WHO IS THE SERVANT
OF ISAIAH 53?
Who is the servant of Isaiah 53 -- the “man of sorrows” who was “smitten by
God and afflicted”? Is he the nation of Israel or an individual? Is he a historical person or someone still to come?
Many interpretations have been given. Some say he is collective Israel. Some say he is the righteous
remnant of Israel. Historical individuals have been proposed -- kings Hezekiah, Zerubbabel, and Cyrus; or prophets like
Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. An early interpretation, the New Testament, applied him to Jesus.
Rabbi Singer, in his “Let’s Get Biblical” series, proposes that the servant is both
Israel as a nation and the righteous remnant of Israel. In his view, Israel the nation is personified as a suffering servant,
suffering for the sins of the Gentiles. Crucial to his interpretation is the identification of the speaker of verse 1. Is it God?
Isaiah? No, he says, the speakers are identified from the previous verses (52:14-15) -- the kings of the Gentiles. They ask
the question, “Who has believed our report?” -- the report about the amazing things they have seen (53:1).
They are shocked to see an innocent servant suffering for their sins. They are more shocked to discover that the despised
nation of Israel is actually suffering the penalty for Gentile sins. Later they watch with amazement as this despised nation is
vindicated and exalted before their eyes (49:7).
To interpret Isaiah 53 it is necessary to read all the surrounding chapters, as Rabbi Singer correctly
observes. Certain basic questions need to be answered. Who is the servant of Second Isaiah? Who are the speakers of
Why National Israel is Not the Servant
The servant of Isa. 53 is the “righteous servant” (v. 11), meek “as a
lamb” (v. 7), who had done no violence and had no deceit in his mouth (v. 9). This is hardly a
description of national Israel at any time in its history. Isaiah uniformly describes Israel as apostate, sinful and iniquitous, doing
“deeds of violence” (chap. 59, especially v. 7), “children of transgression, offspring of
deceit” (57:4). Though Israel in Babylonian exile suffered double what she deserved (40:2) she was hardly
“my righteous servant” suffering innocently for the guilty, either before, during, or after the exile. The exile
was a punishment for sin. The biblical record shows Jewish history as checkered -- sometimes good, often bad.
So who is the Servant of Isaiah 53? Is he the nation of Israel suffering for the sins of the Gentiles? In view
of the statements in Ezekiel 18 that God does not make the innocent suffer for the guilty (which Jewish expositors quote
against the idea of substitutionary atonement) why should Israel have to suffer for the sins of the nations? In this world the
innocent constantly suffer for the sins of the wicked; but such suffering is not from God. Yet Isa. 53 clearly states
“the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6) and that “it was the will of the LORD to
bruise him” and “put him to grief” (v. 10). God has never made Israel the sin-bearer for the Gentiles.
Jewish scholars recognize someone other than national Israel in the Servant passages. Some have said that
the text may apply only to a remnant in Israel, or to an ideal Israel, or to an eschatological (last-day) Israel. The Jewish
Encyclopedia under “Servant of God” comments: “In the following passages (Isa. 42:1-4;
49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 to 53:12) Israel’s destiny and duty, rather than its previous conduct, is indicated. In the four
passages indicated, the ‘national’ interpretation is not admissible. The descriptions in them of the attitude and
conduct of the 'ebed YHWH (servant of Yahweh) seem to be idealizations of the character of an individual rather
than of the whole of Israel. This is especially true of 52:13--53:12, the exaltation of the ‘man of suffering.’
In this a prophetic anticipatory picture of the Messiah has been recognized by both Jewish and Christian
tradition” (italics mine).
Who is Speaking in Isaiah 53?
Identifying the speakers is vital to the understanding of the chapter, because the first personal pronoun is
used throughout. “All we like sheep have gone astray, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us
all” (v. 5). Who is “we”? Who are the ones who have gone astray, who are full of iniquity?
Obviously not God, because there is no iniquity in Him. Obviously not Isaiah, because he is singular. Not the Gentile kings,
because they have not been told, they have not heard, the message of the speakers.
... for that which has not been told them [the kings] they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
Who has believed what we have heard? (52:15--53:1, RSV, italics mine).
Starting with Isa. 40, a special group of people called heralds are mentioned. God commands that a herald
proclaim a message of comfort to His people (vv. 1-2). The herald cries out the command to prepare a highway (out of
Babylon to Judah) because God is coming to visit His people (vv. 3-5). God again commands, “Cry!” The
herald seems discouraged as he mourns, “What shall I cry? All flesh is grass.... The grass withers ... when the breath
of the LORD blows upon it” (vv. 6-8). The Lord has “blown” upon Israel and she is withered. Then
God even commands Zion herself to get up on the mountain to be a herald of good tidings. (The commands are all to a
feminine person, Zion, God’s “wife” [v. 9].) She is to cry aloud to the cities of Judah that the Lord
God is coming with might to reward His people (vv. 10-11).
