On the Suffering Servant

The song of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is one of the most well-known passages in the Bible. It speaks of the suffering, death and resurrection of the coming Messiah hundreds of years before it happened. In this article, I’ll be considering the passage in its wider biblical context. I’ll also be drawing implications for how we think about the atonement in general.

One like Solomon

The song of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 contains a number of allusions to other biblical themes. One of the first things we should notice is several allusions to king Solomon. In the first few verses (52:13-15), we are told that the servant will “act wisely”, that he would “be exalted” and that kings from “many nations” will be amazed at him. All of these are things said of Solomon in 1 Kings (1 Kings 3:9-14, 4:29-34, 10:1-10, 23-25).

Later in the passage, similar themes emerge. After his suffering and death, the life of the servant is said to be “prolonged” so that he will “prosper” (53:10). These are blessings promised to Solomon if he continued to obey the will of God (1 Kings 3:13-14). The servant is also said to make many righteous by his “knowledge” or wisdom (53:11), an attribute clearly associated with Solomon.

The notion of making others righteous by “knowledge” or wisdom is fascinating. We often think of Christ making us righteous by his death on our behalf. But we don’t often consider the wisdom of Christ as playing a role in our salvation. The notion of believers having wisdom and maturity in Christ is a notable theme in the new testament (eg. 1 Corinthians 2:6, Ephesians 4:13-14, Colossians 1:28, Hebrews 5:14).

Israel Personified

Another significant theme in the passage is the servant as a personification of the people of Israel. Several times throughout Isaiah, the people of Israel are described as God’s “servant” (eg. 41:8-9, 44:1), so as we read about this servant, it’s natural to associate the two. In 53:2 for instance, Isaiah speaks of the servant as being like “a young plant” and like “a root out of dry ground”. This echoes the beginning of the book, in which Isaiah had described Israel as being like a vineyard (5:1-7).

Not only that but the suffering of the servant is described in similar terms to the exile experienced by Israel. Like Israel taken into exile, the servant is regarded as “stricken” and “afflicted” by God (53:4). In 53:8, the language is even more specific, speaking of the servant as being “taken away” and even “cut off out of the land of the living” (53:8). Like Israel taken away and removed from their land by the Assyrians and Babylonians, the suffering servant is removed from the land of life and taken away in death.

Suffering Prophet

A final parallel worth considering is with the prophet Isaiah himself. Like Israel, he too is portrayed as a servant of God (eg. Isaiah 50:10). And his suffering seems to parallel that of the servant in many ways. Like the servant, he refuses to resist those who oppress and afflict him (50:6a, cf. 53:7). Like the servant, he is despised by others (50:6b, cf. 53:3).

This perhaps explains how the sin of the people lands upon the servant. Just as Isaiah becomes the scapegoat, the focal point of the people’s rejection of God, so too does the servant become a type of scapegoat. The punishment that he endures is the “oppression and judgement” of the people (53:8). The servant quite literally bears the wickedness of the people so that he might “make intercession” for them (53:12).

Of course, it’s also true in a sense that God is ultimately the one who hands the servant over to judgement (53:4, 6, 10). As with the sending of Israel into exile under Assyria and Babylon, God is ultimately working behind the scenes of history. Yet in the ultimate fulfilment, it’s a judgement mediated through human powers, through corrupt Jewish and Roman authorities. And this very suffering becomes the means by which the nations are redeemed.

“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”

(Isaiah 52:15)

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