This begs the question: who is the suffering servant? Is the servant Jesus, as the Christians purport, or is it somebody else? Do we have any textual or contextual analysis that can be done in order to shed some light on who this servant is? If there is not, then a Christian interpretation is just as good as the Jewish one—both unsubstantiated. Fortunately, we don’t have to take that path since we have ample evidence to give us the answer to this question.
Before going into greater textual analysis, we need to know where in Isaiah we are. At this point, we are in the midst of the “Messages of Consolation," which tells how the people Israel will be restored to its previous status of prominence and will ultimately be vindicated as G-d’s people. The fourth [of four] Suffering Servant passages, i.e. the one in question, actually starts at Isaiah 52:13, not at the beginning of Isaiah 53 because the Tanach initially did not have the modern-day chapter divisions.
Now that we know where in the story we are, we can begin. At 52:13, Isaiah says, “Behold, My servant shall prosper.” Who is the servant? Good question. Are we able to use the text to figure out who the servant is? Fortunately, yes. This is the part that lacks ambiguity. In previous Suffering Servant songs, the servant is already identified as the people Israel (Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 44:21, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3). Just to reiterate this very, very important point: Tanach does not refer to the suffering servant as Jesus, much less the Messiah. The Suffering Servant is unquestionably the people Israel personified!
In case, for whatever strange reason, the explicit and unambiguous statement that the Suffering Servant as the people Israel is insufficient, let’s dive a bit further into the text:
- The narrator of this Suffering Servant passage is the gentile nations and their kings, who are speaking through Isaiah’s prophecies. We can confirm this with Isaiah 53:1 that states “who would have believed what we have heard?”
- Isaiah 53:3 states that the servant would be “despised and isolated from men.” Hatred of the Jew and living in ghettos are predominant motifs of Jewish history. The same cannot be said of Jesus, since he was supposedly a “man loved by all (Luke 4:14-15),” and followed by the multitudes (Matthew 4:25).
- If there were ever an axe for a Christians to grind in this passage, it would be Isaiah 53:5, where Christendom translates it is “but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.” With that translation, it sounds a lot like Jesus. But let’s look at what the actual Hebrew says:
וְהוּא מְחלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ, מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲונתֵינוּ
- Isaiah 53:9 states “and with the rich in his deaths.” Jesus only had one death. The people Israel, on the other hand, have had many. The fact that the word for “deaths,” מתיו, is in the plural reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a collective entity.
- Isaiah 53:10 says that “he [the servant] shall see his seed.” The Hebrew word for “seed,” which is זֶרַע, always refers to physical descendants. Seeing how Jesus never had children, this verse cannot be referring to Jesus.
- Isaiah 53:10 also says that “he shall prolong his days.” These words cannot be applied to a divine, infinite being who is the “uncaused cause” whose existence, by definition of being infinite, is eternal. This is yet another facet of the text that cannot be attributed to Jesus.