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The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52 and 53

Ellen Kavanaugh

There are four 'Servant Songs' in Isaiah but this article will examine only the fourth one, referred to simply as 'Isaiah 53's Suffering Servant' (though most scholars say this passage actually begins in 52:13, I will start at 52:1, for context). Let me begin by quoting the entire passage of Isaiah 52 and 53 from the 1917 JPS TaNaKh:

"1 Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.
2 Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
3 For thus saith the LORD, Ye have sold yourselves for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money.
4 For thus saith the Lord GOD, My people went down aforetime into Egypt to sojourn there; and the Assyrian oppressed them without cause.
5 Now therefore, what have I here, saith the LORD, that my people is taken away for nought? they that rule over them make them to howl, saith the LORD; and my name continually every day is blasphemed.
6 Therefore my people shall know my name: therefore they shall know in that day that I am he that doth speak: behold, it is I.
7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
8 Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.
9 Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
11 Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.
12 For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward.
13 Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
14 According as many were appalled at thee--so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men--
15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.
1 'Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.
9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.'
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 52:1 - 53:12

By reading the whole passage, including Isaiah 52:1-12, we have the context in which G-d introduces His Servant. Let's look:
'Awake, awake' (vs 1) imagery that Israel has been sleeping in her captivity, so G-d is saying 'Listen to Me! Don't sleep, I have good news about the future!' G-d then refers to Israel's captivity. (vs 2) mentioning she sold herself for nothing and will be redeemed the same way. (vs 3) His Name has been blasphemed while the people were in captivity, (vs 5) but G-d's people will know His Name. (vs 6) G-d is going to send some good news -- peace and salvation are coming down to the people! (vs 7) The watchmen should be watching so they can proclaim the good news (vs 8) when G-d comforts His people and reveals His holy arm of salvation to them. (vs 9, 10) G-d is planning to lead His people out of their uncleanness (vs 11) and into their great reward. (vs 12). This sets up the scene for the Suffering Servant:

"Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Isaiah 52:13

Who is the servant G-d is speaking about in 52:13? Believers say it is Yeshua HaMashiach while Judaism maintains it is the nation of Israel. Some followers of Judaism will point out that Isaiah 49:3 actually names the servant "Israel.' However, an honest search of Scripture will reveal *many* were called G-d's servant: Moses in Exodus 4:10; Caleb in Numbers 14:24; Joshua in Joshua 5:14/Judges 2:8; Samson in Judges 15:18; Samuel in 1 Samuel 3:10; David in 1 Samuel 23:10,11, etc.. In the book of Isaiah itself, Isaiah himself is called G-d's servant in Isaiah 20:3; Eliakim in Isaiah 22:20; Jacob in Isaiah 44:1, etc.. So the use of 'servant' in one place does not mean 'servant' is always referring to the same individual. If we read further in Isaiah 49 -- beyond verse 3 -- we see that the Servant, though called Israel, isn't the nation but instead the Redeemer who will bring the nation of Israel back to G-d, let's look:

"Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken, ye peoples, from far: the LORD hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother hath He made mention of my name; And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of His hand hath He hid me; and He hath made me a polished shaft, in His quiver hath He concealed me; And He said unto me: 'Thou art My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' But I said: 'I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.'And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength. And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee." Isaiah 49:1-7

The servant isn't the nation of Israel but instead is Messiah, called Israel. The Servant has a dual mission: to restore the 'preserved' of Israel (the remnant) and to act as a light to the Gentiles/nations. The nation of Israel doesn't bring herself back to G-d so the Servant cannot be one and the same as the nation here. Like Jacob, the Servant is called while still in the womb to do this mission and be glorious in the eyes of G-d. A nation isn't called while still in the womb, an individual person is. Verse 49:2 shows the 'hiddenness' of the Servant -- the Servant is likened to an arrow concealed in G-d's hand and quiver. So the Messiah is hidden, being called both 'Israel' and "Servant' here. As we read on, we will see the hiddenness come more into play -- the Servant simply isn't recognized by His own people! Let's continue reading in Isaiah 52:

"13 Behold, My servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
14 According as many were appalled at thee--so marred was his visage unlike that of a man, and his form unlike that of the sons of men--
15 So shall he startle many nations, kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them shall they see, and that which they had not heard shall they perceive.

This passage begins with G-d announcing that His servant would prosper and become exalted. Many would be offended at him but the Servant would startle the world -- the nations/goyim would see and understand something they had not been previously taught!

1 'Who would have believed our report? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?'

The 'arm of the LORD' is our Redeemer (just as G-d delivered Israel out of Egypt by His mighty arm -- Deuteronomy 5:15). In Isaiah 49 we saw the Servant hidden and 'concealed' but here in 52, the Servant is revealed. Revealed, but rejected. A rejection of the Servant is a rejection of G-d Himself, since it is His own arm being offered. As is stated a few verses earlier: The LORD hath made bare His holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Isaiah 52:10 So we see that His arm was revealed to *all the nations* -- that means everyone -- including Israel. In other words, there is no excuse for rejecting the Servant -- G-d's bared His arm/Servant for *all* to see, so no one has an acceptable excuse -- not Israel, and not the other nations either.

