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Who is the Suffering Servant?

Is Jesus spoken of in Isaiah?

In the section of Isaiah from Chapter 40 onwards, a servant is mentioned nineteen times, in the so-called Servant Songs.

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. A hint of his identity is given in Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 52:13-53.

"Behold, my servant, the Anointed One (Messiah) shall prosper ..."

Those Jews living just after New Testament times, listening to this Targum read out in the synagogue, would have been in no doubt that the suffering servant is an individual, the Messiah, the Anointed One and some of them would eventually realize that this very person, Jesus of Nazareth, had actually walked among them. Many of them would realize that Jesus' life of service and death on the cross followed the script of Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12 to the letter, as well as much of Psalm 22. The suffering servant had come in the flesh and walked among them.

We have read that contemporary Jewish opinion is that the Suffering Servant was a role fulfilled by the Jewish people. It is significant to note that this wasn't always the opinion of Jewish sages through the ages, even those living through the furnace of Christian anti-Jewish persecution. Of course the Targum identified the Suffering Servant with the Messiah himself and this view is generally the accepted view of all the early Jewish writings, including the Talmud, the Midrashim and the Zohar and also the highly revered rabbi, Maimonides.

Despite what most modern rabbis may say, the suffering servant was certainly identified with the Messiah by earlier rabbis. In the 16th century Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel admitted:

"The first question is to ascertain to whom (this scripture) refers: for the learned among the Nazarenes expound it of the man who was crucified in Jerusalem at the end of the second temple and who according to them was the Son of God and took flesh in the virgin's womb as it is stated in their writings. Jonathan ben Uzziel interpreted it in the Targum of the future Messiah; but this is also the opinion of our learned men in the majority of the midrashim".

Another 16th Century rabbi, Moshe Alshekh stated:

"(Our) Rabbis with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of king Messiah."

"Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9)

This is a gentle individual with the key to salvation and we know from our reading of the Gospel account of the triumphal entry to Jerusalem, that Jesus was a perfect fulfillment of this (Matthew 21:5).

This little section is tied up by considering the little episode of the apostle Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. The eunuch was reading from the "suffering servant" verses in Isaiah 53 and needed to know who was being referred to here. In verse 35, Phillip responds. "Then Phillip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news of Jesus."

Steve Maltz
August 2012

(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book 'Jesus Man of Many Names')

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