Of all the passages thought by Christians to reflect Jesus in the Old Testament, Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the one most intensely held by Christians and questioned by skeptics. The fourth in a series of “Servant Songs,” it opens with a brief summary of the Servant’s exaltation after a time during which His “appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness” (52:14).
It depicts Him as unpretentious and sorrowful: “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” (53:3).
Yet His rejection and suffering had a divine and beneficial purpose: “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. 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. 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” (53:4-6).
As noted above, Christians see Jesus as this Servant: His humble birth and way of life (vv.1-2), His rejection (v.3), His substitutionary death (vv.4- 6), His unretaliating attitude when abused (v.7), His wrongful execution as a criminal (vv.8-9), and His eventual vindication and everlasting reward (vv.10- 12). Many non-Christian and Jewish skeptics, however, reason that the suffering servant portrayed here is Israel. First let’s look at the case for the position of the skeptics, including their objections to the idea that the servant is Jesus Christ. Then we will present the evidence for the Christian position.
The Skeptics’ View That The Servant Is Israel. Skeptics point out that in his “Servant Songs,” the prophet Isaiah identifies the servant as “Israel” or “Jacob” at least six times: 41:8-9; 44:1-2,21; 45:4; 48:20; and 49:3. When asked how the nation who was seen by God as so unfaithful that she deserved to be defeated by pagan Gentile powers could be Isaiah’s morally perfect servant, most skeptics reply that Isaiah is speaking of a righteous remnant, those within the nation who suffer unjustly at the hands of the wicked Gentile nations.
Sensitive Christians can understand why many Jews take this position. They are painfully aware of the fact that Jewish people have endured terrible injustices, sometimes by those who proclaim themselves to be followers of Jesus. Moreover, many Christian Bible students believe that the prophetic Scriptures portray a future time when the Jews who accept their Messiah will be subjected to the most intense persecution in all history under the regime of a coming world ruler.
These skeptics, some of whom have great reverence for the Old Testament Scriptures, claim that Christians see Jesus in the “servant” section of Isaiah partly through the benefit of hindsight and partly because Christian scholars have tampered with the Hebrew text. They say that by a combination of wishful thinking and dishonesty we have changed the powerful political Messiah of Jewish expectation into a suffering Servant who dies as a sacrifice for the sins of others.
In addition, they raise the following four specific objections to the Christian viewpoint: (1) No clear statement in the Jewish Scriptures can be interpreted to support the idea of a rejected, suffering, personal Messiah. (2) The servant in Isaiah, properly understood, is a community of godly Jews, not an individual. (3) The concept of a Deliverer who suffers and dies voluntarily as a sacrifice for the sins of others is a concoction of Christian theologians. (4) Christian translators are dishonest when they render Isaiah 53:8, “For the transgression of My people He was stricken,” because the pronoun they translate as “He” is plural, so it should be translated “they.”
These objections to the Christian viewpoint are raised by serious, thoughtful people and deserve careful consideration.
The Christians’ View That The Servant Is Jesus Christ. The possibility of another servant in Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” is not ruled out by the fact that Israel functioned as God’s servant in the past, nor by the existence of prophecies about a godly remnant in the last days. Note, for example, that in Isaiah 45:1, Cyrus, King of Persia, is called God’s “anointed” (the Hebrew word used to denote the Messiah in other passages) and chosen to show all the world that “There is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:6). In time, Cyrus was used by God to conquer the Babylonian captors of Israel and to issue a decree allowing Jewish exiles to return from captivity.
It is apparent, therefore, that Isaiah has intermingled in his prophecies three anointed servants: (1) Israel, the servant who has failed, (2) a righteous last-days remnant of the nation, and (3) a pagan king. Could there be another servant woven into these prophecies? Christians say yes, and point to Jesus. They are convinced that He, and He alone, fits the graphic description of Isaiah 53:7-12.
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. 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. 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. 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. After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life and be satisfied; by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and He will bear their iniquities. 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.
Let us now consider the skeptics’ four specific objections (listed on p.16) to the Christian belief that Jesus is that suffering Servant.
(1) What about the claim that no clear Old Testament passage portrays a rejected, suffering, personal Messiah? In response, we present two passages which do just that: Zechariah 12:10 and Daniel 9:26.
I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on Me, the One they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for Him as one grieves for a firstborn son (Zech. 12:10).
In the last days, a repentant Israel will grieve and mourn over the Savior they rejected and “pierced.”
The prophet Daniel spoke of a specific time when the Messiah would appear and be “cut off,” declaring plainly that this would occur before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
After the sixty-two “sevens,” the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed (Dan. 9:26).
(2) What about the claim that the servant in Isaiah is a community, not an individual? To answer, one needs only to note the intensely personal nature of the Servant passages:
Here is My Servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen One in whom I delight; I will put My Spirit on Him and He will bring justice to the nations (Isa. 42:1). The Lord says—He who formed Me in the womb to be His servant to bring Jacob back to Him and gather Israel to Himself, . . . He says: “It is too small a thing for you to be My servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make You a light for the Gentiles, that You may bring My salvation to the ends of the earth.” This is what the Lord says . . . to Him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, . . . “Kings will see You and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen You” (Isa. 49:5-7).
