Who Is the Suffering Servant?
Congregations hear the Suffering Servant passage read aloud to them extremely often. The Easter season is a most popular time for church goers to consider this passage. In my personal experience, the reading always begins with 53:1. As a young person, I remember wondering, “Why is Isaiah so vague? He never identifies who he’s talking about. How can people be certain this passage refers to Christ?” That is a natural question, since the twelve verses all say, “he, he, his, him,” without further identification. I am sure I am not alone in my response (Cf. Acts 8:30-34). This is because reading passages out of context often leads to comprehension difficulties.
Context: The Servant’s Identity
Context is paramount when listeners and readers consider the meaning of any one verse. The Fourth Servant Song, as the passage which includes Isaiah 53 is popularly called, begins in Isaiah 52:13. There, God himself distinctly identifies the “he” used throughout the passage.
God begins speaking of “my Servant” in 52:13. Following this, the text continues unbroken through the end of chapter 53. Therefore, the “he” referenced throughout chapter 53 is God’s Servant.
But Who Is the Servant?
IS THE SERVANT ISRAEL?
The Servant cannot be Israel for several reasons.
1. In the passage immediately following chapter 53, God does address Israel his people. This message to Israel differs from the message of the Servant Song that begins in chapter 52:13. In particular, the Servant always pleases God, whereas Israel rarely did. Concerning the Servant see Isaiah 52:13; 53:5, 9, 11 and 12. Concerning Israel see Isaiah 54:4-9.
2. Verse 5 states that the Servant “was wounded on account of our sins, and was bruised because of our iniquities.” It is true that God did wound and bruise Israel on account of their sin (consider for example, the exile). This sentence, however, reads as though the Servant were someone other than Israel. The verbs concerning the Servant are always singular in this verse. On the other hand, the adjectives which modify the lawlessness and sin are plural. Readers of plain, ordinary speech would think that the text mentions two characters. If the Servant were Israel, then there would be only one.
3. Verse 9 prophesies that the Servant will be buried in a concrete-literal tomb. This would not work as a metaphor for a group of people.
4. The book of Isaiah as a whole follows a particular storyline. The basic elements of the story follow.
1) Israel continues to sin and rebel against God.
2) God punishes them temporally through a series of wars. These culminate in their exile.
3) God calls them home. This serves as a physical sign of his having forgiven them.
4) God announces his comfort to them. He will bring this comfort to them through the actions of his Servant.
5) Finally, God promises the future well-being of his people. Their glorious future includes Gentiles joined with them.
God builds to a climactic presentation of his special Servant as the one through whom he will bless his people Israel and Gentiles the world over.
5. In general, readers can find a difference in content and language between Isaiah’s servant passages referencing the people Israel and those which reference his special Servant. First, in the former passages, God tends to speak at length in first person with reference to himself and what he will do for Israel. Further, these passages contain a large amount of prophecy concerning what will happen to Israel. Additionally, the servant passages concerning God’s people give little information about the people. God does not describe them in third person, except perhaps, in judgment. The following passages illustrate these points: Isaiah 41:8-20; Isaiah 44:1-5, 21-28; 45:4-8.
The special Servant passages also contain prophecies concerning what will happen to the Servant, and God does speak in first person about what he will do for him. But the big difference is that these passages present information about the nature and character of the Servant himself. See Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:2; and 52:13-15. In contrast to these, the passages that speak of God’s people as his servant lack these positive statements about them. If God describes them at all, he uses negative language (see Isaiah 52:1-5).
IS THE SERVANT ISAIAH?
In short, I find no support for this viewpoint. To give just one example, Isaiah the prophet “bore the sins” of no one (Isaiah 53:4 LXE).
WHO CAN THE SERVANT BE?
The list of characters in the book of Isaiah is very short:
1. Isaiah the narrator
2. Israel the nation
3. Israel the people
4. The enemies of Israel
5. The Gentiles who find favor with God
6. The Servant
If the Servant is neither Isaiah the prophet nor the people of Israel, then there is really no one else he could be other than the Servant of God identified throughout the book as someone whom God accords glory on a par with his own.
6 And he said to me, It is a great thing for you to be called my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to recover the dispersion of Israel: behold, I have given you for the covenant of a race, for a light of the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the end of the earth. 7 Thus says the Lord that delivered you, the God of Israel, Sanctify him that despises his life, him that is abhorred by the nations that are the servants of princes: kings shall behold him, and princes shall arise, and shall worship him, for the Lord’s sake: for the Holy One of Israel is faithful, and I have chosen you. (Isaiah 49:6-7 LXE)
Readers should note that Isaiah’s vocabulary mentions the word “Christ” (anointed) only once in the entire book. In Isaiah 45:1 God calls Cyrus the Persian “my anointed.” Clearly, however, the New Testament identifies Isaiah’s “Servant” with Israel’s Christ, i.e., the Son of God.
- Scripture identifies Jesus the Christ as God’s Servant in Acts 3:13, 26; 4:27 and 30.
- New Testament readers find quotations from the Suffering Servant passage in Romans 15:15, 21; John 12:38; Romans 10:16; Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:22; and Luke 22:37.
The key to God’s comfort for his people lies with his special Servant. Isaiah has been building up to the climax of this part of the “story” throughout the book, and in particular since chapter 40 began.
The next post will explore in greater detail the distinctives of this Servant passage against other servant passages in Isaiah which do reference God’s people Israel as his servant.