The Original Suffering Servant

God used the sufferings of the Servant to bring about benefits, including spiritual benefits, for others

Michelangelo, “Isaiah” from the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, “Isaiah” from the Sistine Chapel (photo: Register Files)

Isaiah 52 and 53 famously describe a mysterious figure that scholars have dubbed the “Suffering Servant.”

The parallels between the Servant and Jesus are striking, and the New Testament authors see Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant—as have Christians ever since.

The Suffering Servant passage is a case of genuine messianic prophecy. However, prophecy often works on more than one level.

As we covered in a previous post, various prophecies have a fulfillment in the Old Testament itself, and then a second, additional fulfillment in Jesus.

Often the first fulfillment is found in the original, literal sense of the text, and the fulfillment in Christ belongs to its greater, spiritual sense.

This raises a question: Did the Suffering Servant passage have a fulfillment in the Old Testament era? Was there an original Suffering Servant who foreshadowed Jesus? If so, who was this Servant?

Let’s take a look at Isaiah 52 and 53 and see what they might reveal . . .


The Suffering Servant in Context

Much of the book of Isaiah deals with the Babylonian Exile, and Isaiah 52 begins with a word of encouragement for the Jewish captives who are experiencing the Exile.

This word is initially addressed to Jerusalem itself, which is captive and filled with the uncircumcised and the unclean. God indicates that this situation will end (Isa. 52:1-2). He will turn again to his people and deliver them (Isa. 52:6).

We then read the famous statement, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings” (Isa. 52:7). In its original context, this statement has to do with the end of the Babylonian Exile.

The Lord is thus returning to Zion, and “the waste places of Jerusalem” are to rejoice “for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations” that have oppressed them (Isa. 52:7-10).

Consequently, the Jewish captives in Babylon are told, “Depart, depart, go out from there, touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her, purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the Lord. . . . for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rear guard” (Isa. 52:11-12).


“Behold, My Servant”

At this point the Servant enters the narrative, and we are told, “Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (Isa. 52:13).

In our previous post, we looked at the different “servants” of the Lord identified in Isaiah.

In the present context, at the end of the Babylonian Exile, who is the Servant?

Various proposals have been made, including individuals such as:

  • Isaiah himself, or the author of this section of Isaiah (sometimes called Deutero-Isaiah)—note that Isaiah is called God’s servant in Isaiah 20:2.
  • One of the rulers who supported the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Cyrus, Darius, or Artaxerxes)—note that Cyrus is called God’s “shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28 and his “anointed” or “messiah” in Isaiah 45:1.
  • The post-Exilic Jewish governor Zerubbabel
  • Another significant individual from this period

These interpretations are possible, but a view that deserves special consideration is that the entire nation of Israel may be the Servant here:

  • Isaiah explicitly identifies Israel as God’s servant at least eight times. A typical example is in Isaiah 41:8, which speaks of “you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen.”
  • Isaiah has identified Israel as God’s servant quite recently, throughout chapters 41-49 (cf. 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 21 [2 references], 45:4, 48:20, and 49:3).
  • The subject under discussion in chapter 52 is the return of Israel to its land.
  • It is common in the Old Testament for an entire nation to be spoken of as if it is a single man, based on the way patriarchs represented an entire people.

This is also a common interpretation of the Servant in Jewish circles.

Therefore, let’s explore the text on the theory that its literal sense originally envisioned the Servant as Israel and then see what we can make of it.


God Testifies to the Suffering Servant

Isaiah 52:13-15, God himself speaks concerning the Servant. In v. 13, he states that the servant “shall prosper” and “be exalted and lifted up” and “shall be very high.” This would correspond to the much improved state of God’s people as he joyously restores them to their land to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.

In verse 14, we have a description of the way in which the Servant formerly appeared: “many were astonished at him—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men.” This would correspond to the disfigured state of God’s people in exile, after being conquered by their enemies.

But now in verse 15 the nation’s miraculous restoration will provoke a different kind of amazement, so the Servant shall “startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him.” The nations have not have had the benefit of Isaiah’s prophecies, so “that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand” as God’s people are brought back to their land.


Others Begin to Speak

In Isaiah 53:1, the speaker shifts from God to a group of people, who are clearly here on earth. They are likely to be identified either as (a) God’s people, who have heard the prophecies of Isaiah, or (b) the nations, who are only just now learning of them as the nation is restored. They ask:

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? (v. 1)

Isaiah 52:10 said that the arm of the Lord had been revealed “before the eyes of all the nations,” suggesting that they are the same group that “has believed what we have heard”—in other words, the Gentiles, who have been astonished by the miraculous fall and restoration of God’s people, though they have learned about God’s plan only now (Isa. 52: 15).


The Speakers Amazed at the Suffering Servant

The resulting astonishment focuses on the figure of the Servant. The background for the astonishment is provided in verses 2 and 3.

As a minor nation among the great powers of the Ancient Near East, Israel would have seen to have grown up before God “like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground,” and from their perspective, Israel would have had “no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).

Consequently, Israel “was despised and rejected” by its neighbors. Israel was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).

But now, beginning in verse 4, comes the astonishing part. In the humiliation of his people’s defeat and Exile, God has done something extraordinary: He has treated Israel as a sin offering, for “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Yet that is not how it initially appeared to the Gentiles, for “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4).

