The Suffering Servant

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The Messiah in Isaiah

The Suffering Servant

by I Gordon


The following study was written in response to a Jewish reader's objection to identifying the 'servant' of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as the Messiah. His objection stated that

'  The real proof Isaiah is talking about Israel as the Servant is because Isaiah himself says it 15-20 times. Isaiah never once says it's about the Messiah, does he?' 

Now that is a fair enough question. What proof is there that Isaiah spoke of more than the nation of Israel when talking about the 'servant'? And how do we know that Isaiah 53 in particular can't be about the nation of Israel and has to be a reference to the Messiah? Let's have a look...

The Two Servants of Isaiah

The 'servant' of the Lord is the key theme of Isaiah between chapters 41-53. The word 'servant' can be found 17 times within these chapters and large portions of scripture describe the character and work of the 'servant'. When these passages are examined closely however, it becomes clear however that two separate 'servants' are spoken about. The first is the nation of Israel. The second is the Messiah. While there are some similarities between the two, the contrast soon becomes clear as the following table shows...

The Righteous Servant (Messiah) The Unrighteous Servant (Israel)

 Called Servant / Israel & chosen by God

Isa 42:1 'Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight

Isa 49:3 He said to me, 'You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.'

 Called Servant / Israel / Jacob and chosen by God

Isa 41:8-9 'But you, O Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, you descendants of Abraham my friend

 The servant Messiah is an individual (singular) 

Isa 42:6 I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.

Isa 50:6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

The servant Israel is a nation (plural)

Isa 43:10 'You are my witnesses,' declares the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen.

 The servant Messiah is righteous in character 

Isa 53:11 by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

 Servant Israel is unrighteous & stubborn in character 

Isa 46:12 Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness.

Isa 48:1-4 'Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of who invoke the God of Israel - but not in truth or righteousness... For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze.

 The Lord delights in His servant Messiah 

Isa 42:1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.

 The Lord poured out his anger on His servant Israel 

Though the Lord loves and chose the nation of Israel, their sin led to Him pouring out his anger upon them
Isa 48:24-25 Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger...

 The servant Messiah listens to God 

Isa 50:4 He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

 The servant Israel was deaf to God's call 

Isa 42:18-19 Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?

Isa 48:8 You have neither heard nor understood; from of old your ear has not been open.

 The servant Messiah is not rebellious to God 

Isa 50:5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.

The servant Israel rebelled against God

Isa 48:8 Well do I know how treacherous you are; you were called a rebel from birth.

 The servant Messiah opened the eyes of the blind 

Isa 42:6-7 I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness... to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison.

 The servant Israel was blind 

Isa 42:18-19 Look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant?

So we see that one servant is righteous and obedient to the God (the servant Messiah), while the other servant mentioned was stubborn and rebellious (the nation of Israel). Please note that we should not think that this stubbornness mentioned by Isaiah of the nation of Israel means that God doesn't love that nation. Far from it! Even though God had allowed Israel to be taken into captivity in Babylon during this time, the Lord still reminded Israel (though being punished for their disobedience) that

'Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' (Isa 43:4-6)

Now, what is interesting is that part of the righteous servant's commissioning involves bringing the unrighteous servant (Israel) back to God! There are two key verses that state this.

 The Righteous Servant to bring the Unrighteous Servant back to God 

Isa 42:1-7 '  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations  . He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.' This is what God the LORD says - he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 'I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand  .I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness  .'

The key thought that is introduced above is that the servant, in whom God delights, is going to be a covenant for both the people (Israel) and a light for the gentiles. Clearly, the servant has to be someone else apart from the nation of Israel and the gentiles to do this. While this thought is just introduced in Isaiah 42, it is further elaborated on in Isaiah 49.

Isa 49:5-7 'And now the LORD says -  he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself  , for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength - he says:  'It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth  .' This is what the LORD says - the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel - to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: 'Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.'

Now this is a very interesting passage. Note the following points:

  • The servant is commissioned to '  bring Jacob back to Him (God) and gather Israel to himself  .' Hence, the servant mentioned here cannot be Israel itself for it is the servant's task to bring Israel (the disobedient servant) back to God!
  • Yet at the same time, the Lord says that it is '  too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel  '. In God's estimation, there is a far bigger plan for His servant than to just bring Israel back to Himself. His plan for the servant involves the whole world! God says to the righteous servant '  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth  .' That is what God is most concerned about - the salvation of souls, and right to the very ends of the earth! Gentiles as well as Jews.
  • Notice also this important point. The scripture above tells us that initially the righteous servant's mission to the nation of Israel will be rejected! The righteous servant is called the one 'despised and abhorred by the nation'. The 'nation' is Isaiah's and God's people - the nation of Israel. While the righteous servant will be despised initially by the nation of Israel, the Gentiles will accept Him for '  kings will see you and rise up, princes will see you and bow down  '.
  • Please note however that though initially rejected by the nation of Israel, Isaiah goes on in verses 8-13 of chapter 49 to show that the servants work in restoring the nation of Israel to God will eventually succeed.

