Possibly one of the most intriguing accounts in the Jewish scriptures is the one about a “Suffering Servant.” The account is seen by Christians as evidence that the “light of Gentiles,” and the one who would be YHWH’s “salvation to the end of the earth,” was the man known as Jesus Christ, written about in the New Testament, whose Jewish name Yeshua means “YHWH Is Salvation.” Christians claim that the Suffering Servant account is a prophecy about Jesus.
On the other hand, Judaism teaches that the one written about in the Suffering Servant account is the nation of Israel itself. From their point of view, the servant’s suffering represents the suffering and mistreatment of their nation. The arguments made by Jewish rabbis have been examined in more detail in “Letter To The Jews.”1
In the present letter, let’s look at the Suffering Servant account in Isaiah to see whether it supports the Christian claim. I will not examine the historical nature or reality of Jesus just yet. At the moment I simply wish to establish whether the account matches up with the story of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament. If it does, this would be quite intriguing, since Isaiah’s account was written hundreds of years before the story of Jesus.
The Suffering Servant account begins: “Look! My servant will act wisely. He will be raised and be lifted up, and be highly exalted. Just as many were appalled at you, so disfigured was his appearance from any man, and his form from the sons of men, so he will sprinkle many nations. Kings will shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been related to them they will see, and that which they had not heard they will consider.” 2
Certainly this matches up well with how Jesus died, at least according to the story in the New Testament. He was tortured and crucified by the Romans, supposedly raised from the dead a few days later, and then lifted up to heaven in a cloud. Of course, I am not making any claim right now about the truth or otherwise of the story, which we will need to examine separately. At present, I am simply saying that this part of the account matches up with the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with his subsequent honor by nations, even if it was all made up.
The word “sprinkle” here can also be translated as “spatter,” and seems to have the same meaning as when Moses spattered blood to inaugurate the law covenant: “And he sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered up burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of bulls to YHWH. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in bowls, and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.” Also, “Moses took the blood, and spattered it on the people, and said, 'Look! The blood of the covenant, which YHWH has made with you in accordance with all of this.'” 3 The spattering of blood on the people symbolized their acceptance of the covenant.
Earlier on, Isaiah wrote that YHWH would give his servant “for a covenant of the people” and as a “light of Gentiles.” Christians believe that Jesus’ blood represents a new covenant. In this way, his blood would “sprinkle many nations.” At the same time, Jesus was said to have instructed his disciples to baptize the nations in water. Therefore, “he will sprinkle many nations” could also allude to baptism.
According to the New Testament story, Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, and also Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. After Jesus’ alleged resurrection, the religious rulers, who mocked him and watched his crucifixion, heard that his tomb had been opened by an angel, and so they came up with a story about the disciples stealing the body.
The implication is, these rulers knew Jesus had risen but said nothing, because speaking out went against their own interests, and what they believed. They “shut their mouths because of him.” There was, as it were, a conspiracy of silence on their part. Furthermore, if Jesus had foretold the fall of Jerusalem, as the gospels say he did, kings would “shut their mouths” here as well.
The account continues: “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of YHWH revealed? For he will grow up before him as the tender plant, and as the root out of dry land. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, we do not desire his appearance.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of pains and acquainted with illness; and we hid, as it were, our faces from him. He was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely he bore our illnesses and carried our pains, but we esteemed him as stricken, struck by God and humbled.” 4
The question, “who has believed our report?” implies skepticism. It would certainly echo the modern skeptic, who finds the stories in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hard to believe.
The “tender plant” and “root out of dry land” seem to allude to the Jewish prophecies about an anointed one who would be a “twig” and a “root of Jesse” the father of King David. That he was “despised and rejected by men” would fit with the earlier prophecy about the servant who would be “abhorred” by the nation of Israel.
According to the New Testament, Jesus healed people and therefore became, as it were, “acquainted with illness.” Nevertheless, he was rejected by the nation of Israel as a whole, although many individuals believed in him.
The account continues: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The discipline for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we were healed. All of us, like sheep, went astray; we went, each man, his own way, and YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” 5
Once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Jewish high priest slaughtered a goat as a sin offering for the whole assembly of Israel, and then over another goat, the errors of the nation were confessed, and that goat carried all of their iniquities into the wilderness.
The Suffering Servant’s death is similar to those goat sacrifices. He is “crushed for our iniquities” like the first goat, and “the iniquity of us all” is laid on him like the second goat. He therefore becomes some kind of atonement for a large number of people’s sins.