These words point to an individual who is distinct from even the godly remnant (here referred to as “those of Israel I have kept”). Moreover, no Old Testament prophecy declares that this godly remnant will be “despised and abhorred by the nation.”
(3) What about the skeptics’ denial that the servant is portrayed as voluntarily suffering and dying as a sacrifice? The Servant clearly declared the voluntary nature of His suffering:
The Sovereign Lord has opened My ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered My back to those who beat Me, My cheeks to those who pulled out My beard; I did not hide My face from mocking and spitting (50:5-6).
The Servant’s suffering is also seen in 53:7, where it says that “He did not open His mouth.
The Servant’s death as a sacrifice comes through clearly in Isaiah 53:5, “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.” But skeptics say the rendering should be “because of” our transgressions and iniquities instead of “for” them. This allows them to interpret these words as a portrayal of a redeemed remnant suffering because of the sins of the Gentile nations.
While the laws of grammar allow for either “for” or “because of,” the context shows that “for” is more accurate. The innocent Servant obviously suffers in behalf of the guilty and benefits them. This comes through even in a Jewish translation of verse 5, “The chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his wounds we were healed.”
It can be argued that it is through persecuted Jewish witnesses that multitudes of Gentiles will in the last days be brought to their senses. But this group cannot be the Servant of Isaiah 53:10, of whom the prophet declares, “The Lord makes His life a guilt offering.” The Hebrew expression Isaiah uses links this Servant’s offering directly to the sacrificial system established by Moses. This Servant, then, must be Jesus Christ.
(4) What about the charge that Christian translators were dishonest in their rendering of Isaiah 53:8? As noted earlier, some skeptics call attention to Isaiah 53:8, which in Christian translations reads, “For the transgression of My people He was stricken,” even though the third person pronoun is plural. They render it, “For the transgression of my people a plague befell them [the Jewish remnant].”
The pronoun is plural, but the accusation of dishonesty is unjustified. The last two Hebrew words in this sentence are in the form of a grammatical ellipsis, a construction in which a word or words necessary for a complete statement are omitted. This makes it necessary for the reader to determine its exact meaning from the context.
J. A. Alexander of Princeton Seminary, considered by many to be one of the world’s outstanding linguists, rendered the latter part of 53:8 this way: “For the transgression of My people, (as) a curse for them” (Commentary On The Prophecies Of Isaiah, Zondervan, p.299). This translation of the clause fits the context and gives the plural form to the pronoun. Therefore, the traditional “for the transgression of My people He was stricken” accurately and honestly expresses the truth that the Messiah was made a curse (was stricken) for the sins of God’s people.
Who is speaking these words about the suffering Servant? Beginning in the 1800s, most Jewish scholars rejected the idea that Isaiah 52:13–53:12 referred to the Messiah and began applying it to a remnant in Israel. Since then, they have been saying that these words will be spoken by Gentiles, who in the last days will stand corrected and brokenhearted before the suffering nation that has borne their hatred and sins. They say that this entire passage is a last-days confession of a Gentile world, admitting that its proud and mindless antisemitism has been the cause of Israel’s pain.
It is difficult to see this chapter, especially its closing words, as describing a lastdays glorification of Israel. What we find instead is a description of a humble Deliverer and Sin-bearer who, after being made a “guilt offering” (vv.4-8,10), sees the result of His atoning work and is satisfied.
J. A. Alexander gives us a literal translation of verses 10-11: “He shall see (His) seed, He shall prolong (His days), and the pleasure of Jehovah in His hand shall prosper. From the labor of His soul He shall see, He shall be satisfied; by His knowledge shall My servant, (as) a righteous one, give righteousness to many, and their iniquities He shall bear.”
The expression “by His knowledge My righteous servant will justify many” (v.11) means that by knowledge of Him many will be justified. The Servant here is not portrayed as a teacher but as a Savior in His priestly ministry, saving people by bearing their iniquities, not by imparting knowledge to them. The benefits of His atoning work will be received by those who come to know Him. Their salvation will crown His work with success:
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 (v.12).
Commenting on this verse, J. A. Alexander writes, “This denotes intercession, not in the restricted sense of prayer for others, but of the wider one of meritorious and prevailing intervention, which is ascribed to Christ in the New Testament, not as a work already finished, like that of atonement, but as one still going on (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 9:24; 1 Jn. 2:1)” (p.307).
When we read Isaiah 52:13–53:12 in its entirety and take it in its simple, unforced, and obvious meaning, the evidence shows that the speaker is not the Gentile nations but the redeemed community. The passage also reveals a suffering Servant who bears a striking resemblance to Jesus as He endured suffering on the cross.