It was another sunny day in the desert. An important official from Africa, the treasurer of Kandake of Ethiopia, had come to prostrate himself before YHWH God of Israel and was on his way to Gaza to sail home. As he traveled he was reading from the prophet Isaiah and was perplexed and challenged by what he was reading.
He was led as a sheep to the slaughter / and as a lamb before his shearer is dumb / so he openeth not his mouth.
In his humiliation his judgment was taken away / His generation, who shall declare? / For his life is taken from the earth.
We may not know whether this official was a descendant of Jewish people in exile or was a proselyte, but he is an astute student of the sacred writings. As he reads this section of Isaiah he wonders whether the prophet is speaking of himself or someone else. He is not the first to ask these questions; he would not be the last.
For generations many Israelites sought to make sense of Isaiah’s prophecies about the Servant (Isaiah 42:1-9, 18-25, 49:1-13, 50:4-11, 52:13-53:12). Of all the “servant songs” the most vexing proved to be Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Isaiah has been speaking to the Israelites who experienced the exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40:1-51:23, ca. 605-539 BCE); having established that Jerusalem and Zion would be populated again (Isaiah 52:1-12), he again speaks of the Servant and what the Servant would do for Israel. The servant will be exalted and wise and yet marred in the sight of mankind; kings will be astonished at what He reveals (Isaiah 52:13-15). Isaiah wonders who will hear the message and see what God has revealed; the Servant grew up like a plant in dry ground and had no physical stature or appearance that would suggest anything great; He was despised, afflicted, and was not esteemed (Isaiah 53:1-3).
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows / yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions / he was bruised for our iniquities / the chastisement of our peace was upon him / and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray / we have turned every one to his own way / and YHWH hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth / as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away / and as for his generation, who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?
And they made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death / although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:4-9).
Isaiah set forth the Servant’s experiences in Isaiah 53:4-9. Isaiah speaks of the Servant, the “he,” and also “my people,” the ones for whom the Servant endures these experiences, most often spoken of as “we” (including the prophet himself?; Isaiah 53:4-9). The Servant was afflicted with suffering: the people considered him smitten by God, stricken, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). His suffering and affliction did not come from illness but at the hands of others, for he was abused, and led away to suffer on account of oppression and judgment (Isaiah 53:7, 9). The Servant was wounded (Hebrew meholel, primarily “killed,” but can mean “wounded,” perhaps denoting a mortal wound; cf. Ezekiel 26:15, 30:24), crushed, chastised, and whipped (Isaiah 53:5). The Servant endured this suffering without resistance, like a sheep remaining quiet before his sharers or a lamb led to the slaughter he does not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7) The Servant did not survive the experience; he was cut off from the land of the living, buried among the wicked and with the rich (Isaiah 53:8-9).
Why did the Servant have to endure such experiences? Isaiah speaks of the Servant’s ordeal throughout in terms of vicarious suffering, because he makes it clear that the Servant had done nothing wrong and did not deserve this treatment (Isaiah 53:9). The people have gone astray like sheep, with each having turned to his own way; they deserved to suffer affliction (Isaiah 53:6,8). Yet it is the Servant who carried the grief and sorrows of the people; his wounds, chastisement, stripes, and death were for their transgressions and iniquities (Isaiah 53:4-5, 8). The people receive healing and peace through the Servant’s suffering (Isaiah 53:5). Therefore the Servant suffers affliction and death so that the people do not; they deserved suffering and death, but the Servant experienced it on their behalf (Isaiah 53:4-9).
Yet who is this Servant? To what time or circumstance does Isaiah refer? The Ethiopian official is an astute student of the prophet, for his question gets to the heart of the interpretive difficulty for Jewish people of the Second Temple Period: to whom does the prophet refer—himself or someone else? Is he reflecting on a contemporary experience or will the situation he envisioned take place in the future?
While many have advanced the theory that the prophet himself is the Servant, and reflected upon the purposes of his suffering before it happened, such is highly unlikely. The apocryphal Martyrdom of Isaiah suggests that Isaiah was killed by Manasseh by being sawn in two; perhaps the Hebrew author alludes to Isaiah in Hebrews 11:37. But even if Isaiah were martyred there is no evidence to suggest that it was understood to be for the sins of the people; Isaiah’s audience in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, by common confession, are Israelites who would live long after his death anyway.
Some have advanced the theory that the Servant is Israel, the period of affliction and suffering as the Exile, and the Gentiles as “beneficiaries.” One could perhaps understand “the Servant” as really representing a nation; Israel certainly suffered during the exile. Nevertheless, in Isaiah 53:8-9, the Servant dies; Israel persevered and returned to its land after the exile. Furthermore, the continued prevalence of judgment oracles against the nations mitigates against the idea that Israel’s suffering would “atone” for the Gentiles (e.g. Zechariah 14:1-21). The Servant is not to be primarily understood in terms of Israel.
