Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Suffering Servant

The Suffering servant poem, Isa 53 (52:13-53:12), is one of the most familiar portions of the Hebrew Scriptures.(1) One of the most striking features of this passage is the unparalleled sufferings of the Servant.(2) The poem is divided into five stanzas (3) into three major sections: the servant’s future exaltation (52:13-15), his sufferings (53:1-9), and his ultimate triumph (53:10-12). For this reason, the final parts of Isa 52 is included because 53:10b-12 return to the subject of the Servant’s future triumph in terms reminiscent of 52:13-15, and should be studied as an entire unit.(4)

Who is this ideal servant? Recent studies have shown that many concurred that he is not Israel, because Israel can never restore itself to God and she needs the ministry of the servant. As Whybray and the others, they think that it could mean the anonymous Isaiah (so-called Deuteron-Isaiah) while some disagree as this person could not be merely any human, for he suffers to deliver people from the consequences of their sin.(5) The discussion of his identity is not within the scope of this paper. Furthermore, the Christian’ testimony is that there is one particular Jew who has lived up to the portrait offered by Isa 53, and that is Jesus Christ- the suffering and triumphant servant par excellence. (6)

This paper thus focus to present a Christological reading of Isa 53, both of his person and his work, from the perspective of Jesus himself and the early Jewish Christians attested by the NT documents. Prior to that, let’s look at the portrait of this servant described in Isa 53.

1. The Servant in Isaiah 53

When we look at the structure of the poem, each stanza reveals something different about the servant. He is exalted but shocking (52:13-15), rejected and despised by men (53:1-3), he suffers for sinners (“us”, 4-6), and in the end if he was not dead (although this seems to be the most obvious meaning), he was ‘cut off from the land of the living’ and was buried (7-9), and would receive his reward because through his innocence and righteousness, has made others righteous (10-12). This promise from Yahweh of the servant’s restoration alluded to 52:13-15, which speaks of his future exaltation.

The initial incredulity of the people and their rejection of the servant are both emphasized by his appearance and sufferings. He was a man of humility, without earthly grandeur of reputation, outwardly unimpressive and insignificant. His appearance is not attractive but disgusting (52:14). They simply do not meet the Jewish expectation as they have always viewed Yahweh’s servant as the majestic one.(7) He has none of the outward fascination of power, position, and success. No man would be fascinated with him. On the contrary, they are shocked by his lack of majesty. In fact, sin has been laid upon him (4). His sufferings therefore were even more inconceivable.(8) How could one so weak and so ‘ordinary’ be of any purpose?

There is a crucial development of the poem. Up to the point that the servant was despised by his contemporaries, who considered him stricken and having no significance on them, what they did not recognize at first was suddenly made clear to them. He was bruised and punished not for his own sin, but were in fact for their sins. He suffers not just innocently, but for someone else’s iniquity. This is an altogether new element in his portrait as the earlier servant songs though describe him as suffering; it was not for any third party.(9) This language of taking up and carrying supplies the idea of substitutionary or vicarious suffering, referring back to Leviticus. The sacrificial animal carries the sins of the sinners away so that the offender need not carry them anymore. As the animal dies in the place of the sinner-(10) so is the despised sufferer (the servant) took their iniquity upon himself and so procured healing and peace for them (53:5).

Even more shocking to his contemporaries, was his act of sin-bearing was done willingly and his work fulfilled the will of God. (11) There is a divine purpose in the suffering and death of the Servant. It was by the gracious purpose of Yahweh that he was bruised (10) and he was participating voluntarily in accomplishing it. Motyer understands the uniting doctrinal theme spoken here is “the understanding of the Servant’s death as a guilt offering (10b), a sin-bearing sacrifice which removes sin and imputes righteousness (11-12)”.(12) His death satisfies the needs of sinful people before a holy God, by restoring the broken relationship caused by sin.

Isa 53 does not end with the servant’s death however, because Yahweh intervened on his behalf. This was always the tendency of OT thought that piety and undeserved sufferings like the servant would be rewarded. Although there is no explicit mention of resurrection itself, the explanation of the events after his death indicates that he emerges in triumph, however densely expressed (10-12). (13) His life, far from being futile and barren, will be fruitful because he will see his seed (presumably, his spiritual children), his days prolonged, and he would be crowned with success. The meaning is that the work which consists in the exaltation of the servant is so awesome that people in far-distant places (nations) and exalted circles (kings) will be astonished.(14) Kings and nations will be amazed when they hear this miracle. His greatness and honor will be restored for he suffered for their sakes.

