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The Identity of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah

Ever wonder what the mainstream scholars (read: liberal scholars) make of prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament?  The following is a summary of John Collins’ answer to the Question of the Identity of the Suffering Servant.  NOTICE: Collins does not think Isaiah wrote everything that went into the book we now know as “Isaiah.”  This is reflected by the language of “Second Isaiah” or “Third Isaiah.”  These are different hypothetical authors for distinct passages in Isaiah.

NOTICE: The answers below do not necessarily represent my own views, but are an exact representation of Collins’ views as expressed in his book.

John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.  Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.

Collins Book

Who is “The Servant” in Second Isaiah?

The figure of “the servant of the Lord” is one of the “best known features of the prophecy of Second Isaiah” and “an integral part of the prophecy of Second Isaiah” (385-86).  “The servant in question has been variously identified as a collective figure” in which case Israel is thought to be in view, “or as in individual” in which case the most widely supported are 1) Moses, 2) Cyrus, and 3) the prophet himself (386).  “The evidence of the book as a whole, [however], indicates that the servant is usually Israel” (386) since Jacob is explicitly called “my servant” in several of the Second Isianic oracles (41:8; 44:1-2; 44:21; 45:4) and Israel is called “my servant” also (41:8).  “The explanation [for the depictions of the servant as an individual] that requires least hypothetical speculation is that the servant is Israel, described metaphorically as in individual”—the ideal Israel that “acts as a leader toward the rest of the people [of Israel]” and as a “light to the nations” (337-38).

How is the Suffering Servant Described?

Using the categories of Bernard Duhm who divided the servant strands into four “Servant Songs,” (385) the fourth Servant Song (52:13—53:12), which speaks of The Suffering Servant, is the longest and most famous of the Isianic Servant passages (387).  In the beginning of the unit, the servant is introduced as one who was “deformed beyond recognition” but is later “restored and exalted to the astonishment of kings” (387).

Who is Doing the Describing?

In the latter part of the unit, the speaking is done by a collective group (“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” [53:5]).  “If the servant is thought to be an individual, this group could be the Jewish community.  If the servant is Israel, the speakers are the kings, whose astonishment is noted at the end of chapter 52” (387).

Could The Suffering Servant be an individual historical figure? 

Since later we are told the servant actually dies before being restored—he is “cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (53:8)—“he can hardly be the prophet himself” (387).  In fact, any attempt to interpret the servant as in individual historical figure known to the author(s) forces the interpreter to reconstruct an entirely hypothetical figure “for whom we have no other information” who, in some sense (how?) died “for the sins of my people” (388). 

In What Sense Does The Servant Suffer?

Regardless of whether one identifies The Suffering Servant as an individual of collective group, one thing remains clear: His life is made an offering for sin.  This is vicarious suffering: “the idea that the sufferings of one person or people can atone for the sin of another” (388).  There are other places in the Bible where such an idea is found.  The scapegoat in Leviticus 16 is said to bear the people’s sins and carry them into the wilderness.  “A closer analogy” is Ezekiel who bears the punishment of “the house of Israel” when he is told to lie on his left side for 390 days, a number “equal to the number of the years of their punishment” (Ezek 4:4-5).  He is forced to eat food cooked over human dung for the allotted time (Ezek 4:12).  In this case, the efficacy of the vicarious punishment was contingent upon the response of the people for whom it was performed.  Something similar takes place in the case of The Isianic Suffering Servant: the onlooker’s astonishment at the restoration of The Servant ultimately leads to their conversion.

In what sense, then, would “Israel” fit the descriptions of sacrificial suffering, death, and subsequent restoration?

 “In the exile, Israel was deformed beyond recognition, and might even be said to have died (cf. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley full of dry bones).  In this case the people whose iniquities he bore are the other nations.  On this explanation Second Isaiah breaks radically with earlier tradition by explaining the exile not as punishment for the sin of Israel, but as vicarious punishment for the sins of other peoples” (388).  While the passage that says “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days” is problematic for an individual interpretation since “there is no hint of individual resurrection anywhere else in Second Isaiah,” if one interprets the Servant as Israel “this is less of a problem” (388).  “The purpose of the exile, then, was to get the attention of the nations”—especially the kings—“so that they would become aware of YHWH and be astonished by the sudden revelation of his power.  Israel was like a sacrificial victim … By obediently going along with the divine plan, Israel makes righteous the many people who observe what happened.  No one is automatically saved … but it creates an opportunity for people to recognize their true situation and convert accordingly” (388).  The reason why there is no admission of any sin on the part of the servant is because he is “idealized, and may not be identical with the entire people” (388).

