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.

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9 thoughts on “Isaiah 53: The Suffering and Insufferable Servant

  1. You wrote “The exegetical problem is that sometimes the servant refers to Israel and other times not….”

    But your problem with the Bible is theological, not exegetical problem:
    * The Book of Isaiah in no instance declares that there are multiple suffering servants.
    * In every case in which the Book of Isaiah identifies the suffering servant, it does so in an exclusive fashion (there are no claims that Israel is “one of the suffering servants”).
    * In all of the many verses that specifically name and identify the suffering servant, every time Isaiah makes clear it is the Jews he is speaking of in G-d’s name.

    Thanks to the Book of Isaiah’s clear, emphatic, repetitive revelation of the identity of the suffering servant, exegesis concluding the suffering servant is anyone other than Israel is not only unnecessary but counterproductive.

    That is why your problem with the Book of Isaiah is not exegetical. Your problem with the Book of Isaiah’s position that Israel, rather than Jesus, is G-d’s suffering servant, is purely theological: you subscribe to the “new testament”, and none of the prophets did. Your religion is all about Jesus, and so you have a problem with a religious text that clearly is not. Your argument is not with the Jews, but with their G-d. It is not the Jews who insist they are the chosen, suffering servant, but rather it is G-d Himself Who makes that claim so many times throughout the Book of Isaiah (which, like the rest of the Jewish Bible, has no Jesus character in it):

    Isaiah 41:8–”But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen…”
    42:24–”Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers?”
    43:1–”But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
    44:1–”Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen:”
    44:21–”Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou art my servant: I have formed thee; thou art my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me.”
    45:4–”For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect…”
    49:3–”Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

    Exegesis was never meant to be a workaround to the word of G-d; when you need a workaround to G-d’s word, you’re theologically at odds with G-d.

    • Theology at its root is presuppositional. A Jew brings his presuppositions, the Christian’s his. This is not to say that presuppositions are mindless.

      Now to get back to what I wrote. What is your view of what I wrote, namely,

      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 49:3-4)

      [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).

      Anon, you do indeed consider yourself the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. That is why you, like anyone else, other than the Messiah, who believes this may be a servant but definitely an unsufferable one; for what human being on this earth was totally free of sin as is described in Isaiah 53.

      As I said, He was dumb before his shearers. How unlike suffering unbelieving Israel.

      • I hope that all of the readers here have had the opportunity to review the above exchange. It is evidence that Christianity cannot offer any response to a Biblical text that unequivocally paints Israel, the Jews, as G-d’s servant, suffering at the hands of gentile oppressors. Rather than engage in a guaranteed losing entanglement over this elementary theological problem, we see the Christian missionary ducking and changing the subject: “Now to get back to what I wrote…”, Raf wrote.

        Raf asks Jews to ignore the text of their Bible, and to “presuppose” that G-d’s servant is actually Jesus, and that the servant’s tormentors are actually the Jews. Raf is clearly working off of a belief system not informed by the Jewish Bible, because the word of G-d in the Bible relates the following:

        About the servant: “You are my servant, Israel” (Isaiah 49:3).

        About those who caused the servant’s suffering: “many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him [Israel, the servant whom they had wickedly abused]. “For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand [eg, the torturing Israel was villainous] (Is. 52:15)…”Who has believed our message [ask the leaders of the gentiles who had religiously believed it proper to persecute the eternally chosen people they had degraded and dismissed as mere wandering divorcees of G-d]?” (Is. 53:1)…”He [the Jewish people, the servant] was oppressed and afflicted [by us, the gentiles]” (Is. 53:7)….

        The only way to truly understand the Bible is to approach it without “presupposition”. To take in what it clearly states, rather than find excuses to force fit it into pre-conceived conclusions that it clearly disagrees with. The latter method is what Raf is employing, and, as you can see, it’s not only ridiculous, but it’s embarrassingly unconvincing.

        Leave your “presuppositions” at home. If you want to know what the Bible means, you have to take it at face value; after all, there were no presuppositions in circulation at the time of the Bible’s introduction at Sinai. It’s meaning has to stand on its own.

        • Again I ask you, Anon, do the verses below describe a schizophrenic?
          Isaiah 49
          [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).

          • Let’s just be clear, Raf.

            I say that the suffering servant, the only suffering servant identified at all, anywhere in the Book of Isaiah, is Israel. You say there are multiple servants and that at least one of them is Jesus.

            My claim is a reflection of the many verses in the text that state clearly that Israel is G-d’s servant, such as Isaiah 41:8–”But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen…”. You, on the other hand, can produce no passage from the Book of Isaiah that states clearly that there are other servants, and no passage from the Book of Isaiah that states clearly, or even unclearly, that Jesus is the subject of the prophecy.

            This is why we say that you have a theological, rather than an exegetical, problem with the Book of Isaiah. You believe in a religion that is at odds with that of the Jewish prophets. There is no amount of disexplanation or apology of Isaiah competent to intellectually satisfy your theological urge to replace the Jews with Jesus; the text, which is clear, just doesn’t leave room for that.

            • Anon, as you won’t address my simple question, after repeated attempts, I must say that you are – whether you be of Israel or not (with a name like No-name, can we be sure?) – an insufferably insufferable servant.

              • I’m not interested in your question. THE REMAINDER OF THIS COMMENT HAS BEEN EDITED OUT BECAUSE IT IS REPETITION OF PREVIOUS COMMENTS.

                • Well, if you’re not interested in my gentle and reverential request that you answer a basic exegetical question, I find no reason to continue, because you have broken a basic rule of communication.

  2. Reblogged this on OneDaring Jew and commented:

    The insufferable servant revealed: Why did Moses yearn to enter the land of Israel? To bare the sins of many, says the Talmud

    The Babylonian Talmud is regarded by religious Jews as “Oral Torah.” Here is the Tractate Sotah.

    Folio 14a

    “R. Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus spake Moses, ‘Many precepts were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me’. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘Is it only to receive the reward [for obeying the commandments] that thou seekest? I ascribe it to thee as if thou didst perform them’; as it is said: Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bare the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.13  ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great’ — it is possible [to think that his portion will be] with the [great of] later generations and not former generations; therefore there is a text to declare, ‘And he shall divide with the strong’, i.e., with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were strong in Torah and the commandments. ‘Because he poured out his soul unto death’ — because he surrendered himself to die, as it is said: And if not, blot me, I pray thee etc.14  ‘And was numbered with the transgressors’ — because he was numbered with them who were condemned to die in the wilderness. ‘Yet he bare the sins of many’ — because he secured atonement for the making of the Golden Calf. ‘And made intercession for the transgressors’ — because he begged for mercy on behalf of the sinners in Israel that they should turn in penitence.”

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