The Servant has been most often understood as a person who suffers for the people; “the people” is understood primarily in terms of Israel. The Greek translator of Isaiah in the Septuagint recognized the Servant would suffer for the sins of his people and emphasized it, translating “sins” for “grief” in Isaiah 53:4 and “the Lord gave him up for our sins” for “YHWH laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He, among many others in the Second Temple period, envisioned a man who would suffer affliction for the benefit of God’s people Israel.
So who would this Servant be? The Ethiopian official was about to find out. He had asked his question of a man named Philip, and we are told that from this Scripture Philip began proclaiming to the official about Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 8:26-35).
Before Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptist, through the Spirit, called Jesus the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). While the lamb is also a powerful element of the Passover, and Jesus is in many ways the “Passover lamb” (cf. John 13:1, 1 Corinthians 5:7), the Passover lamb was not sacrificed to atone for Israel, but to secure her liberation and election (Exodus 12:1-32). The Servant of Isaiah 53:4-9, on the other hand, would suffer and die for the sins of the people, and he is spoken of as a lamb led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:4). Thus Jesus of Nazareth was already being identified in terms of the Servant in Isaiah even before He had begun to work!
Jesus of Nazareth considered Himself the suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as well. He spoke of Himself as the Son of Man who must suffer all things foretold in Scripture (Mark 9:12, Luke 9:22); He understood that His life would be given as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Just before His betrayal Jesus made it known that He was overwhelmed with grief and sorrow (Mark 14:34; cf. Isaiah 53:4). When it was all over Jesus opened the minds of His followers to understand the Scriptures, and that included how the Christ would suffer and die (Luke 24:44-46). While Psalm 22 does speak of the suffering of God’s Chosen One, Jesus no doubt also has Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in mind.
Even Jesus’ opponents spoke of His role as the suffering Servant! In John 11:49-51, Caiaphas, a high priest, prophesied through the Spirit that it was more expedient for one man to die for the people than for the entire nation to die. John as the Evangelist went on to explain how Caiaphas was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation of Israel, but not only Israel, but for all God’s children scattered abroad (John 11:52-53). On what basis would such a prophecy make sense? Only in terms of the suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
The Evangelists, the authors of the Gospels, also clearly understood that Jesus was the suffering Servant of which Isaiah had spoken. Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 as (at least partly) fulfilled in Jesus’ ministry of healing, taking away disease and infirmity (Matthew 8:16-17). All four explicitly make mention of and highlight precisely how Jesus suffered as the Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 would suffer. Jesus endured grief and sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37-28, Mark 14:33, Luke 22:44; Isaiah 53:4). He was then led away to suffer the oppression of a sham trial (Matthew 26:57-66, Mark 14:53-64, Luke 22:66-71, John 18:19-24; Isaiah 53:8); during that trial, and his trials before Herod and Pilate, the Evangelists note how He did not open His mouth (Matthew 26:63, 27:12-14, Mark 14:61, 15:5, Luke 23:9, John 19:9; Isaiah 53:7). He was abused, mocked, and rejected by the soldiers of the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish people (Matthew 26:67-68, 27:27-31, 39-44, Mark 14:65-66, 15:16-20, 27-32, Luke 22:63-65, 23:11-12, 23:35-39, John 19:2-4; Isaiah 53:2-4). Roman soldiers scourged, or whipped, Jesus (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, John 19:1; Isaiah 53:5). The Romans crucified Jesus next to two insurrectionists (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:32-33; Isaiah 53:9). After His death Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man, in his new rock-cut tomb (Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38-41; Isaiah 53:9). In all the particulars, and in quite striking and compelling ways, Jesus of Nazareth demonstrably fulfilled all of what Isaiah had said about the suffering Servant.
Jesus had promised His Apostles that they would be His witnesses; they would soon proclaim the good news (i.e. Gospel) of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and lordship. As they preached the Gospel the Apostles made explicit connections between Jesus and the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. Peter spoke of Jesus as the Servant of God (Acts 3:13, 26), and that He had suffered just as God had foretold by the mouth of His prophets (Acts 3:18); the allusions to the Servant of God who would suffer for the people would not be lost on the Jewish people to whom Peter preached. As we have seen above Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian official (or eunuch) based on Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:26-40).
Peter would later write the following in his first letter to encourage his fellow Christians:
For what glory is it, if, when ye sin, and are buffeted for it, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye shall take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were going astray like sheep; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls (1 Peter 2:20-25).
Here Peter thoroughly enmeshes allusions and quotations of Isaiah 53:4-9 with the sufferings of Jesus: the Servant would suffer, be reviled, and bear our sins; Jesus accomplished these things. Peter identifies the Christians to whom he writes, some of whom may have been of physical Israel but many others certainly were not (cf. 1 Peter 2:8-10), as those who had been going astray like sheep, healed by the stripes suffered by the Servant (cf. Isaiah 53:5-6). Through Jesus’ fulfillment of all that Isaiah had said about the Servant, Peter is able to establish a robust theory of atonement: Jesus bore the sins of all people on the cross, allowing those who would trust in Him the opportunity to die to sin and live to righteousness, and find healing in Jesus.