The Righteous Servant (Messiah) Rejected

We have seen that the righteous servant, the Messiah, will be 'despised and abhorred by the nation' of Israel (Isa 49:7). Further details are given in chapter 50:

Isa 50:4-7 The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back  . I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.  Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced.

Chapter 50 adds more detail concerning the rejection and persecution of the righteous servant. It shows that even though He was awoken and taught by God daily, and was faithful in delivering the word given to Him, yet ultimately He would be despised, mocked and beaten. Yet in all this the righteous servant Messiah would not draw back or disobey His God! The fulfilment of these verses can be seen from what Jesus faced as described in many passages in the New Testament.

Luke 22:63-65 'The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, 'Prophesy! Who hit you?' And they said many other insulting things to him. '

Mark 15:16-20 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, 'Hail, king of the Jews!' Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

So what have we seen so far?

  • Two servants are presented in Isaiah - a righteous servant in whom God delights (the Messiah) and a rebellious servant that is stubborn (nation of Israel)
  • The commissioning of the righteous servant involves bringing the nation of Israel back to God and being a light and salvation for the Gentile nations.
  • The righteous servant (Messiah) will be despised and rejected by the Israelite nation at first, but the Gentiles will bow down to Him.
  • Though mocked, spat upon, and beaten, the righteous servant will not turn away from that which His God has required of Him.

So the development of detail concerning the righteous servant leads us right to the most specific and important verses on this topic... Isaiah 52:13-53:12. We have seen so far that the righteous servant will be rejected and even beaten, but so far no reason for this is given. The passage now before us will, as we shall see, elaborate further upon the rejection of the righteous servant, the Messiah, and even declare the very reason for His suffering and death!

 The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah - The Righteous Servant 

Verse Comments

52:13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

The righteous servant would be exalted above all others. He would be greater than all before Him. Phil 2:9 'He humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.'

Vs 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him - his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness

But before exaltation would come terrible suffering - to the extent that He would be terribly disfigured. Before being crucified, Jesus was scourged with a whip. As was the custom in those days, each strand had nails or pieces of metal attached to it to literally rip the flesh off the bones of the victim - leaving them horribly disfigured - Some didn't survive the scourging.

Vs 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Some versions have startle or astonish instead of sprinkle. Both are valid. Kings and nations will be astonished by the servant. That He would suffer so much for the sins of others! And, like the Priests of the Old Testament sprinkling the blood of bulls in the sin offering, so the Servants blood poured out would bring cleansing for all who would believe. (See Lev 4:3-6 for the O.T type) Heb 12:23-24 'You have come to...Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.' See also Heb 9:14-15

53:1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

But the nation of Israel, as a whole, would not believe. As we have seen earlier in Isa 49:7 they would not understand or accept the words that the suffering servant brought. John 12:37 'Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: 'Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?'

Vs 2 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.

Many believe that Isaiah 53 is a yet future national confession of the nation of Israel (before the 2 nd coming of Jesus as they look to and upon the one they have pierced - see Zech 12:10) In this verse we have Israel's confession as to why they didn't accept the Messiah Jesus at His first coming - That is, He seemed like an ordinary man from a humble background. He came not as a royal King but as a commoner, growing up quietly amongst them. John 1:10-12 'He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.'

Vs 3 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.

Even more than His humble beginning was the fact that He was a man of sufferings. The nation of Israel looks back here to the fact that they rejected and despised the Messiah Jesus at His first coming. No wonder that at the 2nd coming each tribe shall mourn like those that have lost their firstborn son (see Zech 12:10-14.) Matt 27:22-24 ''What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?' Pilate asked. They all answered, 'Crucify him!' 'Why? What crime has he committed?' asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, 'Crucify him!'... 'I am innocent of this man's blood,' Pilate said. 'It is your responsibility!'

Vs 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.

Here is the recognition of Israel in their national confession at the 2nd coming of Jesus. The unrighteous servant had rejected the righteous servant but it had now become clear that He was carrying their sorrows and infirmities. They had thought that the righteous servant was struck down by God as Deut 21:23 states ''Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' In this they were partly correct but not for the reason they expected! But they see things clearly in the next verse...

