Commentary on Isaiah 53:4-12
When I was in seminary there was a joke circulating about a children’s sermon. A pastor was telling the kids a story about a squirrel. Before she could get to the main point, one child already had her hand up, Hermione Granger style. The pastor stopped and called on the child, who blurted out, “I know, I know, the squirrel is Jesus!” After all, anyone paying very close attention knows that all children’s sermon questions can be accurately answered with “Jesus!”
While there is plenty to unpack here about good and cringe-worthy children’s sermons, my larger point is to highlight the “everything’s about Jesus” view that prevails in Christian biblical interpretation, even of the Hebrew Bible. A big part of my job is widening that lens.
No offense to Jesus, but we must remember that he arose in the context of a centuries-old religion. If the answer to every biblical question is “Jesus,” then we miss much, including Jesus’ own tradition. What Christians call the Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, and it pre-existed him. With “Jesus-only” interpretations we risk implicit anti-Semitism by trivializing the stand-alone meanings of Hebrew Bible passages, which are precious to our Jewish neighbors. Furthermore, what if we understand Jesus better by reading his Bible in its own context, rather than through a strictly Christian filter?
Isaiah 53:4-12 belongs to the final and longest of the so-called “servant songs” material in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12. These poetic passages describe an unnamed figure who suffers on behalf of Israel. He silently receives brutal punishment from the deity, and it results in redemption, joy, and reward. To Christians, that sounds like Jesus! And that is why–and because—several New Testament authors enlisted parts of the servant songs to contextualize Jesus for the first-century Jewish community. A sample from this passage alone includes Isaiah 53:1//John 12:38; Isaiah 53:4//Matthew 8:17; Isaiah 53:7//Acts 8:32-35; Isaiah 53:9//Matthew 27:57; Isaiah 53:12//Luke 22:37. Furthermore, Paul seems to have been greatly influenced by Isaiah 53 when he wrote the letter to the Romans.1
Considering all this, it is crucial to remember that when Isaiah was written, Jesus was not born yet, and the servant songs were meaningful in their own time and on their own terms. If this passage were only about Jesus, no one would have deemed it a sacred text for centuries before he was born.
The historical setting of Isaiah 53 is the Babylonian exile of the early 6th century BCE. This was a markedly different context than the 8th century Assyrian domination, which colored the earliest parts of Isaiah. Because this massive book spans three centuries and three different ancient empires, consult a good overview of Isaiah to review the historical context and complexity of the literature.2
Jewish and Christian interpreters have long debated the identity of the servant in Isaiah. In several places that figure is clearly metaphorical for ancient Israel, which had suffered at the hands of the Babylonians (41:8-9; 42:1; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). Yet specific details about the servant, such as his physical wounds in Isaiah 53:4-5, compel interpreters to search for a specific individual whom the prophet had in mind.3 Numerous options have been explored, but none have been decisive.
Isaiah 53:4-12 explains that the suffering of the servant (Israel) in exile was redemptive, but to whom? The identity of “us” in 53:4 is unclear. Perhaps the nations of 52:15 are the recipients of this redemption, illustrating that Israel’s God had a higher purpose for the exile. Or, maybe the redeemed ones were a sub-group of ancient Israelites who were viewed as less righteous than the group associated with the servant, so the suffering of the exiles was meaningful for the larger community.
In 53:7 and 10, the servant is compared to a sin-offering, comparable to the scapegoat ritual of Leviticus 17—a poignant image during a time when the Temple had been destroyed and such commanded rituals could not be performed. The servant’s death seems to be the topic of 53:9-10a, yet this communal figure receives life anew in 10b-12, and this hopeful emphasis continues into the next chapters. Refrain from finding a squirrel—Jesus—here, and instead note how similar this idea is to Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision (37). Both describe the revival promised to Israel on the other side of exile.
Theological care should be taken preaching this passage, which makes the claim of divinely mandated redemptive suffering for the servant. Yes, here and elsewhere ancient Israelites made sense of their exilic suffering by viewing it as redemptive and necessary. Note there is no claim for this as the explanation for all suffering. (Job took on that idea.) The belief that all pain is divinely imposed for the sake of some higher good may cruelly trivialize and even blame victims for their suffering, and prevent seeking solutions to end injustice. Indeed, the glorification of the silent and docile victim in this passage may be triggering for some survivors of trauma.
It is true that sometimes the suffering of one group or individual turns out to be redemptive for another, but by no means is that always the case. It is one thing to discover a God-given transformative outcome on the other side of suffering; blanket assertions that God pre-ordained all suffering as necessary and meaningful have historically resulted in theological justification of violence—1 Peter 2:18-20 even invokes Isaiah 53:4-5 to compel slaves to submit to cruel masters. Preachers have an ethical obligation to question and clarify theology that has inspired violence, whether domestic abuse, slavery, or religiously motivated genocide; even if such theology arose in biblical contexts about servants, or saviors.
- See Romans 4:25 and Isaiah 53:11-12. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55, AB (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 88.
- For instance, see the Commentator’s notes at the beginning of Isaiah in an academic study Bible such as Oxford Annotated Bible, Harper Collins Study Bible or New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Also see J. Blake Couey, “Isaiah “, n.p. [cited 16 Jun 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/main-articles/isaiah and H. G. M. Williamson, “How Many Isaiahs Were There?”, n.p. [cited 16 Jun 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/how-many-isaiahs-were-there
- Raymond F. Collins, “Servant of the Lord, The” in NIDB 5:194.