Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12
“Who is the suffering servant?”
I ask my masters students in the Introduction to the Hebrew Bible course. By the time we get to Second Isaiah, we have been together for almost a full quarter, so they know me by now. They know that as a teacher of — and advocate for — the Hebrew Bible, I get a little huffy when they jump too quickly to resolve all the problems in the Hebrew Bible with “Jesus” or “the New Testament.” A few chuckling voices from the back row shout out, “It’s Jesus!” expecting an eye roll from their professor. They look up in surprise, checking to make sure I’m not joking back when I say, “Yes. It is Jesus.”
Christians know Jesus — they know his essence, his mission, his pain — in part, through this text. They know Jesus more deeply and more richly, thanks to the prophet Isaiah’s poetic and transcendent sketch of the nameless suffering servant.
That said, the suffering servant is not just Jesus; and he is not just for Christians. To the poet Isaiah’s credit, the servant has handily and deftly defied all scholarly attempts to say anything definitive about his identity. Second Isaiah’s legendary figure overflows all the boundaries we try to draw around him and bursts out of all the boxes we try to stuff him into.
For Isaiah’s original audience, likely living in exile in Babylon, the suffering servant may have carried, metaphorically, Israel’s suffering. The designation servant is attributed to Israel several times in the book (Isaiah 41:9; 44:21; 49:3). The servant embodied the exiles’ hope that, though they are broken and rejected now, they would someday be exalted (52:13). He exemplifies their desire — a desire many of us may share – that their suffering will serve some larger purpose (to make many righteous, 53:11; to bear the sin of many, 53:12).
That original audience may also have recognized in the suffering servant a savior, rising up from their midst. Perhaps through the voice of the anonymous prophet we call Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), they imagined an individual like a prophet, like Jeremiah, who often spoke of his humiliation and of his attempts to intervene with God on Israel’s behalf. Moses also likely served as a touchstone for the original audience, as one who stayed God’s judgment against Israel in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 9:25-29) and was ultimately not allowed to enter the Promised Land (4:21-24).
Or perhaps Isaiah’s poetry led the original readers to envision a royal figure or a messiah along the lines of a great king of old. Or even of a radically new kind of king, a non-Israelite ruler. Isaiah’s descriptions of Cyrus of Persia, the emperor who decreed that Israel could return to its land, resonate with some of the chords intoned in the poem of the suffering servant (see Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13).
Recently, Jeremy Schipper has made the argument that the description of the suffering servant evokes the language and imagery associated with disability in the ancient world (marred, 52:14; no form or majesty, 53:2; plagued, 53:4 and 8; stricken by God, 53:4; despised and rejected, 53:3; cut off from the land of the living, 53:8).1 Rejected and judged because of his physical condition, the servant’s isolation captures the social experience of many people with disabilities. In terms of preaching, it could be incredibly powerful to hold up a Scripture-mirror that, at one angle, reflects the faces of people who do not normally see themselves (in a positive light) in the Bible.
Another intriguing aspect of this poem is the plurality — and ambiguity — of the speaking voices in the poem. Who are the “we” speaking of the suffering one, groping to make sense of his life and his fate? Based on its designation as one of the servant songs, scholars have argued that the voice belongs to the nations, the followers of the servant, even Israel. However again, the open-ended designation of the speaker(s) allows the contemporary reader (as it has allowed generations of readers) to enter into the text, easily imagining her or himself as being among the “we” who are stunned to find our convictions overturned and our certainties dismantled.
One might argue that a central feature of this text, along with the depiction of servant, is the radical shift in perception that takes place among the speakers. Beginning in 52:13, the voices track over and over again the reversal of the speakers’ interpretation of a tragic but everyday reality — a person suffering. It reads like a confession of sin. We thought he was “of no account” (53:3); because he was so acquainted with infirmity (verse 3), his suffering did not move us. Like the homeless person or the famine victim in Africa, we look away, assuring ourselves that he or she is surely used to suffering, that our perception or our action does not matter.
For the poem, however, how we interpret suffering does matter. The poet lingers over the difference between the speakers’ past perception and their current changed one. It is not clear how they came to change their minds so radically about the meaning of this one’s suffering, but in the end, in the final verse (verse 12), God’s first person voice joins the chorus of the “we.” And together they stand nearly dumbfounded before the co-existence of these opposing realities: the servant’s suffering and exaltation and the movement of the speakers from judgment to praise.
Because there are numerous “right” answers to the question of the servant’s identity, we look at each one who suffers with new eyes and new attention. If we allow ourselves to get caught up in Isaiah’s poetry, each suffering person we might be tempted to discount suddenly looks different. And if we keep looking with God’s eyes, we may even see that the suffering individual carries within her or him the seeds of our own redemption.
This poem of vaguely defined “we” and “he” also has the capacity to draw us in with its communal language of confession and awe. The poem confronts us with a world that up-ends our expectations. And it takes the time to linger over how amazing it is to be surprised, to be changed, even transformed — even if that means we need to confess publically and communally how wrong we were before.
1 Jeremy Schipper, Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).