God gave to Jerusalem a herald of good tidings (41:27). This herald is seen again in the crucial servant
passage of Isa. 52-53.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good tidings,
who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good,
who publishes salvation
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns” (52:7).
The watchmen on Zion’s walls join the herald in a song of joy for they see the return of the LORD
to Zion. It is this herald and the watchmen on Zion’s walls (and possibly Lady Zion herself) who are the speakers of
chapter 53, the ones who give a report that seems unbelievable (53:1).
What is the Message of the Heralds?
God commands the heralds to comfort His people (40:1), to tell them that their warfare is ended and their
iniquity is pardoned (v. 2). They are to command that a highway be prepared, for the glory of the LORD will be revealed and
all flesh shall see it (v. 5). God Himself is coming to Zion, to feed His flock like a shepherd (vv. 9-11). They publish peace,
good tidings of good, and salvation (52:7). The word publish in 52:7 literally means “to cause to
hear” -- to cause to hear the good tidings about salvation. The question, “Who has believed what we
have heard?” (RSV, literal Hebrew) of 53:1 is a reference to this good news of salvation that has been published
by the heralds.
The heralds publish the good news of salvation, but few believe their message. So the promise is that the
world will get to see it for themselves.
The glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together (40:5)
All the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God (52:10)
... for that which has not been told them they [the kings of the Gentiles] shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand (v. 15)
The heralds clearly are Zion or belong to Zion (52:7-8). So when they say, “All we like sheep
have gone astray ... and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6), they are talking about the sins of
Zion -- of Israel. But the sins of humanity are also included. The whole human race needs salvation:
The LORD has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God (52:10).
What is Salvation? What is Redemption?
In the setting of Second-Isaiah, Israel is in bondage to Babylon. The nation has been carried captive to a
foreign land while their own land and cities have been laid waste (42:22). They are prisoners, in the grip of a strong tyrant
(49:24-25). Salvation means releasing the prisoners, leading them out of Babylon in a second great exodus, restoring the
land, and rebuilding the wasted cities (42:7; 54:3). But Isaiah had more in mind than deliverance from political enemies.
Salvation means deliverance from sin, since the Babylonian exile was a punishment for transgression (48:18; 20; 50:1-2).
Redemption has the meaning of buying back something that has been sold or pawned. It sometimes means
paying the price to release someone from slavery. Israel has been sold to her enemies and God promises to buy her back.
What is “the Arm of the LORD”?
Before we discover who the servant is, we need to investigate the expression “the arm of the
LORD.” It is a metaphor connected with the figure of God as man of war.
The LORD goes forth like a mighty man,
like a man of war he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes (42:13).
This divine Warrior bares His arm to punish His enemies and deliver His people:
“Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (40:10). As victorious Warrior, He promises, “I will strengthen you, I will
help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (41:10).
My deliverance draws near speedily,
my salvation has gone forth,
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope (51:5).
Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; ...
Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces,
that didst pierce the dragon?
Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea,
the waters of the great deep;
that didst make the depths of the sea a way
for the redeemed to pass over? (51:9-10).
Just as God’s “arm” had in figure cut the dragon in pieces to lead His people
across the Red Sea in the exodus from Egypt, so His arm would go into action to bring His people out of Babylon to Zion
(see v. 11).
In the context of Isa.53 comes the announcement, “The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:10). Now
comes the climax comes in 53:1-2:
Who has believed what we have heard,
and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground.
Here is the startling revelation -- “the arm of the LORD” is a he, a person! It is a
figure for a Savior, a Redeemer! “The arm of the LORD” is none other than the humble Servant!
Looking back at the above texts, we can see that the Lord’s “arm” is His
Associate, the Angel who went before Israel in the cloud, who opened up the sea in the exodus from Egypt, and was now
coming to redeem Israel in the exodus from Babylon.
So Who is the Servant of Isaiah 53?
“The arm of the LORD” is the Servant! His mission is to bring salvation to His people and
to the world (52:10). That the Servant is God’s salvation has already been stated in 49:6:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
to be my salvation to the end of the earth
(RSV. The italicized part is from the original Hebrew.)
This servant not only brings salvation to the ends of the earth, as some translations have it -- he is
the salvation of the world! This agrees with his designation as “the arm of the Lord.” There is no one but
God who can save! This servant is divine!
