Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

Who is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13 – 52:12?

There is much discussion about the servant.  With some scholars it has and continues at times to refer to an individual, whether the prophet (him)self or another figure.  With others it describes the whole nation of Israel as suffering.  The Christian tradition through history has been uniform in finding in the Suffering Servant a foretelling of Jesus Christ.  It does seem as though the description is that of an individual and not of a group of people.  In the earlier Servant Songs, Israel is explicitly identified when the Servant is not an individual.  That does not occur in Isaiah 53.

Skull Hill

A natural reading of this passage requires the Servant to die and to live beyond death in a manner that fully engages him with those for whom he died.  This could imply a resurrection.  It is possible another sense of life beyond death might be imagined. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 looks to an individual who will suffer and die for “our” sins, presumably those of the people of God. Others will cruelly punish the Servant so that his human form is hardly recognizable. The sins of God’s people will be forgiven by the Servant’s suffering and death. This will bring healing and justification for the people, and “the light of life” (53:11 NIV) beyond death for the Servant. This is the last occurrence of “Servant” in Isaiah.

I do believe that Isaiah 53 looks forward the death (and to some extent the resurrection) of Jesus Christ.  It provides the basic understanding of the theology of the atonement that the apostolic writers, with the benefit of hindsight, then develop in the New Testament.

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