A Closer Look at Isaiah 52:13- 53: 12- Who is the Servant of the Lord ? Part Three

This is Part Three of our series called A Closer Look at Isaiah 52:13- 53: 12- Who is the Servant of the Lord ?

Let’s continue:

Within Hasidic Judaism, there are leaders who are called a “tzaddik” which is Hebrew for “righteous men.” A tzaddik is sometimes viewed as a Rebbe which means master or teacher. By the way, in the book of Acts, it was during Stephen’s famous speech that he refers to Jesus as a tzaddik : “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers.” (Acts 7:52)

Such an example of a present day tzaddik was seen in Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1951-1994), the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. Some of the followers of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson think He is the Messiah and that He will come back from the dead (Schneerson died in 1994). Some in the Lubavitcher movement have even asserted that Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that the Messiah will rise from the dead. Of course, this has led to great controversy. Some in the Orthodox community have complained that the attempt to portray Schneerson as one who will rise from the dead and return a second time has too much in common with the Christian claim about Jesus. The irony is that in his book called Torat Hamenachem, Schneerson said the following about Isaiah 52:13:

The words “Behold My Servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high,” are referring to King Messiah (Avdi Meshicha)…The scripture mentions have attributes of the Messiah: prosper (yaskil), exalted (yarum), lifted up (nisa), raised up (gava), greatly (me’od) because the Messiah is from above and he is greater than the three fathers (Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Moses, and Adam-Kadmon…Moses is the first and the last redeemer,but king Messiah is greater.[1]

Isa 52:14-15: “Just as many were astonished at you, My people, So His appearance was marred more than any man And His form more than the sons of men. Thus He will sprinkle many nations, Kings will shut their mouths on account of Him; For what had not been told them they will see, And what they had not heard they will understand.”

In Isaiah 53, there are ten references to the Servant’s Suffering-“marred” (52:14), ‘despised” (53:3), “rejected” (53:3); “sorrows” (53:3, 4) “grief” (53:3,10), “stricken” (53:4,8), “afflicted” (53:4), “wounded” (53:5), “bruised” (53:5, 10), “oppressed” (53:7).

Isa 53:1: The speaker here could be Isaiah prophet who is the representative of the sinful nation Israel. Or, it can be a faithful remnant who are repentant sinners. “Our message,” means “the message we have heard” or “the report which we deliver” or “the report which was delivered to us.” The report is most naturally taken as the announcement that has just been made in 52:13-15.The recipients disbelieved the message about the true nature and purpose of the Servant’s sufferings. “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed.

”The Servant is associated with the “arm of God” is frequently a reference to God’s power to save (cf. 51:9; 52:10).

Some interpreters have said the speaker in Isa. 53:1 is the Gentile nations who are speaking. Hence, it could be Israel who is atoning for sins of the nations? Rashi (1040-1105), who was a medieval French rabbi and who is one of Israel’s most revered Jewish interpreters, Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra ( 1093-1168), and Rabbi David Kimhi (1160–1235), also known by the Hebrew acronym as the “Radak” was a medieval rabbi, and biblical commentator all interpreted Isa 52:13—53:12 as about Israel. But were they correct?

First, the first person plural in the book of Isaiah shows that whenever the first person plural is utilized (e.g., “we,” “us,” “our,” it always refers to Israel or Judah (Isa. 1:9;9:10;16:6;22:13;24:16;25:9;26:1;8,13,17-18; 28;15;33;2;42:24;59:9-12;64:3,5-6,8-9).[2]

Therefore, Let’s go ahead and substitute the first person pronouns with “Israel” and see how it looks:

When we [Israel] see Him [the Servant], there is no beauty that we [Israel] should desire Him [the Servant] (Isa. 53:2)

And we [Israel] hid, as it were, our faces from Him [the Servant]….and we [Israel ] did not esteem Him [the Servant]. “ (Isa. 53:3)

Surely He [the Servant] has borne our [Israel] griefs and carries our [Israel] sorrows; yet we [Israel] esteemed Him [the Servant] stricken” (Isa. 53:4).

