Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12
This song of suffering has generated so much controversy over its right interpretation that it risks overshadowing ways in which it speaks powerfully both in its original context and in the ongoing history of Christian interpretation.
References to a servant (and, later, “servants”) are numerous in Isaiah 40-66. In particular, Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; and 50:4-9 have also been identified as “Servant Songs,” so this is the Fourth Servant Song. These were originally composed in the late sixth or early fifth centuries BCE. In the wake of the Babylonian exile, the Jewish returnees to Judah struggled over how their nation ought to be restored, who should lead, and what the people should believe. Sometimes in this part of Isaiah, the servant is identified with the nation (he is called “Israel” and “Jacob” in 44:21). The servant named in the songs, however, appears to have been the leader of a struggling prophetic group. (More generally in the Bible, prophetic figures are regularly called servants of the LORD, which seems to be based on the paradigm of Moses—as in Exodus 14:31, etc.)
The servant of the songs is said to be called from the womb (49:1), but his mission is frustrated: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (49:4). Here in Isaiah 53, then, we encounter the failure of that individual prophet and his apparently posthumous glorification.
Historically-minded scholars have tried many times to identify the referent of the Servant, with nearly every imaginable major biblical character proposed at one time or another. The most notable include Cyrus and Jehoiachin. But not one of these proposals has come close to commanding consensus—at least not as a solution to all the servant texts.
There are a number of familiar theological themes in the passage. For example, the revelatory work of the servant (52:15) picks up the earlier Isaianic theme of the people’s failure to see and hear (for example, Isaiah 6:9), and reverses it. Other repeated themes include: the suffering of prophetic figures, God’s servants as intercessors for the people, and the power of the righteous to influence the fate of the unrighteous (for example, Abraham or Moses bargaining with God).
On the other hand, the idea that the suffering of God’s innocent servant can substitute for that of the truly guilty seems to have been a new idea. That surprising and counterintuitive theme pervades Isaiah 53, but the author expresses it particularly graphically with the image of the asham sacrifice in 53:10. That sacrifice was intended to make atonement with God for sin (Leviticus 5:6, etc.), but normally a sheep was sacrificed, and it is not described in a way comparable to Isaiah 53 anywhere else in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, however, it became the basis for understanding Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who, by his sacrifice, takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:6; 7:14).
When read in isolation by Christians, the song is commonly taken to be simply a prophecy of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Other aspects of the description—that the servant was “marred of appearance, beyond human semblance” (52:14) and that he was “held of no account” (53:3)—sound much less like Jesus of Nazareth, however. In Isaiah 56-66, one sees a shift to plural servants (foreshadowed by the reference to their vindication in 54:17). This may have reflected a group or movement of disciples of the original Servant, who carried on his work, but with a sectarian anger that leads them to withdraw from the wider society and define themselves as righteous in contrast (for example, Isaiah 65:13-15). Such sects of the Persian period were the predecessors of later groups like the Essenes and the followers of John the Baptist. They were, then, prepared for the appearance of Jesus, in part by these texts.
It is not only because of the historical impossibility of identifying the original servant, but also because of the tension that is felt between the original composition and the later Christian theological application of the text that it has been deemed “probably the most contested chapter in the Old Testament” by Brevard Childs. Even more than a century ago, the great S. R. Driver is said to have abandoned his Isaiah commentary rather than deal with the debate.
It is probably inevitable that people would ask who the text is talking about. After all, that is the first question posed by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-38 when he reads 53:7-8 and is converted, asking Philip to baptize him. From the standpoint of a preacher, though, a focus on determining a single historical referent would be unfortunate. Old Testament texts are regularly reinterpreted for new historical moments. This process begins within the Bible and extends into our own times. It is far better to appreciate the meanings of the text in its various contexts without seeking to invalidate them.
This fourth Servant Song was one of the most important passages that helped New Testament interpret the suffering and death of Jesus. Paul seems to have been among the earliest, invoking Isaiah 53:9-11 to explain atonement in Romans 4:22-25. There, he identified Jesus as the one “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul also interpreted Isaiah’s reference to the incredible news about the Servant to emphasize the importance of spreading the gospel (Romans 15:18-21, which cites the Septuagint translation of 52:15).
The evangelists also made fresh and interesting use of the passage. John took 53:1 as an explanation for the disciples’ failure to believe, in spite of all the signs that Jesus had performed in their presence (12:36-38; see also Romans 10:16). The lack of understanding by the servant’s contemporaries until after his suffering death is a major theme of the passage. Since their ignorance is attributed partly to the servant’s off-putting physical appearance, that might press contemporary readers to ask hard questions about our own culture, which favors the physically attractive, and can be particularly hard-hearted towards those with disabilities: What gifts might we be overlooking in those around us?
Matthew understood Jesus’ healings as the fulfillment of 53:4’s reference to “bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases” (8:14-17). Thus, the mission of servant was extended beyond a spiritual level—it was not merely about atonement—and could well be cited in support of ongoing ministries of health and healing.
More generally, the song’s images of suffering, when applied to Jesus, emphasize Christ’s solidarity with those who are suffering in various ways. The song points towards hope—not only for individuals who suffer, but for the importance of their contributions for others. A community shows its attentiveness to this text by working to alleviate suffering, and by remembering the past work of those who have suffered for the good of others.
- Joseph Blenkinsopp, The ‘Servants of the Lord’ in Third Isaiah: Profile of a Pietistic Group in the Persian Epoch,” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 7 (1983): 1-23.
- B. S. Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 410.
- Reported in C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 1.