The reality, however, was different: Israel “was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

The Gentiles then acknowledge their guilt, for “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way,” but the Lord has made atonement for them using his people as a sin offering, for “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).

As a minor power in the Ancient Near East, God’s people were no match for the greater nations they faced. Their powerlessness before them is compared to the powerlessness of a sheep: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,” Israel “opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).

Consequently, by the “oppression and judgment” of the Gentiles, Israel “was taken away” from his land, resulting in a metaphorical death as a people, for in the Exile, Israel “was cut off out of the land of the living” where God had planted them.

In this experience Israel was “stricken for the transgressions of my people” (Isa. 53:8). Although the phrase “my people” is often used by God, the speaker here is a chorus of Gentiles, and so it would mean that Israel suffered—in keeping with its role as a sin offering—for the sins of the Gentiles.

Having been taken from the Promised Land—the land of the living—Israel is buried in Exile, among the Gentiles, so that “they made his grave with the wicked,” and because of the Gentiles’ rich, opulent rulers, Israel was “with a rich man in his death.”

This experience occurred despite the fact that to the Gentiles Israel “had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” toward them (Isa. 53:9). They were the aggressors toward God’s people, not the reverse.

All this happened because “it was the will of the Lord to bruise him” and “he has put him to grief” so that he becomes “an offering for sin.”

Yet now that the time of Israel’s restoration has come, “he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). God’s people can thus look forward to new generations being born that will have long and prosperous days.


God Has the Final Word

The Lord begins speaking again by verse 11. As a result of his restoration, Israel “shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11a)

Further, Israel’s knowledge of the Lord and his righteous ways will now benefit the Gentiles with whom they have come in contact, for “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.”

As Isaiah elsewhere notes, the return from Exile would bring many Gentiles who would come to worship the Lord and be “his servants” (Isa. 56:6).

Thus by the experience of Exile and the consequent enlightening of the Gentiles, Israel would “bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11b). Consequently, God declares that in restoring Israel:

I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Isa. 53:12).


Evaluating This Interpretation

How well does this interpretation of Isaiah 52 and 53 hold up?

It’s striking that the passage would speak of Israel and its sufferings as involving a sin offering on behalf of the nations. This type of language is not used elsewhere in the Old Testament, either for Israel or others, which is one of the things that makes it such a striking case of messianic prophecy.

However, the passage also contains points that in their literal sense do not point directly to Jesus. The reference to the Servant seeing “his offspring” fits the restored Israel well, for there would be new generations born in the land. However, Jesus did not literally have offspring (children), and so this element must be spiritualized when the passage is applied to him.

If we focus on the sin offering aspect of the text, it is clear that God did not use Israel as a sin offering the fashion he did Jesus, who dealt with sin in the full and final way. However, we can see how God used Israel and its sufferings to bring spiritual benefits to the Gentiles with whom the Exile brought it into contact.

This is seen in the reference to the Servant’s knowledge of the Lord and his will, so that “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.”

The result of this is then seen in Isaiah’s references to Gentiles coming to worship the God of Israel, keeping his sabbath, etc. (Isa. 56:6)—a phenomenon we know happened in the pre-Christian period. This is why Isaiah understands the restored temple as “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isa. 56:7), and it is why the temple had an outer court—known as the Court of the Gentiles—that was specifically designated as a place for Gentiles to pray.

We also see the pattern in the Bible of God treating some individuals more kindly than he otherwise would because of a person who pleased him. Thus God treats Solomon more kindly than Solomon’s sins deserved because David had pleased him (1 Kings 11:31-32). Similarly, in the New Testament, St. Paul states that even Jews who opposed the gospel and became “enemies of God” are nevertheless beloved on account of the patriarchs, who had pleased God (Rom. 11:28).

We thus may understand that God would treat Gentiles more gently than their sins otherwise deserved for the sake of Israel, or at least the righteous of Israel, thus allowing them to be depicted metaphorically as a sin offering.

This metaphor may ultimately rest in the promise given to Abraham that he would become a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:3; cf. Gal. 3:8).

These same themes would then be fulfilled in an even greater way through Jesus.


Individualistic Interpretations?

We have just explored Isaiah 52 and 53 in light of the idea that the literal sense of the text envisioned Israel as the original Servant of the Lord. We thus looked at a corporate interpretation, with the whole nation pictured as a single Servant, as in other passages of Isaiah.

However, individualistic interpretations are also possible. In other words, the literal sense of the text might have envisioned a single person—such as the prophet himself, one of the Gentile rulers, or the Jewish governor Zerubbabel—as the Servant.

In that case, the relevant passages would deal not with the travails of the whole nation but of the individual in question and the role his sufferings played in the restoration of God’s people to their land (the subject introduced in chapter 52).

Some of the details of the interpretation would change: Instead of it being Gentile speakers throughout the amazement section, the speakers might include Jews, and it might be their sins that the Servant metaphorically bore.

However, the fundamental message would remain the same: God used the sufferings of the Servant to bring about benefits, including spiritual benefits, for others, and the sufferings of the Servant were so extreme that he experienced a metaphorical death.

However, eventually he would be restored by the Lord so he could “see his offspring” and “prolong his days” (Isa. 53:10), so he could “see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11), and so he could receive “a portion with the great” and “divide the spoil with the strong” (Isa. 53:12).

In coming posts, we will look at how the Suffering Servant passage relates more specifically to Christ and the atonement he performed on the Cross.