The Servant of the Lord
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Guidelines to Interpretation
This is one of the most well known passages in the entire Old Testament.
Yet, when we interpret this passage we need to be careful precisely because
we are so familiar with it.
The interpreter should keep three things in mind in studying this
passage. First, we should not invert the
Bible by working backward through history and using the events of the New
Testament to interpret the Old Testament. God worked through
historical events, not apart from them.
Second, we need to view this
passage in the literary context of Isaiah 40-55 (see
The Turn Toward Hope: Isaiah 40:1-15). This passage reflects the major
concerns of this part of the book of Isaiah, not our concerns.
Third, we need to overcome the common
misconception that prophets simply predicted the future. The future did
concern the prophets, but predicting it was not their primary mission.
Prophecy served two functions: 1) to proclaim God’s will to the people and
2) to interpret events in light of God’s will. In this passage, we are
"listening in" as the prophet addressed events of his day and brought God’s
new word to despairing exiles.
This splendid poetic passage has three major parts. It opens with a
declaration by God contrasting the servant’s external appearance with his
true status (52:13-15). The report concerning the servant’s sufferings and
their purpose follows (53:1-11a). The passage concludes with a renewed
declaration by God of the servant’s triumph (53:11b-12).
1. God’s Servant Will Be Exalted (Isaiah
13 See, my servant will act wisely; he
will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were
many who were appalled at him-- his appearance was so disfigured beyond
that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness-- 15 so will he
sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard,
they will understand.
13. It is important to understand how
the author uses servant in this section
of Isaiah. In all nine occurrences in the first 39 chapters the word simply
means "one who serves" in various senses (slave, 14:2; a king’s official,
36:9; a messenger, 37:24, 20:3; a term of respect, 36:11).
There is an unmistakable shift in how the word is used in the rest of the
book. "Servant" occurs 31 times in Isaiah 40-66. Only twice is it used as in
chapters 1-39 (44:26, 50:10). In all the remaining occurrences, "servant" is
used in a figurative sense. The "servant" is usually the collective nation
of Israel as the chosen people of God. "But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob,
whom I have chosen . . .you are my servant, I have chosen you . . .for I am
your God" (41:8-9).
The book continues to use this imagery. In chapter 44, God promises the
community of Israel, in the figure of the servant, forgiveness and a day of
new things. In chapter 49, the community speaks as a servant commissioned to
bear witness of God’s deliverance "to the ends of the earth" (49:1-13; note
v.3). In Isaiah 56-66, "servant," usually occurring in the plural, always
depicts the restored community of God’s people who will faithfully follow
In only two passages is the servant not clearly identified as the nation
of Israel (chs. 42 and 53). But the context suggests that the imagery is the
same in these as well. The servant is a poetic symbol to describe the
community of God’s people.
However, one additional feature must be noted. In the first part of the
book of Isaiah, the anticipation of a new king who will help God’s people
respond faithfully to Him gradually comes to the foreground (9:2-7,
11:1-16). Israel’s past kings had miserably failed. So the people longed for
a new intervention by God. God had raised David to establish the nation. Now
the people yearned for a righteous and just king like David (11:3-5) who
would teach them how to be God’s people (note Psalm 72). The hopes for the
future of the people rested largely on the anticipation of this godly ruler.
This idealized king personified Israel as the true people of God (note
These two symbols come together here. The figure of the coming ideal
Davidic king represented the new act of God by which He would teach His
people how to obey. The figure of the servant represented the new act of God
by which He would restore the people of Israel from exile. It is likely that
my servant here represents the community of Israel in exile with
overtones of the Coming One who would represent the true people of God (note
The primary focus, then, is not on the specific identity of the servant.
It is on the new act of God symbolized by the servant. That focus on God’s
new action in history allowed the New Testament writers to see the servant
of Isaiah 53 in a new light as God acted yet again in Jesus.
act wisely This word also can mean
"succeed" or "prosper" and probably has that meaning here (as RSV, NEB).
