In the book of Isaiah ‘the servant’ was described at least 4 times, namely in Chapters 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50: 4-11 and 52: 13-15, 53:1-12.
This PAD article is about the most well-known and amazing of these passages, namely Isaiah 52 and 53. Of the Servant Passages, this is the longest and has a prophetic accuracy that amazingly exceeds any other passages in the Bible.
Let us take a look together:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)
"13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
53 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."
If we had not read or known of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, I am sure we will be so puzzled about what prophet Isaiah is speaking about. Perhaps even he might not know what he is saying from the inspirations of God.
In 52:13-15 we see the outcome of this great servant foretold, like the ending of a movie.
The passage begins at 52:13 with several synonyms emphasizing the magnitude of the servant's coming exaltation (raised, lift up, highly exalted). In v13, it states that He will “prosper”, from a root word indicating wisdom. It seems to be pointing to His exalted wisdom to rule as king which will be fulfilled in the Millennium when Christ will rule. What follows in v14-15 is however so unexpected, for it says that above all men, the Servant is “marred” or “mashchet” in Hebrew, meaning a disfigurement of the face. Yet this is accurately fulfilled in Christ in His torture by the Jews (Matt. 26:67) and Romans (Jn 19:1-2) and then finally nailed to the cross.
Mysteriously verse15 says He will “sprinkle” or “nazah” in Hebrew, which is “sprinkling blood” to many nations. It fits well with Christ’s gospel of atonement by His blood. As the gospel is proclaimed, kings of all nations on hearing will be so impressed that they will be dumbfounded. Thus Paul in Romans. 15:20-21 applied this verse to his task of preaching to where Christ is not named.
The New Testament narratives:
Matt 26:67: Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him.
Jn 19:1-2: Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.
Romans 15:20-21: It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.
These verses in Isaiah 52 and 53 foretold a specific, individual person as the Messiah, or savior of the world from sin, while Judaism maintains that the passage had pointed instead to a faithful remnant group of the Jewish people.
It is quite evident that both here and in the other servant passages that the description is referring to a person. There is no basis at all for the Jewish Rabbinic interpretation that the Servant is Israel or ‘a faithful remnant group of the Jewish people’; and even old Jewish writings as the Targum in the 1st century stated that the Servant is the Messiah.
Although Rabbinic Judaism now admits that taking the Servant to be Christ is a possible interpretation, they more often hold that the singular pronoun "he" in Isaiah 53 refers to the Jewish people as an individual, and the one who was constantly faithful to the one true God was referring to the nation of Israel.
This from Rabbi Corey Gil-Shuster on the Jewish view of Isaiah 53:
“... Isaiah 53 talks about the suffering servant of God indeed and in many ways one could look at various facts in Jesus’ life and match them up with the prophecy in Isaiah and I understand that it is a possible interpretation. I just want to say though that we have a vast corpus of Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 in which they regard the suffering servant is not a reference to an individual but as a reference to the overall faith of the Jewish people that has suffered through century after century of persecution and in fact bears the sin of the world.
And that’s part of the mysterious redemptive process that through suffering and destruction there is new birth and creation and rejuvenation. In some ways much of the Christian symbolism of the crucifixion is in a sense building on a mystical view of the Jewish people themselves of this concept that through suffering on behalf of the world, the world is somehow brought to a better and deeper and more spiritual place. We kind of go with that symbolism as well except we apply it to the entire Jewish nation as opposed to an isolated person. So if you look at the classical Biblical commentaries you will see the suffering servant of God according to many is interpreted as a reference to the Jewish people...”
Note that Rabbi Corey above admits that taking the servant to be the Jewish nation is an interpretation based on symbolism. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that if there is a literal interpretation and the servant is the person Jesus Christ, it must be considered superior. The theological basis for such symbolic exposition is without sufficient justification. We uphold that the Jewish remnant, even though faithful to God, could not be the redeemer because they were still sinful human beings, unqualified to save other sinners. Throughout the Old Testament, animals offered for sacrifice were to be spotless, unblemished.
The theological gap between Judaism and Christianity is not limited to the question: "Who is the Messiah," or a debate over the translation of a few biblical verses. Judaism and Christianity are two different belief systems, differing over core issues such as the nature of God and man, the role of our relationship with God, the need for redemption and the path to genuine spiritual fulfillment.
Let’s see more in Part 2, Isaiah 53.
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