” (conference paper, Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, 2003), 17, www.lcje.net/papers/2003/melnick.doc
10. David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (London; Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001).
11. C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 544. The initials at the end of the quote indicate that this is Loewe’s comment. Italics added.
12. For additional examples of the messianic interpretation even after Rashi, see Brown, “Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53.”
13. Richard E. Averbeck, “Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 56-57.
14. John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 392.
15. Brown, “Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” 74.
16. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Identity and Mission of the ‘Servant of the Lord,’” in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 90.
17. Preston M. Sprinkle, Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 221.
18. Michael F. Bird, Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 37
20. Averback, “Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53,” 53.
22. Christoph Markschies, “Jesus Christ as a Man before God: Two Interpretive Models for Isaiah 53 in the Patristic Literature and Their Development,” in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources, eds. Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher (Grand Rapids: Cambridge; UK: Eerdmans, 2004), 225-320.