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Isaiah 52:13-53:12

This well-known passage from Isaiah is the Old Testament reading for Good Friday each year. It is the fourth and the longest of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah. The four songs are: Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and today’s passage, 52:13-53:12. We read the third song last week for Palm/Passion Sunday.

These passages, and particularly today’s reading, have been of great importance in Christian tradition, and have provided a model for the suffering and dying Jesus in the Gospels. There is some irony in this. While the servant figure and particularly his suffering in Isaiah 52-53 has been a major influence on how Christians have understood the death of Jesus, and while as a Jew Jesus would have known the Book of Isaiah, and indeed is said to have quoted bits of it in the Gospels (e.g. Luke 4:18-19), there is no evidence Jesus understood his own mission and death in terms of the suffering servant figure. There is certainly no messianic tradition within Judaism where the Messiah is a suffering one in the way Jesus is understood to suffer for others in the Gospels. It seems likely that we have to look more to passages from Paul, especially Rom. 4:45, for the beginnings of the use of Isaiah 52-53 in understanding the death of Jesus in terms of atonement for the sins of others. The idea that a person might suffer vicariously for others is not found in the Old Testament. Nor, should we note, does Isaiah 52-53 suggest that the servant suffers willingly that others might go free. In fact, in Isaiah, the idea that the servant somehow brought deliverance to others through his suffering is a judgment made after the event.

The passage begins in Isa 52:13 with the statement ‘Here is my servant’. We presume God is speaking through the prophet. The passage points back to the beginning of the first servant passage, i.e. Isa 42:1. This suggests that, although the four songs are separated in the present text of Isaiah, chapters 52-53 form the culmination of the sequence of songs. Moreover, this last song picks up themes from elsewhere in the songs, namely suffering, righteousness, and the nations.

The genre of the passage is mixed. There are elements of thanksgiving as well as of confession in the text. The passage is structured neatly around the questions in 53:1. Isa 52:13-15 is a summary statement of what is to follow. It begins proclaiming the servant’s exalted status (v. 13) but then we hear how others were astonished at him for his marred appearance (v. 14). The writer then takes that astonishment as a cue to speak about the startling of the nations, not just at the servant’s disfigurement, but at something far more significant (v. 15). This then leads to the central question: ‘Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?’ (53:1). The matter at hand is not simply that of an individual who suffers but rather about the ‘arm’, or power, of God. Whatever happens to this servant, there is something to be revealed in it about God’s power and way of working in the world.

The poem then moves to a more detailed discussion of what happened to this servant, 53:2-9. Interestingly, this account is not seen through God’s eyes, or the servant’s, but through the eyes of those who stand by watching, who are responsible for the servant’s suffering. In vv. 10-11 it is difficult to see whether the speech of the bystanders continues there or whether the prophet again speaks as the text moves toward discussing the servant’s ‘future’. Certainly in v. 12 God has returned as speaker proclaiming the elevation of the servant among the great.

In 53:4 the onlookers, having described the servant as one who had nothing to commend him before others even to the point of his being despised, proclaim that ‘he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases’. This does not necessarily mean that the servant has suffered in the place of others but rather that this despised man has suffered at the hands of these people in their wrong-doing, either directly or indirectly. Moreover, in Old Testament terms the sins the servant has borne are not only the sinful acts of others but their consequences: Hebrew words for sin can designate both the act and its unhappy consequences. But more is understood upon reflection. The suffering of this one has been part of the healing of the onlookers (v. 6).

As we interpret this passage we tend to think of it in terms of Jesus, the innocent one who suffers for others. But we need to consider it in its context in Second Isaiah. It is hard in that context to know who the servant is. Some have argued that it is an anonymous individual, others that it is the prophet, or a king or other significant person. There are reasons to argue that it might be some group of people among the exiles in Babylon or even the nation Israel itself. In such contexts we might see the episode as one in which, as the onlookers in exile observe this suffering one they see a parallel to their own experience. Or maybe the passage has to do, as Richard Clifford argues, with the general message of Second Isaiah which was to encourage the people to see that they were being invited back into existence through a new Exodus from Babylon to Jerusalem. Many exiles were unwilling to go on the journey back to Jerusalem but as long as some of the people made the journey, the servant (and those allied with him), Israel came into existence again. ‘The many’ who did not make the journey exist as Israel once more because of the servant’s obedient act. When they see what the servant has done for them, they cry out that he has borne their sins, i.e., taken away the consequences of their refusal to go in the new Exodus. It is noteworthy that the servant’s reward is life in the holy land (53:11-12; cf. 9:3). As long as the servant does the act, the whole people live again.

But regardless of how the servant’s suffering is to be seen in relation to the people’s activities something further is suggested in the text. For this we must go back to one of Second Isaiah’s passages about the foreign gods, notably the gods of Babylon. In Isa 46:1-2, a polemical passage against foreign gods, we read how the statues of Bel and Nebo, two Babylonian gods, were carried on the backs of beasts and cattle, presumably in religious processions through the streets. The statues were so heavy that the beasts struggled under the weight. The words describing the action of the beasts are ‘carry’ and ‘bear’, the same words used of the servant carrying and bearing the sins and diseases of the people in 53:4. In contrast to the Babylonian gods, whose statues are borne by beasts, Israel’s God goes on to say in 46:3 that all the remnant of the house of Israel has been ‘borne’ and ‘carried’ by their God from birth. In this light, the people witness the suffering of the servant and recognise that he bears and carries their sins etc. They see in the servant a model of God’s own bearing of the people all their life.

As another scholar, Paul Hanson, remarks, what is on view here is not a picture of an innocent sufferer becoming some scapegoat bearing the sins of the people in their place. Rather, we have one whose experience is perceived, even by those who have caused his suffering, as being in line with God’s purpose for the people. The suffering one bears the sins and diseases of the people just as God does, and this partnership in solidarity with the people, who themselves suffer, breaks the bondage that is destroying them. The people are shocked to their senses and accept the divine gift of healing. The people see in this servant a model of God’s merciful redeeming action in bearing them and their sins himself. In this sense only, and not in some simplistic sense of prediction, can we see the connection between the servant and Jesus. As the onlookers of the servant realised, we witness in the passion and death of Jesus the very model of the God who bears us through life in order to redeem and restore us.

Psalm 22

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