The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53

In my Monday night bible study out at the prison we've been working through the book of Isaiah. We got to the famous Chapter 53, the suffering servant text:
Isaiah 53.3-6
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Today is Good Friday and we all know that the church has used this text to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah 53 has come to be an important text for atonement theology, especially substitution theories of atonement. "By his wounds we have been healed." And later in Verse 12: "For he bore the sins of many."

These associations--Jesus bore our sins on the cross and by his wounds we have been healed--are automatic for most Christians. But in our study out at the prison I wanted to go back and address the question about who the Suffering Servant was during the time of Isaiah. Who was Isaiah (or the particular writer or writers of Isaiah 53) speaking about in his time and place?

Who is this servant who is crushed for our iniquities?

There's been a lot of scholarly debate about who the servant might be in Isaiah 53. The theory I'm most drawn to, and the one I shared out at the prison, is that the servant is the faithful remnant in Israel.

Roughly, Isaiah is broken up into two historical sections. Chapters 1-39 come mostly before the Babylonian exile. So these chapters are mainly portents and warnings about Israel's unfaithfulness. (Though there are some bright spots like good King Hezekiah and the failure of the Assyrian invasion.)

Chapters 40-66 come after the Babylonian exile as the Jews start heading back home.

Sprinkled throughout Isaiah are oracles that before, during and after the exile there will be a faithful remnant. Though Israel has turned her back on God and gone over into idolatry there are a few, sprinkled amongst the wicked masses, who remain faithful to YHWH. God sees this faithful remnant and promises to rebuild Israel upon them. The remnant are a seed that God will plant to re-grow the people of God.
Isaiah 6.13
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land

Isaiah 10.2-23
In that day the remnant of Israel,
the survivors of Jacob,
will no longer rely on him
who struck them down
but will truly rely on the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel.
A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob
will return to the Mighty God.
Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel,
only a remnant will return.
Destruction has been decreed,
overwhelming and righteous.
The Lord, the Lord Almighty, will carry out
the destruction decreed upon the whole land.
As you can see in both these texts, YHWH sees the remnant but the punishment of exile is still going to happen. Even upon the remnant. And that's the key. Exile falls upon the innocent as well as the wicked.

However, after the punishment/exile is over the faithful remnant "will return" and become a "holy seed" so that Israel can experience a new birth in the land.

In short, when God punishes Israel God knows that the faithful, innocent remnant is also being punished along with the wicked, idolatrous masses. The remnant is, thus, "bearing the sins" of others. The remnant, though innocent, is also "stricken by God" just like everyone else being sent into exile.
Isaiah 53.8-9
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
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.
And yet, if the remnant bears the exile faithfully--"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 its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."--the remnant will be the eventual salvation of Israel. The wounds inflicted upon the patiently enduring remnant will be how Israel gets saved and restored. In the end, by suffering faithfully alongside the wicked, the faithfulness of the remnant will be rewarded:
Isaiah 53.11-12
After he has suffered,
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.
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.
How this vision connects with Jesus, then, is straightforward. Especially if you've read a lot of N.T. Wright.

As the gospels open Israel is back in her homeland, back from Babylonian exile. However, there is still this sense that the full restoration has yet to occur. There was a sense, in the face of things like Roman occupation, that the exile had not fully ended. God had not yet returned in person to Zion and to the Temple (Spoiler alert: Triumphal Entry).

God, it seemed, was still punishing Israel.

So what was needed was a truly faithful and truly innocent remnant to become the "holy seed" out of which a restored People of God would grow. But according to Isaiah 53, that faithful seed would experience the punishment and pain of exile alongside his brothers and sisters. But if this holy seed were, perhaps, fully blameless and fully sinless and fully innocent then perhaps his death would bring about the full and complete liberation of Israel. The Gordian knot of the Deuteronomic Covenant--where Israel willingly agreed to experience exile if she was unfaithful--would have been fully and finally cut. The cloud of the Deuteronomic Curses, which had hung over Israel for generations and generations and generations, would finally be lifted. And with that cloud lifted, the Kingdom and Rule of God promised to come to the nations through Israel could finally break out into the world (Spoiler Alert: the Great Commission and the Book of Acts).

