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(how to tell the biblical story
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Who was the suffering servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12?

I have written a few times about the controversial doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (see below). A friend got in touch this week asking whether I thought the word “chastisement” in Isaiah 53:5 should be read “through a filter of penal substitution”—she had discovered (via the Septuagint) that the word can also mean “instruction”. Here’s the passage:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement (musar) that brought us peace, and with his wounds 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. (Is. 53:4–6)

The Hebrew word musar can indeed mean “instruction”—the Septuagint has paideia (cf. Jer. 32:33 = 39:33 LXX). More often though it speaks of the “disciplining” or “correction” of Israel that comes through affliction or disaster (cf. Is. 26:16). In other words, it is a matter of divine judgment. Since the suffering of the servant is closely linked to the “transgressions” and “iniquities” of Israel in this passage, it seems certain that he is understood to have received the punishment merited by the wider community. This, in my view, is the basis for the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, but specifically and necessarily as part of the Jewish narrative: Jesus’ unjust execution at the hands of the Romans anticipated the punishment that was to come justly upon rebellious Israel in the form of the catastrophe of the war against Rome.

So Leonie, I trust that answers your question.

But then I started wondering: Who is the suffering servant in Isaiah’s narrative? What is his function in the immediate context of the prophecy? This is some way outside my modest area of expertise, so you should follow me warily, but I want to put forward a line of interpretation that is new to me at least. No doubt it has been suggested before, but I haven’t found it in the limited resources available to me at the moment. I’m aware of some difficulties that would need addressing, but nothing that seems fatal. Take it or leave it.

The context

In the first part of chapter 52 we have the proclamation of good news to Zion following devastating judgment (Is. 51:17): your God reigns, the Lord is returning to Zion, he has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem, he has acted before the eyes of the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see—or have seen—the extraordinary spectacle of God’s salvation of his people (Is. 52:7-10). The section concludes with an exhortation to the Jews in exile to depart from Babylon with confidence, not fearfully, “for the Lord will go before you, and the God of Israel will be your rearguard”. This “departure” may be figurative or in some other sense secondary: Motyer thinks it is a call to the returned exiles to “live according to their God-given dignity”.1 But this doesn’t greatly affect my argument.

Then after the servant passage Jerusalem again is addressed: the city has been left barren, but “the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married”; her offspring will spread abroad; they will possess the surrounding nations and “will people the desolate cities” (54:1-3).

The story of the servant who suffers, therefore, has to be interpreted in the space between the announcement of good news regarding the return of the exiles—and of YHWH himself—to Zion and the promise that the city will be prosperous again. There is no reason to think that Isaiah has interrupted the narrative about exile and restoration with an unrelated prophecy about a future suffering messiah.

“Behold, my servant…” 

My proposal is that the link with the departure from Babylon is key to the identity of the servant. The Jews are told to purify themselves, to touch no unclean thing, because they are carrying the temple vessels. Then we have: “Behold, my servant….” Is there any reason why these returning—or returned—exiles should not be the “servant” who acts wisely, who will be “high and lifted up… exalted”?

There is strong support for this interpretation in an earlier passage:

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Is. 48:20)

Here the returning exiles, whom the Lord leads safely through the desert, are explicitly identified as “his servant Jacob”. He is described as “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Is. 49:7). But YHWH will use him to restore Israel and re-establish the land (Is. 49:6, 8); and he will be a “light for the nations”, the instrument by which YHWH’s salvation will reach to the end of the earth (Is. 49:6). Kings will arise and princes will prostrate themselves before this “servant of rulers” (Is. 49:7).

So the wretched, despised, down-trodden community of Jews in Babylon is the servant of the Lord, by means of whom he will restore the nation of Israel—an event which will have a profound impact on the nations.


The traditional Jewish view that the servant of the Lord is simply Israel is an over-generalization: it disregards the narrative context. But Chagall’s White Crucifixion powerfully captures the idea of the identification of the suffering servant with the suffering of the Jewish people throughout the ages.


