The Historical and Literary Context
The Servant of the Lord
It is impossible to understand this passage without a larger panoramic view of the concept of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah. This is the fourth of a number of “servant songs” in Isaiah (Is. 42:1-6; 49:1-3; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12).1 Interestingly, each of these servant passages appears to build on one another. First, Isaiah 42:1-6 describes the mission of the servant. Commenting on Isaiah 42:1-4, Blenkinsopp notes, “Here the speaker is Yahweh, who designates an individual as his servant and chosen one, endowing him with the spirit so that he may fulfill his mission of dispensing justice and law to the nations.”2
Second, Isaiah 49:1-13 notes that this mission is accompanied by difficulties. Some argue that the text refers to Israel as a whole, others to the prophet himself. Commenting on Isaiah 49, Blenkinsopp notes, “But the problem is that the mission assigned to the speaker includes the task of bringing Israel back to its God, which task must be ascribed to an individual or collectivity within Israel, not to Israel itself. It seems, then, that the passage has been expanded to allow for a certain identification between the prophet and Israel, while still describing the prophet’s own sense of mission to Israel.”3
Third, Isaiah 50:4-9 shows that the servant suffers short of death, but does not give the reasons for his suffering. Finally, Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 demonstrates that the servant's suffering leads to his death.
The Immediate Context
This prophecy actually begins in the latter part of Isaiah 52 (verses 13-15), which serves as a summary of chapter 53. These three verses describe his exaltation (13), humiliation (14), and his shocking effect on the world (15). This roughly corresponds to chapter 53 (though in a different order) which describes the irony of his coming (1-2), his humiliation and suffering (3-10a), and exaltation (10b-12). All together, the text reads:
"Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. 14 Just as many were astonished at you, So His visage was marred more than any man, And His form more than the sons of men; 15 So shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; For what had not been told them they shall see, And what they had not heard they shall consider. 53:1 Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. 3 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 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. 6 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. 7 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. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. 9 And they made His grave with the wicked— But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth. 10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors," (Isaiah 52:13-53:12 NKJV).
Will the Real Servant Please Stand Up?
There are a number of important aspects of this passage. First, verse 1 describes the arm of the Lord. This has parallels elsewhere in Isaiah where the arm will rule for God (Is. 40:10); Gentiles will trust in the arm (Is. 51:5); the arm will redeem (Is. 51:9); and the arm will provide salvation (Is. 52:10).4
Second, verses 1-3 show that this servant came as a normal individual. He is not, in the appearance or status of his person, attractive or amazing in any sense. Third, verses 4-6 and 8 describe the substitutionary nature of the servant’s suffering. This individual suffers for the sins of Israel, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities” (5) and “For the transgressions of My people He was stricken” (8). Fruchtenbaum comments on the pronouns in the passage, “The pronouns mean that Isaiah and the Jews must be included; they cannot refer to Gentiles. Furthermore, none of the things happening to this individual could be said to apply to the nation of Israel. Isaiah is clearly talking of one person. The nation is only included in the pronouns.”5
Fourth, the text indicates that the servant did not open his mouth. Fruchtenbaum notes, “This is hardly true of Israel. One thing Israel has not been is silent in her sufferings; she has written many books describing her suffering and accusing those responsible.”6 Fifth, verses 8-9 indicate that the servant dies. The text uses the words “cut off,” which indicates that the servant was legally executed. Blenkinsopp notes that the reference in verse 9 “. . . would seem most naturally to imply that he was put to death.”7 Sixth, the servant dies, but somehow he is vindicated in the end. He is alive and able to see his seed (11). How will the Messiah be able to prolong his days and see his seed if he is dead? A resurrection of some sort is the only possible way for this to happen.8
The Identity of the Servant
There are a number of reasons why this passage refers to the Messiah. First, this passage mentions an individual person. The references are in the singular. Commenting on verse 8, Fruchtenbaum notes, “This One, who is Messiah, is quite distinct from ‘my people,’ who are Israel.”9 Elwell notes, “While it is true that Isaiah does not explicitly link the title Messiah with the Servant of the Lord, identifying both figures as one and the same person is justifiable.”10 Both are uniquely anointed (Is. 61:1), bring light to the Gentiles (Is. 55:4; cf. 49:6), neither is pretentious at the first appearance (Is. 7:14-15; 11:1; cf. 42:3; 53:1), they both have the title of the Davidic “branch” (Is. 11:1-4), and they both are humiliated and exalted (Is. 49:7; 52:13-15). In the Old Testament, “my people” is always a reference to Israel. However, Messiah will be killed for the sins of Israel.11
Second, just because not all of the references of the servant of the Lord refer to the Messiah, this does not mean that none of them refer to the Messiah. The word servant is used of various individuals in the book of Isaiah including the prophet himself (Is. 20:3), Eliakim (Is. 22:20), David (Is. 37:35), Israel (Is. 41:8-10; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20), and an unnamed individual (Is. 42:1-3; 52:13 – 53:12) to name a few of the passages. Isaiah 54:17 even describes multiple servants of the Lord, which could be a reference to the prophets. While some references in Isaiah appear to identify the servant as Israel or Isaiah, the best interpretation of Isaiah 53 is that it refers to the Messiah.
