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Suffering Servant

What is the most debated passage of the Old Testament? 

“Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 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. 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.” (Isaiah 53:1-6)

Our first task is to be absolutely clear as to who is being referred to in this passage, rather than just say, ‘Oh yes, that’s Jesus, isn’t it?’ We need to look at the context, in case we are ‘conned by the text’. The passage is introduced in Isaiah 52:13, where the entity is called the servant. I am treading carefully here and even avoiding personalization (i.e. using the word ‘entity’ rather than ‘person’) because those perceived fears of the Jewish religious establishment mentioned earlier are real fears after all. If this suffering servant could point to Jesus, as it seems to do in Christian eyes, then some open-minded Jews might start to recognize the Messiah here, Rabbis forbid!

In the section of Isaiah from Chapter 40 onwards, a servant is mentioned nineteen times, in the so-called Servant Songs, and we start to wonder whether these modern Rabbis may have a point after all.

Isaiah 41:8 reads "But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend,”

Isaiah 44:1 reads "But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen”.

Isaiah 44:21 reads "Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you.”

Isaiah 45:4 reads “For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honour, though you do not acknowledge me.”

In fact over a half of the “servant” verses clearly speak of the nation Israel, or the Jewish people. This leads to many modern religious Jewish commentators to suggest that our passage in Isaiah 53 is clearly referring to the Jewish people. If you read that passage again in the light of Jewish history you can see where they are coming from, but you also see some other things.

“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”

So how do the Jewish people heal through their wounds or carry the iniquity of the World? They are hardly equipped to fulfil this holy role, as Isaiah tells us a little earlier in his prophecies.

“Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.” (Isaiah 1:4)

It just doesn’t scan that this people, no more or less sinful than any other people who have walked the Earth, could fulfil the role of this “suffering servant”.

So we have to conclude that, although earlier verses in Isaiah speak of Israel as the “servant”, the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 is an individual.

More of this next week.

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