We in the Church—along with many other Christians—read the “Fourth Servant Song” in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as transparently about Jesus. It’s kind of hard not to: phrases like “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” fit the Christological narrative almost too perfectly. And yet the presence of this passage in the Hebrew Scriptures suggests the possibility of a reading that has nothing at all to do with Jesus, because Jews obviously do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. So what is this other reading? More pointedly, why should we as Christians bother to look beyond the seemingly straightforward identification of the “servant” in this passage with Jesus?
I believe that this text in particular illustrates the way that our habitual ways of reading scripture can rob us of great spiritual insight. Too often we come to the text with the “answer” already in mind and then look to the text to confirm us in what we already know. Ironically, this approach can leave us with a far less robust version of the answer than we might obtain if we tried to read without a prior commitment to the outcome. In other words, an orthodox approach to scripture doesn’t always serve orthodoxy well.
The place to start here is to recognize that on the literal level the Fourth Servant Song doesn’t talk about Jesus at all, but about a “servant.” To make the passage about Jesus, we have to resort to typology: the servant as type of Christ. There’s nothing wrong with this move—allegorical interpretation has a long and respectable history—but it’s a second step, one that should be taken only after the literal meaning has been worked out.
In getting at the literal meaning, a good place to start is by thinking about how the passage as a whole is structured. Here, there are three main parts, marked by whether God speaks in the first person or is spoken of in the third person. Thus we have a speech by God (52:13-15), a response (53:1-11a), and a concluding statement by God (53:11b-12).
God begins by speaking of “my servant” (52:13). Who, then, is this servant? We can turn for guidance to passages in the preceding chapters, which include three additional “servant songs,” as well as further references to a servant.
The first servant song, in 42:1-4, speaks of a single individual, “mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth.” This person will bring “judgment to the Gentiles.” God names this servant in 44:1-2: “Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel, whom I have chosen.” From this passage, it would seem that the individual mentioned in 42 is the corporate person of Israel, God’s chosen people.
The second servant song, in 49:1-6, confirms this reading, speaking again of Israel as an individual: “Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” This song adds a complication, however, for God intends this servant “to bring Jacob again to him,” and “to restore the preserved of Israel.” These phrases indicate an internal division between “Jacob” and “Israel” that God has called the servant to mend.
The third song, in 50:4-9, continues this theme of healing: “The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I might speak a word in season to him that is weary.” Mostly, though, this song speaks of the servant’s submission to suffering: “I gave my back to the smiters.” The suffering here does not seem especially purposive; rather, it is something that naturally attends a divisive situation. The servant is content to bear it, confident in God’s justification.
Taken collectively, then, these three songs give us a servant who represents the elect portion within a divided Israel (or, alternatively, the covenant community “Israel” among the descendants of “Jacob”) and who suffers as a result of this division.
The fourth song relocates this servant in an international context: God says that “kings shall shut their mouths at him.” The servant will “sprinkle [NRSV 'startle'; the Hebrew is unclear] many nations.” The cause of this effect will be the servant’s “marred visage,” the outward sign of a profound distress. The internal division between Israel and Jacob becomes one between Israel tout court and the gentile nations.
Chapter 53 begins with the nations’ response to God’s introduction of the servant. They are, indeed, astonished that God should punish and afflict his chosen servant: “we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” The nations seem to consider this punishment to have been unmerited by the servant. Instead, they believe that the servant has suffered because of Gentile wrongdoing.
One of the nations’ mistakes was to esteem Israel insufficiently.
[W]hen we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. 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.
That is, among the various empires vying for power in the 6th century BCE, none paid much attention to a certain minor kingdom, except when it got in the way or made an unfortunate alliance with an enemy. Thus, in subjecting Israel and Judah to captivity and exile, the nations have become the agents of the very marring that shocks them. More shocking still, Israel’s suffering seems to have been undergone on the nations’ behalf: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
God’s final statement confirms that Israel’s sufferings will benefit other nations: “by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities,” saying further that “he hath poured out his soul unto death.” Exile and conquest amount to a kind of national death, a suffering inflicted by the wicked nations on God’s people. And yet Israel absorbs this punishment in a way that justifies the nations, taking their iniquity from them.
Conquest and exile raise again the question of internal division in the other servant songs. That is, Israel’s fall came about as a result of the Covenant Curse, the consequences of its disobedience (see Deut. 29:21-28). The righteous portion seems to suffer unjustly because of the wickedness of the rest. Israel suffers for Jacob’s iniquity, and the distinction collapses between the part of Israel that broke the covenant and the Gentile nations that God uses as instruments to inflict the promised curse.
But if the righteous portion can carry the burdens of its sinful alter-ego, why not give this redemptive act a more universal scope? The Fourth Servant Song makes Israel the savior not only of the wicked among God’s chosen, but of the nations more broadly (and in particular those directly responsible for its suffering).
These literal details can then be used to produce an enriched typological reading. Treating the suffering Israel as a type of Christ invites us to think not only of the individual Jesus, but also of the corporate body of Christ, the Church. The division between “Israel” and “Jacob” might translate into the difference between the Church’s potential (already realized in the covenant) and its present imperfection. Jesus, as moral exemplar and apotheosis of the covenantal Church, experiences with us the exile and captivity that justly follow our breach of covenant.
The Fourth Servant Song thus becomes a parable about the durability of covenant community. Just as the most humble and Christlike servants in the church cannot escape the stain when some member or part of our community publicly misbehaves, so too does Jesus refuse to exempt himself when we comport ourselves in ways unbecoming his name. He bears the shame of it with us.
Moreover, he does not permit us to excise the misbehaving part, whether by contrasting its “Jacob” with our “Israel” or by relegating it to the catch-all of “the nations.” Though his insistence on keeping these unruly or outright rebellious elements within the fold mars his face and devastates his beauty, he will not let us go. We are his body, and he will not pluck out the eye or sever the hand, even when these cause him to weep. To bear our iniquities simply denotes his refusal to disclaim us.
Because the servant is at once Jesus and us, his covenantal body, the Song that attests to his unceasing love and patience serves also to invite us to put behind our Gentile ways or our Jacobean trickery and to put on Israel instead, to become the righteous servant ourselves. We must therefore learn to bear with others as Jesus bears with us, not to disclaim the person who wrote an embarrassing blog post or gave a tone-deaf talk, but simply to weep at the pain of it and to wear the scars on our faces.
The traditional Christian reading of Isaiah 53 beautifully affirms the truth of Jesus’ sufferings on our behalf. When we focus on the literal meaning before moving to the typological, however, the text pulls us in more deeply. The traditional reading testifies of Jesus’ love; this second reading calls us to love like him. The traditional reading tells us of a Savior; this second reading calls us to become saviors on Mount Zion. The traditional reading attests to a truth that might easily remain abstract; this second reading calls us to a lived reality.
We should not despise or spurn the traditional reading, but should instead embrace it and invite it to become something better. In doing so our talks might more powerfully urge us to build Zion and our Sunday School classes might more nearly embody it. Our daily encounters with the scriptures might more effectively turn us toward that love of God and neighbor upon which all the law and prophets hang.