By: William Jackson
Who is Isaiah’s suffering servant? Dependent on your audience your answers will vary. In the case of Christianity, Jesus is the resounding response. You see, for Christianity the “suffering servant” prophecy serves as their cotter pin in connecting the Testaments. Ironically, although Christianity doesn’t focus a lot on the Tanakh (the Old Testament), it does enjoy the validation of their messiah through Israel’s prophets. Isaiah is chuck for of them. Even when you read Isaiah 53 alone it does seem to speak to Jesus;
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…” (verses 4)
“…he was pierced for our transgressions… “(verse 5)
“…the Lord makes his life an offering for sin…” (verse 10)
To further solidify this, the New Testament quotes Isaiah when referring to Jesus – a lot. One example is Matthew 8:16-17 which tells us “He (being Christ) took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.”. This is a direct quote from Isaiah 53:4. Actually, Isaiah 53 is quoted a resounding 851 times in the New Testament. As if that was not enough, there are many more supposed foreshadowing’s of the Christian messiah found in the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14, 6:9,10, 9:1,2, 29:13, 40:3-5, 42:1-4). The great crescendo is Luke 4:17-22 when Christ is reading the Torah portion in the synagogue and he reads aloud Isaiah 58:6, 61:1-2. Here it affirms that he has been sent as God’s servant. Yes, all of this is very convincing, if we keep these verses isolated.
When it comes to scripture, regardless of where we stand on the issue, anyone who is sharp enough is going to insist you read it in context. As painful as it is, we are to read the sentences before and after each verse, sometimes the whole chapter, sometimes even the whole book to get the complete meaning. No short cuts, or holding onto pieces that just advance our cause. It is His entire Holy Word, not our covenant soundbites.
Isaiah is sometimes called “Shakespeare of the Tanakh”1. In his beautiful literary style his book uses four “Servant poems” to communicate his message. These Servant Poems, otherwise known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant, are written about a certain “servant of YHWH.”. They can be found in Isaiah chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53. So begs the question, who is the suffering servant in these songs? Christian liturgy would have us to believe it is Christ, but let’s read it in context. As we begin in chapter 41 we see the suffering servant identified as the Jewish nation2:
“You are My servant, O Israel” (41:8)
“You are My servant, Israel” (49:3)
see also Isaiah 44:1, 44:2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20.
Let’s take it a step further and scour the entire Tanakh. The Bible is filled with other references to the Jewish people as God’s “servant”; see Jeremiah 30:10, 46:27-28; Psalms 136:22. In fact, no one, other than Israel, is identified as the “servant” in Tanakh (Old Testament).
We are not to add or subtract from God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32, Joshua 1:7, Proverbs 30:6). This would imply that we are to spend the time and research His Word so it does not become misinterpreted. Passion is good, but when passion leads to bias it becomes a hindrance. Christian liturgy in the need to validate itself seized onto some pretty powerful verses from Isaiah, but since they were not grounded in truth, they could be pushed away by anyone sincere enough to study His Word. “Fools inherit folly, but the cunning make knowledge a crown” (Provers 14:18).