2 For he shot up right forth as a sapling, and as a root out of a dry ground; he had no form nor comeliness, that we should look upon him, nor beauty that we should delight in him.
3 He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Israel responds with their defence: The people had not recognized the Servant -- they had not believed the report. Afterall, the Servant had no traits to draw people to Him, He suffered so much that people avoided him. He was hated. This rejection of the Suffering Servant is actually a proof text for Yeshua since the passage shows the Servant would be rejected by Israel. Judaism as a whole rejects Yeshua, usually arguing that a man cannot make atonement for others (a teaching which flies in the face of Isaiah 53). It is Israel's very own rejection of the Yeshua, the One who died for mankind's sins, that proves Yeshua was the Suffering Servant Messiah. Had Yeshua been accepted by Israel, we could know He *wasn't* the Suffering Servant since this passage predicts the Servant would be rejected by Israel. The Jewish rejection is on so many levels: 1) a rejection of Yeshua as Messiah, 2) a rejection that one person could make atonement for the sins of a nation, and more recently, 3) a rejection that the Suffering Servant is even about Messiah at all (though historically it was accepted as a Messianic passage until the 11th century -- see Who Do The Rabbis Say Mashiach Will Be? for a few rabbinic quotes regarding Messiah and Isaiah 53). Let's read on:


4 Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; whereas we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.
6 All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.
Yet though the Servant had not been acknowledged and loved -- He still bore the illness of the people -- accepted G-d's punishment intended for the people upon Himself. While Israel went astray, the Servant took their iniquity upon Himself and shouldered the blame for Israel. Notice the pronouns here: "Surely OUR illnesses HE did bear, and OUR pains HE carried." The 'our' here is the nation of Israel -- but the 'he' here is the Servant. The Servant *cannot* be Israel itself since 'he' is suffering on 'our' (Israel's) behalf -- 'he' suffers for 'our' sins. The Servant and Israel are two separate entities. When making the 'he' here 'Israel' then one must wonder whose sins Israel is taking upon herself -- the sins of the Gentiles? Hardly. Israel cannot atone for the Gentiles because she is held back by her own sins. Is Israel suffering for herself? Such an interpretation would make the passage utter nonsense since the whole point of the passage is that the Servant suffers on *behalf of another* -- the Servant doesn't suffer for Himself. Another thing to note, the Servant is always described as a singular person -- never a corporate group. He is One -- but He suffers for *many*. Further, Israel as a nation is not referred to as masculine but as *feminine* in Isaiah (note the surrounding passages refer to Israel as feminine in Isaiah 51:18, Isaiah 52:2 and Isaiah 54:6). So the 'he' here cannot refer the nation of Israel, therefore the Servant cannot be Israel.

7 He was oppressed, though he humbled himself and opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; yea, he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due.

Though the Servant was persecuted, He was humble and peaceful -- He made no noise when mistreated and killed, even though he was suffering on behalf of the very ones were persecuting Him. Israel doesn't suffer quietly -- no nation does. Mankind is outraged by mistreatment and is always vocal to complain about injustice. But the Servant behaves differently than mankind/Israel would -- He quietly submits to the punishments meted out because the point of His mission *was* to suffer and die. When Yeshua was questioned by Herod, He made no reply; and when questioned by Pilate, He refused to defend Himself, simply replying 'as you have said' to the charges. Yeshua knew that He *must* die to intercede for man and bring the needed redemption.


9 And they made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich his tomb; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.'

An unusually specific prophecy concerning Yeshua who was crucified among criminals and then placed inside the new tomb of the rich man, Joseph, when He died. (Matthew 27:59,60) Again, a reiteration of the Servant's own innocence in His own suffering. Further proofs this Servant could not be Israel. 1) Israel has sin, but the Servant has *no* sin. 2) The Servant died, but Israel is still alive today in spite of millennia of persecution. G-d will never allow Israel to be totally killed, Israel will *always* exist. Israel's continued existence today is one of the greatest proof's of the truth and accuracy of G-d Word.

10 Yet it pleased the LORD to crush him by disease; to see if his soul would offer itself in restitution, that he might see his seed, prolong his days, and that the purpose of the LORD might prosper by his hand:
11 Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant, who by his knowledge did justify the Righteous One to the many, and their iniquities he did bear.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion among the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he bared his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In conclusion, we see how it pleased G-d to spare Israel and persecute the willing Servant instead. Because the Servant's soul made restitution for mankind, the Servant was then resurrected to prolong His days -- to see the fruits of His labours and to see His great Work prosper. Contrast this to Moses and David -- when their mission was accomplished -- they died and did not live to see their seed continue after them. But the Servant was resurrected after submitting to death so that He could ascend to the right hand of G-d and see the fruits of His labours.

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