Without a doubt, no other chapter in the Old Testament is more compelling, or more controversial, than the story of the Suffering Servant. It is used by Christians to both demonstrate the prophetic prowess of the Bible and to qualify Jesus as the promised Messiah.
Unfortunately for our purposes, Isaiah 53 is not easily divided into multiple questions, so I’m going to cover the entire chapter right here, right now. Enjoy!
Commenting on the comments of commentators
Christian apologists often point out that some ancient Jewish commentators (long before Jesus) believed that the Suffering Servant represented the Messiah. Christians say it wasn’t until early Christians began using Isaiah 53 to defend Jesus that Jews had an all-too-convenient change of heart, and began insisting it was about Israel, and not the Messiah.
But not to be outdone, Jews point out that even some Christian Bible commentators agree with them that the modern interpretation is the correct one, and the Suffering Servant is Israel:
“Israel, the servant of God, suffered as a humiliated individual.”
— The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition
“…In the original historical context, however, the servant appears to have been exiled Israel. God’s deliverance and exaltation of Israel will astound the nations who formerly despised this disfigured slave.”
— The Harper Collins Study Bible
“The Lord speaks, promising that the servant Israel, although disfigured because of the agonies of exile, will be exalted so that nations will be astonished.”
— The New Interpreter’s Study Bible
In what appears to be an attempt at compromise, some Christians have proposed that the Suffering Servant is a “corporate personality,” that represents both Israel and the Messiah simultaneously. Jews disagree, and refuse to allow Jesus to piggy-back on Israel’s prophecy.
Regardless of who’s right, the fact that there exists serious doubts about who the Suffering Servant represents does not bode well for the clarity of Isaiah 53. What we need for a prophecy to be convincing is clarity and specificity, and if we can’t nail down the identity of the Suffering Servant (no pun intended), then it doesn’t matter one bit or cubit what Isaiah 53 has to say about him. We need to be absolutely certain the prophecy refers to the future messiah, and this is highly debatable.
Still, Isaiah 53 is far too critical to ignore, so I wanted to investigate its key verses for myself. Since the story begins in Isaiah 52:13, I’ll start there.
Isaiah 52:13 – See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Isaiah begins by speaking of a servant. Who is the servant? This seems to be spelled out in earlier chapters:
“You are My servant, O Israel” (41:8)
“But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.” (44:1)
“Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel” (44:21)
“You are My servant, Israel” (49:3)
Christians point out that Isaiah also names specific servants elsewhere (e.g. David, Eliakim, and Isaiah himself). Unfortunately, Isaiah never clearly identifies any individual as the Suffering Servant. Because Isaiah fails to do so, I think we have to assume the servant is Israel, unless there is some very strong textual evidence to the contrary.
If it was Isaiah’s intention to speak of the Messiah, it would’ve been nice had he actually said so, instead of using the same moniker to identify both Israel and the Messiah, which has led to 2,000 years of confusion.
52:14 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 —
Christians most often link this disfigurement to Jesus’ execution, but I see a couple serious problems with this:
- Isaiah strongly suggests these disfigurements are lifelong afflictions; the Servant grows up without beauty (53:2), and people turn their heads from him because of it (53:3).
- If we assume this is just speaking of Jesus’ execution, can we honestly state that Jesus was “disfigured beyond that of any human being”? Despite how Mel Gibson might imagine it, the Bible says that Jesus’ most serious wounds were to his hands, feet, and side. No bones were broken, and no serious disfigurement remained after his resurrection, despite the persistence of his other injuries (John 20:27).
If I were reading Isaiah 2,000 years ago and went in search of this character (believing it to be about the Messiah), I would start my search with the local lepers, not the local carpenters. If someone even suggested Jesus, I’d immediately disqualify him for his obvious lack of disfigurement. The author of the ancient Babylonian Talmud also seems to agree, identifying the Suffering Servant as “The Leper Scholar.”
52:15 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.
Jews say this is a clue to whom is going to speak next, the kings and nations of the world, whose eyes have finally been opened and they are now realizing that it is Israel who has suffered for mankind.
53:3 – 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.
Christians say it was Jesus who was “despised and rejected,” but Jews say that it was Israel that was made to suffer. Jews also point out that Jesus was actually quite popular, and often followed by crowds of thousands.
Isaiah also states that the Suffering Servant was a “man of suffering, familiar with pain,” yet by all appearances, Jesus was a man of little suffering, unfamiliar with any serious pain, up to his execution.
If you were asked to pick one truly unique characteristic about Jesus, it would probably be his ability to perform miracles, but Isaiah doesn’t say, “Go look for the guy doing miracles,” he says “Look for the ugly suffering guy,” which would be no help to those trying to identify him.