The account continues: “He was oppressed and was humbled, and he did not open his mouth. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, like a sheep that is silent before her shearers, and he did not open his mouth.” 6
When men are oppressed, their natural tendency is to cry out for justice. This is certainly what King David did, when he complained to God that the people of Israel were “counted as sheep for slaughter.” 7 But the Suffering Servant doesn’t do this. During his oppression, he doesn’t open his mouth to complain.
The skeptic might argue that Jesus did say things at his “trial.” I would suggest they are missing the intended spirit of the words here. Not opening his mouth is placed in the context of his oppression and humiliation. It is about these things that he does not speak. He doesn’t complain about his treatment, unlike King David and the nation of Israel when they were oppressed.
Isaiah’s account continues: “From restraint and judgment he was taken, and who will think about his generation? For he was severed from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people they were plagued. And he was given a tomb with the wicked and with the rich in his deaths, although he did no wrong and no deceit was in his mouth.” 8
This is certainly an intriguing passage, and its full meaning seems to have been somewhat lost in translation. For example, most translations imply the Suffering Servant himself is plagued. However, the Hebrew is plural, so it more accurately reads that “they were plagued.” Who are “they” in this case?
I think we are being told the fate of both the Suffering Servant, and the generation in which he lived. He is put to death, and they, his generation, are plagued for their transgression. Indeed, this is what makes the death of Jesus Christ so remarkable, quite apart from his alleged resurrection. The same generation in which he supposedly lived also saw the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans.
Another aspect that is usually lost in translation is that the Hebrew says “in his deaths.” The word for “death” is plural here. Recall that the “tree of life” is really “the tree of the lives” in Hebrew. One tree symbolized life for many, not just Adam and Eve. It is therefore possible that the Suffering Servant’s death symbolized death for many, or that his death substituted for their deaths. This is what the verses to follow also seem to suggest.
Isaiah continues: “But it was YHWH's desire to crush him and cause him to be wounded. If he makes his soul a guilt offering, he will see his offspring. He will lengthen his days, and the desire of YHWH will prosper in his hand.” 9
In ancient Israel, animal sacrifices such as lambs atoned for various sins, and the sacrifices were carried out by priests, who would act as mediators between God and the people, in reference to their sin.
Christians claim that Jesus Christ, as the Suffering Servant, performs the same functions as both the priest and the sacrifice. This is why he is referred to in the New Testament as “the Lamb of God, the one taking away the sin of the world.” 10 They claim that the main purpose of his death was to atone for and carry our sins, so we could come to a right standing before God.
Some atheists express disdain at the notion that Jesus had to die. They argue it was tantamount to human sacrifice. However, there is a major difference. The account says, “if he makes his soul a guilt offering.” In other words, the Suffering Servant chooses to lay down his life.
Do not humans sometimes lay down their lives on behalf of their families, tribes or even nations in times of war? Their sacrifice isn’t usually interpreted as a human sacrifice, but as necessary to achieve some greater good. This is why it says “it was YHWH's desire to crush him and cause him to be wounded.” This isn’t because God delights in crushing people in general, but because the Suffering Servant’s death would bring about a greater good.
Isaiah continues: “Because of the trouble of his soul, he will see and be satisfied. By his knowledge, my righteous servant will make the many righteous, and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will assign him a portion with the many, and he will portion out the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul even to death, and was counted with the transgressors.” 11
This is how we know the Suffering Servant can’t be the nation of Israel. God made a covenant with them, and accompanied it with a promise of blessings when the nation listened to him, and curses when it went astray. For God to crush Israel when it was righteous would violate his own promises.
As I have already said, God spoke very plainly about Israel’s sin. Through the prophets, YHWH promised to restore them as a nation, but he also said, “I am not doing this on account of you, house of Israel, but rather for my holy name, which you profaned among the nations where you went.” 12
However, the voluntary sacrifice of one righteous man such as Jesus Christ would have multiple benefits. First, it would signal to those nations who persisted in human sacrifice, despite God being against it, that it was not necessary. Indeed, I could argue that here is a man sacrificing himself, to put a halt to human sacrifice!
Second, it would be the ultimate act of love. What greater love is there, than to lay down one’s own life on behalf of others?
Third, it would set a higher example for how we were to treat one another. Humans already had plenty of bad examples to follow, and so good ones were sorely needed.
Fourth, his death and alleged resurrection would become like a rallying point to draw people to him. This is indicated elsewhere by Isaiah, who wrote about Jesse, King David’s father: “A twig will come forth out of the stem of Jesse, and a sprout from his roots will bear fruit. And the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and a fear of YHWH.” In the same chapter, Isaiah wrote: “In that day there will be the root of Jesse who will stand as a banner for the people. To him the Gentiles will inquire; and his resting place will be glory.” 13
In ancient times, banners were used as a rallying point to gather troops. The “root of Jesse” would become like this, although in the case of Jesus’ disciples they wouldn’t be physical soldiers but spiritual ones.