Vs 5 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.

Israel will see and confess that the suffering servant was their substitute! Messiah was pierced because of their sin! Psalm 22:16 'They have pierced my hands and my feet.' 2 Cor 5:21 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God' 1 Pet 2:24 'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.'

Vs 6 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.

Note the personal pronouns throughout verse 5 and 6. 'Our transgressions', 'our iniquities', 'by his wounds, we are healed', 'each of us turned to his own way', 'the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.' Isaiah wrote this on behalf of his people, God's people, Israel. The plural terms 'we', 'our', 'us' all speak of Isaiah's people, Israel. The singular 'he', 'his', 'him' all speak of an individual who was pierced and rejected by the nation of Israel, for the sins of the entire world! Note also that we see that the Lord had a purpose in all of this. It was the Lord that laid the iniquity of us all on Him!

Vs 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

This states that the servant would remain silent in the face of His oppression and affliction. At both His Jewish and Roman trials Jesus remained silent. Matt 27:12-14 'When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.  13 Then Pilate asked him, 'Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?'  14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge - to the great amazement of the governor. ' This verse couldn't be applied to the nation of Israel who has not remained silent in the face of persecution.

Vs 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

The righteous servant would be taken away and cut off from the land of the living. He would die and have no descendants. We see again here that this righteous servant is separate to those whom Isaiah says are 'my people'. In fact it was for the sin and transgression of Israel that this servant, the Messiah Jesus, would die!

Vs 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Having died as a criminal in the people's eyes, the righteous servant was to be assigned a grave with the wicked. However, in some way He would also be with the rich in His death. This was fulfilled by the actions of Joseph of Arimathea for we read in Matt 27:57-60 'As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.'

Vs 10 Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

This verse shows us the one who was ultimately responsible for the death of the righteous servant... It was the LORD! The Jews and Romans played their part in carrying out the sentence but it was God who ordained it. And for a purpose: The Messiah would die as an offering for sin! Yet if He did this in some way He would get to see offspring and have His days prolonged. How could one who was to die have His days prolonged? Through the resurrection!

Vs 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

The servant would see the results of His suffering and He would again see life! Yet another foretelling of the resurrection of the servant. The righteous servant would justify many as He bears their iniquities. The New Testament tells us that Jesus foresaw the results of His death and 'for the joy set before him endured the cross ' (Heb 12:2)

Vs 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Finally we see the result and position that would be granted to the servant because He was willing to pour out His life unto death. The servant will be highly exalted. He will be given a portion among the great. And though He bore the sin of many, yet He would still intercede for them! When Jesus was on the cross, He still prayed saying 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.' (Luke 23:34) He fulfilled this verse by interceding for the very ones who hated, persecuted, and finally crucified Him!


We set out with the challenge to see if the 'servant' in Isaiah spoke of the Israelite nation or the Messiah. It has been shown that two servants are mentioned - A righteous servant who is an individual and an unrighteous servant who is the nation of Israel. It was partly for this later group that the righteous servant, the Messiah, would have to die!

Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, in his book Messianic Christology offers the following 10 points to show that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah and not the nation of Israel:

1. This was the view of the ancient rabbis.
2. The distinctive pronouns we, us, our, must refer to Isaiah and his Jewish audience while he, him, his refer to the Messiah.
3. Throughout the passage the Servant is portrayed as a singular personality and not a nation; there is no allegory or personification of the Servant as Israel.
4. In verse 9, the servant's suffering is voluntary, willing and silent, which has never been true of Israel.
5. In verse 8, the Servant dies for 'my people'; Isaiah's people were the Jews; the Servant and Israel are therefore clearly distinguished.
6. The Servant is an innocent sufferer. (vs 4-6,8-9) but Israel always suffers for its own sins as Isaiah states in 1:4-8.
7. The Servant suffers a vicarious and substitutionary death (vs 4-6, 8, 10, 12) while Israel does not suffer on behalf of the Gentiles, but because of the Gentiles.
8. The sufferings of the Servant bring justification and spiritual healing to those who accept it (vs 5b, 11b), but Israel has not done this for the Gentiles.
9. The Servant dies (vs 8, 12) but the people of Israel always survive.
10. The Servant is resurrected (vs 10-11), but since the people of Israel have never passed away, they have no need for a resurrection.

The evidence is abundantly clear for those who want to know the truth. The righteous servant has a name. It is Yeshua... Jesus. He died for your sin and mine. And now the God of Israel has given Him a name above all others. Consider these words from the New Testament in closing:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)