So, Jesus becomes this faithful seed as the truly Innocent One who bears the Deuteronomic Curse alongside his wicked brothers and sisters so that their exile may finally come to an end.

[Drop mic and walk out.]

But a question might be raised at this point...

[Come back and pick up mic.]

Is what I'm describing the calculus of penal substitutionary atonement, with its vision of a wrathful God?

Sort of, but not quite. There is a penal vision at work here, but it's the penal framework agreed to by YHWH and Israel when they got "married"--formed a covenant--in Deuteronomy. Any legal frame goes back to that moment. Basically, this isn't really about you or I going to hell. To be sure, all this affects you and I, but the penal issues, the judgment and wrath of God, are historical and covenantal in nature.

Basically, when the bible speaks about "the forgiveness of sins" it is referring to the forgiveness of Israel's sins. 

More precisely, the "forgiveness of sins" is the end of Israel's exile in Jesus Christ. Which was needed for the Kingdom of God to expand out from Israel and into the whole world. Thus, the forgiveness of sins--the end of Israel's exile--leads to salvation reaching you and I in the gospel proclamation that the Kingdom of God has spilled out into the nations, that "Jesus is Lord of all."

In short, any "penal substitution" is covenantal and historical in nature. Consequently, rather than penal substitutionary atonement I've suggested that we speak of covenantal substitutionary atonement

That's the logic at work in Isaiah 53, for both the faithful remnant during the Babylonian exile and in the Christian understanding of what took place on the cross.

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23 thoughts on “The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53”

  1. Oh, man, that's good, Richard. A bigger big picture than what we've become accustomed to in the American church with its emphasis on individuality and tribalism.

  2. Excellent! The prophets, especially Isaiah, help us see and understand, as Jesus did, that the redemption of one another through suffering and death, the continuous birthing of love, is of the architecture and fabric of existence. That when we fail to love we weaken and tear that fabric. The power of loves's death and redemption can be recognized in the apostle Paul's words, "From God, through God and to God are all things". This is not just a clever little way of saying God created all things, but that each moment is creation, each moment is love's death and life, and that it can be as real and redeeming to us and through us as our next breath.

  3. I'm not a fan of psa, so I'm most grateful for this post. And I appreciate the reframing of Isaiah 53 in covenantal context. But, I do have a question. You say, "when the bible speaks about "the forgiveness of sins" it is referring to the forgiveness of Israel's sins." Do you really mean to say that as a blanket statement? that all of the NT references to forgiveness of sins refers to Israel's sins?

  4. Maybe this is just me having been raised always reading Isaiah 53 as being about Jesus, but I have trouble seeing it as being about the faithful remnant of Israel, and not an individual. How do you explain the frequent contrasts and parallels between "we/us" and "him/he" in the chapter? Who is "we" in Isaiah's usage, anyway? Is Isaiah not counting himself and his hearers as being part of this faithful remnant? And what did it mean this remnant to "bear our iniquities"?

  5. It has to do participation. The forgiveness of sins is the end of Israel's exile in Jesus Christ finally restoring the throne of David--Jesus is Messiah--and the Kingdom/Rule of God on earth for all the nations. From there the issue is how do Gentiles participate in this New Creation which is characterized by the forgiveness of sins? Because if you don't step into Jesus's Kingdom you're left with only with the Law and you'd be stuck again with the Deuteronomic Curses. So if you want to be Israel--to be a part of the People of God you have two paths--Torah obedience (and the Deuteronomic Curses that come with it) or the New Covenent inagurated in Jesus where the Deutroconic Curse has been lifted.

    So it's not that I'm a sinner and I have my sins forgiven. It's that I'm stepping into a People and a Covenant where the forgiveness of sins is an already established reality. True, the functional outcome of moving into this Kingdom is that I, personally, move into a state of forgiveness. But the forgiveness is participatory. It's like becoming a citizen of a country. You're joining a nation where the forgiveness of sins is a right of citizenship.

  6. Christians do read Isaiah 53 as referring to Jesus. But that's not the issue. The issue was how the servant in Issiah in 53 ended the exile in that time and place. Once we figure that out then we can go forward to discuss how Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of what happened then (the end of Israel's exile). You start in the OT and then move to the NT. You move from past to present.

