Student Bible - Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Suffering Servant: Who is this mysterious figure?

Isaiah 52

Isaiah 52:13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Isaiah’s four songs about a “suffering servant” are among the richest and most closely studied passages in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–13; 50:4–9; 52:13—53:12). This chapter illustrates why the servant songs sparked fierce debates among the rabbis seeking to understand them. The first part stirs anticipation for a glorious time when God will restore the holy city and people will shout to Jerusalem, “Your God reigns!” It looks as if Israel will gain revenge on its enemies at last.

But the author goes on to explain how God will redeem Jerusalem by introducing the mysterious figure of the suffering servant, whose appearance is “disfigured beyond that of any human being” (Isaiah 52:14). Who is this suffering servant? And how will such a weakened person achieve a great victory, even bringing light to all nations?

Jewish scholars puzzled over these passages for centuries. Many considered them the most significant part of the entire Hebrew Scriptures, yet they could not agree on exactly what the prophet meant.

A Nation or a Person?

Sometimes the verses speak of the servant as the nation of Israel as a whole: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Isaiah 49:3). In other places, the servant seems to refer to a specific individual, a great leader who suffers terribly.

Isaiah presents the servant as the deliverer of all humankind. Yet it portrays him as more of a tragic figure than a hero: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).

An Answer From the New Testament

The idea of the suffering servant did not really catch on among the Jewish nation. They longed for a victorious Messiah, not a suffering one. The image of the suffering servant went underground, as it were, lying dormant for centuries.

In a very dramatic scene early in his ministry, Jesus quoted from one of the servant passages in Isaiah: “Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ ” (Luke 4:20–21).

At last, a link snapped into place for some, but not for all, of Jesus’ listeners. The Messiah had come at last—not as a conquering general, but as a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

Life Questions

If you had been a Jew in Jesus’ day, would you have been disappointed in the Messiah?

Why did Jesus choose to come as a suffering servant rather than as, perhaps, a triumphant army general?

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