Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12
The central movement of the Suffering Servant poem in Isaiah 53:4-12 is from humiliation to exaltation, from shame to honor, from weakness to greatness.
From Weakness to Greatness: Individual Servants
This movement is a recurring pattern in the ways of God throughout Scripture. God chose a humble elderly immigrant and his barren wife to be the primary vehicle of God’s blessing “to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:1-3). God regularly chose the younger and less likely sibling over the usually preferred elder brother as God’s specially chosen and exalted servant: Isaac over Ishmael (Genesis 17:15-19), Jacob over Esau (Genesis 25:22-26), Joseph over the other sons of Jacob (Genesis 37:1-11; 50:15-21), Judah over the first-born Reuben (Genesis 49:3-4, 8), young David over the other sons of Jesse (1 Samuel 16:10-13), King Solomon over his older brother Adonijah (1 Kings 1:22-40).
God was in the habit of raising up the weak and unlikely to lead God’s cause against the strong. God called a humble and reluctant shepherd named Moses (Exodus 3:1-11; Numbers 12:3; Deuteronomy 34:10-12). God tapped Gideon, the weakest member of Israel’s weakest clan, to save Israel from its oppressors (Judges 6:11-16). God appointed an insecure teenager named Jeremiah to be “a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:1-10).
God called other leaders and activists for God’s cause from among those whom society often considered less likely candidates on the basis of their gender or ethnicity: the Hebrew midwives in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-22), the Egyptian princess and daughter of Pharaoh (Exodus 2:5-10), Moses’ sister Miriam (Exodus 2:4, 7-8; 15:20-21; Micah 6:4), Rahab the Canaanite prostitute (Joshua 2:1-24), the prophet and judge Deborah (Judges 4:4-10), Jael the Kenite (Judges 4:17-24), the queen mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 2:19), the prophet Huldah (2 Kings 22:11-20), the Moabite Ruth, ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:13-22), or the Jewish Queen Esther of Persia (Esther 4:12-17; 6:14-8:2). The song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and its New Testament echo in Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:48, 52-53) testify to God’s characteristic habit to use the weak in order to upend the strong.
From Weakness to Greatness: Collective Israel
God’s appointment and use of these many unlikely individuals and servants stands against the backdrop of the most unlikely choice of all in the Old Testament: God’s selection of the people of Israel as God’s own special people and “treasured possession” among all the nations (Deuteronomy 7:6). Israel was the most unlikely of candidates for this exalted vocation. Lowly Israel was the “fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Many other nations could claim much older and grander pedigrees as powerful and venerable empires with deep roots in history: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Greece. Each of these empires considered Israel an insignificant outpost, a weak province to be plundered, a humble upstart who needed to be crushed and taught a lesson from time to time.
The Servant of Isaiah 53: Individual or Collective?
All of this is important background to the suffering servant poem of Isaiah 53:4-12. Scholars debate the identity of the humiliated, marred, sick, and suffering servant who is then dramatically exalted by God. Some say the “servant” could be an individual. The suffering servant could be an anonymous and persecuted prophet of Israel. Or could the servant be Cyrus the Persian who elsewhere is called God’s anointed “messiah” and “shepherd” and who overthrew Babylon and freed Israel from its exile (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1, 13)?
Others argue for a collective interpretation. The suffering servant is the whole people of Israel who suffered in exile. In exile, they were despised by the nations, but then God exalted them by freeing them from exile and returning them to their home in Jerusalem. Evidence for this position is that the people of Israel or Jacob are often called God’s “servant” throughout Isaiah 40-55 (Isaiah 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3). At other points in Isaiah 40-55, the “servant” seems to be an individual or a sub-group within Israel, perhaps a persecuted disciple or group of disciples of a prophet, who work to redeem and restore Israel (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9).
The Shimmering Identity of the Servant
Like all poetry, biblical poetry is often elusive and open to multiple interpretations. The dense imagery and allusive language of the suffering servant poem make it susceptible to a variety of possible understandings within the rich literary environment of Isaiah 40-55 and the Old Testament as a whole. The servant’s identity shimmers in the poem between an individual and a group, a prophet and disciples, Israel and a sub-group within Israel. The identity of this servant is hard to pin down; the individual and the group seem to blur into one another.
The Suffering Servant: Jesus and His Community
Jesus, the suffering servant of God, was humbled on a cross and then exalted above every name (Philippians 2:5-11). In his death and resurrection, Jesus represents the culmination of a recurring biblical pattern of God’s servants moving from humiliation to exaltation. The ministry of Jesus, like the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, shimmered between the unique individual, Jesus, and the community who followed Jesus. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was not alone. Jesus called together a community of twelve disciples, a communal re-constitution of ancient Israel’s twelve-tribe community. The life and mission of this chosen and beloved community of Jesus’ disciples was to reflect the life and mission of their leader and teacher (see the Gospel reading for this Sunday, Mark 10:35-45).
The world may wonder how much real effect the ministry of Jesus and his community can have. What good is it to preach the gospel, sing a hymn, pour water over a baby, offer a bit of bread and a sip of wine, hold a hand, speak a forgiving word, stock a food shelf, fold hands in prayer, fold clothes for the homeless, visit the sick, comfort the grieving, negotiate a conflict, advocate for the poor, carry out a daily vocation with integrity, all in the name of Christ?
The nations may scorn and despise these seemingly humble and weak ministries of Christ’s church. Yet Scripture testifies that it is through such seemingly weak and foolish means that God chooses to do God’s work (1 Corinthians 1:27-31). For the long and unbroken chain of God’s quiet, humble and faithful servants stretching from ancient Israel to all the hidden corners of the world today, we give thee thanks and praise.