    Because if you don't do this, if you start at the present and read it back into the past you end up importing into the OT notions that are strange and foreign. You end up reading the theological notions you picked up in church (like penal substitutionary atonement) back into the story of Israel.

  7. I definitely get that. But I just can't see how Isaiah's language was originally referring to the "remnant of Israel". His descriptions of the servant and the use of pronouns make it seem like he's describing an individual who was distinct from him and his audience. Not necessarily Jesus, but an individual nonetheless.

  8. Let me see if I'm understanding you correctly. I think I hear you saying that traditional Evangelicals have it half right. They're right in saying that human sin is a problem that desperately needs to be addressed. But, they're wrong in articulating how it is that humans get forgiven. Instead of an individual transaction in which one confesses sin and receives the imputation of Jesus' righteousness (to use the old phrase), one joins God's covenant people who live in the realm of God's gracious forgiveness. Is this about right?

  9. Yep. I think it's all about balance, emphasis and nuance. If you emphasize the forgiveness part--nay, reduce everything to forgiveness--you end up with the atomized, I-accept-Jesus-as-my-personal-savior theology so common among evangelicals. What Scot McKnight calls a soterian gospel.

    But if you focus on the Kingdom, of which the forgiveness of sin is a part of a larger whole, and most importantly so much bigger than you--you have something that is huge. "Jesus is Messiah" is a way bigger claim than the forgiveness of sins.

  10. For me, what creates a problem is that this passage seems to be quoted in I Peter 2:22-25, and comes at me from my psa friends.Context-wise it does seem to be about handling unfair mistreatment in the previous verses (vs 19-21), but that's not where they're coming from.

  11. Thanks Richard for the post. I was thinking about your reply to David on starting in the OT and moving to the NT. I couldn't help but notice that Jesus and the Disciples would often start in the present to explain the OT types and shadows. Am I right about this?

  12. I've heard Isaiah 40-66 called the "Gospel According to Isaiah" because so much of the text applies to the ministry of Jesus, especially chapter 58. As Christians we too can be the "repairer of the breach." In fact Jesus quoted Isa. 61:1,2 as reflective of his own mission. Are you saying that this section has a dual application - one in Isaiah's time and one in the life of Jesus?

  13. Very good analysis. Thank you.

    Still, I'm not sure how much "substitution" plays into this. If the suffering of the suffering servant is effectual because it is shared with the unrighteous, it seems to me still that we should be referring to the atonement as participatory, not substitutionary. Yes, the unrighteous benefited from something they could not do for themselves, but the term "substitute" obscures things too much, or so it seems to me. Thoughts?

  14. Each individual must "receive Christ as their Lord and Savior to receive the power (Holy Spirit) to become a child of God". John 1:12 Even if many receive Him (such as at an alter call), each individual must receive Christ in their heart. Of course, not all who respond to the Holy Spirit's conviction truly repent and become saved. I don't believe that joining a "remnant" church or fellowship has anything to do with being born-again.

  15. In Isaiah 53 ... "these words need to be read carefully:

    "We esteemed him stricken by God ..... but he was ...... "

    In other words, Isaiah critiques exactly the view that God was punishing the suffering servant, but in correcting it he leaves our sin placed on him for our healing and peace. In other words, the mechanism for reconciliation does not involve punishment from God, just voluntary bearing of our sin by God.

    Increasingly I'm coming to the conclusion that people (like me) from an Evangelical background have been so trained in the Gospel formulation of Punishment Substitution, that we end up reading it into passages that don't mention it. If so, this has caused - and continues to cause - a great deal of confusion about the nature of The Good News, and a great deal of difficulty in communication between christians."