2. Christological reading of Isaiah 53

a. On Christ’s work- his vicarious suffering and death

Its relevance at this point is obvious: it anticipates one who would suffer and be held of no account, whose sufferings would be vicarious, on behalf of others, who would be killed and be accepted by God. There is little dispute that Isa 53 has become influential in the earliest Christian reflection on Jesus’ death.(15) Did Jesus anticipate suffering and rejection for his message and himself -that is, that Jesus saw himself in the tradition of the suffering righteous influenced by this passage? If we take this question seriously, we must ascribe to Jesus the consciousness of having been sent to fulfil this very task of forgiving sins.(16) Let us move from one formal quotation of Isa 53 by Jesus (Luke 22), and then towards other allusions which indisputably speak of his role of vicarious suffering and death.(17)

“And He was numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37) has always been quoted to postulate a belief that Jesus fulfilled the redemptive work of the Servant in Isa 53:12. Jesus quoted this on the eve of his death is surely significant, and also indicates that his mind was preoccupied with that fact that he was going to be punished as a criminal and quoted this passage directly.(18) Furthermore, Jesus quoted with the formula of “It must be fulfilled in me”. From this observation, this quotation is hardly a casual ‘catch-phrase’ that comes out unreflectively. If Jesus saw Isa 53:12 finds it fulfilment in him, we can conclude that he did identify himself with the Suffering Servant. His chosen words emphasize that identification of the sinless with the sinners which was the essence of the servant’s vicarious suffering.

The ideas of suffering and servanthood also come together in Mark 10:45. This saying comes as the climax of the lesson on servanthood Jesus gave to his disciples after James and John’s request for privileged positions in his kingdom. To reinforce his point, Jesus uses his example of voluntary and self-sacrificial coming death which had in mind Isa 53:10ff.(19) Although it is not exact parallel as Mark here is concerned with service to men; but the servant in Isa 53 did benefit people by his suffering, and Jesus did accept his suffering in obedience to God. The connection is close in thought, which is the voluntary giving up of life which is essential to Isa 53.

Besides, the word ‘many’ is most probably an allusion to Isa 53, a deliberate echo to describe the beneficiaries of the servant’s sacrifice. This word would be hardly expected unless Jesus saw himself a parallel to the servant’s mission in the redemptive aspects of Isa 53, whose death will benefit others (including nations). He is sent and in the name of God is here to serve ‘the many’ whose life is forfeited through sin and guilt before God, and to serve to the point of offering his body and life as a ransom to all.(20)

Besides this, one of the clearest allusions is in the sayings of Jesus about the Lord’s Supper. (21) This passage indicates directly that the thought of Isa 53 lies behind the passages we mentioned above, especially the repetition of ‘many’ (Mark 14:24).(22) Although there could be many other OT references to the covenant (such as Exo 24:8 for ‘blood of the covenant’), some of the words are reminiscent to Isa 53:12; “he poured out his life”, “bore the sin of many”. Christ’s work is to re-establish the broken covenant, and this can only be done by him fulfilling the role of the servant in his vicarious suffering and death. Words from Isa 53 were specially chosen by Christ to highlight the vicarious nature of his mission.(23) “This is my body” and “this is my blood for the covenant” (Mark 12:22, 24) are a guarantee of Christ’s existence on their behalf. Jesus grants

“Those participating in the meal a share in the fruit of his vicarious death and causes them to be partakers in the new covenant and candidates for the messianic table fellowship in God’s consummate kingdom.” (24)

Many other scripture passages on Jesus’ actual sufferings recorded in the passion narratives closely tie in with Isa 53. For example, John 12:38 quotes Isa 53:1 regarding the people’s unbelief (cf Rom 10:16) towards his message. Isa 53:7 corresponds to Jesus’ agony on Gethsemane (Luke 22:44), and him wearing the crown of thorns (John 19:5) are signs of his affliction and oppression; “He was led like a lamb to slaughter” corresponds to Matt 27:31 “..and led him away to crucify him”; Jesus silence and held his peace before the Sanhedrin, the governor and king goes parallel with “yet he did not open his mouth”.

