The Suffering Servant. Who is this prophet talking about? Back
The other big issue coming out of Isaiah’s prophecy centres on this passage:
‘Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently; He shall be exalted and extolled and be
very high. Just as many were astonished at you, so his visage was marred more than
any man, and his form more than the sons of men; so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at him; for what had not been told them they shall
see, and what they had not heard they shall consider.
Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For
he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He
has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should
desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted
with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him; He was despised, and we did
not esteem him.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was
bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his
stripes 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; he was led as
a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened
not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare
his generation? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions
of my people he was stricken. And they made his grave with the wicked, but with
the rich at his death, because he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; He has put him to grief. When you make his
soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the
pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see the labour of his soul,
and be satisfied. By his knowledge my righteous servant shall justify many, for he
shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul unto
death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bore the sin of many, and
made intercession for the transgressors.’ Isaiah 52.13-53.12.
Who is the prophet talking about?
According to Rashi, writing in about 1050, the answer is clear. The prophet is talking
about Israel suffering for the Gentiles. Today the almost universal view taken
by Rabbis is that this is the Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53.
However according to Arnold Fruchtenbaum: ‘Every rabbi prior to Rashi, without exception,
viewed this passage as describing Messiah. When Rashi first proposed that this passage
spoke of the nation of Israel, he sparked a fierce debate with his contemporaries.
The most famous of these was Rambam, better known as Maimonides. Rambam stated
very clearly that Rashi is completely wrong and going against the traditional Jewish
The Targum is an ancient paraphrase of the Bible by Jonathan ben Uzziel from the
first century. His Targums were often quoted by early Rabbis and he was considered
an authority on the Jewish view of the Bible. His Targum of Isaiah 52.13 clearly
connects this passage to the Messiah, saying, ‘Behold my Servant Messiah shall prosper
A prayer written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur (Day
of Atonement) in around the 7th century reads: ‘Messiah our righteousness is departed
from us; horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the
yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression and is wounded because of our transgression.
He bears our sin upon his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We
shall be healed by his wound at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah)
as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from
Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.’ (3)This prayer quotes from Isaiah 53 and connects this passage to Messiah who ‘bears
our sin’ and who has ‘departed from us’ which has become a matter of horror because
now ‘we have none to justify us’. Yinnon is a name for Messiah so the prayer even
speaks of Messiah coming a second time to ‘assemble us’.
Rabbi Moshe Cohen Ibn Crispin of Cordova in Spain at about 1350 wrote about Isaiah
53 in a refutation of Rashi’s view: ‘I shall be free from the forced and far fetched
interpretations of which others have been guilty. This prophecy was delivered by
Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about
the nature of the future Messiah who is to come and deliver Israel.’(4)
Rabbi Alshech wrote in about 1550 about Isaiah 53: ‘Our Rabbis with one voice accept
and confirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the King Messiah and we shall
ourselves also adhere to the same view.’ (5)
Rabbi Eliyyah de Vidas wrote in about 1575 that not only is Isaiah 53 about the Messiah,
but those who refuse to believe this must suffer for their sins themselves: ‘But
he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the meaning of
which is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities which produce the effect of
his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers
for our iniquities must endure and suffer for them himself.’ (6)
All these Rabbis are saying that Isaiah 53 is about Messiah suffering for sin not
about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles.
So is Rashi right when he says Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about Israel suffering for
the Gentiles? If so, are those Rabbis who claim that this is about the sufferings
of the Messiah wrong? If we examine the text, Rashi’s interpretation raises some
It means that Isaiah is a Gentile. Verses 5 and 6 have to mean the following:
‘He (Israel) was wounded for our transgressions.’ ‘All we (Gentiles) like sheep
have gone astray … and the Lord has laid on him (Israel) the iniquity of us all.’
In the passage the pronouns we, us, our must refer to Isaiah and the people he identifies
with while the pronouns he, him, his refer to the ‘Servant.’ In this case the people
Isaiah identifies with are Gentiles and the people identified with the Servant are
So was Isaiah 53 written by a Gentile?
It also means that Israel bears the sins of the Gentiles in some kind of atoning
way. So what did Isaiah mean in the first chapter of his prophecy when he spoke
in the strongest language imaginable about Israel’s sins and called his own people
to repentance? ‘Alas sinful nation. A people laden with iniquity, a brood of evildoers,
children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to
anger the Holy One of Israel.’ Isaiah 1.4. How can someone who is sinful bear the
sins of others?
