Isaiah Week 11
By Bo Lim
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 52:13–55:13
An Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot reading from Isaiah — this is who Philip stumbles upon in Acts 8:26–40. It seems Philip knows all too well that this is a difficult book, and asks the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch admits his ignorance and replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” The author of Acts tells us that the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53:7–8:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” (Acts 8:32–33)
Then the eunuch asks Philip the following question, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34)
Now place yourself in Philip’s sandals. If you were in his situation, how would you respond? Who is Isaiah 53 speaking of?
The Suffering Servant
The interpretations of Isaiah 53 have differed largely over whether “the servant” is a reference to an individual or a community. If you can’t imagine how “the servant” could refer to a group of people, consider the following. In Isaiah 40–55, the term “servant” first occurs in Isaiah 41:8, where it clearly refers to national Israel:
But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend.
In fact, of the 20 instances of the word “servant” in Isaiah 40–53, 11 of them refer not to an individual but to the people of Israel. The book of Daniel interprets “servant” in Isaiah 53 in a collective manner. In Daniel 11:33–35, a community described as “wise” (compare Isaiah 52:13) suffers on behalf of the “many” (compare Isaiah 52:14–15; 53:11–12), and in Daniel 12:3 these wise go on to make “make many righteous” (compare Isaiah 53:11).
If you interpret Isaiah 53 in a corporate manner, the servant might be understood as the faithful remnant of Israel who suffered at the hands of the Babylonians for breaking covenant with Yahweh. Now that Jerusalem “has served her term,” now that “her penalty is paid,” now that “she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2), the rest of Israel who are dispersed among the nations can return home.
Yet when you read Isaiah 53, it sure sounds like the description of an individual. Earlier, in Isaiah 48:16b, we heard what is perhaps the initial speech of the individual servant, “And now the Lord God has sent me and his spirit.” Every occurrence of the word “servant” that follows in Chapters 49–53 refers not to national Israel but to the individual prophet. In regard to the suffering of this servant, we can observe that he is sick, beaten, and excluded — experiences more typical of an individual than of a community.
Isaiah 53:4 describes the servant in the following manner:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
The word translated “stricken” (Isaiah 53:4, 8) appears 61 times in Leviticus 13–14, and there speaks of developing a skin anomaly that is associated with leprosy. Isaiah 53:8 describes the servant’s being “stricken” and “cut off.” The only other verse in the Bible that contains both words is 2 Chronicles 26:20–21, where King Uzziah, who is mentioned in Isaiah 6:1, is inflicted with a skin anomaly that excludes him from the community. Thus it seems the servant in Isaiah 53 is ill and in need of healing.
If these servant texts build upon one another, then clearly the servant is a victim of verbal and physical abuse. Earlier, in Isaiah 50:6, the servant recalls, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” Isaiah 53:8 speaks of his unwarranted exclusion from the community, and Verse 53:9 speaks of his ignominious death. Yahweh’s servant, who committed no violence and spread no deceit, is inflicted with both.
So back to Philip and the chariot. If I were in Philip’s sandals, this is what I would say to the Ethiopian eunuch: Isaiah 53 describes the illness, persecution, and death of an innocent prophet. Yet while his suffering was unwarranted, it was not senseless, since it served as the means to make many righteous (Isaiah 53:11–12). This servant absorbs the guilt of the many, and for this Yahweh exalts him (53:10). Isaiah 53 is about a prophet. In fact, it seems to be written by his followers, since the author speaks in the first-person plural, “we” and “us.” It is an event that has already happened, since the author speaks about it in the past tense.
Yet this passage is not limited to speaking about one prophet. The servant’s identity and his circumstances have been left intentionally ambiguous, because Scripture is designed to speak afresh to every generation by the power of the Holy Spirit. So this passage is a means for the people of God to understand their vocation as servants who face unjust suffering.
In following the example of the servant of Isaiah 53, the faithful remnant during the Babylonian exile, as well as the wise in Daniel 11–12, understood that they were called to suffer for the sake of others. In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God is revealed and the scriptural story comes to a climax. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Isaiah 53 is ultimately fulfilled and we are the beneficiaries. Since the church is a participant in the ongoing drama of Scripture, we include ourselves in the “we” and “us” of Isaiah 53. Jesus bore our guilt in his suffering and death in order to make us righteous.
So the main issue isn’t whether Isaiah 53 is speaking about an individual or a community. The servant texts of Isaiah are designed to teach God’s people to take up a vocation of suffering on behalf of others, and Jesus is our ultimate example of someone who did just that. So Paul can interpret the servant text, “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6), as fulfilled in the Gentile mission of the apostles.
