A scholar friend of mine once remarked, “I must confess: if there is anything that convinces me that the Bible is inspired, and from God, it is Isaiah 53.” Isaiah 52:13–53:12 comes out of nowhere. There is no precedent for an innocent servant of God suffering and dying for the iniquities of others. It is shocking, graphic and brutal, yet profound.
Yet Yahweh was pleased to crush him; he afflicted [him] (with sickness). If she (or you) places his life a guilt offering, he will see offspring, he will prolong days and the will of Yahweh will succeed in his hand. From the trouble of his life, he will see light.1 He will be satisfied. In his knowledge, my righteous servant shall make many righteous and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide to him [a portion] among the many, and with [the] strong ones he shall divide bounty, because he exposed his life to death and was counted with transgressors, and he carried [the] sin of many and will intercede for transgressors (Isa 53:10–12).2
Who is the Servant in Isaiah?
Is the servant the nation Israel or an individual? Scholars often assume it’s always Israel. At the churches where I have taught, the standard belief is the opposite: The servant is always an individual servant, namely Jesus. Both opinions are problematic. Here’s why.
1 Previous to Isaiah 49, the servant is Israel (or synonymously, Jacob).
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off” (Isa 41:8–9).
“You [Israel] are my witnesses (“you” is plural in the Hebrew),” declares Yahweh, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isa 43:10).
“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!” Thus says Yahweh who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen (Isa 44:1–2).
Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are to me a servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me (Isa 44:21).
For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me (Isa 45:4).
But is the servant always the people of Israel? No.
2 The servant is sometimes an individual, but there is a shift in Isa 49:1–3. Note the first person language for the servant:
Listen to me coastlands, pay attention peoples from afar. Yahweh called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me and he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he concealed me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my judgment is with Yahweh, and my wage with my God.”
At first glance, the line “You are my servant, Israel” seems to confirm that Israel is Yahweh’s servant. But, one line later in Isa 49:5, there is a distinction between Israel and the servant:
And now Yahweh says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of Yahweh, and my God has become my refuge.”
Here the servant that Yahweh formed from the womb is bringing “Jacob back to him” and gathering “Israel.” Isaiah 49:6 continues this direction:
He [Yahweh] says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Isaiah 49:5–6 tells us that Jacob and Israel will be gathered, raised up, and restored by the servant. The juxtaposition of Israel against the servant suggests that we should understand Isa 49:3’s line, “You are Israel my servant,” as an annunciation of a new servant who will fulfill all or part of Israel’s role (compare Luke 3:22). While Israel is the servant in Isa 40–48, Isa 49 identifies an individual servant.
Character(s) Referred to as “my servant(s)”
Eliakim, son of Hilkiah
An Individual Servant3
Israel (Plural—“my servants”)
The individual in Isa 52:13–53:12 has taken up Israel’s role as God’s chosen and called servant. It is his duty to reconcile the relationship between God and His people. But how will the servant do this? And how do the results of our interpretation align with biblical scholarship?
Where Our Logic Got Fouled Up
For the last 30 years, biblical scholarship has generally followed the leads of Harry M. Orlinsky and R. N. Whybray when interpreting Isa 53:10–12.4 Although these two scholars had a lot right, they failed to detect the individual servant and his resurrection.
Part of the failure in their interpretation of Isa 53:10–12 is that their focus was only on the servant; not the other characters. They didn’t ask the basic questions: “Who causes the servant’s suffering? Who kills him?” Here’s how we find those answers. When we identify who the pronouns (e.g., she, he, you) refer to, the major players emerge: “the prophet” speaking, “Zion or Jerusalem” acting (Isa 51:3–23; 52:7), the servant, and Yahweh.5 The result is that Isa 53:10–12 reads:
[The prophet says,] “Yet Yahweh was pleased to crush [the servant]; he afflicted [the servant] (with sickness). If [Zion/Jerusalem] places [the servant’s] life a guilt offering, [the servant] will see offspring, [the servant] will prolong days. And the will of Yahweh is in [the servant’s] hand, it will succeed. Out of trouble of his life [the servant] will see light; [the servant] will be satisfied by his knowledge.” [Yahweh says,] “My righteous servant will bring justice to many and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I [Yahweh] will divide to [the servant] a portion among the many, and with [the] strong ones [the servant] shall divide bounty, because he exposed his life to death and was counted with transgressors, and he carried the sin of the many and will intercede for transgressors.
God is the ultimate cause behind the servant’s suffering (53:12)—it was in His will (Isa 53:10)—but Zion or Jerusalem (who symbolize God’s people) make the servant a “guilt offering.” In ancient Israel, a “guilt offering” was made by someone who had deceived, robbed, defrauded, lied, or swore falsely. In addition to making things right with other people, the Israelites needed to make things right with Yahweh; hence the offering (Lev 5:10–19). Guilt offerings of bulls (or goats) died when offered. So the servant, as the “guilt offering” for God’s people, dies in Isa 53:10.
But something miraculous happens: The servant “sees offspring” and “prolongs days.” Both of these things happen in life (e.g., Gen 48:11; Isa 61:9; and Exod 20:12; Deut 4:40; 5:16; 17:20; 25:15; Josh 24:31; Judg 2:7; Prov 3:1–2). The servant is alive—he is resurrected. Everything in Isa 53:11 also points to resurrection: “he will see light” (compare Isa 9:6; Psa 36:10; 49:20; Job 3:16; 33:28), and “he will be satisfied in his knowledge.”
“Because the servant exposed his life to death,” and was resurrected, he was able to “carry the sin of many and intercede for transgressors” (Isa 53:12). It is because of the servant’s death and resurrection that God’s relationship with Israel, and with all of us, is reconciled. Now what man does that sound like? Who was killed in Zion by the Jerusalem priesthood? More than 500 years before Jesus, this was prophesied (Acts 2:14–39).
1 All Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) contain the word“light.”
2 All translations in this article are my own or adapted from the NRSV.
4 Orlinsky, The So-Called “Servant of the LORD” and “Suffering Servant” in Second Isaiah (Vetus Testamentum Sup 14, Leiden: Brill, 1977) and Whybray, Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet: An Interpretation of Isaiah Chapter 53 (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Sup 4, Sheffield: Sheffield, 1978).
Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazinepublished by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Mar–Apr 2010): pgs. 37–39.