Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12
This fourth and final “Servant Song” in the book of Isaiah (see also Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7) is so often quoted and alluded to, especially within Christian discussions about Jesus’ death on the cross, that it has become difficult to engage it with fresh eyes and an open mind.
For millennia, Christians have interpreted Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as a prophecy of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see also Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22). This interpretation is important—especially on Good Friday—but it does not entirely deplete the hermeneutical potential of this text. As Frederick Buechner once preached about Jesus at the supper at Emmaus: “No sooner did they know who he was than he vanished from their sight… They could not nail him down. And that is how he always is. We can never nail him down, not even if the nails we use are real ones and the thing we nail him to is a cross.”1 Like Jesus, the songs of the Suffering Servant evade our simplistic and narrow understandings: they are complex, containing multitudes. We cannot nail them down.
Some verses in Isaiah 40-66 clearly refer to the remnants of Judah and Israel as “my servant” (Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 21; 49:3), suggesting that the community of survivors have undergone excruciating suffering on behalf of the world—and this hermeneutical potential forms the core of the Jewish interpretive tradition on these texts. Yet other verses suggest that the recurring figure of the servant is an individual person who has a mission to help Israel (Isaiah 49:6), suggesting that the servant is either a prophet who suffers for delivering YHWH’s message, like Jeremiah or Moses (see also Jeremiah 11:18-20), or a future savior—which has most often been identified as Jesus by Christian interpreters. In Isaiah 53:4-6, the speaker shifts from YHWH (“my servant,” 52:13) to an anonymous group who claims that the servant suffered on their behalf (“he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed from our iniquities,” verse 5). God is named as the active agent inflicting the servant’s pain (verses 4, 10) and also the servant’s exaltation (verse 12).
Vicarious suffering is an important element in ancient Israelite theology, especially in dealing with the trauma of the Exile. If the Suffering Servant is the collective body of the survivors of the Exile, then the text suggests that their suffering was necessary for the future survival of the people of Judah. This should strike us as dangerous theology, to say the least. In its ancient setting, in the midst of the communal disaster of the Exile, Kathleen O’Connor shows that the biblical tendency to self-assign “guilt, shame, and burden of responsibility… gives structure and meaning to chaotic and vacuous experiences.”2 As O’Connor explains, scholars working in modern trauma and disaster studies have learned that assigning blame to oneself in the wake of a disaster can be beneficial, but only when exercised with one’s own agency, and only as a temporary step on a longer road of healing. Scholars such as Delores Williams have pointed out that, throughout Christian history, vicarious suffering has most often been used by the powerful as a tool to manipulate and oppress others.3 Instead of using blame as a temporary step to finding individual and communal wholeness, Christians have more often determined that the Jewish community must suffer; Christian men have often decided that women must suffer; white Christians have often proclaimed the necessity of Black suffering, or immigrant suffering, or non-Christian suffering, as a way to deny our own responsibility and culpability for the suffering in the world.
Perhaps especially in the mainline Church in the United States, we can find another way to read the Suffering Servant poems today. Jeremy Schipper, for example, has demonstrated that the language of Isaiah 53 precludes an atonement setting; the description of a “marred” servant (Isaiah 52:14) explicitly disqualifies him/them from serving as a sacrifice (see also Leviticus 22:25), and the word for “slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7) is used exclusively for butchering and cooking animals, not offering them as sacrifices.4 As in Jeremiah 11:19, the imagery of a lamb being led to slaughter describes the communal abuse of an individual—our transgressions pierced him (Isaiah 53:5)—and the disfigured body of the suffering one is a living testimony, “lifting up the sins of the many” for all to see (Isaiah 53:12).
As James Cone argues in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Americans in particular need to reckon with our history of white supremacist violence when we engage with the story of the crucifixion. When we think of Jesus’ cross, we must see its deep connection to the lynching tree.5 As Cone once wrote, “God in Christ became the Suffering Servant and thus took the humiliation and suffering of the oppressed into God’s own history.”6 In his understanding of the cross, God participates willingly in suffering to form solidarity with the oppressed—not because suffering is in itself good or healing or necessary. Like Mamie Till-Mobley, who demanded a public viewing for the disfigured corpse of her 13-your old son, Emmett Till, God “wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” The transformative effect of Till’s lynching (“we were sitting in for Emmett Till,” John Lewis said of the activism that followed) might resonate with the stunned self-reflection of the speakers in Isaiah 53:4-6.7
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador once preached a sermon in memory of a fellow Salvadoran priest, Rutilio Grande, who had been killed by Salvadoran soldiers for organizing impoverished farmers. The Old Testament text for the day was Isaiah 53. Romero told the farmers gathered at the mass: “You are the image of the divine victim, ‘pierced for our offenses.’”8 Romero was not telling the farmers that they, or Grande, deserved their sufferings, or that it was just that they had to bear them, or that the suffering was redemptive in and of itself. Rather, Romero recognized that God was present with them in the midst of their unjust and undeserved sufferings.
We continue to live in a world shaped by violence, oppression, and injustice. There are many individuals, often ignored by those of us who have the privilege and the means to look elsewhere, who bear the sins of the many, etched indelibly into their bodies. The Coronavirus pandemic, the movements for racial justice in the wake of the murder of Black Americans, and the white supremacist riot in the United States Capitol building have all in different ways revealed the injustices that are present all around us. As we meditate on the horrific abuse and state sanctioned murder of Jesus on Good Friday, may we recognize his image in the victims we try so hard to ignore today, and may we—like the speakers of Isaiah 53:4-6—recognize our own culpability and be filled with a passion for God’s mission to “bring good news to the poor” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18-19).
- Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (HarperOne: 1985).
- See Kathleen O’Connor, “Surviving Disaster in the Book of Jeremiah,” Word & World, 22 (2002): 369-377.
- Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 161-190.
- Jeremy Schipper, “Interpreting the Lamb Imagery in Isaiah 53,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 132 (2013): 315-325.
- James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011).
- Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 161.
- Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 65-72.
- Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 28-31.