In addition to the three formal announcements of the passion in Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34 and parallels, other passages that show Jesus’ consciousness of his mission coming as the servant in Isa 53 are the predictions’ passages: Mark 2:20, 9:12, 10:38, 12:1ff, 14:8; Matt 26:54; Luke 9:31, 12:32-33, 17:25 and many more. Although these are all without reference to any of the OT passages, the content of thought is that he must suffer (Matt 26:54, Luke 13:33) and that he fulfils the scripture (Mark 14:49). The close correspondence in thoughts and not in words between Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death must not be dismissed.

Certainly the early church made this identification and it seems much more likely that they got the idea from Jesus. Peter, one of Jesus closest disciple, no doubt had in his mind Isa 53 when reflecting on how Jesus set an example of suffering without retaliation (1 Pet 1:21-5).(25) Matthew also links Jesus with the servant clearly by his full-length quotation of Isa 53:4 (in Matt 8:17). Acts 8:32ff quoting Isa 53:7 regarding Philip’s preaching of the gospel to the eunuch should also be understood as the confirmation of the work of Christ fulfilling the servant’s task.

Even Paul’s theology of the death of Christ suggests the identification of Jesus with Yahweh’s Servant in Isaiah. For example, there is a direct quotation from 2 Cor 5:21 concerning him ‘who knew no sin’ clearly refers to Isa 53:6. The quotations from Isa 53 found in Rom 10:16 and 15:21 must have referred to the missionary preaching although it does not point to the peculiar work of the Servant. (26)

Other important Christological passages of Pauline epistles are 1 Cor 15:3, Phil 2:5-11 (discussed below), and Rom 5:12ff. 1 Cor 15:3 is the Lord’s Supper (see discussion above), and ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures’ doubtless refer to Isa 53. Rom 5:19 also shows clearly that Paul had in mind the servant in Isaiah, alluding to Isa 53:11 for Jesus made many righteous through his obedience. We must not also forget that Paul was a trained Rabbi who knew the reaction of the Jew to the Christian proclamation of a suffering Messiah. The fact that Paul and Jesus followers continue to proclaim redemption based upon the vicarious suffering of Jesus provides us with the understanding that they did not cease to believe and employ a suffering servant theme that corresponds to Isa 53, which also startle and stumble many. (27)

Therefore, it is really questionable to assume that it would be possible for Jesus to unconsciously accepting the role of the suffering servant and left unaware and not having Isa 53 in mind. The probability remains strong that Jesus entertained an expectation of rejection, suffering, and death which was similar in his perspective with that of the Suffering Servant. (28) Furthermore, I believe and propose then that we can credibly reconstruct a mindset in which the early Christians did come to believe that Yahweh has acted through the suffering of Jesus in whom Israel’s sufferings were focused and carried a redemptive significance.

b. On his nature

Can we also glean ‘Christological’ portrait from the early Christians? I believe Isa 53 is also applied to Christ’s person. Isa 53:2 says the servant was misunderstood because of his unimpressiveness. Surveying the NT texts, they expected Christ to come in pomp and pride but his external appearance, especially with his claims to Messiahship, shocked them. (29) Jesus is but a Galilean peasant, a Nazarene carpenter, the son of Joseph who declared himself as the bread of life, the light of the world, and claiming God as his own Father- all this excited a combination of amazement, indignation, scorn and disgust from different groups of society. He was rejected because he was not such promised deliverer many expected. Even John the Baptist questioned Jesus’ identity! (Matt 11:3).

Men are represented as turning away in disappointment from this tender plant springing out of a dry ground- an unpromising surroundings. Men asked whether any good thing can come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). His birth was described as political impotence and religious decadence. (30) Finally, Jesus was rejected of men as predicted in Isa 53:3, “We don’t want this man to be our king” (Luke 19:14).

c. On his burial, resurrection and exaltation

Another clear allusion of Jesus fulfilling Isa 53 as the suffering servant is seen in his burial. The wicked generation who had a part in Christ’s death intended that his burial be as disgraceful as his death. Nevertheless, God intervened to cause Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, to beg the body of Christ and bury it in a new tomb, a glorious burial because he is the sinless one. (31)

The consequence of this self-sacrifice is that Christ will see his offspring, fulfil his mission, be satisfied and justify many by his righteousness. Although some do not agree Isa 53:10-11 explicitly predicts the resurrection of the servant, it nevertheless does imply his restoration to life. (32) The fruit of Christ’s death is that he shall see His seed which refers to the household of faith. Jesus brought “many sons unto glory” (Heb 2:10). Christ himself in predicting his death earlier, alluded his death would bring forth much fruit (John 12:24).