Peter understands that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 operates as an example of both Christ and the church (1 Peter 2:21 ff.; compare Isaiah 53:9). As followers of Jesus, you and I are called to be suffering servants ourselves.
Daughter Zion Forsaken and Vindicated
It is lamentable that the suffering servant has stolen the show. That is, when Christians read Isaiah 40–55, inevitably the spotlight is set on the servant texts, and justifiably so. Yet the result is that texts that speak of daughter Zion are sadly neglected, when this theme plays just as prominent a role in the book of Isaiah as the servant. Rather than isolate particular tropes, Isaiah blends the themes of servant and Zion together. Each of the key servant texts in Chapters 49–54 possesses a parallel Zion text, demonstrating that these themes are meant to be understood together:
Both the servant and daughter Zion are domestic metaphors, and each of these figures undergoes great suffering in Isaiah 40–55.
By use of this metaphor of daughter Zion, Isaiah draws upon the broken household metaphor prevalent in other books, such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Lamentations. In this metaphor, Yahweh is Israel’s husband, but unfortunately his bride is unfaithful. Israel is depicted as a whore who lusts after other men, has multiple affairs, and bears children through infidelity. Yahweh is the longsuffering husband who bears with his wife’s infidelities until finally he divorces her, which was permitted under Mosaic law. Israel suffers terribly at the hands of her lovers, who represent foreign gods and nations. She is stripped, shamed, enslaved, and her children are taken away. Daughter Zion is barren and destitute.
While the above metaphor may be shocking and unsettling, it is not overly dramatic, since it captures the catastrophe of exile. In 587 B.C.E., Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, looted and burned the temple, slaughtered the royal family, and carried away many of its wealthy and powerful citizens as prisoners of war. Back then, as is still the case today, women and children were among the most vulnerable populations in time of war. As demonstrated in the stories of Sarai, Rachel, Hannah, and Ruth, in ancient Israel to be without husband and/or children meant that you were without security, honor, and hope. The devastation of exile is captured in Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (compare Matthew 2:17–18).
It is to this scenario that Isaiah announces,
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1–2; emphasis added)
Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. (49:15)
Later on, in Isaiah 66:13, Yahweh is described as a mother: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” God also sympathizes with Israel’s predicament of being a forsaken wife and a barren mother.
Not only does Yahweh sympathize with daughter Zion, but he rescues her and her children from slavery (Isaiah 49:25). By asking, “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce with which I put her away?” Yahweh disavows any legally binding divorce; the divorce is invalid because the paperwork is missing! In Isaiah 51:17–23, Yahweh bursts into the compound where Zion and her children are drug induced, imprisoned, and wounded, and in verses 52:1–12 we hear of their homecoming.
Isaiah 54:1–17 announces Zion’s reconciliation to her husband, Yahweh, the reopening of her womb, and the flourishing of her children. Exile will be reversed, and Zion will no longer be barren. Instead, she will need to be enlarged because of all the children that will be accompanying her in the return home (Isaiah 54:1–4). Yahweh will once again extend compassion and everlasting love to Zion, and reconcile his relationship with his bride (54:5–8). No longer need Zion fear, since she will be established and protected from any possible threat (54:11–17).
Unfortunately, women today continue to be forced into domestic service or the sex industry. They are separated from their children, forcibly drug induced, beaten, and sexually abused. Many of them are in this predicament as a result of war. While they do not share all the characteristics of daughter Zion, these women hold enough in common with daughter Zion for us to get a sense of the devastating effects of Babylonian conquest.
Imagine if you were one of these women and you had lost all hope that you would ever return to your homeland and be restored to your community, children, and husband. Then imagine that Isaiah announces salvation from such circumstances. To a people who may have imagined all hope was lost and that God had given up on them, Isaiah preaches the good news of liberation and restoration. The Holy One of Israel is a God who loves fiercely, who can face tragedy, disaster, and betrayal straight in the eye and still extend redemption.
While the servant and daughter-Zion texts are intertwined, they point in different directions. The circumstances of daughter Zion drastically improve throughout Chapters 49–54, while the servant sufferings intensify. It is only through the suffering of the servant that daughter Zion can be redeemed and vindicated.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Who are the various candidates of the servant of the LORD according to Scripture? Ultimately, what are we to glean from the example of the servant?
- Isaiah 53 is a shocking passage. What in it is most surprising to you?
- What do the feminine metaphors in the book of Isaiah teach you about God, God’s people, and salvation?
- What does Paul mean when he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10)? Is martyrdom a calling for all Christians?
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