What the servant song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 adds to the narrative of chapters 48-49 is the atonement motif: the wretched, despised, down-trodden remnant community has suffered for the sake of the nation as a whole. The Jews in exiles were treated with contempt, they were acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3; cf. Ps. 137:1); they had suffered because of the sins of the nation (53:4-6); they had been “taken away” by oppression and judgment, as though “cut off out of the land of the living” (53:8; cf. 52:5).

But they will also be the means of Israel’s redemption: they are an “offering for guilt” (53:10); they will “make many to be accounted righteous”; they “bore the sin of many”. We also now see the connection with the assurances of chapter 54 that the children of Jerusalem will be numerous and will prosper: the servant Jacob “shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days”; he will receive from YHWH a “portion with the many” (Is. 53:10, 12). The community that is told to depart from Babylon in 52:11-12 is the population of restored Jerusalem in chapter 54, which will “spread abroad to the right and to the left”.

Jesus and the servant community

Just as the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13-27, therefore, stands for the suffering saints of the Most High, persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes, so the “servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 stands for the wretched community of “Jacob” returning—or returned—from exile. Wright, in fact, regards Daniel 11-12 as one of the earliest extant interpretations of the suffering servant: “it looks as though he saw the martyrs of this own day  as at least a partial fulfilment of Isaiah 53”.2

In the New Testament Jesus identifies himself or is identified with both types of community in order to account for his suffering. But he also stands for, he embodies in himself, the community of his followers, who will be despised and rejected for the sake of the renewal of God’s people, who will be persecuted by an oppressive pagan empire but will have the assurance of vindication. In historical terms, the salvation of the people of God is a corporate task, pioneered by Jesus but not restricted to him.

  • 1. J.A.Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (1993), 421.
  • 2. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), 589.

Comments

Something about Israel inhabiting the “cities made desolate” made me think of how Yahweh’s judgement against a nation often has making their nation “desolate” a component of that judgement.

… it seems certain that he [the suffering servant] is understood to have received the punishment merited by the wider community. This, in my view, is the basis for the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, but specifically and necessarily as part of the Jewish narrative: Jesus’ unjust execution at the hands of the Romans anticipated the punishment that was to come justly upon rebellious Israel in the form of the catastrophe of the war against Rome.

The Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) has a similar simbolic figure, actually two, the “sacrificial lamb” and the “scapegoat”. But the not-so-remote figure of the “whipping boy” is IMO the closest.

There is no reason to think that Isaiah has interrupted the narrative [Is 52:13-53:12] about exile and restoration with an unrelated prophecy about a future suffering messiah.

And why not? If you believe that prophecy is not mere narrative, but inspired narrative, then the prophet may utter something that doesn’t fully make narrative sense to himself. The “servant songs” seem to be exactly that: an inspired intrusion in a linear narration.

There is strong support for this [collective] interpretation [of the “servant of YHWH”] in an earlier passage [Is 48:20]

Is 48:20 says, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”. An expression of joy, all the more in contrast with the “suffering servant” that we find repeatedly pictured after this verse: Isaiah 49:1-13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12.

Here the returning exiles, whom the Lord leads safely through the desert, are explicitly identified as “his servant Jacob”. He is described as “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Is. 49:7). But YHWH will use him to restore Israel and re-establish the land (Is. 49:6, 8); and he will be a “light for the nations”, the instrument by which YHWH’s salvation will reach to the end of the earth (Is. 49:6). Kings will arise and princes will prostrate themselves before this “servant of rulers” (Is. 49:7).

If you refrain from picking and choosing, and read Isa 49:1-13 in its entirety, your “collective interpretation” makes very little sense, IMO.

The Jews in exiles were treated with contempt, they were acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3; cf. Ps. 137:1); they had suffered because of the sins of the nation (53:4-6); they had been “taken away” by oppression and judgment, as though “cut off out of the land of the living” (53:8; cf. 52:5).

So is there joy or dejection in this return? BTW, it would be worth mentioning that the deported to Babylon were the very elite of Israel, and that their situation wasn’t so bad.

Just as the “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13-27, therefore, stands for the suffering saints of the Most High, persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes, so the “servant” of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 stands for the wretched community of “Jacob” returning—or returned—from exile.

There is not a shed of evidence for this reading. This is new-dogma replacing old-dogma.