Bauckham when interpreting Isa 52:13 rightly spotted the apostle John has taken it as a summary statement of the suffering servant which refers to Jesus.(33) In place of the passion predictions of the Synoptic gospels which record the suffering of the Christ, John has three passion predictions of the Christ being ‘lifted up’: John 3:14-5, 8:28, and 12:32-34. In these Johannine sayings, the lifting up or exaltation has double meaning. It does not just refer to the literal crucifixion when Jesus would be lifted up, but also figuratively means Jesus’ elevation to the status of divine sovereignty over all creation.(34) This then runs well with the understanding of Isa 53 regarding the humiliation and exaltation of the servant would startle and shock many. Therefore, the literal exaltation of Jesus on the cross to humiliate him was the same event that manifest Christ’ identity, thus drawing men to himself.

More precisely, we ask to what extent is this final exaltation of Christ? More than showing Jesus is the suffering servant (and remain a servant) in Isa 53, Paul in Phil 2:5-11 showed us that Jesus also fulfils the eschatological monotheism of the prophecies whose humiliation and exaltation together reveal the identity of the one God.(35) Jesus though is equal with God, through service and obedience and self-humiliation, renounced the outward majesty of the heavenly place for an ordinary human life. This act of sacrifice (he poured himself out) qualified him to have divine sovereignty over all things (exalt him), given by God. His exaltation is thus the highest position- not regaining the equality for he has never lost it, but rather “acquiring the function of implementing the eschatological sovereignty of God”.(36) This is the reward of the servant, Jesus; confession of all humankind that he is Christ the Lord, who saves and justifies many (53:11).


The sinlessness of the servant, his vicarious substitution for others, his meekness, and gentleness under cruelties, his triumph in achieving salvation of those whom he suffered, the circumstances of his burial and resurrection; all find their counterpart and fulfilment in the life of Christ. It is striking however, that when the NT speaks of Jesus in these terms, the contest is concerned not merely with a right understanding of Jesus’ mission, but with his followers’ willingness to walk the way Jesus walked. The quest for the identity of Isa 53 and reading it christologically must not blur our vision to the challenge which this chapter lay before us.

The challenge, or invitation, may be accepted by Israel as a nation or by the church as a corporate body, or by individuals who are willing to take it seriously. While Christians alone believed that only Christ alone met the challenge in the fullest sense, this passage is still relevant and should be speaking to us today.

“So the social order, the strength of numbers, good taste, ordinary human decency, and the justice of God are all in turn called in question by this topsy-turvy, not to say shocking, poem. This is the world that the reader is bidden to give his assent to- or rather, to enter. It is not an obviously appealing invitation.”(37)


[1] I am using Isa 53 as a convenient, though loose, heading to mean Isa 52:13-53:12.
2 Since Bernard Duhm in 1892, vast majority of scholars designate the literary unit 52:13-53:12 as the fourth Servant song.
3 So Oswalt, Motyer, to name a few. Contra Clines who divided into six units in David J. A. Clines, I, He, We & They: A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53. JSOT Supplement Series 1. (Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1976) 11-14.
4 R.N. Whybray, The Second Isaiah. (Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1983) 68.
5 John Oswalt, “Isaiah 51:13-53:12: Servant of All” in Calvin Theological Journal, 40/1 (Apr 2005): 90.
6 John Goldingay, God’s Prophet, God’s Servant: A study in Jeremiah and Isaiah 40-55. (Exeter: Paternoster
Press, 1984) 155.

7 Ronald Bergey, “The Rhetorical Role of Reiteration in the Suffering Servant Poem (Isa 52:13-53:12)” in JETS 40/2 (June 1997): 183
8 Sigmund Mowinckel, He that cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism. Trans. G.W. Anderson. (Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdsman, 2005) 208.
9 Peter Wilcox and David Paton-Williams, “The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah” in JSOT Issue 42 (Oct 1988): 96.
10 John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapter 40-66. NICOT series. (Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK:
Eerdsman, 1998) 386.