14. appalled at him Jeremiah and
Ezekiel often use this term to describe the horror of cities and nations
devastated because God has allowed his judgment to fall on them (Jeremiah
18:16; Ezekiel 26:16).
disfigured . . .marred These two
verses draw a sharp contrast. By all appearances the servant, the nation of
Israel, had been humiliated and defeated (Lamentations 2:13-15). In exile in
Babylon, the servant no longer appeared to be chosen by God. But appearances
are not everything! Although the servant appears finished, the message of
God is that he will not stay down! God will raise the servant to a new
position of responsibility before the very ones who had celebrated his end
(v.15; NT writers use this contrast: John 13:12-17, Philippians 2:6-11).
15. sprinkle does not really fit
here. The word’s meaning is uncertain, although "startle" (RSV) is better.
Those who were appalled by the servant’s
downfall will be equally astonished by his exaltation.
2. The Report of the Servant’s Sufferings
1 Who has believed our message and to
whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and
like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us
to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was
despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with
suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we
esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our
sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and
afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for
our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by
his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of
us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of
us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her
shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and
judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he
was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my
people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and
with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any
deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and
cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD
will prosper in his hand. 11a After the suffering of his soul, he will see
the light and be satisfied;
1. our message The Hebrew here is
"what we have heard." It contrasts directly with 52:15. It is not clear to
whom our refers. Most likely the "us"
throughout the chapter represents the community itself struggling to
understand its own past, its precarious relationship to God, and His new
actions of deliverance. The servant may refer more narrowly to the Israelite
exiles in Babylon, while "us" refers to the later community who had not
experienced exile (note Jeremiah 24:4-7). In either case, even the ones to
whom the proclamation of newness comes have trouble believing it!
The arm of the Lord signifies God’s
power and His willingness to use that power to accomplish His purposes in
the world (Deut 4:34; Psa. 136:10-12).
2. The language used in the following
verses is very similar to that in lament psalms. Laments are prayers in
which pain and grief are expressed to God (Psa. 22, 13, 88; see
Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology
in Psalms; see also Where Is God? Isaiah 59:1-21).
The language of lament is highly poetic and expresses an emotion or frame
of mind. This is not a literal description of events in the life of the
servant. It is a highly figurative means of expressing the feeling of total
alienation, rejection, and hopelessness felt by the servant.
He grew up This verse uses the
imagery of a young plant springing up in a hostile environment. Such a plant
would be blighted and would not grow to its full beauty or proper form. The
emphasis here is on the utter helplessness of the servant.
3. despised and rejected A common
theme in laments is rejection of the sufferer by the community (Psalm
22:6-8). In biblical times, people often considered prosperity and success
as blessing from God. Misfortune or illness suggested that the person had
sinned and God was punishing them (Job 4:7-9).
This points to a major issue at stake in the crisis of exile. Throughout
the Old Testament there is the conviction that God had chosen the Israelites
for a special purpose, as expressed in the promise to Abraham: "all peoples
on earth will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3). The blessing and
success of Israel were not just reward for right conduct. They were a
witness to the world of the nature and character of Israel’s God (Numbers
Part of the disturbing aspect of the exile was that the nations would
look at the downfall of Israel and conclude that Israel’s God was not really
God at all. The Israelites had not honored God themselves and so had caused
the nations to scorn God and His people. If Israel remained a laughingstock,
despised and loathed by the nations, then God’s people, and therefore God,
would have no witness in the world. A major theme of this section of Isaiah
is that the community would be restored to again fulfill its mission to the
world as a "light to the nations" (42:6, 49:6; 60:1-7; note Ezekiel
4. our infirmities . . .our sorrows
These are the same Hebrew words as in verse three ("suffering," "sorrows").
The realization here is that the servant’s pain is not just his own. He is
bearing the pain and grief of others. Jeremiah had touched on the idea that
the exiles in Babylon were bearing the consequences of the past sins of the
entire nation (Jeremiah 24). Isaiah 50:1ff took the idea a step further.
