What, Me Suffer?By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
In this chapter, Isaiah tells us to look at a particular “servant” of G-d, who is being afflicted. (We will see to whom this refers.) While in exile, he had no form or appearance, so how could we desire him? He was universally despised and considered worthless. He carried all our pains, but we considered him afflicted by G-d. He was injured because of our sins and we were healed with his wounds. We went astray like sheep, but G-d accepted his prayers on behalf of all of us. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, without protest. He was taken from prison; he was exiled from the land. A plague afflicted the people because of their sins.
This poor, afflicted individual (if it even is an individual!) allowed himself to be buried among the wicked of the nations, even though he had committed no crime. G-d punished him so that he would repent; if he would make amends, he would enjoy a long, prosperous life, seeing the fruits of his labors. This servant would vindicate G-d to the masses and bear their sins. G-d would therefore give him a portion among the nation, dividing spoils (perhaps dividing THEM as spoils!). This is because this servant of G-d risked his own life to intercede on behalf of the sinners.
So who is this servant? Let’s examine.
Isaiah 53 is what missionaries call the “Suffering Servant.” The servant in question was despised and rejected, not held in esteem. He took up our ills and wounds, but we blamed G-d rather than ourselves. His punishment brought us peace we are healed by his wounds. He was afflicted, but he didn’t open his mouth, being led like a lamb to the slaughter. There’s more, but that’s the basic idea. Unlike the inaccurate “virgin birth” source in chapter 7, this chapter is generally quoted pretty accurately, although some liberties are taken with the Hebrew. For example, verse 5 says the servant was punished BECAUSE OF our sins, not “for” our sins. It’s a small, but significant difference.
However, even if the translation is essentially correct, who says this chapter is a messianic prophecy? Most commentators say the “servant” is Israel. Israel is called G-d’s servant throughout the Book of Isaiah; look at the chapters leading up to this one – Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3 – they all overtly call the nation of Israel the servant. (This list is hardly exhaustive; there are many other examples. These are just the ones in the immediate vicinity of Isaiah 53.) Israel is called the servant in many other places, as well. See Psalms 136:22 and Jeremiah 30:10. Now look at Jeremiah 30:17, just a few verses later, speaking of Israel as being afflicted – it’s thematically the same as Isaiah 53:4 because they’re talking about the same thing – the nation of Israel!
So Israel is called G-d’s servant in many places and the messiah is called a servant… pretty much no place! Ezekiel does use the phrase “My servant David” to refer to the messiah, who is the descendant of David, but David is clearly the servant in those verses.