In reality Israel suffers because of the sins of the Gentiles not on behalf of the
Gentiles. Gentiles who reject the true understanding of God and the Messiah have
often persecuted the Jewish people. But this does no good to the Gentiles responsible
and puts them under God’s curse according to Genesis 12.3 ‘I will bless them that
bless you and curse him that curses you’. There is no way that anti-Semitism brings
any good on those responsible, but the Servant of Isaiah 53 offers justification
and healing even to those responsible for his suffering, provided they turn to him
that he may bear their iniquities (verse 11).
Rashi’s interpretation implies that Jewish people are sin bearers for the Gentiles.
That lines up in a way with the stereotype which Gentile anti-Semites have put on
the Jewish people making them the scapegoats who are responsible for all that is
wrong in their own society. Another point on this issue is that Jewish people have
never willingly suffered at the hands of Gentiles, whereas the Servant of Isaiah
53 offers himself of his own will as a sacrifice.
It means that Israel / the Jewish people will cease to live. The Servant of Isaiah
53 is literally put to death. ‘He was cut off from the land of the living’ (v 8).
‘He poured out His soul unto death’ (v 12). Individual Jewish people have been
put to death. In the Holocaust a demon inspired leader sought to destroy the whole
Jewish people. But despite the evil intentions of anti-Semites - ‘Am Israel Chai’
– The people of Israel live. This fulfils the prophecy of Jeremiah 31.35-37 which
says that as long as the sun, moon and stars endure so long will Israel be a nation
before the Lord. The Servant of Isaiah 53 dies and is resurrected to ‘see the travail
of His soul’. The Jewish people have never ceased to exist and therefore do not
need to be resurrected as a whole people.
So what if Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah?
So far we have treated this as a debate within Judaism about different rabbinic interpretations,
which may be interesting, but not in itself earth shattering. But if Rashi is wrong
and the prophecy is not about Israel suffering for the nations and it is about the
Messiah, there remains an interpretation which does raise a very big problem for
The prayer of Rabbi Kalir quoted above speaks of Messiah as one who has departed
from us and who bears our sins and who will bring us healing. Rabbi Eliyah de Vidas
tells us that whoever does not believe that Messiah suffers for our iniquities, ‘must
endure and suffer for them himself.’
If the Messiah has ‘departed from us’ does that mean that he has already appeared?
Is there a figure in history who has already borne the sins of others? If we do
not believe in him do we have to endure and suffer for our sins ourselves?
The New Testament claims that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross are the fulfilment of
Isaiah 53. Does this interpretation make sense of the text? We invite you to study
this text and look up the references given in the New Testament.
These verses introduce the Servant who is described in detail in the verses that
follow. The servant will be exalted very high. Prior to his exaltation he was to
be humiliated and physically abused to the point where he became almost unrecognisable.
As a result he would ‘sprinkle many nations’ and kings would be silent before him.
The crucifixion account is brief and graphic:
‘So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered
Jesus, after he had scourged him, to be crucified. Then the soldiers led him away
into the hall called Praetorium, and they called together the whole garrison. And
they clothed him with purple; and they twisted a crown of thorns, put it on his head,
and began to salute him, "Hail, King of the Jews!" Then they struck him on the head
with a reed and spat on him; and bowing the knee, they worshipped him. And when
they had mocked him, they took the purple off him, put his own clothes on him, and
led him out to crucify him. Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian,
the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing
by, to bear his cross. And they brought him to the place Golgotha, which is translated,
Place of a Skull.
Then they gave him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, but he did not take it. And
when they crucified him, they divided his garments, casting lots for them to determine
what every man should take. Now it was the third hour, and they crucified him. And
the inscription of his accusation was written above: THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ Mark
Anyone going through this level of physical abuse and humiliation would become almost
unrecognisable as Isaiah prophesied. Yet despite this humiliation he was to be raised
to life again and ascend to the highest place, just as Isaiah said he would be. Peter
explains this in his speech on the Day of Pentecost:
‘“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you
by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves
also know. Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God,
you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised
up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should
be held by it. For David says concerning him: ‘I foresaw the Lord always before
my face, for he is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart
rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For
you will not leave my soul in Hades (Sheol), nor will you allow your Holy One to
see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full
of joy in your presence.’ (Psalm 19.8-11)
“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is
both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet,
and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body,
according to the flesh, he would raise up the Messiah to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing
this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah, that his soul was not left
in Sheol, nor did his flesh see corruption.”