53:5 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.
For the believer, it is Jesus who was pierced for our sins (note: the majority of Bible translators prefer to translate the word “pierced” as “wounded”).
When we read this verse with Jesus in mind, it’s easy to read other assumptions into the text. For example, Isaiah never says that the servant dies from his piercings, nor how many times he was pierced, nor where on his body, or why. We assume there were three piercings, to a cross, through his hands and feet, for the purpose of execution, but Isaiah never says this. In fact, Jesus could’ve been stabbed on a battlefield, or shot with an arrow, or bitten by a snake, or had his ear pierced as a slave, and we could still associate this verse to him (regardless of whether he lived or died).
Interestingly, many Jews claim that this verse was purposefully mistranslated, and that it should read: “But he was wounded from our transgressions, he was crushed as a result of our iniquities.” The servant Israel suffers because of the sinfulness of others, not for them.
53:7 – “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.”
It’s possible that Jesus, believing himself to be the Messiah, could’ve been motivated by Isaiah to remain silent at his trials. But there’s some evidence the gospel writers attempted to downplay how much Jesus spoke in order to make him a better fit for this prophecy.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that Jesus only said a few words to Pilate, afterwards Pilate is amazed by his silence. However, John 18:34-19:11 reports a much longer conversation with Pilate. So the question is, did John lie about this long conversation? Or did the other gospel writers choose to edit it so that Jesus appears silent?
53:8 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.
Jews claim that this verse, too, was translated with Christian bias, and it should read “…as a result of the transgression of my people, they were afflicted.” The important distinction being that “they” (not “he”) were multiple individuals who were punished.
53:9 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.
Christians sometimes claim the “grave with the wicked” was Jesus execution between two thieves, while “with the rich in his death” refers to the rich man’s tomb. But since a grave is usually a final resting place, it would’ve been more accurate to say the opposite: “He was assigned death with the wicked, and with the rich in his grave.”
But more importantly, Christians claim that Isaiah couldn’t possibly be referring to Israel here, because only Jesus had “done no violence” and had no “deceit in his mouth.”
However, in the previous chapter, God speaks of Assyria placing His people into exile “for no reason”…
“So what do I find here? asks the LORD. My people are taken away for no reason.” (52:5)
So just prior to this song about an innocent Suffering Servant, we have God saying his servants were taken away for no reason, suggesting that they were possibly suffering for sins they didn’t commit.
53:10 But 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.
Again, Jews claim this should be translated “… if he would offer himself as a guilt offering, he shall see his seed…” In other words, if the people of Israel would only repent, they would prosper. Jews also point out that Jesus had no offspring.
For Christians, the meaning of offspring is reinterpreted to mean the saved, rather than literal children.
53:11 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.
Why would Jesus suffer and then “see the light of life and be satisfied”? And if this were truly predicting Jesus, shouldn’t it read: “…by his blood my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.” How does his knowledge serve to bear our iniquities?
Jews insist that it’s Israel’s knowledge of God that justifies many.
53:12 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.
Christians point out that Israel couldn’t have poured out its life unto death, because it is still alive. However, both Jesus and Jews in exile could be said to have poured out their lives unto death, and been numbered with transgressors, and forced to bare the sins of others. However, only Israel could be given a “portion among the great” (e.g. great nations). How could Jesus be given a portion among the great? Great what? Great Gods? Israel too can “divide the spoils with the strong,” but with whom would Jesus divide his spoils?
So who is Isaiah really talking about?
I would have to concur with the Christian commentators quoted earlier, I think it’s most likely that Isaiah is speaking of Israel, by way of the exiled Jews. I believe this because:
- The exile was the big concern of Isaiah’s day,
- The preceding chapter is speaking about the Jews in exile,
- Isaiah identifies Israel as his servant (and no one else) nine times in the chapters preceding Isaiah 53 (from chapter 40 on),
- Isaiah speaks of the suffering in the past-tense (the exiled had already suffered),
- Elsewhere, it is always Israel that is made to suffer, and never the forthcoming Messiah.
In Isaiah’s day, he must’ve been motivated to explain the suffering that the Jews were facing. He was undoubtedly bombarded with questions like: “Hey Isaiah, why isn’t God helping us? Are the gods of our enemies more powerful?”
