Did Isaiah Prophesy That Jesus would Come?

Posted by Clark Bates
May 3, 2017

We read in the book of Isaiah, chapters 52 and 53:

Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted . . .

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. . .

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed . . .[1]

For many Christians, this passage is a prophetic utterance from the 7th century BCE that clearly foretells the coming of Jesus.  It’s commonly referred to as “The Suffering Servant” and stands out among all other prophecies as one of the most cherished and heralded sections of Old Testament Scripture.  If the passage truly does speak of Jesus, then it serves as incontrovertible proof that the Bible contains the most specific example of prophecy ever recorded, and that Jesus of Nazareth was far more than a mere sage.

However, the question must be asked, “Can we be certain that it does, in fact, speak of Jesus?” The Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is certainly not the only interpretation available.  Some have sought to understand the Servant of Isaiah as other famous Jewish figures.[2] Others have preferred to interpret the Servant as an allegory for the fall of Jerusalem.[3]  A common view that began in the Middle Ages and persists among most Orthodox Jews today is that the Suffering Servant was an allegory for the people of Israel.[4]  With the multitude of contrary perspectives, is it even possible to know who is really in the mind of the prophet?  To find out, we must investigate this “Suffering Servant” and what else Isaiah had to write about him.

The Two Views

The Isaianic Servant makes his first appearance in Isaiah 42:1 and re-appears in at least three other passages.[5]  Contemporary interpretations of Yahweh’s servant can be divided into two broad categories, corporate and singular.  Those who hold a corporate view visualize the Servant as God’s chosen people Israel, a school of exilic prophets, or even the city of Jerusalem, while those who hold the singular view imagine the Servant as the Messiah, or another Israelite hero.

In defense of the corporate view, there are clear moments in which the nation of Israel is referred to as the servant of God:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend . . .

Isaiah 41:8-9

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!”

Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant. . .

Isaiah 44:1; 21

However, upon careful consideration, the blanket application of the corporate servant here, to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 Is not a consistent one.  Take, for instance Isaiah 49:1-6 in which the Servant is said to “raise up the tribes of Jacob.”  The context demonstrates that the purpose of the servant is to restore a sinful Israel to the Lord.[6]  How could the nation of Israel raise the fallen nation of Israel up from rebellion to Yahweh?  Another example of the deficiency of the corporate view is found in the key Suffering Servant passage itself.  The Servant is said to be “pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins.  The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  The “our” and “us” of the passage is the prophet Isaiah speaking on behalf of the nation of Israel, so once again, we are left to ask, “How can the nation itself serve as the sacrifice for itself?”

Who is this Servant?

If the corporate view is lacking in textual support it should rightly be abandoned, but this does nothing to determine the actual identity of the individual servant.  As you may have guessed, the attempted explanations regarding who the servant might be, are plenteous as well, although not all opinions are equal.  Among the popular suggestions are the coming Messiah[7], Cyrus the Great,[8] Moses[9] and even Zerubbabel.[10]

It should not be necessary here to demonstrate the inefficiency of the application of the Suffering Servant to Moses or the even more obscure Zerubbabel, which leaves the remaining possibilities of the Messiah or Cyrus the Great.  The suggestion of Cyrus as the Servant of the Lord arises from Is. 44:28 in which the Persian King is called the Shepherd of Yahweh.  Yet the Servant in Is. 42 is said to be of such humble character that he will not break a bruised reed, whereas the mighty Cyrus is said to level mountains and cut through bars of iron.  It seems quite unlikely that this is the same individual.  What’s more, there is no historical evidence that the suffering described in Isaiah 53 could adequately be applied to the lifetime of Cyrus the Great.

Acknowledging that the Servant in Isaiah must be an individual, and recognizing that most propositions from Hebrew history fail to adequately account for what is recorded, we must turn to what specifically is said of this Servant and to what conclusion we must arrive.

