Is the servant in Isaiah 53 a person or something else? Judaism and Christianity have completely different answers. Taking the time to study the Scripture preceding chapter 53, Isaiah gives us the answer. So lets approach this without a preconceived conclusion.
The subject of Isaiah 53 actually begins in chapter 52, verse 13. Keep in mind, chapter and verses were added much later, and so with that in mind, this chapter break did not always exist.
Our topic starts at chapter 52 verse 13: “Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.”
It is here that we learn what the subject is: “servant”. So the question arises, who is this servant?
The answer lies in the previous chapters. Beginning with chapter 41 and continues through chapter 49. I have copied a few of the verses below as examples for your review.
But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.Isiah 41:8,9 (KJV)
Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; Fear not, O Jacob, my servant; and , Jesurun whom I have chosen.Isaiah 44:1,2 (KJV
Notice in the previous two verses how Israel and Jacob are switched between “servant” and “chosen”.
Remember these, O Jacob and Israel; for thou art my servant: I have formed thee; thou art my servant: O Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten of me.Isaiah 44:21 (KJV)
For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.Isaiah 45:4 (KJV)
Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The Lord hath redeemed his servant Jacob.Isaiah 48:20 (KJV)
And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God. And now, saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him. Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength. And he said, it is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth. Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy one, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord that is faithful and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.Isaiah 49:3-7 (KJV)
In each of these verses, the Scripture states who the servant is immediately, revealing that it is Israel. How can a nation be a servant, as described in our text? Israel is more than a land mass. The answer lies in the text.
A Fresh Look at Isaiah 53
The previous Scriptures establishing who the servant is, we can now look at Isaiah 53 and better understand the text. The Isaiah 53 text actually begins with Isaiah 52:13.
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.Isaiah 52:13 – 15 (KJV)
Note: A declaration of Israel being prudent, as well as exalted and extolled. Many were astonished or stunned, Israels outward appearance was disfigured. Israel will cast down many nations. The nations will be in numbed amazement, at what they will be witnessing going into the messianic age.
Who hath believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
Note: “arm of the Lord” represents the salvation of Israel from its gentile oppressors by the hand of G-d.
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
Note: Israel has been like a young tender plant that has been planted in a dry place, how can it survive? We can see how for many generations it has been on the edge of annihilation.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Note: The King James misquote the last phrase of verse 5, inserting “are”, in place of “were”, also using the word “stripes” in place of “wounds”, changing the understanding of the verse. Israel has, over the years bore much grief, and sorrow, and because of the iniquities of the nation, Israel has been chastised.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Note: Israel has been tasked with interceding for the nations, as part of the Temple worship.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
Note: In each of the following 3 cases the references are to Israel.
- Ezekiel 34:15-16.. “I will tend My sheep, and lay them down”.
- Psalms 44:12-22.. “you have deceived us like sheep for slaughter”.
- Zachariah 11:4-7.. “Tend the flock of the slaughter”.
Notice how they compare to the text in question.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
Note: The translators of the King James Bible translated the Hebrew word למו as “he” instead of “them”, changing the context of the verse. The correct translation would be “…….because of the transgression of my people, a plague befell them.”. Prophets never speak of an individual in the plural, thus this servant is not an single individual.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
Note: The translators of The King James Bible translate the Hebrew word ביתנו in the singular as “death” as opposed to the correct translation of “deaths”, plural. A possible better translation would be “….and to the wealthy with his kinds of deaths,…….”. Deaths indicating multiple deaths, pointing to a group of people, in this case, Israel.
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Note: The King James Bible says, “when thou shalt make…”, however the Hebrew says, אם, translated to English is “If,….”. It would then read, “If his soul makes restitution, he shall see seed,”. We can now read this as, “if Israel makes restitution G-d will bless them with future generations”. I’m sure we can all agree that we have witnessed this.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
Note: The key word in this verse is “knowledge”. The righteous servant, Israel will justify (vindicate) many, with knowledge. Zech 8:23 “Take us with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.” The Hebrew word translated as “you” is plural.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Note: This verse begins with “Therefore”. This means that what is about to follow is based on what was preceding. The righteousness servant Israel will reap the spoil (plunder), because Israel poured out its soul unto death. From studying Scriptures we know that Israels function on earth is to be a “light to the nations”1. It is Israel that goes before G-d on Yom Kippur with the sins of the nations.
The word we translate as “servant” in these passages is a Hebrew word (ahv-de). The root of this word is “to labor”. To serve another, whether it is another person, a cause, an employer, etc. requires effort on on our part as the one serving. To produce that effort can be seen as “labor”. To keep Torah, and the commandments that accompany Torah requires our labor or effort on our part. In so many ways the Israelite’s and the Jews of today are “laborers of Torah”
Who is the servant in Isaiah 53?
I would have to say without preconceived prompting, it would be hands down – Israel. Who is Israel? Is Israel a land mas located in the Middle East, an ethnic group that are descendants of Jacob, or people that worship the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob? Or a combination of these? Perhaps you may want to read Isaiah 52 again with these thoughts in mind, reflecting on your historical knowledge of Israel.
Special Thank you to Rabbi Tovia Singer, “Lets Get Biblical”, Volume 1, pages 91 – 129.
by, Jim Behnke
1Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; 60:3