If we recognize rest as a metaphor for death, then the “resting place” of Jesus became a location of “glory” once he had been resurrected, and later it became a site of pilgrimage for believers. Gentiles – that is, non-Jews – did indeed inquire of this one, to the extent that Jesus’ name has become known, and associated with salvation, to the ends of the Earth.
In the book of Zechariah, YHWH is said to have declared: “I will pour out upon the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and supplications; and they will look to me whom they pierced, and they will wail over him as the wailing for the only son, and grieve bitterly over him as the bitter grieving over the firstborn.” 14
The story of Jesus’ death matches up with this. According to the New Testament accounts he was crucified by the Romans, pierced in his hands and feet, and many of the people mourned his death. However, after his alleged resurrection, God’s Spirit was poured out upon his disciples.
From a Christian perspective, the Spirit could also be described as “the spirit of grace and supplications.” But what exactly is “grace”? In his letters, the apostle Paul used the word dozens of times, to refer to the idea of unmerited favor or help from God. Grace isn’t something we earn by doing works, but is freely and lovingly given to us by God, and can therefore act as a force for good in us.
What about “supplication”? This is a form of prayer, a request for help, usually to someone in a position of authority. According to the New Testament, after facing opposition to their message, the apostles and disciples prayed to God for the courage to speak up, and immediately after praying they were given the help they needed, in the form of the Holy Spirit.
As a result, many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem began to see Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act of grace on God’s part, and also as a rallying point, like a banner for drawing the people of Israel back to God, and the Gentiles to him as well.
However, the main purpose of the Suffering Servant’s death, according to the account I have examined in this chapter, is to atone for and be a mediator for sins. The ancient nation of Israel had animal sacrifices and a priesthood for this purpose, but non-Jews couldn’t really benefit from this, because they weren’t a party to the law covenant mediated by Moses. On the other hand, the Suffering Servant would lay down his life to bear the sins of many, which could include Gentiles.
Sin may seem like an antiquated notion, but the word just means to miss the mark, to fall short of an ideal. If there is no God, there is no ideal. There is no clear standard of good and bad. There is only what you can get your fellow humans to agree with at the time. We can hope they agree to treat us fairly, but what if they decide that eating atheists for lunch is a good standard to follow?
The point here is, if God exists, then there is an ideal, a benchmark, and therefore sin exists, regardless of whether we believe this or not. As Isaiah put it poetically: “All of us, like sheep, went astray; we went, each man, his own way.” I think this really also describes the whole human race. Since we all fall short of God’s standards, the purpose of the Suffering Servant is to help bring us back to that ideal, an ideal where we love other people simply because they are our fellow humans.
This ideal can’t really be attained by any naturalistic philosophy, especially one rooted in Darwinian concepts such as survival of the fittest. At best we can cooperate for survival, but we have no particular reason to love strangers. But even if a naturalistic love-based philosophy could be constructed, the purpose of the Suffering Servant wasn’t simply to teach the highest philosophy attainable by humans, but also to embody it – namely, to have so much love that you would voluntarily lay down your life on behalf of others, even those who despise, abhor and reject you.
Now, the accusation has sometimes been made that Jews and Christians have altered scriptures. Yet here is an account that sounds altogether Christian, that has been faithfully preserved by Jewish scribes down through the centuries, and from well before the time of Jesus, as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrates.
Furthermore, scribes and copyists from Judaism and the Christian faith could act as an error correcting mechanism between each other. If one group were to change the wording in any significant way, the other group could point it out. They serve as two independent witnesses to the authenticity of the prophecies.
Individual scribes sometimes made mistakes in the copying process, but scholars are able to compare lots of manuscripts to detect the errors. There are also some variations between manuscripts; and while these variations can sometimes change the meaning of a word or verse, the overall message of Isaiah has been preserved intact, including the account of the Suffering Servant.
1 See chapters 22-26 of “Letter To The Jews” at lettertothejews.com 2 Isaiah 52:13-15. 3 Exodus 24:5-8. 4 Isaiah 53:1-4. 5 Isaiah 53:5,6. 6 Isaiah 53:7. 7 Psalm 44:22. 8 Isaiah 53:8,9. 9 Isaiah 53:10. 10 John 1:29. 11 Isaiah 53:11,12. 12 Ezekiel 36:22. 13 Isaiah 11:1,2,10. 14 Zechariah 12:10.