  16. what is interesting, in the wilderness all the people were not circumcised.

    gen.17:14 Any uncircumcised male33 who has not been
    circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin will be cut off34 from his people –
    he has failed to carry out my requirement.”35
    Joshua 5:7 He replaced them with their sons,12 whom Joshua
    circumcised. They were uncircumcised; their fathers had not circumcised them
    along the way.

    the conditional covenant is cut with the people and their forthcoming generations
    deut.27:10 You must obey him7 and keep his
    commandments and statutes that I am giving you today.” 27:11 Moreover, Moses commanded
    the people that day: 27:12
    “The following tribes8 must stand to bless the people on Mount
    Gerizim when you cross the Jordan: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and
    Benjamin. 27:13 And these
    other tribes must stand for the curse on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher,
    Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali.

    this helps me to understand Paul's usage,Rom 7

    7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin?
    Absolutely not! Certainly, I14 would not have known sin except through the
    law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something
    belonging to someone else15 if the law had not said, “Do not
    7:8 But sin, seizing the
    opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong

    THIS CARRIES over to the his underling problem

    Gal.3:10 For all who20 rely on doing the works of the law are under
    a curse, because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not keep on
    doing everything written in the book of the law.”21 3:11 Now it is clear no one is
    justified before God by the law, because the righteous one will live by


    7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from
    this body of death? 7:25
    Thanks be25 to God
    through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then,26 I myself serve the law of God with my mind,
    but27 with my flesh
    I serve28 the law
    of sin.

    CHRIST RESOLVES THE {FAITHFUL] and cursed people of god born under the LAW.


    4:4 But when the appropriate
    time7 had come, God
    sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 4:5 to REDEEM those who were under
    the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights.8



    3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by
    becoming26 a curse
    for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a
    tree”)27 3:14 in order that in Christ
    Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles,28 so that we could
    receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.



    8:1 There is
    therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.1 8:2 For the law of the life-giving
    Spirit2 in Christ
    Jesus has set you3
    free from the law of sin and death. 8:3 For God achieved what the law could not do because4 it was weakened
    through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and
    concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 8:4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be
    fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the




    1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven
    against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people39 who suppress the
    truth by their40
    1:19 because what can be known
    about God is plain to them,42 because God has made it plain to them. 1:20 For since the creation of
    the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have
    been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So
    people43 are
    without excuse. 1:21 For
    although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but
    they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts44 were darkened.

    the trial that has come upon the whole of this creation (which started
    out very ‘good”.) is the result of a cosmic deviation that suppress’ the
    truth/word of GOD, knowingly in unrighteousness.

    The cosmic powers of evil are warring against the faithful people of God.

    This was true in the Garden,”with The deceiver”being unfaithful and disobedient to gods truth.

    It was true at the Red Sea. It was true at the cross.



    6:10 Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the
    strength of his power. 6:11
    Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand
    against the schemes21 of the devil. 6:12 For our struggle22 is not against flesh and blood,23 but against the
    rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness,24 against the
    spiritual forces25
    of evil in the heavens.26 6:13 For this reason, take up the full armor of God so
    that you may be able to stand your ground27 on the evil day, and having done everything,
    to stand.


    9:20 and said, “This is the blood of the
    covenant that God has commanded you to keep.”24 9:21 And both the tabernacle and
    all the utensils of worship he likewise sprinkled with blood. 9:22 Indeed according to the law
    almost everything was purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood
    there is no forgiveness.

    So it was necessary for the sketches25 of the things in heaven to be purified with
    these sacrifices,26

    but the heavenly things themselves required27 better sacrifices than these. 9:24 For Christ did not enter a
    sanctuary made with hands – the representation28 of the true sanctuary29 – but into heaven
    itself, and he appears now in God’s presence for us.

  18. just one more


    5:18 Consequently,26 just as condemnation27 for all people28 came29 through one
    transgression,30 so
    too through the one righteous act31 came righteousness leading to life32 for all people. 5:19 For just as through the
    disobedience of the one man33 many34 were made sinners, so also through the
    obedience of one man35 many36 will be made righteous. 5:20 Now the law came in37 so that the
    transgression38 may
    increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, 5:21 so that just as sin reigned
    in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through
    Jesus Christ our Lord......THEN CH 6-7-8

  19. Thanks for bringing Covenant into the discussion. 'Covenantal substitutionary atonement' hits all the right notes.

  20. as far as i go rich , hopefully u see i backed u up the way i see scripture... although . its just me looking at this for about 45 years
    Christ the man-god is the atonement. on the cross saying father ,father why ? have you forsaken ME... i really don't think it was about anything other than pleading for and end to the seperation. curse

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