Isaiah 49:3, The Real Suffering Servant?

He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”  

//Every Christian knows about the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah chapter 53. This became an important theme for New Testament writers in describing a new kind of Messiah. Jesus, Christians insist, died as prophesied by Isaiah. As a suffering servant.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. … he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. … He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. –excerpts from Isaiah 53.

But you’re unlikely to find a Jew who interprets Isaiah chapter 53 the way Christians do. The suffering servant, they say, is a picture of Israel. Not of a man. Before Jesus arrived on the scene, not a single Jewish text interpreted the passage messianically. 

In my upcoming book about John’s Gospel, I rely heavily upon this image of a suffering Messiah. This is, I feel, true to the teachings of John. See John 12:35, where John quotes word-for-word the very verses in Isaiah leading up to the Suffering Servant passage, and concludes that “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

So who’s right? Jews or Christians? The 53rd chapter of Isaiah is imbedded within a long discourse, as God pleads: “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation.” (Isaiah 51:4). “Listen to me, O Jacob, Israel, whom I have called.” (Isaiah 48:12). And, of course, today’s verse, which names the servant. It is Israel.

While by no means conclusive, the Jewish interpretation of their own scripture does seem most logical.

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2 Comments

  1. I want to write this comment without doing a long research project to write it, but have you heard the argument that Targum Jonathan was a pre-Christian source that applied Isaiah 53 to the Messiah? If I’m not mistaken, Richard Carrier makes that argument, but others note that the Targum for Isaiah 53 does not present the Messiah as suffering but rather as inflicting suffering on Israel’s enemies.

  2. Really? No, I occasionally come across an argument for Jewish rendition of the Suffering Servant as a person rather than a nation, but never as the person inflicting the punishment! I guess that would better fit the image of a Messiah! Now I gotta dig out the books…;)

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