Isaiah's Suffering Servant
Faith in a
holy cause is to a considerable extent
a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.
Of all the prophecies about Jesus, evangelists have the most confidence in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. They maintain that it describes Jesus when he suffered on the cross. Allen Ross in bible.org says:
The picture of the suffering of our Lord is nowhere more poignantly displayed than in the prophecy of Isaiah, Chapter 52:13-53:12. What is described here is the ideal Sufferer, the Suffering Servant. The prophet himself does not identify him-that identification must await the fullness of time when Christ came and suffered, the just for the unjust. For us who know Christ we can see this as the prediction of His sufferings. This is the primary meaning of the text.
Allen is aware that Isaiah does not identify who the suffering servant is; only that true believing Christians can see who it is. I am going to argue that Ross and kind are nowhere close. The Suffering Servant was Israel. The passage equates Israel with a former contemporary of Isaiah, King Uzziah, who was disfigured, suffered and died of leprosy. From there he believed Israel would one day redeem itself and become a leader among nations. It was a failed prophecy.
Isaiah lived about 700 years before Christ but scholars are sure that chapters forty and after were written by an unnamed author after the Babylonian exile 586 BCE. Even at the later date, who thinks 400 years into the future? The author was addressing the times in which he lived. He didn't have to name Uzziah because it was understood by his contemporaries. That explains why most of the passage was written in past tense. Some historical background is necessary.
The life of Uzziah is covered in 2 Chronicles 26, and in 2 Kings 15:1-6 under the name of Azariah. He was king of Judah living in Jerusalem. According to Chronicles, he reigned for 52 years from the age of sixteen. The early part of his life is described as successful in terms of personal prosperity, piety and war. Eventually, his pride led to his destruction when he entered the temple to burn incense.
Burning incense in the temple is reserved for consecrated priests. To understand the perceived severity of this violation, Leviticus 10:1-2 tells of when two of Aaron's sons made an unholy fire Yahweh struck them dead with what sounds like lightening.
12 (Lev. 10:1-2)
Anyway, when the priests tried to stop Uzziah, he grew angry. That was when leprosy broke out on his forehead, in the temple, in front of the priests. Whereupon, they thrust him out of the temple and quarantined him in a separate house until he died, never again to enter the temple.
2223 (2 Chron. 26:22-23)
The Kings version blames his leprosy on his failure to remove high places where the people offered sacrifices and burned incense. While he lived in a separate house, his son Jotham took charge of the palace and governed the people.
He did was right in the eyes of the Lord. Nevertheless, the people continued to worship alien gods; so God inflicted him with leprosy.
34 5 (2 Kings 15:3-5)
Isaiah became priest in the year Uzziah died.
The Chronicles' version lays the blame on Uzziah's behavior for his leprosy. The passage makes more sense when we consider the Kings version that Yahweh made Uzziah suffer and die because his people worshipped other gods. Either way, he fell out of grace. For that reason, the Suffering Servant passage reads like a eulogy
The use of the term "Israel" has a double meaning: Israel and Judah. According to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, this passage was written after the Babylonian exile 586 BCE, when Judah was defeated and the top echelon deported to Babylon. Because the exile occurred well after the time of Isaiah, the author is unknown. It looks like the writer is pretending to be the real Isaiah; so he writes as if he is living in Isaiah's time. When he uses "Israel," he means Judah-Uzziah was a Judaic king. In the verse below, Israel is defined as Yahweh's servant; so I'll stay with "Israel."
The Passage 52:13-53:12
I'll try to distill this in a logical sequence. Isaiah sees an analogy between Uzziah and Israel. They grew up without beauty and form. They were hated and rejected. They were made to suffer affliction for their transgressions. They were cut off from the land and taken away. When he, Israel, atones for his sins, he will see his offspring; his days will be prolonged; he will prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up; nations will be startled and kings shall shut their mouths. He will divide the spoil with the strong because he bore the sins of transgressors and he pleaded for the transgressors.
