Who Is The Servant in Isaiah?

Day Twenty-Two of “Through Advent with Isaiah”


A scene from Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film “Silence”, from the 1966 novel by Shusako Endo. In the film two Jesuit priests go to Japan, now forbidden to outsiders, in order to find out what had happened to an earlier Jesuit missionary, and to minister to Japanese Christians.

As discussed in earlier posts, the “servant” of God is a major theme in the Book of Isaiah. Much of the time the servant is identified:

  • Descendants of Jacob and Judah (65:9).
  • The righteous of Israel (54:17, 65:8, 13-15, 66:14).
  • Israel/Jacob (41:8, 41:9, 44:1-2, 21, 45:4, 48:20, and 49:3
  • David(37:35).
  • Isaiah (20:3).
  • Eliakim son of Hilkiah (22:20)the chief steward of the house of David.
  • Foreigners who come to worship God (56:6)

Bernard Duhm identified the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In addition to the collective of the people of Israel, the servant has been identified with

  • Moses.
  • An unnamed individual in the immediate post-exilic age.
  • Cyrus
  • Darius
  • Zerubbabel
  • The historical prophet Isaiah
  • A coming Messiah

Christians use the passage in the very last sense, as a reference to Jesus. Thus, on Good Friday and in the evening office tomorrow night we read the Fourth Servant Song:

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him
—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals—
15 so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

53Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 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,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11   Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.    – Isaiah 52.13-53.12

It is hard for those of us who are Christians to not see the passion of Jesus in this passage. Of course, it is probably the case that the passage influenced the telling of the suffering and death of Jesus. It is also probably the case that Jesus saw himself as the servant of Isaiah, so his disciples likewise saw him as such, and this is captured in the New Testament.

The passage is what certain literary critics would describe as “the fecundity of the text.” It admits many meanings.

One person that I have not seen suggested is an obvious one, but hidden from immediate view – the reader herself or himself. In a time of trauma and suffering, when there is injustice and oppression, to dare to speak truth to power is costly. If one appropriates the vision of Second Isaiah one will sense a call to justice, to defend the orphan and widow, the poor, and the stranger in one midst. One will absorb the critiques of the whole of the book directed at unjust rulers and tyrannical regimes. Suffering comes upon such a person, and it seems as though she or he takes on the sins of the whole people.

Of course, Jesus was just such a person. However, the call of Jesus is not that we sit at the foot of the cross and say, “Thank you for suffering on my behalf” and then go on with our lives unchanged. The call is to take up our cross – which is his cross – and to join with him in challenging sin, death, and the oppressive powers and dominions in this world. Many might see this as purely spiritual, but the fact is that throughout history Jesus’s followers have suffered because of challenging the political powers. Jesus was put to death by a colonizing imperial power, as have many of his disciples through the centuries.

The suffering servant, then, can also be you and me. We may not necessarily suffer for following in the way of Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God, but we may need to be prepared to do so. As Matthew tells us, this danger of suffering was present to Jesus even when he was an infant, when Herod sought his death. The Christmas story is a nice story of a child’s birth, but it is also a story set in a real world, where terror and injustice seeks to destroy the good that comes from God. As we prepare to enter into this story once again, let us recall that it is a story, if understood, comes with a cost and a call.



About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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1 Response to Who Is The Servant in Isaiah?

  1. Pingback: Resources for Good Friday | The Island Parson

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