Isaiah needed to explain why God was acting so indifferent and… well… non-existent. He answered them by saying (and I’m paraphrasing): “The word of the Lord came to me, and said that some suffering was required as a sin offering for Israel, because birds and sheep were no longer cutting it. But as soon as we’re done with this whole exile thing, we’re all gonna head on back up to Israel and God will return it to its former glory. And it’s gonna be awesome! We’ll have music and kosher barbecues every night, unleavened cake and ice cream, sack races — it’ll be like a never-ending bar mitzvah! God will even bring about a great new king, who will knock the socks off our enemies and help to bring about world peace, so you and your offspring can live happily ever after! Oh, and these people who now enslave us — they’re really gonna regret it!” “Wow!” said the exiled Jews, who happily returned to their slaving.
Isaiah’s words gave meaning and purpose to their suffering, and gave them hope for the future.
So how did Isaiah 53 come to be associated with Jesus?
As the centuries began to tick by, numerous men came forward to announce their candidacy for Messiah (nice work if you can get it). Jesus’ disciples thought that he fit the bill, but not satisfied with just being Messiah, Jesus announced his candidacy for God’s-own-son, and was promptly executed.
His disciples, disheartened and disillusioned by their Messiah’s untimely demise, likely began searching the scriptures for anything that might shed light on the situation. The key event in Jesus’ life was his recent execution, which could be linked to many verses. For example, Psalms 22:16 says “They have pierced my hands and feet.” A possible connection, but it didn’t really explain the situation.
Isaiah 53 also spoke of being “pierced,” but it was what came next that would launch Jesus into the stratosphere — he was pierced for our transgressions! And presto! Jesus was transformed from just another failed Messiah to an integral part of God’s plan! Best of all, no one could ever prove that Jesus wasn’t able to forgive sins, or that he wasn’t able to get people into heaven.
The disciples quickly re-branded their dead candidate Messiah, and began marketing him as a new-and-improved sin-cleanser. Anyone who wanted access to heaven had to buy what the disciples were selling (figuratively speaking), and business was good.
The other verses in Isaiah 53 were seen as far less critical, but are vague enough to allow us to shoehorn details from Jesus’ life into them (well, most of them).
And with that, Isaiah’s personification of Israel morphed into an individual.
The Jewish Empire Strikes Back
About this same time, Jews everywhere suddenly felt a great disturbance in the Jew-force. Christianity was spreading rapidly, and it was up to the Jews to point out some inconvenient truths about this newly proposed Messiah. They pointed out that:
- God is opposed to the idea of an innocent person dying in the place of a sinner (Exodus 32:32-33, Deuteronomy 24:16, Ezekiel 18:1-4).
- God is opposed to human sacrifice (Genesis 22:10-13, Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 18:10).
- There is no other collaborating evidence outside of Isaiah 53 that supports the idea of a sacrificial Messiah who dies for the sins of the world.
- Nowhere does the scripture teach that one will need to believe in a sacrificial Messiah in order to obtain forgiveness.
- God already forgave sins, so a sacrifice was unnecessary (II Chronicles 7:14, Ezekiel 18:21-22, Ezekiel 33:14-16, Jeremiah 36:3, Isaiah 55:6- 7, Jonah 3:6-10, Daniel 4:27, Hosea 14:1-3, Proverbs 16:6).
- And finally, Jesus didn’t fulfill all the Messianic prophecies. He didn’t become king, or bring about world peace.
But their effort made little difference, Jesus was just too charismatic. Their prophecy had been hijacked. This was not how the Jews imagined it would go down, not at all. They imagined the kings of the world would eventually look up to them, not Jesus.
The Power of Prophecy?
Under question #32 (Can prophecies prove the Bible is true?), I wrote that prophecies were not the most reliable means for determining truth, and listed 20 ways in which prophecies can be misleading. I was surprised to find over half of these were operating inside of Isaiah 53.
It starts with a simple prediction, or suggestion (#7). By suggesting that God will send a leader, people begin searching for one. After they find a possible match, it becomes a self-fulfilled prophecy (#4). But had there never been the suggestion, no one would’ve begun looking, no one would’ve associated Jesus with it, and no one would’ve interpreted his life as a sin offering.
By the time Jesus was born, Isaiah was well known, and could’ve potentially inspired some of Jesus’ actions (#1). After his death, disciples mined the scriptures for prophecies they could match up to events in Jesus’ life (#9). They found a great one (#16), and then they took the the surrounding verses and began mining Jesus’ life for other loose associations (#9). It didn’t really matter if Isaiah said he was “despised and rejected” or “celebrated and accepted,” we just flip through the catalog that is Jesus’ life until we find a plausible match (#3 & #9).
Once the key connection was made (Jesus forgives sins), confirmation bias takes over (#8), and people begin seeing Jesus all throughout the Old Testament, even in places where he was never intended (#9).