Individually the exiles were as sinful as other people. But as a group they
were innocent (v.9). They should not have to withstand the pain of exile for
the entire nation, past and present. Here the community begins to realize
that if they have a future, it is because innocent people suffered the
consequences of someone else’s sin.
5. for our transgressions . . .our iniquities
This could be translated "because of our transgressions." Both words
here imply deliberate violations of authority or law. Many understand this
to mean that the servant is bearing the punishment of sins as a substitute
for others. But, in context, it more likely means that he is suffering as a
result of other’s sins (as also v.8).
peace The Hebrew word shalom
means far more than simply absence of conflict. It means well-being,
wholeness, or soundness in all aspects of life. To have shalom is to
live a full, well-ordered life under God (RSV: "made us whole"). The term
contrasts with "hard service" of 40:2.
we are healed In this verse is a
strong answer to the questions raised by the exile. In the midst of pain and
grief caused by their sin, God had spoken a word of forgiveness. He had
brought healing to their guilt and restored peace to their lives. God had
accepted the innocent suffering of the small group of exiles as atonement
for the sins of hundreds of years! There was hope because of the servant!
6. The people responded to the
realization of the preceding verse with a confession of guilt. The sins were
not all of the past! The servant had not only taken to himself the
consequences of past sins of the nation. He had also suffered for the future
people of God who were equally sinful. All
the people, past, present and future, deserved to suffer for their
waywardness (note Romans 3:23). But at this point in history, the
consequences fell only on the servant (exiles). As the people are confronted
in exile with the magnitude of their sins and the consequences those sins
had brought, they repent. So in the tragedy, Isaiah sees hope for the
future. Ezekiel is careful to qualify this view. He emphasizes that
individual responsibility is not eliminated (Ezekiel 18:1-32).
7-9. These verses continue the poetic
report of the servant’s sufferings. Jeremiah uses the lamb imagery to
describe his innocent suffering at the hands of others (Jeremiah 11:19).
8. his descendants The Hebrew word is
singular. It means "generation" or "span of time." The singular never refers
to a specific person’s descendants. The NEB is best: "who gave a thought to
his fate . . .?"
9. the rich is not really appropriate
in the context. Some scholars understand this to be a scribal misspelling
and read a similar word, "rabble," here (NEB: "the refuse of mankind").
10. his life a guilt offering Chapter
40:2 implied that the suffering of the exiles would be accepted by God as a
sacrifice for the nation’s sins (see The Turn Toward
Hope, comments on 40:2). Here it is the central theme. The
guilt offering was normally a male ram sacrificed to symbolize
the atonement for an offense against God or man (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7). The
idea that the suffering of innocent people could provide the same symbol of
atonement for the sins of others was a radically new idea. This is part of
what was so unbelievable in the message the people were hearing!
LORD’s will does not imply God’s
decree that it must be so. The word means "pleasure" or "delight." The
implication is that God used the events for his purpose.
He will see his offspring This is a
typical biblical way of referring to a secure future. Instead of dying in
disgrace, the servant will survive and prosper in the future generations of
11. soul The same word was translated
"life" in verse 10. The phrase means "after all his suffering" (as NEB).
3. God’s Valuation of the Servant’s Sufferings
11b by his knowledge my righteous
servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore
I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils
with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was
numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made
intercession for the transgressors.
11. This verse does not make clear
sense in Hebrew. The intent seems that God has accepted the servant’s
sacrifice and he is now vindicated as righteous or innocent.
12. In poetic language, as in
52:13-14 the servant is restored to a place of honor and responsibility. The
last two statements evaluate what the servant has accomplished and summarize
the entire passage.
We should not let the fact that the servant in this context most likely
refers to the nation of Israel lessen its importance for us or diminish its
truth. The New Testament writers understood this passage well. They saw that
a new community of God’s people had arisen through the forgiveness of God
because of the suffering of exiles in Babylon. As they witnessed the death
and resurrection of Jesus, they grasped the truth that in Jesus God was
again allowing The Innocent to bear the consequences of the guilty. Only
this time it was on a far greater scale. And this time it was God in
Christ reconciling the whole world to himself (2 Corinthians