Peter would not be the only Apostle or early Christian to ground his theology of atonement in Jesus’ vicarious suffering for others as the prophesied Servant in Isaiah. Throughout the Revelation given him John describes Jesus primarily as the Lamb that had been slain, and in whose blood the saints are cleansed (Revelation 5:6, 8, 12, 12:11, etc.). The Apostle Paul understood all people, both Jews and Gentiles, as having turned aside from God (Romans 3:9-12; cf. Isaiah 53:6); he speaks of Jesus as offering Himself as the propitiation for our sins through His blood (Romans 3:24-25); Jesus is said to have died for people while they were sinful, weak, and ungodly, demonstrating God’s great love (Romans 5:6-11). Paul, like Peter, understood that through Jesus’ death Christians die to sin so they can live to righteousness (Romans 6:1-23; cf. 1 Peter 2:20-25). Paul went so far as to say that God made Jesus sin who knew no sin so we could become God’s righteousness in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21); Jesus is thus seen as a sin offering, but strongly evoking the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:4-9 who knew no sin and in whose mouth no deceit was found yet who died for the sins of his people.
The Hebrew author devoted much of his treatise to the analysis of Jesus as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, ruler and priest, and how Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for sin (Hebrews 4:14-10:18). The Hebrew author grounded his understanding of Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek in Psalm 110:4 and based on Melchizedek’s example in Genesis 14:17-24, expected the new covenant on account of Jeremiah 31:31-34, compared Jesus’ sacrifice to the animal sacrifices found in Leviticus, and understood Jesus’ supremacy over animal sacrifices, in part, through Psalm 40:6-8. And yet on what basis would the Hebrew author ever be able to say that the blood of bulls and goats could not actually take away sin and look for a sinless human to offer Himself as the atonement for sin (cf. Hebrews 9:1-14, 10:4)? Jesus learned obedience in the things He suffered (Hebrews 2:18, 5:8); He did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). The expectation for a human being to suffer affliction and die, not for their own sin or wrongdoing, but for the sins of others, can only be found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12.
Ever since Christians have been struck by the power of the description of the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:4-9 and its fulfillment by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus died a miserable, wretched death; if He is the Son of God, and God is love, how could God allow Jesus to suffer so horrendously? Indeed, if there were another way to accomplish salvation that did not involve Jesus’ death on the cross, then God would be rightly denounced as a monster and the greatest child abuser for what He compelled Jesus to endure. Instead the Gospel proclaims that God actually demonstrates His love for us through Jesus’ death, for He proved willing to countenance the intense suffering of His Son so that humans could receive forgiveness of sins through His blood (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11, 8:31-39).
Yet why did Jesus have to endure it? Humans have sinned, and the penalty of sin is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). For God to remain just, the established penalty for sin must be paid; if it is not paid by those who sinned, it must be paid by someone who would suffer the penalty on their behalf. Such is why God established the sacrifice of animals for Israel: through it the Israelites would understand that life is in the blood, and for a guilty life to receive cleansing and atonement, an innocent life must pay that penalty of death, represented by the sacrifice of the animal and the shedding of its blood (Leviticus 4:1-7:36, 16:1-34, 17:11). Yet, in the divine economy, the blood of bulls and goats could not really atone for sin, since they did not offer themselves of their own free will, for they have no understanding so as to make free will decisions (Hebrews 10:4).
What could be done about this conundrum? Isaiah is given revelation about the Servant who had done no wrong and yet suffered and died; His suffering and death were understood to atone for the sins of the people (Isaiah 53:4-9). This Servant, and only this Servant, could really provide forgiveness of sins for the people, not only of Israel, but all mankind. Isaiah prophesied it; John recognized it in Jesus; Jesus claimed it for Himself; the Apostles proclaimed Jesus as the Servant; the Hebrew author made good theological sense of why it would happen so. Thus Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, lived a sinless life, and thus could suffer and die, paying the penalty of death for sin so that everyone who had sinned could be reconciled back to God the Father through His life manifest in His blood.
The Ethiopian official, having heard Philip preach Jesus on the basis of the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:7-8, immediately saw the connection and the fulfillment of what the prophet had spoken. He asked to be baptized into the Lord Jesus; having received it, he went away rejoicing (Acts 8:36-39). All people everywhere can share in the official’s reason for rejoicing, for Jesus of Nazareth is the Servant of whom Isaiah prophesied, the Lamb who took away the sins of the world, the One whose blood could atone for sin, for our iniquity fell on Him. May we ever praise and glorify God for the matchless demonstration of His love for us through Christ Jesus and serve Him in His Kingdom!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. The Anchor Bible: Isaiah 40-55. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2002.
North, Christopher R. The Second Isaiah. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1964.