Q&A: Suffering Servant

Suffering Servant

Question

I have several questions relating to the prophecies of Isaiah and the Suffering Servant. First, who is speaking in Isaiah 53? The obvious answer, Isaiah, is not the answer at all. He is merely reporting. Nor could it be God speaking, otherwise it would not make sense where in 53:6 it talks about "we all went astray like sheep."
Second, who is the "Servant" Isaiah is talking about? I know you want to say Jesus, but is that identified anywhere? If not, should we not consider the chapters around 53 to see if the servant is not identified? If you look earlier in Isaiah the Servant is identified -- 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 45:4. 48:20, 49:3.
If talking about Jesus, why is whoever speaking so surprised? 53:1
With this scenario, 53:8 is a real problem for me. When I read it in Hebrew, there appeared to me to be a very important translation problem. King James Version, NIV and Living Bible all translate the last part of that verse as "he was stricken" or "was he stricken" or He was suffering their punishment." That is not what it says in Hebrew. It says, " a plague befell them." I checked this out with several scholars to be certain that I was right. One of the scholars has a computer program that you can look for specific words throughout the Bible. He searched for the word that is used in 53:8 (phonetically "lamo") in other places in the Bible. He found it in and then cross-referenced to King James. As it turns out, in all other places, the King James translates "lamo" as "them" except in Isaiah 53:8 where it translates it as "he." This is true in at least 5 other places within Isaiah as well as many other places in the Bible. I got my hands on an NIV interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament the other day. Lo and behold, it translates as "to them." Read in the context of "to them" there can be no way that the verse can be talking about a singular Jesus.
So, who is the speaker?

Answer

First, the speaker in Isaiah 53 is Isaiah. Isaiah is not merely "reporting"; he is a thinking theologian who is delivering God's message in his own words. He is God's covenant emissary, prosecuting the covenant. He speaks for God, yet he is also of the people who are accused. Thus, his language sometimes identifies with God (e.g. "my servant," "I will alot him"; 53:11-12), and sometimes with Israel (e.g. "our griefs"; 53:4). It may even be that at times Isaiah speaks for the prophets of God collectively (e.g. "our message"; 53:1). The perspective of the speaker changes throughout the prophecy, but not the person.

It is erroneously argued by some scholars that the speaker in Isaiah 53 is the Gentiles. This cannot be for a couple good reasons. For one, Isaiah 53 begins by assuming that the speaker has delivered a redemptive message to Israel that has been rejected. The Gentiles never did this in the history of Israel prior to the engrafting of Gentiles into the church during the New Testament period. For another thing, the Gentiles in Isaiah 52:15 are to receive the redemptive message from the servant, and this is to be a message they have not previously heard/understood. If the Gentiles do not know/understand the message prior to hearing it from the servant, it cannot be that the Gentiles are the ones who preach that message ineffectively in Isaiah 53 (which seems to assume the same basic chronological setting, and not to present a significant temporal disjunction).

I note with some irony that if this typical Jewish interpretation were correct, it would provide the Jews with a compelling reason to listen to the Gentiles who preached to them regarding the redemptive message of Jesus that they currently reject.

Second, the servant is not explicitly Jesus. It is rather the messiah. Because Jesus is the messiah, this prophecy finds its fulfillment in him. But we could not have looked at Isaiah 53 and predicted what Jesus would be like or specifically what he was going to do. Earlier in Isaiah, the servant is explicitly Israel -- but God does not have just one servant. Moreover, the New Testament teaches that Jesus is Israel. He is the only one who keeps the covenant; he is a remnant of one. In any event, Isaiah 52 (esp. vv.14-15), which introduces Isaiah 53, precludes the possibility that Israel at large is the servant of this chapter because it contrasts the servant with Israel. Isaiah 53 itself also distinguishes between "my people" (Israel) and the servant. Whether or not Jesus is the messiah (which he is), the servant in this chapter is the messiah, not Israel at large.

These passages are not talking about Jesus specifically, though, but about the Messiah. Moreover, the "surprise" is not apparent to me. Rather, the question is a rhetorical device, the impact of which is: "No one has believed our message." Isaiah is not so much surprised that no one has believed as he is appalled that no one has believed.

The form lamo is generally used to refer to plural objects. But it is a mistake to assume from this that it must always refer to plural objects. For example, in Isaiah 44:15 (same author as Isaiah 53:8, you will note) it refers to the singular object "it," of which the antecedant noun is pesel, the singular noun for an idol or image. This is certainly a rarer use of the form, but sufficient to demonstrate that context and not merely quantitative analysis must determine the meaning of the form in any particular usage. I might add that if one were really so concerned about the singularity or plurality of this pronoun, it would seem that one ought also to be concerned about the singularity or plurality of the verbs associated with "servant," which are all singular, as is the pronominal suffix in "his generation" in this same verse. Even if one rejects my argument about use and context determining meaning, it still must be admitted that the grammatical weight of the evidence favors a singular reading. And given the previously established flexibility of lamo in Isaiah 44:15, it is in my opinion more reasonable to understand the servant to be singular. I add that the Septuagint, which was translated by Jews and not by Gentiles or Christians, takes lamo as singular when it translates the last portion of Isaiah 53:8 as echthe eis thanaton ("he was brought to death"). As a side note, the KJV does not always translate lamo as plural in other verses (e.g. Gen. 9:26; 9:27; Isa. 44:15 -- again, I did not look up every reference).


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.