11 J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1993). 432-3.
12 Ibid., 437.
13 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. (London: SPCK, 2003) 116. Contra Mowinckel who are quite sure what is here reported is the servant’s resurrection. This reading would be inevitable if we read it Christologically.
14 Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. (Phil: SCM Press Ltd, 1969) 259.
15 J.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. (Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdsman, 2003) 811. Dunn disagrees with the total relevance of Isa 53 in influencing Jesus own mindset in mission, but I think we need to take into consideration that approximately 80 references to Isaiah in the NT that comes from Isa 53 (directly or indirectly) speaks volume into the kind of context that Jesus was operating.
16 Oscar Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament. (Norwich, GB: SCM Press Ltd, 1959) 61.
17 R.T. France, Jesus and the Old testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to himself and his mission. (London, The Tyndale Press, 1971) 113-114.
18 Ibid., 115.
19 Christopher Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament. (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992) 154.
20 Peter Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth: Christ of Faith.
Trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988) 34.
21 Cf the four passages in the Gospel accounts; Mark 14:24, Matt 26:28, Luke 22:20 and Paul quoting Jesus in 1 Cor 11:24.

22 Cullman, 64.
23 France, 123.
24 Stuhlmacher, 35.
25 Wright, 156.
26 Cullman, 76.
27 Richard Longenecker, The Christology of early Jewish Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970) 108.
28 J.D.G. Dunn, “Messianic Ideas and their influence on the Jesus of history” in James H. Charlesworth (ed.) The Messiah: Development in earliest Judaism and Christianity”. (Minn: Fortress Press, 1992) 380.

29 John Brown, The sufferings and the glories of the Messiah: An Exposition of Psalm 18 & Isaiah 52:13-53:12. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981) 190.
30 W.E. Best, The Saviour’s definite redemption: Studies in Isaiah 53. (Texas, South Belt Assembly of Christ, 1982) 11.
31 Many have said that the word ‘grave’ is metaphorical statement for death, and the word ‘rich’ stands for wicked as word ‘poor’ stands for godly. However, I find this interpretation is stretching the passage’s ideas.

[1] Brown, 303.
32 Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. (UK: Paternoster Press, 1998) 64.

33 Ibid., 65.
34 Ibid., 56.
35 Ibid., 58.
36 Clines, 62.



Bauckham, Richard. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. UK: Paternoster Press, 1998.

Best, W.E. The Saviour’s definite redemption: Studies in Isaiah 53. Texas, South Belt Assembly of Christ, 1982.

Brown, John. The sufferings and the glories of the Messiah: An Exposition of Psalm 18 & Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981.

Clines, D.A. I, He, We & They: A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53. JSOT Supplement Series 1. Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1976.

Cullman, Oscar. The Christology of the New Testament. Norwich, GB: SCM Press Ltd, 1959.

Dunn, J.D. “Messianic Ideas and their influence on the Jesus of history” in James H. Charlesworth (ed.) The Messiah: Development in earliest Judaism and Christianity”. Minn: Fortress Press, 1992.

________ Jesus Remembered. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdsman, 2003.

France, R.T. Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to himself and his mission. London, The Tyndale Press, 1971.

Goldingay, John. God’s Prophet, God’s Servant: A study in Jeremiah and Isaiah 40-55. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984.

Longenecker Richard. The Christology of early Jewish Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970.

Motyer, Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1993.

Mowinckel, Sigmund. He that cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism. Trans. G.W. Anderson. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdsman, 2005.

Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah: Chapter 40-66. NICOT series. Grand Rapids, MI/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdsman, 1998.

Stuhlmacher, Peter. Jesus of Nazareth: Christ of Faith. Trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988

Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. Phil: SCM Press Ltd, 1969.

Whybray, R.N. The Second Isaiah. Sheffield, UK: JSOT Press, 1983.

Wright, Christopher. Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament. London: Marshall Pickering, 1992.

Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. London: SPCK, 2003.


Berkey, Ronald. “The Rhetorical Role of Reiteration in the Suffering Servant Poem (Isa 52:13-53:12)” in JETS, 40/2 (June 1997): 177-188.

Oswalt, John. “Isaiah 51:13-53:12: Servant of All” in Calvin Theological Journal , 40/1 (Apr 2005): 85-94.

Wilcox, Peter and David Paton-Williams, “The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah” in JSOT Issue 42, (Oct 1988): 79-102.


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