Who Is the Suffering Servant? Isaiah 53 Interpretations

Jesus Reads from the Scroll of Isaiah
Jesus Reads from the Scroll of Isaiah.

Peter Dennis / Getty Images

 

Chapter 53 of the book of Isaiah may be the most hotly disputed passage in all of Scripture— with good reason. Christianity claims that these verses in Isaiah 53 foretell a specific, individual person as the Messiah, or savior of the world from sin, while Judaism maintains they point instead to a faithful remnant group of the Jewish people.

Key Takeaways: Isaiah 53

  • Judaism holds that the singular pronoun "he" in Isaiah 53 refers to the Jewish people as an individual.
  • Christianity holds that the verses of Isaiah 53 are a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus Christ in his sacrificial death for humanity's sin.

Judaism's View of Isaiah's Servant Songs

Isaiah contains four "Servant Songs," descriptions of service and suffering of the servant of the Lord:

  • First Servant Song: Isaiah 42:1-9;
  • Second Servant Song: Isaiah 49:1-13;
  • Third Servant Song: Isaiah 50:4-11;
  • Fourth Servant Song: Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12.

Judaism makes its case that the first three Servant Songs refer to the nation of Israel, so the fourth one must too. Some rabbis say the whole Jewish people are viewed as an individual in these verses, hence the singular pronoun. The one who was constantly faithful to the one true God was the nation of Israel, and in the fourth song, the gentile kings surrounding that nation finally recognize that.

In rabbinic interpretations of Isaiah 53, the suffering servant described in the passage is not Jesus of Nazareth but rather the remnant of Israel, treated as one person.

Christianity's View of the Fourth Servant Song

Christianity points to pronouns used in Isaiah 53 to determine identities. This interpretation says "I" refers to God, "he" refers to the servant, and "we" to the servant's disciples.

Christianity says 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.

In claiming Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of humanity, Christians point to prophecies in Isaiah 53 that were fulfilled by Christ:

  • "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." (Isaiah 53:3, ESV) Jesus was rejected by the Sanhedrin then and is denied by Judaism today as the savior.
  • "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." (Isaiah 53:5, ESV). Jesus was pierced in his hands, feet and side in his crucifixion.
  • "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." (Isaiah 53:6, ESV). Jesus taught that he had to be sacrificed in the place of sinful people and that their sins would be placed upon him, as sins were placed upon sacrificial lambs.
  • "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." (Isaiah 53:7, ESV) When accused by Pontius Pilate, Jesus remained silent. He did not defend himself.
  • "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." (Isaiah 53:9, ESV) Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one of whom said they deserved to be there. Further, Jesus was buried in the new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Sanhedrin member.
  • "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." (Isaiah 53:11, ESV) Christianity teaches that Jesus was righteous and died a substitutionary death to atone for the sins of the world. His righteousness is imputed to believers, justifying them before God the Father.
  • "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 53:12, ESV) Finally, Christian doctrine says Jesus became the sacrifice for sin, the "Lamb of God." He took on the role of High Priest, interceding for sinners with God the Father.

    Jewish Mashiach or Anointed One

    According to Judaism, all of these prophetic interpretations are wrong. Some background on the Jewish concept of Messiah is necessary at this point.

    The Hebrew word HaMashiach, or Messiah, does not appear in the Tanach, or Old Testament. Although it does appear in the New Testament, Jews do not recognize New Testament writings as God-inspired.

    However, the term "anointed one" does appear in the Old Testament. All Jewish kings were anointed with oil. When the Bible speaks of a coming anointed one, Jews believe that person will be a human being, not divine. He will reign as king of Israel during a future age of perfection.

    According to Judaism, the prophet Elijah will reappear before the anointed one comes (Malachi 4:5-6). They point to John the Baptist's denial that he was Elijah (John 1:21) as proof that John was not Elijah, although Jesus did say twice that John was Elijah (Matthew 11:13-14; 17:10-13).

    Isaiah 53 Interpretations of Grace vs. Works

    Isaiah chapter 53 is not the only Old Testament passage that Christians say foretells the coming of Jesus Christ. Indeed, some Bible scholars say there are over 300 Old Testament prophecies that point to Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of the world.

    Judaism's denial of Isaiah 53 as prophetic of Jesus goes back to the very nature of that religion. Judaism does not believe in the doctrine of original sin, the Christian teaching that Adam's sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden was passed on to every generation of humanity. Jews believe they are born good, not sinful.

    Rather, Judaism is a religion of works, or mitzvah, ritual obligations. The myriad commands are both positive ("You shall…") and negative ("You shall not…"). Obedience, ritual, and prayer are paths to bring a person closer to God and to bring God into the everyday.

    When Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry in ancient Israel, Judaism had become a burdensome practice no one was able to perform. Jesus offered himself as the fulfillment of prophecy and the answer to the problem of sin:

    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." (Matthew 5:17, ESV)

    For those who believe in him as Savior, Jesus' righteousness is imputed to them through God's grace, a free gift which cannot be earned.

    Saul of Tarsus

    Saul of Tarsus, a student of the learned rabbi Gamaliel, was certainly familiar with Isaiah 53. Like Gamaliel, he was a Pharisee, from a strict Jewish sect that Jesus often clashed with.

    Saul found Christians' belief in Jesus as Messiah so offensive that he hunted them down and threw them in jail. On one such mission, Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus road, and from that moment on, Saul, renamed Paul, believed Jesus was in fact the Messiah and spent the rest of his life preaching that.

    Paul, who had seen the risen Christ, put his faith not so much in prophecies but in Jesus' resurrection. That, Paul said, was indisputable proof that Jesus was the Savior:

    "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (1 Corinthians 15:17-20, ESV)

    Sources

    • A Brief Guide to Judaism: Theology, History, and Practice; Rabbi Naftali Brawer; Running Press Book Publishers, 2008.
    • "The Messianic Idea in Judaism," Tracey R. Rich, Judaism 101; http://www.jewfaq.org/mashiach.htm.
    • "What are the Four Servant Songs in Isaiah?," Got Questions?, https://www.gotquestions.org/Servant-Songs.html.
    • "Who is God's Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isaiah 53," Rabbi Tovia Singer, Outreach Judaism; https://outreachjudaism.org/gods-suffering-servant-isaiah-53/.
    • "Who's the Subject of Isaiah 53? You Decide!," Efraim Goldstein, Jews for Jesus; https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/issues/issues-v13-n06/whos-the-subject-of-isaiah-53-you-decide/.