But He [the Servant] was wounded for our [Israel] iniquities……the chastisement for Our [Israel] peace was upon him [the Servant] and by His [the Servant] striped we [Israel] are healed. – Isaiah 53:5:

All we [Israel] like sheep have gone astray….and the Lord has laid on Him [the Servant] the iniquity of us [Israel] all”– Isaiah 53:6

For the transgressions of My people [Israel] He [the Servant] was stricken.” – Isaiah 53:8

Second, some assert since it is the Gentile Kings who are the speakers this must mean Israel is the Servant. After all, it says in Isa. 52:15 that “Kings will shut their mouths because of him [i.e.,the servant of the Lord]. This would also contradict the relationship between the Gentile nations and Israel. As Michael Brown says:

According to Jeremiah 30:11, God would completely destroy the nations among whom he scattered among his people. While he promised to discipline his people-hence scattering among these nations –he would eventually judge those nations for their sins against Israel. So,God’s people would suffer for their own sins (in keeping with the Torah promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience), often at the hands of their enemies, but the Lord would destroy those enemies. This is the opposite of what Isaiah 53 states: the Servant was guiltless, suffering for the sins of his guilty people, who are then healed by his suffering. How then can the Gentile leaders-leaders who are promised judgement, not blessing, for inflicting pain on the Jewish people- be pictured as the speakers in this chapter? If they were the speakers they should have said, “We inflicted great suffering on the people of Israel, who were guilty of great sin against God, but we went too ar in our punishments, and now Israel’s God will utterly destroy us.” [3]

Furthermore, as Brown points out, first person singular is only used by God: my servant (52:13), my righteous servant (53:11), therefore, I will…(53:12). [4] The same holds true for my people on 53:8. God himself is speaking about his servant suffering for his people Israel, rather than kings speaking about their people individually. And the onlookers in the passage always express themselves in the first person plural: our message (53:1); to attract us; …that we should desire him (53:2); we esteemed him not (53:3); our infirmities…our sorrows…we consider him (53:4); our transgressions..our iniquities…brought us peace…we are healed (53:5); we all…each one of us…the iniquity of us all..(53:6) and the we see no more “we, us, our.” [6]Hence, whether it be Israel speaking or Gentile kings, they can’t be the ones speaking after verse 6 which would mean that it would be God or the prophet Isaiah speaking after that. It is now that we must look at another Servant Song text:

Listen to Me, O islands, And pay attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called Me from the womb;From the body of My mother He named Me. 2 He has made My mouth like a sharp sword, In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me; And He has also made Me a select arrow, He has hidden Me in His quiver. He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.” 4 But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity; Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord, And My reward with My God.” And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him (For I am honored in the sight of the Lord, And My God is My strength), He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One, To the despised One, To the One abhorred by the nation, To the Servant of rulers, “Kings will see and arise, Princes will also bow down, Because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.” Thus says the Lord, “In a favorable time I have answered You, And in a day of salvation I have helped You; And I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, To restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages; Saying to those who are bound, ‘Go forth,’ To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’ Along the roads they will feed, and their pasture will be on all bare heights. “They will not hunger or thirst, nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For He who has compassion on them will lead them And will guide them to springs of water. “I will make all My mountains a road, And My highways will be raised up. “Behold, these will come from afar; And lo, these will come from the north and from the west, And these from the land of Sinim.” Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people.”-Isa. 49:1-13

In verse 3 of this text, the identity of the servant is Israel. This seems to refer to the exiled nation ( 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20). However, in verses 5-6, the Servant is distinct from Israel in that he has been commissioned to reconcile Israel to God.

Hence, he must be distinct from Israel. In verse 7, the Servant is “abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers.” Some have argued that verse 7 switches back to Israel as a nation here. But the good news is that the identity of Suffering Servant becomes clearer in Isa. 49:9-13. The Servant becomes a vehicle for a “second exodus” of the nation of Israel (42:7; 49:9-13; 49: 14-50:3; 50:10-52:12; 54:1-17).

Stay Tuned for Part Four Tomorrow!


[1] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Torat Hamenachem (Hebrew)- Hitvadhut. ttp://www.hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_15906_300.pdf(accessed June 17,2012); cited in Itzhak Shapira, The Return of the Kosher Pig: The Divine Messiah in Jewish Thought (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Publishers, 2013), 98. Note: This is Shapira’s translation.

[2] Jacques Doukham, One The Way to Emmaus: Five Major Messiainc Prophecies Explained (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2012), 114.

[3] Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 62-64.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “A Closer Look at Isaiah 52:13- 53: 12- Who is the Servant of the Lord ? Part Three

  1. salemmanofthecloth May 8, 2015 / 1:52 am

    I work with Chabad Jews daily from Brooklyn and have learned to appreciate the Rebbe Schneerson very much. Thank you for citing his fairly unique position about Messiah which is probably the reason Chabad Jews in particular are more open to the world at large.

    • chab123 May 8, 2015 / 1:54 pm

      Fantastic. I am glad this series has helped!

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