Atone Deaf Part Two: Isaiah’s Suffering Servant

Second in a series of posts exploring theology of atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

In the previous post I suggested that Israel’s sacrificial traditions constituted human tributes to God for the confession and relinquishing of sin guilt, not blood payments to a wrathful deity. We then explored the Hebrew Bible’s pervasive prophetic witness to God’s ultimate rejection of blood sacrifice in favor of love, mercy, and relationship. All of this calls into question the premise of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which assumes that God requires death and blood sacrifice as punishment for sin. Before we move on to a survey of the New Testament, however, no study of atonement and the Hebrew Bible would be complete without a discussion of Isaiah 53.

Isaiah 53: The Jesus Prophecy?

Isaiah 53 (technically Isaiah 52:13-53:12) is referred to as the “servant song,” or the “suffering servant.” It is actually the fourth such song in Deutero-Isaiah, the second division of the scroll named after the prophet. The immediate context is a rapturous declaration in chapter 52 of Israel’s “redemption” and the end of exile, where the song bursts forth as a poetic exploration of both suffering and joy on the eve of release and return to the homeland. The subject of the poem is the pain and triumph of a lowly and mysterious “servant” who is “stricken by God” and bears Israel’s “iniquities” so that “by his wounds [they] are healed.” This language appears to plainly describe the substitutionary punishment of an innocent victim by God for the salvation of others, exactly the sort of vicarious harm suffered by Jesus on the cross according to PSA. The result has been that, despite its explicit context of Judaism and exile, Isaiah 53 has been read by Christians as a clear and obvious prediction of Christ’s death on the cross.

Before returning to the question of Christ and atonement, however, our first task is to appreciate the text in its original setting. This will not be easy. As Christians we have only ever read Isaiah 53 as if it was an “Old Testament” cameo by Jesus. I might come across as contrary or obtuse in this exercise, but that only demonstrates how locked-in we are to our particular perspective. Please stick with me for this valuable thought experiment. It is time to listen to the servant song with fresh ears.

A Fresh Reading of the Fourth Servant Song

Awake, awake, O Zion! Clothe yourself in splendor; Put on your robes of majesty, Jerusalem, holy city! For the uncircumcised and the unclean shall never enter you again.
Arise, shake off the dust, sit on your throne, Jerusalem! Loose the bonds from your neck, O captive one, fair Zion! For thus said the LORD: You were sold for no price, and shall be redeemed without money.
(Isaiah 52:1-3, JPS)

This is the true context of the servant song, lest we forget. Israel/Zion/Jerusalem (interchangeable poetic references to the exiled people of Judah) has been held captive, but will soon be set free and return to her home, which will be purified at long last after being the plunder of other nations. The text goes on to describe the people’s journey back to the land before the stunned eyes of the nations, at which point our song begins:

For you will not depart in haste, nor will you leave in flight; For the LORD is marching before you, the God of Israel is your rear guard.
“Indeed, My servant shall prosper, be exalted, and raised to great heights.”
(Isaiah 52:12-13, JPS)

The song begins with the first reference to the “servant,” which at this point appears to be a direct reference to the exiled people of Judah. They were low, and now they are being lifted up and rescued. But in chapter 53 things start to get a little more dark:

“For [the servant] has grown, by [God’s] favor, like a tree’s crown, like a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty that we should look at him; No charm that we should find him pleasing. he was despised, shunned by men. A man of suffering, familiar with disease. As one who hid his face from us, he was despised, we held him of no account.”
(Isaiah 53:2-3, JPS)

The servant (or Israel) is a figure (or people) of great sorrow and misfortune, hated and spurned by the world (by men, not by God). A rumination on the torments of captivity and exile.

“Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, stricken by God; But he was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the punishment [or correction] that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed.”
(Isaiah 53:4-5, JPS)

Here are the first notes of vicarious suffering. The servant, who somehow represents Israel and yet somehow transcends it, endures great pain and “sickness.” But this sickness is not, as the people might have thought, the result of a punitive attack by a wrathful God, it is the result of Israel’s own failure and sin (note the logic: “we ACCOUNTED him stricken by God, BUT he was wounded because of OUR sins”). Some looked at misfortune and said, “why is God angry with us?” The prophet responds, “we brought this upon ourselves!” The servant, like Israel (as Israel?), is hated and tormented by men, but somehow this will all lead to healing. The word translated “punishment” here also means “teaching” or “correction,” indicating that this calamity is ultimately constructive, not destructive.

“We all went astray like sheep, each going his own way; And the LORD visited upon him the guilt of all of us. He was maltreated, yet he was submissive, he did not open his mouth; Like a sheep being led to slaughter, like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, he did not open his mouth. By oppressive judgment he was taken away, Who could describe his abode? For he was cut off from the land of the living through the sin of my people, who deserved the punishment [or correction]. And his grave was set among the wicked, and with the rich, in his death – though he had done no injustice, and spoken no falsehood.”
(Isaiah 53:6-9, JPS)

Israel was led into exile like a lamb to slaughter, a poetic image evoked elsewhere in Hebrew Scripture (eg. Psalm 44). Just as the servant is somehow both Israel and its savior, this “oppressive judgment” was somehow both an injustice and a fitting correction. And the servant faced this dark ordeal without retaliating or cursing Israel’s enemies.