Consider that the dialogue of Is. 52:1-12 is between Yahweh and Israel; yet in v.13ff. Yahweh is pictured as presenting his servant before the nation.  Unless we are to believe that the Lord is presenting His servant to His servant, the national imagery does not stand.  The person described as the “arm of the Lord in 53:1 is none other than the servant of 42:1-9; 49:1-6, and 50:4-9, meaning that the character and mission of the servant are the same and the suffering of the servant remain the same.  Just as in 50.4-9 the suffering is unjust.  Even those who wish to deny any substitutionary element in the servant’s suffering admit that the plain sense is that the Servant suffers undeservedly because of human sin.

The words used to describe the servant in 52:13 as being “lifted up” and “exalted” are used only to speak of God in the remainder of this book, can they be said to refer to a human prophet or Jewish leader?  For those who suggest that Isaiah himself is in view here, must be reminded that the prophet himself condemns the very idea of human exaltation in Is. 2:6-22.  Can we then say that here, the nation of Israel is lifted up as God? Can we say that here now the prophet exalts himself or some other peer?  No, the one spoken of here, as before, must be one greater than Moses, one who embodies Israel as it was meant to be.  This is the Messiah or it is no one at all.

But is it Jesus?

It would be too much of a stretch to suggest that the prophet had Jesus of Nazareth in mind when delivering these oracles; however, the promise of the Messiah was to be one that would restore Israel, fulfilling all that Israel was originally commissioned to do.  “The main idea, then, is this: The servant people need the individual Suffering Servant to reconcile them to Yahweh and do what they are unable to accomplish. The new servant will not only ‘raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel’ (49.6), but also Yahweh will make him “as a light to the nations, so that [His] salvation may be to the ends of the earth” (49.6).[11]

The one spoken of here, as before, must be one greater than Moses, one who embodies Israel as it was meant to be.  This is the Messiah or it is no one at all.

It is absolutely clear that Jesus of Nazareth believed himself to be this “servant” (Lk. 4.18ff.), and that through word and deed verified this to be true.  The prophet may not have seen the “Lamb of God” as such, but, under the shadow of exile, he saw a nation, judged by God, unable to fulfill the expectations of God; but also, a nation forgiven by God, to be restored by God through the life and death of one who would embody Israel itself in a pure and holy way.  No other person, or group, in all of history can be said to have done this or be able to do this; therefore, the clearest textual understanding of the “servant songs” is that it must speak of one especially chosen by God, unblemished by the failings of men.  In short, it must be the Messiah.

Of all who came to the nation proclaiming themselves to be the Messiah, only one was confirmed by miraculous signs and wonders.  All were put to death, but only one was executed in such a way that his death enacted the very suffering described in Isaiah 53.  Only one Messianic figure was “lifted up”, “pierced”, “crushed”, put to death “with the wicked”, but buried as a “rich man”.  All of which would be impossible to pre-arrange.  And above all else, only one was resurrected on the third day, confirming all that he said of himself to be true.  Only one messianic figure has ever fulfilled every aspect of Isaiah’s coming Suffering Servant, the man, Jesus of Nazareth.

 

[1] Verses listed are 52:13; 53:3; and 5 in the ESV Bible.  For more context read Is. 52 – 53.

[2] Watts sees a very thoughtful reflection of Zerubbabel in Is. 52:13-53:12 in his World Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66. (Waco: Word Books Publishers, 1987); while Klaus Baltzer adamantly defends Moses as the namesake of Yahweh’s servant in his Hermeneia- A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible: Deutero-Isaiah, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[3] Leland E. Wilshire, Insight into Two Biblical Passages: “The Anatomy of a Prohibition” 1 Timothy 2:12 and “The Servant City” The Servant Songs of Isaiah 40-66 and the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC/BCE. (Lanham, Maryland: University Press, 2010): 117.

[4] Kristen Joachimsen, “Steck’s Five Stories of the Servant in Isaiah lii 13-liii 12 and Beyond,” Vetus Testamentum 57 (2007): 208.

[5] Isaiah 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.

[6] Is. 49:5-6

[7] John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40-66, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1998).

[8] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 111.   Reference is made not to Watts here, but to the work of  W.E. Barnes, “Cyrus, the Servant of Jahweh,” JTS 32 (1930-31).

[9] Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia- A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible: Deutero-Isaiah. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

[10] John D. Watts, World Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66. (Waco: Word Books Publishers, 1987).

[11] Reed, Concordia Journal, 132.

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