What about Jesus as The Suffering Servant?

 “The idea that suffering in this life can lead to exaltation hereafter gains currency in [Daniel,] the Dead Sea Scrolls and other literature around the turn of the era.  This idea would be crucial to the understanding of the death of Jesus in early Christianity.  Isaiah 53 is read in the traditional liturgy of Good Friday” (389).

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11 Comments

  1. Chris Vank says:

    He the suffering servant was reborn in 1934, he is now 77, we will know of him shortly (in this year 2011 a book by him will appear

  2. Phillip washington says:

    I believe harmony will be brought about when these propositions are accepted about Isaiah’s suffering servant, 1) there are two Messiahs Isaiah had in view, not one, and that one of them is God Himself come in the flesh, 2) that the suffering of both of these Messiahs are similar, but distinctly not identical, and 3) the dramatic anonymity of the human Messiah is purposely and deliberately hidden from everyone but the individual man in the end of days to whom Isaiah’s song is [personally] addressed.

    This admittedly radical view is wholly justified by the fact that there in one, and only one place in all of the Servant passages where Yahweh and the Prophet Isaiah are standing together and speaking one after the other in turn, and the man who has already been called from his birth to be the servant, enters the picture being quite astonished to see his own words clearly and unmistakably mouthed by Isaiah:

    Then the Prophet quotes this man’s own sentiments concerning his entire life in a few words:”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.” Isaiah 49:4-6.
    In all the commentaries I have read, none of these worthy writers seemed to have noticed that all three; Isaiah, Yahweh, and the anonymous servant-all three sing parts of this song, or, that the servant, instantly recognizing himself in Isaiah’s description of his commission, suddenly picks up the song and then sings:
    “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), Yet I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord.”
    Next Yahweh picks up the song, as the servant now gives way:
    “And then He [Yahweh] 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 may be my Jesus unto the ends of the earth!”

    think what you will, but that is what it says!

  3. Phillip washington says:

    Here is my description of who this anonymous prophet is today, for he is a contemporary of ours, and close to 70 years old. He was most likely born in the US in a very poor Christian home and raise in a strict Holiness Christian sect, but who later became identified with his Israelite heritage, and possibly a non-identified Jew of the Diaspora, a very devout man, completely out of place In Christianity. And because of his very close identity with Moses, he being called from an early age as a prophet possibly labored in the Christian church for nearly 40 years without any success or satisfactory results for all his work, and then left the church and his country most likely immigrating to Europe a broken and disallusioned, and failed minister of the Gospel.

    I have witnessed more than a few preachers called to the Ministry who waited ten years and were not sent, who just threw in the towel and gave up, and a rare few who went twenty years without being sent by God. One in particular, a rather famous preacher, was said to have gone out the the woodshed to loudly bring God to the dock, and “shame” Him, and to “straighten” the Lord out, to get his ministry going, as such a scandal was simply unheard of in all the history of Christianity.

    So, what shall we say of a man who went 40 years, and this man never once in all that time ever complained before God? And what if such a man finally gave in to his deep and wounding disappointment, ready even to give up on life itself, and he walked the floor in complaining pleads of bitter tears, and thus spoke words calling God to account: Lord, you know how I have walked with you all these 38 years you called me but you never sent me!”
    Then, the Lord his God spoke audibly out of heaven to him thusly:
    “Well, what about my servant Moses, are you better than him, he went for 40 years!”

    So, it would be under such conditions as these, that this anonymous man would have been led to go to the Scriptures and there read the Servant chapters of Isaiah, and I would personally say, that it happened something like that.

  4. Phillip washington says:

    In a careful re-reading of Isaiah’s Songs of the Suffering Servant, consisting of four poems about a certain “servant of Yahweh”, I saw that there was further light to be shown on the general content of each of these four songs of the suffering servant. By consulting a Hebrew Lexicon it will be shown that the 1st song is 42: 1-5, the 2nd song is 49:1-6, the 3rd song is 50:4-9, and the 4th song is 52:13-53:12.
    The first poem describes God’s selection for the servant who will bring justice to earth, having been given a “tongue of the wise”, and was made a “polished” shaft in the hand of Yahweh, which presupposes the Servant was already “well-prepared” for years even from his youth upward before his commission was properly revealed to him.
    This also tells us that the Servant would have studied and applied the Servant-chapters to himself long before God gave him this commission, as he doubtless knew before hand all of the particulars the commission involved, as the second poem, written from the servant’s point of view, is an account of having been called by God to lead the nations: “listen, O isles (countries of the earth) unto me, and hearken, ye peoples, from far; The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath He made mention of my name! He hate made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath He HID me….”

