Commentary on Isaiah 52-53 (The Suffering Servant)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is recognized by many scholars as the fourth of the so-called Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah. Henri Blocher, in The Servant Songs, entitles the four songs: (1) The Call of the Servant (Isa. 42:1–9); (2) The Commission of the Servant (Isa. 49:1–13); (3) The Commitment of the Servant (Isa. 50:4–11); and (4) The Career of the Servant (Isa. 52:13–53:12). The Servant in these songs is none other than the prophesied Messiah who would redeem both Jews and Gentiles alike, reconciling them to God.

What do these Songs say about the coming Messiah? Larry Heyler, in Yesterday, Today and Forever, summarizes the characteristics and accomplishments of the Servant:

  1. He is elected by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and promised success in his endeavor (42:1, 4).
  2. Justice is a prime concern of his ministry (42:1, 4).
  3. His ministry has an international scope (42:1, 6).
  4. God predestined him to his calling (49:1).
  5. He is a gifted teacher (49:2).
  6. He experiences discouragement in his ministry (49:4).
  7. His ministry extends to the Gentiles (49:6).
  8. The Servant encounters strong opposition and resistance to his teaching, even of a physically violent nature (49:5–6).
  9. He is determined to finish what God called him to do (49:7).
  10. The Servant has humble origins with little outward prospects for success (53:1–2).
  11. He experiences suffering and affliction (53:3).
  12. The Servant accepts vicarious and substitutionary suffering on behalf of his people (53:4–6, 12).
  13. He is put to death after being condemned (53:7–9).
  14. Incredibly, he comes back to life and is exalted above all rulers (53:11–12; 52:15).

Let’s zero in on the fourth song contained in Isaiah 52-53. Messianic Jew and biblical scholar Barry Leventhal, writing in Why I Am a Christian, breaks down the passage as follows:

1. In the prologue of the song (Isa. 52:13–15), the prophet Isaiah asserted (on behalf of God) that the Servant of the Lord would ultimately be highly exalted (v. 13), as well as honored among the Gentiles (v. 15), but only after dreadful personal suffering (v. 14).

2. In the body of the song (53:1–9), Isaiah confessed (on behalf of his own people) that (1) Israel utterly rejected the Servant of the Lord in his life (vv. 1–3), (2) as well as in his death (vv. 7–9), because (3) the nation misjudged the meaning of his death by assuming that he died for his own sins rather than for the nation’s (vv. 4–6).

3. In the epilogue of the song (53:10–12), the prophet asserted (on behalf of God) that by the Servant’s completed work of atonement, God would be exalted (v. 10), believers would be justified (v. 11), and the Servant himself would be honored (v. 12).

Do these verses predict the resurrection of the Messiah? Leventhal argues that they do.

It is obvious that a dramatic transition occurs between Isaiah 53:9 and 53:10. The messianic Suffering Servant ‘was cut off out of the land of the living’ [a Hebrew idiom for death] (53:8 NASB), ‘His grave was assigned to be with wicked men, . . . in His death’ (53:9 NASB), and ‘He poured out Himself to death’ (53:12 NASB). And yet in 53:10–12, he is alive and well, “prolong[ing] His days’ (53:10), justifying the many who believe on him (53:11), and sharing in the spoils of his victorious war (53:12).

Without question, this is the messianic Servant’s triumphant resurrection from the dead! This transition is similar to the break in Psalm 22, ‘The Messianic Psalm of the Cross,’ between 22:21 and 22:22. This should not be surprising since the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead was directly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically in Psalm 16. This psalm was used in the preaching of the early messianic community as an apologetic for the Messiah’s resurrection, with the result that thousands of Jews became believers (cf. Acts 2:25–28; 13:35–37; also, Luke 24:25–27, 44–48; 1 Cor. 15:1, 3–8; 1 Peter 1:10–12).

Perhaps the most astounding insight Isaiah has about the coming Messiah, which had never before been explicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the idea that a man (the Servant or Messiah) could suffer and die, and through his suffering and death, bring healing, forgiveness, and righteousness to other people. John F. A. Sawyer, in Isaiah: Volume 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, writes,

The prophet is entering new territory for an Old Testament writer, but what in essence he is saying is that somehow or other the community experiences healing, forgiveness and righteousness, as on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:22). Divine intervention has done what they could not do themselves: it has removed their sins and transformed suffering into a source of hope and healing. Psalm 51:10–17 offers a rough parallel, but there is no other Old Testament passage where such a way of thinking is developed. So unexpected is it that even Matthew quotes verse 4 in a totally different context (Matt. 8:17). Not until 1 Peter 2:24 is the full meaning of the passage appreciated. And Paul discovers the truth about the death of Christ without reference to Isaiah 53: ie ‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19).

After reading the fourth Servant Song, who is it that immediately comes to mind? Whose life exactly matches the predictions made in Isaiah 52-53? None other than Jesus Christ Himself.

This passage played a major role in the conversion of the Jewish college student, Barry Leventhal. When he was asked by Christians to read Isaiah 52-53 (and other messianic passages) for himself, he was convinced that Christians must have added it to the Hebrew Bible! He accused his Christian friends of fraud and deceit. Only later did he discover that this passage had always been in the Hebrew Bible, but modern Jews have been studiously avoiding it because of its obvious implication that Jesus Christ is the Suffering Servant whom Isaiah prophesied.

Another Messianic Jew and scholar, Michael Brown, in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3, summarizes:

Isaiah 52: 13– 53: 12 is one of the most important Messianic prophecies in the entire Hebrew Bible, and I would not be exaggerating to say that more Jews have put their faith in Jesus as Messiah after reading this passage of Scripture than after reading any other passage in the Tanakh. To the unbiased reader, it clearly speaks about the death and resurrection of the righteous servant of the Lord on behalf of his sinful people. It speaks of Yeshua [Jesus]!