Who is the Servant of the Lord depicted in Isaiah 53? While much attention has been focused upon this biblical chapter, there are four important passages that Isaiah penned on the ministry of the Servant of the Lord that lead up to and include Isaiah 53. These “Servant Songs” show us how to understand his Messianic task.
The Servant Songs of Isaiah round out the Messianic portrait that culminates in the stunning verses of Isaiah 53. They reveal one who obediently suffers with, and on behalf of, humanity, yet who triumphs, vindicated, on behalf of the same humanity for which he has suffered.
“. . . the Son of Man [Messiah] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
The Servant Is Chosen for a Specific Task
Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house. (Isaiah 42:1a, 6-7)
The Servant Restores the Jewish People
Indeed He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One, to him whom man despises, to him whom the nation abhors, to the Servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel; and He has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:6-7)
The Servant Is Tormented
The Lord God has opened my ear; and I was not rebellious, Nor did I turn away. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help me; therefore I will not be disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed. He is near who justifies me; who will contend with me? Let us stand together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near me. (Isaiah 50:5-8)
The Suffering Servant Will Be Vindicated
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men; so shall He sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths at Him; for what had not been told them they shall see, and what they had not heard they shall consider. (Isaiah 52:13-15)
So he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And he was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33)
For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel. (Luke 2:30-32)
Then they spat in his face and beat him; and others struck him with the palms of their hands saying, “Prophesy to us, Messiah! Who is the one who struck you?” (Matthew 26:67-68)
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on his head, and a reed in his right hand. And they bowed the knee before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they took the robe off him, put his own clothes on him, and led him away to be crucified. (Matthew 27:27-31)
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Messiah to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah, that his soul was not left in Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus, God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you now see and hear. (Acts 2:29-33)
Why the Messiah Must Be a Person – and Not a Nation
1. Israel is not an innocent sufferer.
Israel as a nation was, at times, unrighteous, in need of forgiveness and redemption.
2. Israel is not a silent sufferer.
The Hebrew Bible has many examples of Israel’s complaint against unjust suffering.
3. Israel never died.
Israel has never died as Isaiah 53 describes. Despite its many enemies and lengthy exile, Israel has had a continual existence throughout its history.
4. The language of the text points to the suffering of an individual, not a nation.
There is ample evidence of Rabbinic support for a suffering Messiah (see next section further down). Also, if the Servant dies on behalf of the nation, it cannot be the nation itself that dies.
Isaiah 53 in Rabbinic Thought
“Jesus can’t be the Messiah because he didn’t bring world peace!” How many times have you heard this? Or that the passages that Christians quote from the Hebrew Bible – particularly Isaiah 53 – to sustain their claim have absolutely no support among the Jewish sages?
While it is commonly taught that the Messiah’s role is to restore the Kingdom of God, there is also a basis for a Suffering Messiah in Jewish thought. Let’s look at the sources:
Isaiah 53:5 – “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.”
Midrash Konen (11th century) – “Messiah Son of David who loves Jerusalem ... Elijah takes him by the head ... and says ‘You must bear the sufferings and wounds by which the Almighty chastises you for Israel's sins;’ and so it is written, He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”
Zohar 2:12a – “The children of the world are members one of another. When the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, he smites one just man amongst them, and for his sake heals all the rest. From where do we learn this? From the saying ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.’”
Isaiah 53:10 – “Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.”
Midrash Asseret Memrot – “The Messiah, in order to atone for them both [for Adam and David], will make his soul a trespass offering as it is written.”
A modern day interpretation:
Some Chabad Lubavitch publications refer all of Isaiah 53 to Messiah, and apply it to their late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson: “… the illness of the Moshiach is clearly foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 53…” [footnote: Shmuel Butman of Chabad, Chairman of the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach, Jewish Press, April 22, 1993]
Commenting upon Rebbe Schneerson’s incapacitating illness a member of the Lubavitcher women's group stated, “It is written that the Messiah will endure intense suffering before being revealed.” [footnote: Interview with Michael Wherip in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 3, 1993]
Although the above may represent a “minority report” among Jewish scholars, it cannot be denied that Isaiah 53 has and is understood to be a Messianic passage for some.