The identity of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah has long been debated. An examination of the Servant Songs presents a range of elements that when interpreted on their own can produce contentious conclusions regarding the identity of the Servant. Resting upon an understanding of language conventions such as the use of pronouns can lead to an individualistic conclusion. Looking at the historical context of the prophet’s writing can point toward a contemporary servant figure such as Cyrus, whereas a contextual reinterpretation of the term messiah brings with it the notion of a future Servant figure. A collectivistic view examines Israel as the Servant. A synthetic approach satisfies many of the contentions. Whether or not Jesus is the future-figure of the Suffering Servant can be discussed by comparing the character profile and mission of the Servant to that of Jesus as evident in the New Testament.
The Old Testament prophets speak about the promise of a messiah and God’s coming Kingdom. Christians declare the messiah prophesied about is Jesus Christ and in doing so claim the prophetic books and indeed the whole of the Old Testament as Christian books. Many New Testament writers refer to the Old Testament prophecies when talking about Jesus. Some of the prophetic references that are used to depict Jesus include Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, and in Isaiah we find the title Servant of Yahweh. Generally, these titles are spoken of as messianic prophesies. Though Christians view Jesus Christ as the Messiah, a number of scholars make counter arguments over who the Servant of Yahweh refers to. In an attempt to address the statement ‘The Suffering Servant in Isaiah refers to Jesus Christ’, claims from Christian, Jewish and secular scholars will be discussed. After locating the phrase ‘Suffering Servant’ amongst the ‘Servant Songs’ the discussion will include brief summaries of post 18th century scholarly thought as to who the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 could be if it is not a messianic reference to Jesus Christ. Individualistic, collectivistic and synthetic arguments are explored as this paper progressively assesses the sense that many scholarly works seem to be less about discovering the true identity of the Suffering Servant and more about proving or disproving that it is Jesus Christ. By extracting a character profile of the Suffering Servant and interpreting the servant’s purpose as written by the Isaianic prophet, it becomes useful to compare the character and mission of Isaiah to that of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament.
2The Servant Songs
There are four Isaianic passages which, due to the commentary work of Duhm in 1892, are widely accepted as the ‘Servant Songs.’ The causal belief behind the selection of these songs is that all reveal a figure referred to as ‘the Servant of Yahweh.’ In the first song (42:1-4) the servant is the chosen one, given the Spirit to bring justice throughout the world. The servant addresses the world in the second song (49:1-6) and identifies himself as one who was called by God before he was born. In the third song (50:4-11) the servant conveys confidence in his sovereign God despite the physical persecution he receives. The fourth song (52:13-53:12) presents a Suffering Servant who, in the face of his innocence, was despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, punished and ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter,’ and yet, he bore the pain and suffering ‘for the sins of many’.
Mowinckel and others have postulated that Isaiah’s authorship and the original time when each passage of Isaiah was written is the key to interpreting the Servant Songs the identity of the Suffering Servant. More recent interpretations however, have focused on the context in which the songs are situated and how that may influence the prophet’s overall message....