Third, one must admit that it is difficult to apply “he shall see his seed” (10) to Jesus since he did not have any children. However, it is possible to take the reference to seed in a more figurative sense. Blenkinsopp, though interpreting this passage as applying to a community of prophets, applies it figuratively, “. . . the final promise that he will see his offspring and that his work will bear fruit in the end would imply that he lives on in the prophetic following dedicated to perpetuating his message.”12 If Blenkinsopp can apply this to the prophetic group, why couldn't one apply this to Jesus in the sense that people are children of God (cf. John 1:12)?
Fourth, the traditional Jewish interpretation was that this passage referred to the Messiah. The Jewish scholars during the early Christian era clearly thought that this passage was Messianic. They paraphrase Isaiah 42:1 as “Behold my Servant Messiah” and Isaiah 53 as “Behold my Servant Messiah will prosper.”13 Fruchtenbaum points out, “All of the ancient Jewish writings – the Mishnah, the Gemara, (the Talmud), the Midrashim and many others – all regard this portion of Scripture as relating to the Messianic Person.”14 It was Rashi, around 1050 A.D. who first suggested that it refers to Israel. However, Rashi’s views sparked fierce debate with the great rabbi Maimonides strongly opposing Rashi’s claims.
Due to texts like Isaiah 53, the ancient rabbis resolved this apparent conflict between a dying and reigning Messiah by inventing the concept of two Messiahs. Fruchtenbaum summarizes this view, “They taught that the first Messiah, whom they called ‘Messiah son of Joseph,’ who suffered in Egypt, would come to suffer and die in fulfillment of the servant passages, one of which they listed as Isaiah 53. The second Messiah, ‘Messiah son of David,’ would then come and raise the first Messiah back to life. He would then establish His Kingdom to rule and to reign.”15 Nevertheless, they recognized the death and resurrection in the Messianic prophecies.
Fifth, Isaiah 53:10 states, “when you shall make his soul an offering for sin.” The same word for offering (asham) is the same word used in the Law where the offering had to be perfect and without blemish. Louis Goldberg comments, “At this point, if our Jewish friend persists in saying that Isaiah 53 refers to the nation, we can raise the questions, Can you say that Israel is without spot or blemish – perfect in every way? . . . Usually our Jewish friends will say no.”16 J. A. Motyer likewise agrees with the conclusion that the servant cannot be Israel, “In the sequence of the chapter, we have thus been informed that the Servant cannot be the nation.”17
Evaluation as an Apologetic Argument
It is hard to do justice to all of the hermeneutical issues in Isaiah 53 in a few short pages when volumes have been written on these fifteen significant verses. However, this text gives strong credence to the case for Jesus as the Messiah. First, the traditional Jewish interpretation had no problem teaching that this passage referred to the Messiah. Second, it is relatively easy to demonstrate that Israel is not the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 due to the reasons given above. Third, it is difficult to harmonize all the servant of the Lord passages (which I have not done) since some of them refer to Israel or the prophet Isaiah. Nevertheless, it makes sense to interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus due to the substitutionary nature of the servant’s death, his subsequent vindication, and the lack of an alternative explanation.18 Therefore, Isaiah 53 presents a strong component to the cumulative case for Jesus as the Messiah, and one should definitely use it in such discussions.
- 1. Joseph Blenkinsopp, A History of Prophecy in Israel, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, 101.
- 2. ibid
- 3. ibid., 191.
- 4. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Messianic Christology: A Study of Old Testament Prophecy Concerning the First Coming of the Messiah, Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998, p. 55.
- 5. ibid., 56.
- 6. ibid
- 7. Blenkinsopp, 193.
- 8. Fruchtenbaum, 57.
- 9. ibid., 56.
- 10. Elwell, Walter A. “Messiah.” In Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Ed. Philip W. Comfort, 882-86. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001, p. 884.
- 11. ibid
- 12. Blenkinsopp, 193.
- 13. Elwell, 883.
- 14. Fruchtenbaum, 54.
- 15. ibid, 57.
- 16. Louis Goldberg, Our Jewish Friends, Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983, p. 126.
- 17. Motyer, J. A. “Messiah,” in The New Bible Dictionary, electronic edition, eds. D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard Marshall, Downers Gove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, p. 747.
- 18. Given the above arguments we have to disagree with Pheme Perkins, “Messiah,” in Harper’s Bible Dictionary, first ed., ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 629, who states, “The ‘suffering servant’ of God (Isa. 52:13-53:12) provided Christians with powerful images of Jesus’ vocation to suffering. However, the ‘servant’ is not ‘the anointed of God.’” Simply because the text does not use mashiach in connection with the servant does not mean that it is not Messianic.