    It is here, that the Servant tesitfies to us that he was well-aware of his anonymity, and his many long years of suffering alone, and misunderstood, even by his own wife, his closet friends and family, having been hidden by Yahweh from all public scrutiny during the long years of his preparation, as the third poem has a darker tone than the others, with a first-person description of how the servant was mistreated, humiliated and abused, yet he would not and did not testify to having been slain for the sins of the people.
    As that is concerning the last and longest servant poem, Isaiah 53, which is also the most famous, is a declaration that the servant has “lifted our affirmities” and was “crushed for our iniquities”, which many know to be a Messianic prophecy of the coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

  5. Chris Vank says:

    there are three books by him in preparation; with an american publisher; there is a delay as the material is very delicate, and would affect many prominent people. He said Libya , Egypt and Syria are a horrific mistake by the Western politicians.

  6. Chris Vank says:

    the Isaiah suffering servant is a mismatch with Jesus and Israel. he said Himself in John 14:16 that the comforter would come. Jesus speaks thereby of someone else who would be with us. Phil Washington speaks of him being not less then seventy and his logic speaks in line with that:
    So being at that age he cannot be long to give us his message and that means that he must appear soon! I predict it is within 2 years and if not we will know his identity!. The Dead Sea Scrolls are already giving us many answers that is if we look past Jesus as the Suffering Servant!

  7. Chris Vank says:

    The meaning of the three books is the presentation of one main book and the mention of two other books that are missing in the Bible; and all those three deal with the suffering servant!
    The main book will deal with the last days or the end times; and this one will appear well before the end of next year! The essence of that will be how wrong the church is about the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls!

  8. The world is on it last legs and it will reach a very low state by next year; the servant will appear then; and the world will be sceptical. A book will announce his arrival; most of his early live he spend in Australia; in the last decades he has been in Europe; the book will come from the
    United States. He himself is known in 3 books that never have been properly investigated by the

    church. He can proof his former existence and that will be verified by DNA and a grave! There is also a woman involved in who can verify things as she is lecagy of his past. The book will appear in

    church etc.The world will be sceptical about the book to appear as the person claims to have an enormous
    chlegacy which has to be tested

  9. see first the previous matters discussed above; this message is a further development as the book hereby dicussed wiil be printed in September
    2014 by Authorhouse Publishers, Indiana U.S.A. It is titled “IN HIS NAME” The author is titled by the name MELCHISEDEK! The book will answer all the questions about the idetity of The Suffering Servant !
    Chris Vank..

  10. Christiaan van Kampen says:

    finally an answer to the identity of THE Suffering Servant; this book IN HIS NAME answers the question without doubt; IS IT JESUS? IS IT ISRAEL? NO IT IS…………..Read this promised book ”IN HIS NAME” Finally printed
    2014 by Author House Publishers, Indiana USA; The AUTHOR is Melchisedek! The Book Will Be Available this CHRISTMAS 2014, Order Now This Stunning BOOK!!! Chris Vank….

  11. Christiaan van Kampen
    ….it has become a question of that what is now happening to the Middle East! The Bible clearly says do not let them into your house or home; or your country! The description of the answer to that lies today with a book by
    ”Dorrance Publishers” in the USA! The book that answers all that now; and what has to be understood and as said earlier is called ”IN HIS NAME”. Which will also be available now in 2016 with ”Author House; USA/UK ”.This matter or clearly written down factor; was delayed by many incidents; that have happen with many other factors; and that are presently or unfolding right now; and therefore all these had to be included!
    Also the book it will and what is at last solve the mystery of ”The Suffering Servant in Isiah” and with this there will be also the haunting factor; of ”who or what is the Antichrist”. A question asked most recently and was posed on the internet; and what was done so or asked by sixteen 16 million people! Those TWO beings are here among us today; as today we are in the last two years of our existence; in which also the Jewish Question will be solved!!!

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