“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted
to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the
Holy Spirit, he poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend
into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right
hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.’ (Psalm 110.1)
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus,
whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” Acts 2.22-36.
Isaiah 52.15 also speaks about the Servant ‘sprinkling’ many nations. This is the
teaching of the New Testament that the blood of Jesus replaces the blood of the animal
sacrifices as the means whereby God can forgive our sins:
‘But Messiah came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and
more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not
with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood he entered the Most Holy
Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls
and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying
of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve
the living God? And for this reason he is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means
of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that
those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.’ Hebrews
‘This is the message which we have heard from him and declare to you, that God is
light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him,
and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practise the truth. But if we walk in the
light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of
Jesus the Messiah, his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ 1 John 1.5-7.
Isaiah 53.1-3. These verses speak of the rejection which would accompany the ministry
of this Servant. His message would not be believed. His origin and appearance would
not meet the expectations of the people and therefore they would reject him. This
rejection would cause him grief.
The New Testament records the rejection of Jesus throughout the time of his public
ministry, for precisely these reasons. He was rejected by those who thought he was
born in Nazareth not in Bethlehem the place prophesied for the coming Messiah (Micah
5.1, John 1.46, John 7.40-44, John 9.29, John 12.37-41). He was rejected by his
own family and the people he had grown up with who said of him ‘Is not this the carpenter’s
son?’ (See Matthew 13.55, Luke 4.16-30). He was rejected by the religious leaders
who objected to the miracles he did on the Sabbath (John 9.16), his association with
people they considered to be sinners (Matthew 9.11, Luke 15), and above all because
of his claim to be equal with God (Matthew 26.65, Mark 2.7, John 8.58, John 10.30).
He was even rejected at his hour of need by the disciples who could not stay awake
to pray with him at the time of his arrest (Matthew 26.36-46), who ran away and left
him and denied even knowing him (Mark 14.27-72). On the cross he was even rejected
by the Father as the sins of the world were placed upon him. This was why he quoted
the words of the Messianic Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
In all of this Jesus experienced grief just as Isaiah said the Servant would: ‘And
he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and he began to be sorrowful
and deeply distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is extremely sorrowful even
unto death.”’ Matthew 26.37-8.
Isaiah 53.4-6. These verses take the sufferings of the Servant further and describe
the purpose of his suffering. His death would be misinterpreted by those who said
he was stricken by God and afflicted (in other words he was suffering for his own
sins). In fact the whole meaning of his sufferings was to atone for the sins of
others. Because he experienced the worst sorrows life can throw at any one, he can
sympathise and carry the griefs of those who are going through suffering now. The
Lord has placed on him the iniquity of us all so that we can be forgiven.
Jesus was accused of blasphemy and treason against Rome and executed as a common
criminal. The Roman governor responsible had the mocking sign, ‘Jesus of Nazareth,
King of the Jews’ placed above the cross which ironically contained the truth about
who Jesus was. However the intention was to mock both Jesus and the Jewish people
whom he despised. The religious leaders also mocked him and implied that it was
his own fault for making false claims to be the Messiah and the King of Israel that
he had been executed (Mark 14-15). Even today scoffers say ‘Jesus suffered for his
own sins not mine.’
Yet every person who turns to Jesus in sincerity discovers that he is able to forgive
their sins and give them eternal life. The reason for the death of Jesus is made
plain in the New Testament:
‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’ Luke 19.10.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes
in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son
into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’
‘Messiah also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his
steps: who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth; who, when he was
reviled, did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but committed
himself to him who judges righteously; who himself bore our sins in his own body
on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness, by whose
stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned
to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.’ 1 Peter 3.21-25.
Isaiah 53.7-9. These verses tell us about the sufferings of the Messiah from a human
point of view. He would be brought to trial and willingly accept the death sentence
handed down to him, despite its injustice. He would be literally put to death and
once again it is stated that his death would be for the sins of ‘my people’. Although
he would be expected to be put in a grave with the wicked there would be some intervention
of ‘the rich’ at the point of his death.
Jesus’ trials before Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate were both unfair and a denial of
both Jewish and Roman law. ‘Now the chief priests, the elders and all the council
sought false testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but found none.’ Matthew
26.59. Jesus did not try to defend himself, knowing that it was necessary for him
to go to the cross in order to redeem the world. ‘And while he was being accused
by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. Then Pilate said to him, “Do
you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he answered him not
one word, so that the governor marvelled greatly.’ Matthew 27.12-14.
