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The Suffering Servant
© 05.25.2019 By D. Eric Williams

The Servant passages of Isaiah are often considered ambiguous concerning the identity of the Servant in view. Sometimes a sharp line of demarcation is made between a corporate and individual identity for the Servant. Indeed, the primary issues in the Servant passages are the identity of the corporate Servant, of the individual Servant and the relationship between the corporate and individual identities. Also important is the relationship between the Messiah and the Servant and the New Testament understanding of the Servant. This study will reflect upon these issues in light of the articles contained n the book, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology.1 This study seeks to demonstrate the corporate and the individual Servants are separate with the identity of the corporate Servant assumed by the individual and that the individual servant is the Messiah, revealed in the New Testament as Jesus of Nazareth.

The Corporate Servant
From the beginning of Israel's identity as a people they were called to exercise dominion and bring bring blessings to the nations. This began with God's call of Abraham and was reiterated in the covenant promises recorded in the book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere.2 Yet, it was understood - especially by the prophets - that Israel fell short of this God-given responsibility.

It is to a nation burdened with this obligation that the prophet Isaiah brings words of judgment and promise. His book begins with a strong condemnation of Judah, calling them a "sinful nation loaded down with a burden of guilt" (Isaiah 1:4).3 The chapter continues with a laundry list of sins and oppressive behaviors on the part of the Judeans. Nevertheless, in chapter 2, Isaiah's focus changes. Concerning Judah and Jerusalem he says the mountain of God's house would be established, lifted up and exalted above the hills. Indeed, all the nations would come to the house of Jacob asking to be taught the ways of God (Isaiah 2:1-3). However, judgment pronounced on Judah and Jerusalem predominates in the following chapters.

Upon arriving at the "Servant passages" it becomes clear the corporate people of Israel are God's chosen Servant (Isaiah 41:8-10), a witness of God's glorious workings (43:10). It is Jacob, God's Servant - Israel whom he has chosen - that the Lord formed in the womb (44:1-2). Israel is strengthened and comforted by Yahweh (41:10, 51:12), sheltered in the hollow of God's hand (51:16).

God promised Israel he would pour out his Spirit upon them (44:3) and that they would be honored by God (43:4). Comforted Israel was promised participation in the proclamation of God's justice as a light to the nations (51:1-4). Indeed, Israel was promised that, "For the LORD has redeemed Jacob and is glorified in Israel" (Isaiah 44:23).4

These passages portray the Servant as a corporate people rather than an individual.5 For, the function of Israel as "indicated throughout the entire book from chapter 2 onward" is to be the "means whereby the nations could come to God."6

However, Isaiah presents Israel as incapable of functioning as the Servant who brings the Gentiles to a covenant knowledge of Yahweh. This was Israel's calling but Israel was unable to fulfill it.

The Individual Servant
This is a certain fluidity in the identity of the Servant in Isaiah and many of the things said about his role as a corporate body are also applied to an individual Servant. For instance, in Isaiah 42:1 it is an individual who is chosen by the Lord. The Servant of Yahweh who God formed in the womb also appears to be an individual according to Isaiah 49:1 and 5. This individual Servant is given comfort by the Lord and is hidden in the hollow of God's hand (42:4, 49:2). This Servant has the spirit of God upon him and is honored by God (42:1, 49:5). He is a light to the nations, bringing God's justice to the Gentiles (49:6, 42:4).

By the time the reader arrives at Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 the numerical ambiguity of the Servant has been set aside and it seems clear the Servant is not the nation as a whole but a particular person. Nevertheless, it is important to understand this is not indicative of a rejection of the nation as the Servant but a concentration of the identity of the whole into the one. God did not suddenly decide to reject and abandon Israel; rather, "he simply devises another way in which Israel's servant-hood could be worked out: through the ideal Israel.7 That is, the Servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 is an individual but as the ideal Israel he embodies the corporate identity. What Israel was called to do and yet failed to accomplish, the ideal Israel realized.

In a sense, it is immaterial if the Servant is an individual. What was most important to the original audience was that Israel was represented by this individual. In the same way David represented the nation Israel in combat with Goliath, just so, Israel suffers for the sake of others as their champion, the Servant, assumes the corporate entity (53:4-12).

Corporate/Individual Relationship
Therefore, the relationship between the corporate and individual is indivisible. The suffering Servant is true Israel. The suffering Servant embodies all that God intended for his people and accomplishes all the responsibility given to God's people as a source of authority and blessing. In God's sovereign design, the individual, ideal Israel, could not exist apart from the corporate entity of Israel (cf. Revelation 12:5).

Modern North Americans are individualistic and typically do not readily identify with a corporate entity in any substantial way. On the other hand, as Walter Kaiser says, the ancient Near Eastern man had a much greater grasp of the relationship between the individual and the corporate entity. This is reflected in the practice in the Hebrew language to refer to a national body using a masculine singular identifier.8 Indeed, in the Hebraic view a nation is "a personal being" and can be considered in the same way as an individual.9

It seems the original readers of Isaiah's prophecies would not have been as concerned with the "problem" of the corporate versus the individual identity of the Servant. Instead, Isaiah's first audience would have been comfortable naming the Servant "Israel" throughout the prophecies and recognizing that Israel is faithfully represented by either the corporate body or the individual.

