The Suffering Servant: The Exalted Servant Part 3March 5, 2017
This is the third of a six-part study on the deity of Yeshua, specifically through the lens of the Apostles’ reading of the book of Isaiah. In the last section we looked at the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah. In this part, I want to focus specifically on the fourth and most well-known of the Servant Songs: Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
The Suffering Servant
Commonly referred to as the Song of the Suffering Servant, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 depicts the humiliation and suffering of the Servant along with, paradoxically, His exaltation. This paradox will be discussed more in part 5 of this series. Here is the passage at length:
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.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, 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.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, 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 makes intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 52:13–53:12 ESV)
Who Is the Servant?
Who is the Servant in this passage? As I mentioned in the previous post, modern conventional Judaism contends that the servant is the nation of Israel. This passage is seen as depicting the suffering that Israel endured throughout history at the hands of the nations. But it is important to point out that Judaism has not always interpreted the passage this way. In fact, the earliest strata of rabbinic literature unanimously understood the Servant as a reference to Messiah. Most notable is the Targum on Isaiah 52:13:
Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful.
Here the Targum (Aramaic translation) paraphrases our verse to explicitly refer to the Messiah.
Remarkably, Jewish sages even up to the time of Rambam (twelfth century) also view this passage Messianically.Tim Hegg, Messiah in the Tanakh (TorahResource, 2013), in pp. 115-117, examines some rabbinic sources demonstrating that Isaiah 53 was interpreted as ...continue It seems that Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Kimchi are largely responsible for turning the tide of modern Jewish interpretation on our passage, asserting that the passage is speaking metaphorically of the nation of Israel. This view was galvanized by Rabbi Isaac ben Abraham Troki’s classic anti-Christian work, Chizuk Emunah, and is perpetuated by Judaism today.
In other words, this modern Jewish interpretation should be seen primarily as a reaction to Christian interpretation. This passage seems almost too explicit in describing the suffering of Yeshua, and it has been used for millennia by Christians to try to prove to the Jewish people the Messiahship of Yeshua. However, “one thing is certain, the later interpretation of Is 53 which saw the Servant of the Lord as the nation of Israel finds no clear mention in the ancient rabbinic literature.”Hegg, Messiah in the Tanakh, p. 119.
The Servant in the Dead Sea Scrolls
Interestingly, the “Great Isaiah Scroll” found at Qumran (1QIsaa) contains a variant on 52:14. While the Masoretic Text reads “His appearance was so marred (mishchat), beyond human semblance,” the Qumran text has mashachti (“I have anointed”). This variant offers a blatant connection between this passage and the Messiah (“Anointed One”).
This variant presents two possibilities: On the one hand, some suggest the Qumran reading is closer to the original, or that at the very least the Apostles were familiar with that reading. This would help explain why the Apostolic Scriptures speak of prophecies in the Tanakh of a suffering Anointed One (e.g. Luke 24:46; 1Pe 1:11).Steven P. Lancaster and James M. Monson, “Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll” Messiah Journal issue 107 supplement ...continue
On the other hand, it is also possible that this variant merely represents an intentional interpretive coaxing of the text.Martin Hengel with Daniel P. Bailey, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Chrisian Period” in Janowski and Stuhlmacher, The ...continue Seeing as this variant is not attested elsewhere, this option seems more likely. In other words, the Qumran community intentionally understood this passage as referring to the Messiah, and this particular copy of Isaiah was “paraphrased” to make that connection explicit. But either way, it is clear that this passage has been understood Messianically from very early.
The Servant in the Apostolic Scriptures
The Suffering Servant Song was obviously seen by the Apostles as a direct prophecy of Yeshua. It was only natural for them to connect this passage with the suffering and exaltation of Yeshua that they had witnessed. Blatant Christological interpretations of Isaiah 53 are found in Romans 4:25; 1Corinthians 15:3b-5; 1Peter 2:22-25; Hebrews 9:28, etc.Peter Stuhlmacher, “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts” in Janowski and Stuhlmacher, The Suffering Servant, p. 149. John 12:38 is the only direct quotation from Isa 53 in all of John’s writings, yet the themes from that passage abound.Ibid p. 159-160. In short, the Apostolic usage of the fourth Servant Song, while novel in its application to a specific man, was entirely consistent with the Judaisms of their day.
In the next installment of this series, we will take a necessary rabbit trail on the topic of Biblical monotheism before coming back to the Song of the Suffering Servant.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Tim Hegg, Messiah in the Tanakh (TorahResource, 2013), in pp. 115-117, examines some rabbinic sources demonstrating that Isaiah 53 was interpreted as referring to Messiah. A more detailed examination is in S. R. Driver and Ad Neubauer, The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to The Jewish Interpreters (KTAV, 1969).|
|2.||↑||Hegg, Messiah in the Tanakh, p. 119.|
|3.||↑||Steven P. Lancaster and James M. Monson, “Isaiah’s Exalted Servant in the Great Isaiah Scroll” Messiah Journal issue 107 supplement (Spring 2011), p. 14.|
|4.||↑||Martin Hengel with Daniel P. Bailey, “The Effective History of Isaiah 53 in the Pre-Chrisian Period” in Janowski and Stuhlmacher, The Suffering Servant, p. 105.|
|5.||↑||Peter Stuhlmacher, “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts” in Janowski and Stuhlmacher, The Suffering Servant, p. 149.|
|6.||↑||Ibid p. 159-160.|