The Roman soldiers who had witnessed countless similar executions were in no doubt
that Jesus was dead before he was taken down from the cross (John 19.32-35). What
happened next is very interesting in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy. The usual practice
was for crucifixion victims to stay on the cross as a warning to others not to go
against the power of the occupying Romans, or for their bodies to be taken down and
thrown into a common grave in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. If either
had happened to Jesus the next event, the resurrection, would have lost its force.
So God caused a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea to intervene and ask Pontius Pilate
for the body of Jesus so he could bury him in his own tomb (Matthew 27.57-60). Pilate
agreed to this, perhaps influenced by his wife’s dream not to have anything to do
with ‘that just man’ (Matthew 27.19), perhaps because of Roman superstitions about
Jesus as a miracle worker (the Roman authorities would have known that Jesus had
raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11.47-48). The body of Jesus was placed in a
sealed tomb with a stone rolled across it, so when the resurrection happened it was
much easier to verify or discredit the story than it would have been if the body
had been thrown into a common grave. It therefore became much more difficult to take
seriously the rumours that the disciples had stolen the body (Matthew 28). It would
have been relatively easy for the authorities to verify this rumour and thereby discredit
the whole Messianic movement by simply producing the body of Jesus if they had been
able to, thus showing that the disciples were liars. Less than two months later the
disciples were preaching in Jerusalem that Jesus was risen from the dead and facing
opposition, imprisonment and even death for doing so. You don’t do that for a story
you have made up.
Isaiah 53.10-12. These verses tell us the purpose of the Servant’s death and speak
of his resurrection from the dead. He would be satisfied by seeing his ‘seed’ and
bring justification to many by bearing their iniquities. God would highly exalt
him because he was willing to be considered a transgressor and die. He would make
intercession for transgressors.
As we have already seen in Chapter 1 the ultimate responsibility for the death of
Jesus is with God. Isaiah 53.10 tells us that ‘it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
He has put him to grief’. The New Testament agrees entirely with this and places
responsibility for Jesus’ death on the sins of the world and the will of God (Acts
4.25-28). His death was to be literal, as Jesus’ death was, and yet he would ‘see
his seed and be satisfied.’ How can this be possible? The only way is because he
rises from the dead. Jesus explained this to the disciples and then commissioned
them to go into all the world and tell people about him. In this way others would
come to know him and he would be satisfied as he saw that all the pain of the cross
was worthwhile because it would bring multitudes of people all over the world into
the kingdom of God:
‘Then he said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still
with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses
and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me. And he opened their understanding,
that they might comprehend the Scriptures.’
‘Then he said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Messiah
to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission
of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And
you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon
you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”’
The Book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel beginning in Jerusalem and then
going out to ‘Judea and Samaria’ and to the ends of the earth. In this way multitudes
of people would be justified, put right with God:
‘But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the
blood of Messiah. For he himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken
down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, that
is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in himself one
new man from the two, thus making peace, and that he might reconcile them both to
God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And he came
and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through
him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.’
Finally to remind us that the idea that he wanted his followers to avenge his death
was the very furthest thing from his mind, we read in Isaiah that he made intercession
for sinners. Jesus’ words from the cross were ‘Father forgive them for they know
not what they do.’ Luke 23.34.
What I have written above is by no means an exhaustive list of ways in which Isaiah
53 points to the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. If Rashi is wrong
about the passage being about Israel suffering on behalf of the Gentiles and if Rabbi
Alshech is right that it is about the sufferings of the Messiah is there any other
candidate who can be found apart from Jesus who does fulfil it? The Suffering Servant
of Isaiah is the Messiah who redeems his people from their sins. Isaiah of course
is not a Gentile, but the great Jewish prophet to whom God revealed truths which
were to be fulfilled centuries later in the person of Yeshua / Jesus the Messiah.
Footnotes (After reading the footnote click the Back button)
1. Messianic Christology by Arnold Fruchtenbaum page 54.
2. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters (New York:
Ktav Publishing House, Inc, 1969) page 5.
3. Prayer Book for the Day of Atonement (New York Hebrew Publishing Company, 1931)
4. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 99-102.
5. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 258.
6. The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters page 386.