Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

2nd Isaiah is probably most famous for the poems to the suffering servant. This servant figure isn’t named, so our first instinct is usually to guess who it is referring to. Some scholars suggest that it was meant to be Isaiah himself. Others suggest that it was to be a representation of all of Israel or another individual who was instrumental in achieving the return from Exile. The earliest Christians applied these to Jesus – there’s no doubt of the parallels. In any case, this figure had a unique and essential role as a martyr.

At the heart of this martyr’s witness we see that this Servant gives himself over to government oppression but in doing so frees his people, a statement that would not have sat well with the Persian leadership:

53 Has anyone believed us
or seen the mighty power
of the Lord in action?
2 Like a young plant or a root
that sprouts in dry ground,
the servant grew up
obeying the Lord.
He wasn’t some handsome king.
Nothing about the way he looked
made him attractive to us.
3 He was hated and rejected;
his life was filled with sorrow
and terrible suffering.
No one wanted to look at him.
We despised him and said,
“He is a nobody!”

4 He suffered and endured
great pain for us,
but we thought his suffering
was punishment from God.
5 He was wounded and crushed
because of our sins;
by taking our punishment,
he made us completely well.
6 All of us were like sheep
that had wandered off.
We had each gone our own way,
but the Lord gave him
the punishment we deserved.

7 He was painfully abused,
but he did not complain.
He was silent like a lamb
being led to the butcher,
as quiet as a sheep
having its wool cut off.
8 He was condemned to death
without a fair trial.
Who could have imagined
what would happen to him?
His life was taken away
because of the sinful things
my people had done.
9 He wasn’t dishonest or violent,
but he was buried in a tomb
of cruel and rich people.

10 The Lord decided his servant
would suffer as a sacrifice
to take away the sin
and guilt of others.
Now the servant will live
to see his own descendants.
He did everything
the Lord had planned.

11 By suffering, the servant
will learn the true meaning
of obeying the Lord.
Although he is innocent,
he will take the punishment
for the sins of others,
so that many of them
will no longer be guilty.
12 The Lord will reward him
with honor and power
for sacrificing his life.
Others thought he was a sinner,
but he suffered for our sins
and asked God to forgive us. (53)

There is another important point here. We often assume that God is on the side of the powerful. We assume that when someone suffers at the hands of the powerful that it is true justice, that they deserved it. Among other things, this scapegoating impulse often gives us the excuse to not wrestle with injustice. This text – like so much of the Bible – says the opposite, though: God was on the side of the Servant, using him and his suffering as a way to stand up against the powerful oppressors. How exactly this sacrificial death brings about the end of the Exile isn’t explained, much like how precisely Jesus’ death on the cross freed all of humanity is not explained (what theologians call atonement theories). What we can say is that God was on the side of the oppressed even though we typically assume the opposite, and that oppressive violence was defeated through subversive non-violence.

3rd Isaiah (Post-Exile)

3rd Isaiah sounds in many ways like the monarchic period prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Micah. After returning from Exile, many of the societal inequalities were reinstated, although the text is light on historical details so it is hard to say exactly what time was being referred to. One of my favourite biblical texts come from this section:

2 Day after day, you worship him
and seem eager to learn
his teachings.
You act like a nation
that wants to do right
by obeying his laws.
You ask him about justice,
and say you enjoy
worshiping the Lord.

3 You wonder why the Lord
pays no attention
when you go without eating
and act humble.
But on those same days
that you give up eating,
you think only of yourselves
and abuse your workers.
4 You even get angry
and ready to fight.
No wonder God won’t listen
to your prayers!

5 Do you think the Lord
wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
and sit in ashes?
Is this really what he wants
on a day of worship?

6 I’ll tell you
what it really means
to worship the Lord.
Remove the chains of prisoners
who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused
7 Share your food with everyone
who is hungry;
share your home
with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don’t turn away your relatives. (58:2-7)

Like the first 2 Isaiahs, 3rd Isaiah promises that God will restore those who have been oppressed. There will be some kind of judgement, but like the first two Isaiah authors, he is incredibly hopeful toward the future, painting a beautiful picture of God’s character is primarily interested in restoring the world and freeing the captives. This could sum up his overall message, a text quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 but with a noticeable omission (I’ll talk about that later):

61 The Spirit of the Lord God
has taken control of me!
The Lord has chosen and sent me
to tell the oppressed
the good news,
to heal the brokenhearted,
and to announce freedom
for prisoners and captives.
2 This is the year
when the Lord God
will show kindness to us
and punish our enemies.

The Lord has sent me
to comfort those who mourn,
3 especially in Jerusalem.
He sent me to give them flowers
in place of their sorrow,
olive oil in place of tears,
and joyous praise
in place of broken hearts.
They will be called
“Trees of Justice,”
planted by the Lord
to honor his name.
4 Then they will rebuild cities
that have been in ruins
for many generations. (61:1-4)

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.