“But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life, and that through him the LORD’s purpose might prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see it; He shall enjoy it to the full through his devotion. ‘My righteous servant makes the many righteous, it is their punishment that he bears; Assuredly, I will give him the many as his portion, He shall receive the multitude as his spoil. For he exposed himself to death And was numbered among the sinners, Whereas he bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners.’”
(Isaiah 53:10-12, JPS)

By enduring the suffering and terror of exile, the servant/Israel has himself/itself been “offered up” as a sin offering, a relinquishing of guilt and a plea for forgiveness. The result, to the people’s amazement, is renewal and prosperity (“offspring and long life”), and a restored and grateful nation for his spoil. By dying on the altar of exile, Israel was not destroyed but through suffering and by God’s goodness was made whole.

Debates and Considerations

That is our intentionally pre-Christian reading of Isaiah 53. Before we return to the question of Jesus and atonement, a couple of concerns should be briefly addressed. First is the question of whether or not the servant of Second Isaiah can be considered a “messianic” figure. Isaiah is more keen on a king (messiah) as the answer to Israel’s woes than most other prophets, but the servant is a decidedly lowly and common character. Christians will often point to an Aramaic Talmud (rabbinic commentary) of Isaiah from the second century that explicitly identifies the servant as “messiah.” However, that same text fundamentally changes the meaning of the whole passage, turning it into a revenge fantasy with the worst of the “suffering” deflected onto Israel’s enemies. That represents a sharp departure from the original poem and undermines the intentions of those who appeal to the Targum as a Christian prooftext. At the same time, of course, the nonviolent and non-triumphal character of the servant may lend itself even more to Christian appropriation than an explicitly messianic one.

Another consideration, given the theological rigor that has been applied to this text, is the format and intent of the prophet’s words. This text is not a forensic or technical or doctrinal statement about the legal/sacrificial transaction that ended the Jewish exile. It’s a sacred song about the surprise of redemption and an attempt to understand an unspeakable ordeal that somehow gave way to hope and new life. Like Ezekiel lying on his side for a year, Isaiah is using art, spirituality, and imagination to dramatize divine “correction” in a framework his hearers will recognize and understand. Forgetting that this is a work of art is the first step to interpreting it poorly.

The Servant and Jesus

Arriving at last to the matter of Jesus and the suffering servant, I would summarize my feelings like this: Isaiah 53 is not about Jesus, but Jesus is all about Isaiah 53. To explain this more fully, I present my analysis in the form of two short lists.

Five Reasons Isaiah 53 is Not About the Jesus of Penal Substitution

1. The setting is too specific. The occasion of this song is not vague and open to interpretation. This is a song from the sixth century BCE about the exile and return of Judah, not a prediction of a future event or an atonement formula waiting to be played out.

2. The servant’s identity is too vague. In the framework of PSA, the distinction between the sacrificial victim and his beneficiaries is stark and absolute. He is the only sacrifice acceptable to God, and they are unworthy sinners. But from the start Isaiah blurs the lines between the servant and his people. They are the same, and yet he represents them in a uniquely efficacious way.

3. The servant’s reward is too contextually specific and too “worldly.” “Offspring,” “long life,” and an earthly homeland are the types of things exiled humans long for, not cosmic saviors. PSA is concerned with legal fallout in the afterlife, but Isaiah’s song is about getting home safe and raising a family.

4. The servant’s suffering is vicarious, but not substitutionary. He suffers with Israel and on her behalf, not in her place. Everything described here as “punishment” or “correction” WAS ACTUALLY EXPERIENCED BY ISRAEL IN EXILE! It is not a fate they dodged because the servant took the brunt, it is their very real suffering that he took upon himself in solidarity. It is his unique ability to transcend that common suffering that rescues his people.

5. God’s wrath is not a factor. Israel’s dilemma is not that God is angry and needs to be appeased. Their “iniquity,” not least their violence and corruption (according to prophets like Isaiah), left them vulnerable to the “oppressive judgment” of enemy nations. Israel needed to be redeemed from a predicament of their own making, not to mollify God but to repent of the sin that (they came to understand) had put them in captivity in the first place.

Once we move away from the world of PSA and Christian prooftexting, however, it is not difficult to see how the themes of Isaiah’s servant song might resonate in major ways with the Jesus of the gospels.

Five Ways the Jesus of the New Testament Reflects and Manifests Isaiah 53

1. Jesus announced the end of exile and the coming of God’s kingdom. This is the true context of both “the gospel” and the servant song. Jesus and Isaiah are singing the same tune.

2. Jesus lived and died as a true Israelite and a true human, not as an alien god in a human suit. He identified fully with his human family to the last (and still does!).

3. Jesus’ legacy points to peace and renewed life on earth, not detached spirituality and afterlife.

4. Jesus suffered in solidarity with humanity, not in its place as a substitute. His cause of death was the “oppressive judgment” of human empire, not theological necessity. He died for us and with us, that we might transcend our station with him.

5. Jesus absorbed the wrath of sinful humanity, not of an angry God. Like Isaiah, Jesus understood sin not as a legal offense to an outraged deity, but as the temporal consequences of our failure to love. Jesus does not “save” us from God, but from ourselves.

This has been a long post. If there’s just one takeaway, let it be this: Whatever you make of Isaiah 53 and its relationship to Jesus, it is not a testimony or proof to the wrath-addled God of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Like the Easter texts of the New Testament, the song of the suffering servant is a composed response to a tragedy in which shared suffering and non-retaliation became a liberating and transcendent jubilee. These are not stories about God murdering a scapegoat because He knows no other way to forgive sin. These are about a servant’s choice to suffer for and with his own people for their deliverance. It is tragic and beautiful, not sick and superstitious.