Wherever prophecies didn’t exactly match up, such as not opening his mouth at his trial, the details were embellished. This works so long as no one can disprove it (#19). And specific prophecies that went unfulfilled, but were not easily lied about, were given alternate and non-falsifiable explanations. Things like Jesus not becoming king or having offspring were given metaphorical or spiritual explanations (#18). And his failure to bring about world peace was made “eternally pending” (#17).
Eventually, biased Christian translators would come along and changed words like “them” to “he” and “wounded” to “pierced,” changes that made it easier for future generations to make the same connections (#13).
All these things work together so that today, a casual reading of Isaiah 53 appears impressive and convincing.
What does the Suffering Servant have to do with Abraham Lincoln?
Nothing, but all this talk of shoehorning known events into vague prophecies made me wonder… would it be possible to take another iconic individual and match him up to the Suffering Servant?
Abraham Lincoln was the first person to come to mind, so let’s gave it a try…
- He acted wisely and was highly exalted (52:1)
- He was disfigured –Lincoln was taller than most men, and shot in the head (52:2)
- He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him — he wasn’t very attractive and came from a poor family (53:2)
- He was despised and rejected — by the South and slave owners (53:3)
- He was familiar with suffering — he suffered from chronic depression, lost two young children, and constantly anguished over the Civil War (53:3)
- He was pierced — shot in the head! (53:5)
- And died for our transgressions — he died because of our immoral desire to enslave others (53:5)
- The punishment that brought us peace was upon him — he kept the union together while bringing freedom to the slaves (53:5)
- Lincoln did not open his mouth when he was slaughtered (53:7)
- He was cut off from the land of the living (53:8)
- He was assigned a grave with the wicked — he was murdered by an assassin (53:9)
- And with the rich in his death — via costly and elaborate monuments (53:9)
- It was the Lord’s will for Lincoln to suffer for the freedom of others — can you prove it wasn’t? (53:10)
- Lincoln had literal offspring (53:10)
- God prolonged his days — He died at 56, when life expectancy was less than 40 (53:10)
- Lincoln’s knowledge justified many (53:11)
- And he was given a portion among the great — he is remembered as one of our greatest Presidents (53:12)
- He made intercession for the transgressors — the South (53:12)
- And he poured out his life — in service to his cause — unto death (53:12)
And just for good measure, Lincoln was also seen by several credible eye-witnesses after his death!
If we can find 19 similarities between the Suffering Servant and Abraham Lincoln, is it really so hard to imagine that early Christians couldn’t do the same with Jesus?
The Christians inside my head are now yelling: “But wait! Lincoln never fulfilled all the messianic prophecies!” True, but neither did Jesus! Perhaps these unfulfilled prophecies are still on Lincoln’s to-do list for when he returns… perhaps his return is right around the corner… we’ll just have to wait and see. (Or not.)
In reality, there have been other candidates for the Suffering Servant, including Isaiah himself, and King Uzziah (a leper who lived during Isaiah’s time), and Cyrus the Great, who freed Jews from exile. Isaiah even calls Cyrus “anointed” (a term used to describe the Messiah) and a “shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28-45:1).
When we read Isaiah 53, I think we see what we want to see, or what we’ve been taught to see. Jews see the reason they suffer and hope for the future, Christians see a Messiah who loved them enough to suffer and die, and skeptics see vague prophecies that were retroactively mined and misapplied to one charismatic Jewish carpenter.
But I have to ask myself, “Is there really a God, and is He really trying to communicate with us through Isaiah?” If he is, it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t able provide more specific, tenable prophecies.
Unfortunately, the prophet Isaiah is long gone, and we can’t empirically test his prophetic abilities. All we have are his vague, often probable, enigmatic prophecies. Since this is all we have, these need to describe extremely specific and highly improbable events in order to be compelling. And even then, it’s not an exact science.
The most specific prediction Isaiah gives is that the Messiah (if it’s even about the Messiah) would be “disfigured beyond that of any human being.” In my honest assessment, Isaiah is describing a lifetime of disfigurement, and so Jesus fails to qualify. The other details Isaiah provides are probable or vague, so that anyone could fit into Isaiah’s rubber mold (e.g. lots of people are wounded, celebrated, suffer, have children, etc.).
If there is no God, then Isaiah’s predictions are all bogus. This would explain why God frequently failed the Jews, and why He still has yet to send their promised messiah. It would also explain why Jesus didn’t fulfill the most difficult messianic prophecies, and why he never returned.
Rather than being predicted by Isaiah 53, I think Jesus was defined by it.
But there are many other prophecies that are said to be about Jesus, and I plan to investigate some of these in the future, but if Isaiah 53 is one of the best, then I don’t hold out much hope for the others.