Further identification is given in 53:2: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a
root out of dry ground.” The Servant grows up in an earthly environment -- he is human as well as divine. The figure
of a “young plant” and a root are similar to the descriptions of the Messiah in Isa.11 -- the shoot from the
stump of Jesse and the branch out of his roots (v.1) -- a descendant of Jesse, the father of David. In v. 10 Messiah is also
called “the root of Jesse.” He is not only a shoot descended from Jesse, but he is also the root, or the
source, of Jesse. Once again we see a divine-human figure represented.
The Story Line of Isaiah 52-53
There is a fascinating story-line in Second-Isaiah, a blend of powerful metaphors depicting God’s
tumultuous relationship with His people. They were in captivity to Babylon because of their sins. Now as a Warrior-King He
is coming to deliver His servant Jacob with His mighty arm (42:13). As an aggrieved Husband He is coming to reclaim His
estranged wife, Zion (52:3). As a Shepherd He is coming to feed His flock and gather the lambs in His arms (40:11).
God had put away His wife, divorced her, sold her into captivity because of her sins. Wife Zion mourns,
“The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (49:14). But the divine Husband still loves His
estranged wife. I will never forget you, He protests -- “I have graven you on the palms of my hands”
(49:15-16). In the midst of the desolation God issues the command: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people .... Speak
tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the
LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2).
A voice commands, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert
a highway for our God” (40:3). The LORD is coming down the highway through the wilderness to lead His people
out of Babylon! He commands Zion herself to get up on the high mountain and shout the good news to all the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (40:10).
Now the interesting part. God commands Zion to awake, put on her beautiful garments, shake the dust
off herself and loose the bonds from her neck (52:1-2). Significantly, the LORD adds, “You were sold for
nothing” (v. 3). This is a reference to the divorce:
Thus says the LORD:
“Where is your mother’s bill of divorce,
with which I put her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
and for your transgressions your mother was put away” (50:1).
God had sold Zion into captivity. He continues: “You were sold for nothing.” The
“sale” brought no profit to anyone. Then He adds, “and you shall be redeemed without
money” (52:3). How does God redeem His people without money? What kind of price does He have to pay?
How does He atone for her sins, transgressions, and iniquities? That is the theme of chapter 53!
Next a runner is seen coming across the mountains. Even his feet are beautiful because he comes with
good tidings. He is publishing peace (after war). He is publishing salvation (52:7)! The watchmen on the walls of Zion see him
coming. Straining their eyes they see something else -- “the return of the LORD to Zion” (v. 8). The LORD
is coming back to His estranged wife! This is the greatest comfort Zion could have, the basis of the command,
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (40:1). She is no longer a desolate widow. She is to be restored as the
LORD’s wife! The ruined city of Jerusalem breaks forth into singing “for the LORD has comforted his
people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9).
God continues to exhort His people with interesting double commands: First it was “Comfort ye,
comfort ye,” then “Awake, awake!” (v. 1). Now it is “Depart, depart” out of
Babylon (v. 11; cf. 48:20). God will go before them as their guide and after them as their rear guard (v. 12). All the world is
about to see the salvation of God as He redeems Jerusalem.
Now, as we wait expectantly to see how God will redeem Zion and save the whole world, the Servant
comes to view. God introduces him to us as follows:
Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high (52:13).
This verse explains the words: “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (40:5).
God’s Servant, His alter ego, is about to reveal His glory. But as we look at him we are suddenly shocked
at his appearance!
As many were astonished at him --
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the sons of men --
so shall he startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they shall see,
and that which they have not heard they shall understand (52:14-15, RSV).
The exaltation of the Servant does not look like what they expected! Salvation bears no resemblance to
what they anticipated! Both come in a strange guise. As the messengers give their astonishing report, they ask, “Who
has believed what we have heard?” (53:1). Kings are startled; they shut their mouths because of him. Salvation for
Zion and the world is coming at a dreadful price.
The observers see God’s Servant growing up unrecognized and unappreciated -- like a root out
of dry ground. He comes with no beauty that people should desire him, except, perhaps, the beauty of his self-sacrificing
character. For it is the mission of the Servant to take upon himself the griefs, the sorrows, the transgressions, the iniquities, the
waywardness, the rebellion of humanity and die for the whole lot as an offering for sin (53:4-6, 10). He himself was righteous,
without violence or deceit (vv. 11 & 9). God laid on him the whole burden of humanity’s ills, and He voluntarily bore
the burden. In return for His self-sacrifice, He was abused and tortured by those whom He came to save. “He was
oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that
before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (53:7). In His own words He said:
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face
from shame and spitting (50:6).
He went through a mock trial (53:8) and was accounted a criminal, “numbered with the
transgressors” (v. 12). He accepted the abuse in silence (v. 7). The Servant had to pay the ultimate sacrifice --
death: “He poured out his soul to death” (12). He was buried in a rich man’s tomb (v. 9).