The voices of disagreement from the Jewish rabbis should not dissuade the reader from this understanding. When Michael Brown cites a series of "Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53" the views represented should not be anachronistically imposed upon the Old Testament witness. The Jewish commentators he cites wrote in the 11th and 12th centuries.10 Of course, Brown's point is not that Isaiah's original audience held a view like the (much) later Jewish commentators. Instead, Brown is providing a backdrop for the views of contemporary Jews. Even then, most modern Jews have never given Isaiah 52-53 a thought.11

The Messiah and the Servant
If the reader remains within the context of Isaiah's prophecy "a good case can be made that the Servant [of Isaiah 52-53] is the Davidic Messiah."12 Isaiah 53 presents us with an individual who suffers, provides atonement and is a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of others. As a result, Jewish commentators have often understood the Servant of Isaiah 53 to be an individual and the most reasonable identity of the Servant is the Messiah.13

A significant aspect of identifying the suffering Servant with an individual Messiah is the understanding of Isaiah 53:10 as pertaining to a guilt offering restoring Israel to its land and "function as God's Servant."14 This is something the nation of Israel could not do for itself. Instead, the suffering Servant made atonement "for the 'leprous' nation of Israel (i.e., the nation whose sin he bears)."15 In other words, the Servant of Isaiah 53 is portrayed as one who because of his own righteousness is capable of cleansing Israel, bearing all their sins (53:11).

Nevertheless, Isaiah never reveals the identity of the Servant. Indeed, Jewish commentators were at a loss concerning the actual identity of the Servant as well. It is not until we come to the New Testament that the Servant is positively identified.

The Servant in the New Testament
The Christian who reads Isaiah 53 and the other Servant songs in light of the New Testament will invariably come to the conclusion that the Servant is Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament often quotes Isaiah directly or alludes to the prophet's Servant passages in reference to Jesus (Matthew 8:17, Luke 22:37, John 12:38, Acts 8:32-34, Romans 10:16, 15:21 and so on).16 Jesus himself understood he was the fulfillment of the Servant portrayed in Isaiah's prophecy (eg. Luke 22:37).17 Clearly Jesus is the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. It may not be as clear he is also "true Israel." In other words, the ideal Israel is Jesus the Messiah.

As expressed earlier, Isaiah describes the corporate Servant in the same terms as the individual Servant. Moreover, the New Testament identifies the individual Servant as Jesus (Isaiah 49:1, 5/Luke 1:31, Isaiah 42:1-4/Matthew 12:17-21, Isaiah 49:6/Luke 2:32 and so on). Jesus embodies the corporate Servant described by Isaiah in the same way the individual Servant of Isaiah embodied the corporate Servant. Thus, Jesus is the fulfillment of both the ideal Israel and the suffering Servant. Truly, in his life and ministry, it was Jesus "around whom Israel was being reconstituted."18

This study has shown that the Servant in the book of Isaiah is both the corporate Israel and an individual. It has been shown that Isaiah had in mind the Messiah in his description of the suffering Servant and that the light of the New Testament makes it clear Jesus of Nazareth is the suffering Servant described by Isaiah. Moreover, Jesus brings to fruition the Servant songs in the book of Isaiah as he is the ideal Israel.

1. The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, ed. Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2012).

2. John Walton understands the initial call of Abraham by Yahweh in this fashion. In part he says, "since Abraham's seed will be in a politically dominating position, nations will seek to ingratiate themselves to them." John H. Walton, Genesis, ed. Terry Muck, vol. 1, 24 vols., The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2001), 394.

3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.

4. Corporate Israel as a light to the Gentiles is not limited to the book of Isaiah. In Zechariah 8:20 -23, the prophet foretells a time when Israel will be sought out by the nations and even "10 men from different languages and nations from around the world" will take hold of the sleeve of a Jew begging to go with him because "God is with you." Again in chapter 14 of his prophecy, Zechariah says that after a judgment upon the nations for the sake of Israel and Judah those who are left will turn to Yahweh and go up each year to the feasts in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:16 -20).

5. Richard E. Averbeck, "Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53," The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, eds., Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012), 41.

6. John N. Oswalt, The Book Of Isiah Chapters 40-66, The New International Commentary on The Old Testament, ed., Robert L. Hubbard, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 291.

7. Ibid., 291.

8. Kaiser, "The Identity and Mission of the 'Servant of the Lord'," 97.

9. Ibid.

10. Michael L. Brown, "Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53," 64.

11. Mitch Glaser, "Using Isaiah 53 in Jewish Evangelism, 239.

12. David L. Allen, "Substitutionary Atonement and Cultic Terminology in Isaiah 53," 184, brackets added.

13. Brown, "Jewish Interpretations of Isaiah 53," 62-63.

14. Averbeck, "Christian Interpretations of Isaiah 53," 53.

15. Ibid., 57.

16. Michael J. Wilkins, "Isaiah 53 in the Message of Salvation in the Gospels," 113.

17. Ibid., 131.

18. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 537.

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