I've added comments after the em dash.
Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. -Future tense. Would we think of Jesus as prospering? The hope was that Israel would prosper.
His appearance was marred beyond human semblance. -Past tense. This disfigurement fits the appearance of a leper.
He shall startle many nations; kings shall be dumbstruck. -Future tense. Kings and nations never heard of Jesus. This is known because he is not explicitly mentioned in historical texts. Applied to Israel, it was a prophecy that never came true.
Who has believed what we have heard? -Past tense.
He grew up like a young plant without comeliness and beauty. -Past tense. Jesus was not recorded as being ugly; but a man with leprosy would fit that description.
He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, without being esteemed. -Past tense. Strong's Dictionary interprets "grief" as the Hebrew choliy for disease. Uzziah was quarantined as an outcast.
He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed his affliction from God. -Past tense. Leviticus describes leprosy as an affliction.
He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. -Past tense.
We have gone astray like sheep, and Yahweh made him pay for our iniquity. -Present tense.
He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not complain. -Past tense.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Who considered that he was cut off from the land of the living and stricken for the transgression of my people? -Past tense. Uzziah was separated from his people once he contracted leprosy.
They made his grave with the wicked and a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence and no deceit came from his mouth. -Past tense. Jesus was buried alone.
It was the will of Yahweh to bruise him and put him to grief. When he makes a sin offering, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days and the will of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand. -Past tense. The sinless Jesus would not be making a sin offering. Jesus had no offspring and his days were shortened.
He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. By his knowledge, shall the righteous one, my servant, make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. -Future tense. The term "soul" would apply to a mortal.
I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to his death. Yet he bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors. -Past and future tense. Jesus had no spoil to divide; spoil is a product of war.
I count 10 past, one present and four future tense phrases. What Christians did was to lift the passage from its historical context before Christ and read it like it was a history of Christ, and then call it a prophecy.
Isaiah's use of "servant"
I've collected every verse in Isaiah in which "servant" is used; there are 22 of them, two are above. Let's examine how the rest are used. There are two general things to notice.
1. The translation of "Lord" is Yahweh. Nowhere in the Jewish Old Testament is Yahweh defined in Trinitarian terms. The concepts that define Christianity violate the Jewish religion.
2. In context, "servant" applies to mortals who serve Yahweh, not to other deities. If Jesus is God, how can Jesus be a servant of himself? Christians have it both ways by treating Jesus as the God of creation and born of a woman at the beginning of the first century.
First, we can eliminate the next eleven verses in which Yahweh's servant is defined by name.
1. My servant Isaiah
2. My servant Eliakim
3. My servant David
4. Moses his servant
The verses to follow are from chapters 40-55, written by the second Isaiah, the author of the Suffering Servant passage.
5. My servant Jacob
6. Jacob my servant
7. Jacob my servant
8. Jacob and Israel are my servant
9. My servant Jacob
10. His servant Jacob
11. You are my servant Israel
Because Isaiah was written about 400 years before Christ, we can exclude verses in which servant is used in the present and past tense. Terms likemy chosen, my servant, I have chosen, you are my servant and formed from the womb, don't apply grammatically to the distant future.
1. I have chosen; you are my servant -present tense
2. My servant -present tense
3. My servant whom I have chosen -past tense
4. His servant was formed from the womb -past tense
5. You who obey the voice of his servant -present tense
The last set, in future tense, are prophetic failures.
1. My chosen servant will bring justice to the nations -self-evidently false.
2. The word of his servant -after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, it remained in ruins for 2,000 years.
3. You should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel. - Israel was never restored. -same as above. Israel never recovered as a tribal kingdom.
4. The servant of rulers deeply despised by the nations -Jesus was too unknown to make the history books.
In conclusion, the claim that Isaiah foresaw a god-man who would sent by his Father (himself?) to suffer and die for the sins of man is out of the question, not even close.