Messianic prophecy 4: The suffering servant

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.

Context and Prophecy

Chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah are known collectively as Deutero-Isaiah [1]. They are thought to have been written shortly after the capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, who was considered by some Jews of the time to be a messiah. Against this backdrop, we have the author of Deutero-Isaiah writing about, among other things, an unnamed “suffering servant” of God.

Especially pertinent to messianic prophecy aficionados are the following excerpts from Isaiah 53 (taken from the NET bible):

5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds,

crushed because of our sins;

he endured punishment that made us well;

because of his wounds we have been healed.

7 He was treated harshly and afflicted,

but he did not even open his mouth.

Like a lamb led to the slaughtering block,

like a sheep silent before her shearers,

he did not even open his mouth.

9 They intended to bury him with criminals,

but he ended up in a rich man’s tomb,

because he had committed no violent deeds,

nor had he spoken deceitfully. (Isaiah 53:5,7,9)

In short, this prophecy predicts the “suffering servant’s” sacrifices made for our benefit, his death by execution, and his burial in a tomb. The parallels to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are obvious.

Straightforward Interpretation

One of the most striking things about the prophecy is that it’s not actually written as a prediction. It’s describing past events. This raises doubts about its status as a prophecy, before we even consider the details.

It also does not identify its protagonist, so it’s impossible to conclude that it’s talking about Jesus. It surely cannot be rare in the religiously charged times of the Deutero-Isaiah author for religious zealots to have been executed for their beliefs. As suggested by [1], possible identities for the “suffering servant” include Israel itself.

The discussion of the tomb comes across as a rhetoric device used to emphasize the innocence of the servant, so it’s not clear we should even expect the fulfillment of the prophecy to include an actual tomb.

Finally, it is important to note that Judaism does not subscribe to the idea that one person can atone for the sins of another. Take, for instance, Ezekiel 18:20:

The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

It is therefore difficult to read Isaiah 53:5 and accept that the author was talking about atonement. Rather, the author may simply have been referring to sacrifices that the suffering servant would make in order to benefit his people, just as any good leader might do. In this sense, then, the initial part of the Isaiah prophecy may have little to do with the Christian idea of vicarious atonement.

Overall, it’s difficult to conclude if this prophecy was fulfilled or not – as already noted, there surely must have been many people since Isaiah’s time whose deeds and deaths matched the description in the prophecy.

Apologist Interpretation

Many apologists are of the opinion that the prophecy concerns Jesus and his death. Under this interpretation, the prophecy seems to be fulfilled.


Vagueness. The prophecy is, like so many others, extremely vague, failing even to mention the name of the principal character or what time period he will appear in. It also describes what must have been a rather typical persecution scenario in those times.

Ex Eventu.  The author of Acts was probably among the first to use the Isaiah prophecy to describe Jesus. In Acts 8, he describes a scene in which a eunuch is reading Isaiah 53:7-8. The eunuch asks Philip who the servant in the prophecy is, and Philip replies that it is Jesus.  This confirms, as we would expect, that the authors of the New Testament manuscripts were well aware of the Isaiah prophecy, and could easily have adapted their narratives of Jesus’ life and death to match it. It would certainly be an appealing narrative to adopt for a martyr of the faith – appealing enough that the New Testament authors were happy to overlook the fact that the prophecy is not actually written as a prophecy, but as a record of past events.

Another example is found in the Gospel of John. In the first chapter of this gospel, John the Baptist quotes Isaiah 40 (“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”) and the next day identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The author of the Gospel of John, then, was familiar with the Isaiah prophecy, and could simply have inserted it into the speech of John the Baptist (we must remember that the gospel authors did not actually witness John the Baptist or Jesus say anything).

The story of Jesus’ burial in a tomb could also have been developed as a direct response to the Isaiah prophecy. In fact, it’s quite likely that the gospel authors, writing decades after Jesus’ death, actually knew very little about the details of that event, and simply looked up Isaiah 53, believing it was an accurate prophecy and so could be relied upon to fill in certain details of Jesus’ history.

[1] Wikipedia entry on the Book of Isaiah.


One Response to Messianic prophecy 4: The suffering servant

  1. L.Long says:

    The prophecies are like psychic readings full of vague wording that can mean anything and i the forward direction are totally useless so what good are they, and in reverse direction can be made to fit just about anything your want.

    Good post.

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