Isaiah's Suffering Servant

Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent
a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.
-Eric Hoffer

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 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.

1Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them.
2And fire came forth from the presence of the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. (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.

22Now the rest of the acts of Uzziah, from first to last, Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz wrote.
23And Uzziah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the burial field which belonged to the kings, for they said, "He is a leper." And Jotham his son reigned in his stead. (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.

3And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah had done.
4Nevertheless the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and burned incense on the high places.
5And the LORD smote the king, so that he was a leper to the day of his death, and he dwelt in a separate house. And Jotham the king's son was over the household, governing the people of the land. (2 Kings 15:3-5)

Isaiah became priest in the year Uzziah died.

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. (Isa. 6:1)

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."

3And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." (Isa. 49:3)

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.

13Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.(Isa. 52:13)

His appearance was marred beyond human semblance. -Past tense. This disfigurement fits the appearance of a leper.

14As many were astonished at him- his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men (Isa. 52:14)

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.

15so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand. (Isa. 52:15)

Who has believed what we have heard? -Past tense.

1Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?(Isa. 53:1)

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.

2For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.(Isa. 53:2)

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.

3He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.(Isa. 53:3)

He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed his affliction from God. -Past tense. Leviticus describes leprosy as an affliction.

4Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.(Isa. 53:4)

9"When a man is afflicted with leprosy, he shall be brought to the priest; (Lev. 13:9)

He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. -Past tense.

5But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.(Isa. 53:5)

We have gone astray like sheep, and Yahweh made him pay for our iniquity. -Present tense.

6All 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.(Isa. 53:6)

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not complain. -Past tense.

7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.(Isa. 53:7)

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.

8By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?(Isa. 53:8)

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.

9And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.(Isa. 53:9)

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.

10Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand;(Isa. 53:10)

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.

11he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.(Isa. 53:11)

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.

12Therefore 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 death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:12)

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

3the LORD said, "As my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Ethiopia, (Isa. 20:3)

2. My servant Eliakim

20In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, (Isa. 22:20)

3. My servant David

35For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David." (Isa. 37:35)

4. Moses his servant

11Then he remembered the days of old, of Moses his servant. Where is he who brought up out of the sea the shepherds of his flock? Where is he who put in the midst of them his holy Spirit, (Isa. 63:11)

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

8But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; (Isa. 41:8)

6. Jacob my servant

1"But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! (Isa. 44:1)

7. Jacob my servant

2Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isa. 44:2)

8. Jacob and Israel are my servant

21Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. (Isa. 44:21)

9. My servant Jacob

4For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. (Isa. 45:4)

10. His servant Jacob

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

11. You are my servant Israel

3And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." (Isa. 49:3)

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

9you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, "You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off"; (Isa. 41:9)

2. My servant -present tense

19Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send? Who is blind as my dedicated one, or blind as the servant of the LORD? (Isa. 42:19)

3. My servant whom I have chosen -past tense

10"You are my witnesses," says the LORD, "and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. (Isa. 43:19)

4. His servant was formed from the womb -past tense

5And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength (Isa. 49:5)

5. You who obey the voice of his servant -present tense

10Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the LORD and relies upon his God? (Isa. 50:10)

The last set, in future tense, are prophetic failures.

1. My chosen servant will bring justice to the nations -self-evidently false.

1Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isa. 42:1)

2. The word of his servant -after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, it remained in ruins for 2,000 years.

26who confirms the word of his servant, and performs the counsel of his messengers; who says of Jerusalem, 'She shall be inhabited,' and of the cities of Judah, 'They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins'; (Isa. 44:26)

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.

6he says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the ear (Isa. 49:6)

4. The servant of rulers deeply despised by the nations -Jesus was too unknown to make the history books.

7Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the servant of rulers: "Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you." (Isa. 49:7)

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.


The Argument from the Bible