Suffering Servant

by Ed Gallagher

He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:6
Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei, ca. 1640, Wikimedia Commons

This lesson considers Isaiah 53 within the context of the Book of Isaiah as a whole. 

Isaiah 53 is perhaps the most familiar Old Testament chapter for a Christian. Why has this chapter captured the attention of Christian readers? What emotions do you feel when you hear or read the words of this chapter? 

Background: Isaiah lived in the eighth century BC, long before the Judean exile to Babylon, but during and after the destruction of Israel (northern nation) by Assyria in 722 BC. Isaiah 1:1 tells us that he prophesied during the reigns of four Judean kings, about 740–700 BC. Isaiah seems to have been an important person, because he enjoyed easy access to the Judean kings. Some stories about Isaiah are preserved in 2 Kings 18–20, and the same stories are also in Isaiah 36–39. Some other (earlier) stories about Isaiah are found in Isaiah 6–8. The famous commission of Isaiah is in ch. 6. 

Here am I; send me.

Isaiah 6:8

These stories are mostly prose, but almost all of the rest of the book is poetry. Most prophetic oracles are poetic. The poetic nature—with its strange and symbolic language—can make the oracles somewhat difficult to interpret. 

The book divides easily into three sections: 

  • Chs. 1–35, prophetic oracles focused on Judah during Isaiah’s lifetime. Here there are some famous prophecies, especially the Immanuel prophecy (ch. 7) and the prophecy of a shoot from Jesse (ch. 11). Not everything here concerns Judah: a large section is devoted to prophesying against foreign nations, such as Babylon and Egypt (chs. 13–23). 
  • Chs. 36–39, the prose section containing stories about Isaiah’s interaction with King Hezekiah. 
  • Chs. 40–66, prophetic oracles focused on the Judean exiles in Babylon, long after the time of Isaiah. Many scholars divide these chapters into two sections, claiming that while chs. 40–55 treat the exiles in Babylon, chs. 56–66 treat the Jews in Judah who have returned from Babylon. 

This final section, particularly chs. 40–55, contain the important references to the Servant of the Lord, so we will look a little more at this section. Notice that ch. 40 begins with the call to comfort God’s people (40:1–2). According to 44:24–28, why is it that Jerusalem needs to be comforted? These oracles concern a time when the exile has already happened, Jerusalem has already been destroyed, and the Jews will be leaving Babylon soon to return home.

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,

declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,

send it forth to the end of the earth;

say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”

Isaiah 48:20

Here is where we first meet the Lord’s Servant. (Note that Isaiah 40–55 does not talk about a Davidic Messiah. Earlier portions of Isaiah do, esp. chapter 11. But chapters 40–55 describe only the Servant. The relationship between the King and the Servant is not clarified until Jesus takes on both roles.) 

Read 41:8–9. Whom does this passage identify as the Lord’s Servant? Israel/Jacob. What does this role of ‘servant’ for Israel signify? Read 42:1–7. According to this passage, what is the mission of the Servant? Does it make sense to relate this mission to Israel? Israel is still called the Lord’s Servant at 44:1–2, 21. It seems as if Israel was appointed to a task of displaying God’s glory in the world. We have seen this task mentioned before in scripture. Look especially at Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 4:6–8. However, Isaiah 42:18–20 (cf. 6:9–10) signals a problem: the Lord’s Servant is blind and deaf! See also 43:22–28. 

The passage in 42:1–7 is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’ (as often identified by scholars). The second Servant Song is at 49:1–7. Who is the Servant in this passage? Verse 3 indicates that the Servant is still Israel, but verses 5–6 indicate that the Servant is supposed to redeem Israel first and then become a light to the nations. It seems that the Servant is not identical with Israel, but instead is a representative of Israel who will redeem Israel and then the world. 

The third Servant Song is 50:4–9. This passage shows that the Servant suffers but continues to have confidence in God. It does not tell us why the Servant suffers. 

Servant Song 142:1–7
Servant Song 249:1–7
Servant Song 350:4–9
Servant Song 452:13–53:12

The fourth Servant Song is the longest and most famous, 52:13–53:12. (The teacher could spend the majority of time on this passage, going through it verse-by-verse. One approach would be to imagine how people before the time of Jesus might have understood the passage.)

It is hard to read this passage without thinking of the crucifixion. But if we did not have a cross in our minds, how would we imagine the scene depicted by 53:4–9? What is happening to the servant there? He is pierced, crushed, scourged (v. 5), oppressed, afflicted, led to the slaughter like a silent lamb (v. 7)—it sounds like a sacrifice at the altar. Note v. 10: guilt offering. 

Look through the passage and find all the times it says that this Servant suffered because of “our transgressions,” or something similar. Verse 4, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12. Earlier we saw that God’s servant Israel had sinned and could not fulfill their task (42:18–20; 43:22–28). Now we have a representative of the people who takes away their sin. What is the outcome for the Servant? See verses 11–12; do these verses indicate that the Servant’s death is not the end? 


Without the Servant’s bearing the iniquities of God’s people, they would have no hope. According to the New Testament, Jesus saw himself as fulfilling this role (Luke 22:37, quoting Isa 53:12).

Additional Questions for Discussion

According to Isaiah 42:1–7, what is the character of the Lord’s Servant? 

According to Isaiah 49:1–7, what is the mission of the Lord’s Servant? 

Read Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Who is speaking? How does the speaker feel about the Servant? Why does the speaker feel this way? 

Has the Servant been able to accomplish the mission God set for him?

How do the New Testament writers understand this passage? See Matthew 8:17; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32–33; 1 Peter 2:22. 

Additional Resources

Here’s an interesting video of a Jewish (non-Christian) reading of Isaiah 53.

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