It was the will of God to let the innocent Servant suffer the penalty of sin. “It was the will of the
LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief” (v. 10) because by this terrible means Israel and the whole world could
be redeemed. The penalty for sin had to be paid. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). But no
individual -- no prophet, or king, or group of individuals such as the Jews, could pay for the sins of humanity. Each person
can die only for his/her own sins. And our personal death does not earn our salvation -- it leaves us dead. Even the life of an
angel would not suffice to redeem the fallen race. An angel has only one life to give. The price must be big enough to
purchase salvation for the whole world. There is only one Life with sufficient value to purchase redemption for the sins of
humanity -- the life of the Creator Himself -- the One who was with God in the creation of humankind (Genesis 1:26). And
His life is more than sufficient. His life has infinite value. It could meet the highest demands placed upon it. His sacrifice could
pay for the whole universe, if need be. He paid an infinite price for a finite world.
The Results of the Servant’s Sacrifice
What are the results of the Servant’s astounding sacrifice? Because He took the covenant
curses, the blessings of the covenant would be poured out on Him. One of the
covenant blessings was abundant offspring (Heb., zera', seed; Gen. 13:16; 15:5).
The Servant would rise to see the fruits of His death. He would have long life (v. 10). If it seems strange to
reward Divinity with long life, remember that Isaiah is speaking in terms of the covenant blessings, one of which is long life
(Deut. 30:20). And He would cause many (all who would accept his sacrifice) to be accounted righteous (v.11). His
sufferings bring wholeness and healing (v. 5).
Isaiah 54 completes the story of the stormy relationship between God and His people. The broken
marriage is restored.
For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the LORD has called you
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God.
For a brief moment I forsook you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the LORD, your Redeemer (54:5-8).
The LORD not only took her back, but gave her children. For a long time Zion had endured the shame of
barrenness. Now, without suffering the pangs of childbirth, she has many children (vv. 1-3)! The Servant had endured the
pain and brought forth children in her place (53:11)!
... when he makes his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand;
he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant
make many to be accounted righteous
and he shall bear their iniquities (53:10-11).
Through His sufferings, through bearing the iniquities of humanity, the Servant brings forth
“offspring” (Hebrew, seed) -- people who are made righteous through the knowledge of His great sacrifice
in their behalf.
But what does it mean “Behold, my Servant shall be high and lifted up” (52:13)? How
was the glory of the LORD revealed through Him (40:5)? His amazing sacrifice, descending the ladder to experience
poverty, rejection, abuse, torture, and death, in order to redeem His people from sin -- this was beautiful, this was glorious.
By descending He is lifted up. By humbling Himself He is exalted. He never was so beautiful as when He was marred,
beyond semblance of humanity. Never did love make such a sacrifice.
A little girl noticed how beautiful other women’s hands were, while her own mother’s
were scarred and ugly. One day she asked, “Mother, why are your hands so ugly looking?” The mother
took the child in her arms and said, “Honey, one night when you were a tiny baby, I was terrified to see smoke
pouring from your bedroom. I fought my way through the flames, smothered the fire with my bare hands, grabbed you in my
arms, and fled. I saved you, but I was badly burned by the fire. Ever since then my hands have been scarred and ugly."
“Mother,” the little girl responded, “you have the most beautiful hands in the
The Servant, Jesus, was scarred and marred beyond recognition by dying for our sins. That is what makes
Him so glorious!
1 This mighty Warrior also opens His arms to gather the lambs and carry them
in his bosom (Isa. 40:11).
2 Notice the covenant curse in Deut. 28:68 -- “And there you shall be
offered for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you.”
3 As a “covenant for the people” (Isa. 42:6; 49:8), He took
upon Himself the covenant curses in their behalf. He was “despised and rejected of men” (53:3) as Moses
predicted faithless Israel would be treated: “You shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the
peoples” (Deuteronomy 28:37; Jeremiah 24:9). He was “smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4)
as Moses said God would “smite” His rebellious children (Deut. 28:27-28). For His people’s
transgression “a plague was upon him” (Isa. 53:8, literal Hebrew) as God had promised to bring the
“plague” upon transgressors of the covenant (Deut. 28:21). He was “oppressed and
afflicted” (53:7) according to the covenant curse (Deut. 28:29). He suffered the ultimate curse of sin -- death
(Genesis 2:17): He was “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8) and “he poured out his soul
unto death” (v. 11).
4 Rabbi Singer states that Jesus never had zera', descendants,
as this word refers to physical descendants only. However, this word is also used of spiritual seed, as in Gen. 3:15 -- the
seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Also, zera' is not limited to issue from the male -- see not only
Gen. 3:15 but Isa. 54:1-3 where Mother Zion has seed.