Isaiah 53: The Suffering and Insufferable Servant

In the book of Isaiah there are four “servant songs.” The exegetical problem is that sometimes the servant refers to Israel and other times not. The Jewish argument is that the servant always refers to Israel. There does, however, seem to be two servants, one of which is Israel. Consider the following passage (Isaiah 49:3-6):

[3] And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
[4] But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the LORD,
and my recompense with my God.”

It is clear, the servant is Israel. Now read on (Isaiah 49:5):

[5] And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from 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 eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—

[6] he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The servant in verse 5 is no longer Israel, but someone – an individual – who will bring back Jacob, that is, Israel, to the Lord. (See The raising of the servant in Isaiah; by Israel’s bootstraps).

The most contentious servant passage is Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, which for Christians is the central prophtetic passage in all of scripture. The passage begins:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand (Isaiah 52:13-15)

Here is the typical Jewish view of Isaiah 53 as described by Gerald Sigal. He quotes Isaiah 53:7-9:

”He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. 9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.”

Sigal asks: According to Isaiah 53:8, why does the servant of the Lord suffer?

His answer: There is no indication in verse 8 that the servant of the Lord suffers to atone for the sins of others. What this verse states is that he suffers as a result of the misdeeds of others, who treat him unfairly and unjustly. Hence, the conclusion of the verse, in which the enemies of the servant admit responsibility for the cruel treatment they have meted out to him. This is the confession of the Gentile spokesperson, who now expresses the Gentile realization that it was they and their people who deserved to suffer the humiliation inflicted on the servant of the Lord, as admitted in verses 4-6. In short, the servant’s enemies admit that his suffering stemmed from their own sinful imposition of hardships upon him: “From the transgression of my people there has been affliction to him [them].” The servant of the Lord suffers not on behalf of others’ sins but because of the things that sinful men do to him.

Sigal says (above):

”There is no indication in verse 8 that the servant of the Lord suffers to atone for the sins of others. What this verse states is that he suffers as a result of the misdeeds of others, who treat him unfairly and unjustly.”

Sigal argues that ”for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (53:8) means that Israel (the servant) ”suffers as a result of the misdeeds of others (the Gentiles), who treat him (Israel) unfairly and unjustly.”

The Jewish view of the above passage is that the phrase ”my people” (ami עַמִּי) is uttered out of a Gentile mouth. There’s a contradiction here because the phrase ”my people” – which appears about 220 times in the Tanach – never ever refers to any other entity than Israel. Here are a few examples:

Exodus 3:7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings,

Exodus 8:1 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.

”My people” occurs 25 times in Isaiah, and always refers to Israel, except, the Jewish argument goes, in the Isaiah passages quoted above. Here are a few examples from Isaiah:

Isaiah 1:3 The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.

Isaiah 3:7-15 On that day shall he swear, saying, I will not be an healer; for in my house is neither bread nor clothing: make me not a ruler of the people. 8 For Jerusalem is ruined, and Judah is fallen: because their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, to provoke the eyes of his glory.

9 The shew (expression) of their countenance doth witness against them; and they declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not. Woe unto their soul! for they have rewarded evil unto themselves. 10 Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. 11 Woe unto the wicked! it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him.

12 As for my people, children (babes) are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths. 13 The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people. 14 The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. 15 What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts.

Verse 14 refers to the Jewish leaders and false prophets that lead ”my people” astray.

The Tanach is filled with passages of rebuke against ”my people” for their multiple and unceasing transgressions.

Psalm 50:7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.

In Isaiah 6: 8-10, Isaiah says: ”…Here am I; send me.9 And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.

And Micah 1:1-9

1 The word of the Lord that came to Micah the Morasthite in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. 2 Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is: and let the Lord God be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. 3 For, behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down, and tread upon the high places of the earth. 4 And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. 5 For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel. What is the transgression of Jacob? is it not Samaria? and what are the high places of Judah? are they not Jerusalem? 6 Therefore I will make Samaria as an heap of the field, and as plantings of a vineyard: and I will pour down the stones thereof into the valley, and I will discover the foundations thereof… 9 For her wound is incurable; for it is come unto Judah; he is come unto the gate of my people, even to Jerusalem.

Sigal said above that in Isaiah 53, ”(t)here is no indication in verse 8 that the servant of the Lord suffers to atone for the sins of others. What this verse states is that he suffers as a result of the misdeeds of others, who treat him unfairly and unjustly. Hence, the conclusion of the verse, in which the enemies of the servant admit responsibility for the cruel treatment they have meted out to him. This is the confession of the Gentile spokesperson, who now expresses the Gentile realization that it was they and their people who deserved to suffer the humiliation inflicted on the servant of the Lord, as admitted in verses 4-6.”

Is it really true that it was the ”Gentile realization that it was they and their people who deserved to suffer the humiliation inflicted on the servant of the Lord, as admitted in verses 4-6.” No, it’s not true.

We need to consider more of Isaiah 53 to confirm that this central salvation passage is not the Lord speaking through the Gentiles (through Isaiah).

7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.

My question is: ”Where on this earth has it ever occurred or will ever occur that Israel shuts his mouth when confronted with suffering. Besides, when it comes to any issue at all, aren’t we Jews rather vocal? Israel certainly has never given his life for his enemies.

Another verse:

9 His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

No deceit in Israel’s mouth! When large swathes of Israel’s history tells of Israel’s perennial whoredoms! One need go no further. No, the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is by no stretch of the imagination – and only by an extravagant show of incipient chutzpa – Israel.

”12…O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths. 13 The Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people. 14 The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of his people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Isaiah 3).

Israel the insufferable servant; his wound is incurable (Micah, 1:9); without the undeserved mercy – of the Suffering servant.