Does the Servant Suffer Vicariously in Isaiah 52:13-53:12?

Prior to my current work on deception and the Jacob cycle, I focused much of my work on the prophets. One passage which I worked on in a number of contexts and through a number of interpretive lenses (historical, poetic, literary/rhetorical, among others) was the last of the so-called Servant Songs in Isaiah, 52:13-53:12 more specifically. As a brief aside, I am not taken away with the designation “servant song” first advanced by Bernhard Duhm around the time of the turn of the twentieth century. They have resulted in unncessary and silly debates about the identity of the servant. Let me state this clearly. The servant is remnant Israel. The text clearly states this in 41:8 and again in 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3, 5, 6. I see no evidence that a change in identity occurs leading up to 52:13-53:12. A change in identity (or better, an expansion of that original identity) does occur, though, I have argued (and will hope to publish soon) in 54:17 and after, where one finds only the plural “servants.” That, however, is another post for another time.

First, it will be helpful for me to offer my translation of the passage:

52:13 Behold, my servant will prosper.  He will be exalted and will be lifted up and will be very high.
52:14 Just as many were appalled at him, so disfigured beyond humanity was his appearance, and his form beyond that of humankind.
52:15 Thus he will sprinkle many nations.  Because of him kings will shut their mouths, for what had not been recounted to them, they see, and what they had not heard, they will contemplate.
53:1 Who has believed our report?  Upon whom has the arm of YHWH been revealed?
53:2 For he grew up like a young plant before us, and like a root from dry land.  He had no form and no ornament so we would look at him,  and no appearance so we should desire him.
53:3 Having been despised and lacking of men, a man of pains, having known sickness.  Like one hiding his face from us, he was despised, and we di dnot think of him.
53:4 Surely he, he has borne our sicknesses, and he has carried our pains, and we, we accounted him to have been stricken, having been smitten of God and bowed down.
53:5 But he, he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, punishment of our wholeness was on him, and in his stripes it is healed to us.
53:6 We all like sheep have wandered, each one to his [own] way has turned, and YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
53:7 He was oppressed, and he, he was bowed down.  And he did not open his mouth.  Like a lamb he was led to the slaughter, and like an ewe [that] before the ones shearing her is silent.  And he did not open his mouth.
53:8 He was taken from restraint and from judgment, and who will consider his generation, for he was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of his people he was stricken.
53:9 And he was given his grave with the guilty ones, and with the rich in his death [even though] he had done no violence, and no deceit was in his mouth.
53:10 And YHWH was delighted to crush him.  He made [him] sick. If his life will be set [as] a trespass offering he will see offspring, and he will make long his days.  And the delight of YHWH in his hand will prosper.
53:11 From the labor of his soul he will see, he will be satisfied in his knowledge.  The righteous one, my servant, will cause the many to be righteous, and he will bear their iniquity.
53:12 Therefore I will divide [a portion] for him among the many, and with the strong he will divide the spoil, because he laid bare his soul to death, and he was counted with the transgressors, and he, he had borne the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

To be certain, the question over vicarious suffering in this passage turns most often on the interpretation and reappropriation of this text by the early church in reference to the life and death of Jesus.  It does appear to me, though, that even without that interpretation one can arrive at a view that the servant suffers vicariously.  Here is some evidence:

52:15 – the Hebrew yazzeh, rendered in most translations as “startle,” occurs in several places in Leviticus (6:20; 16:14) in the context of a(n atoning) sacrifice.  It also occurs outside Leviticus in the context of hallowing or making sacred.  The LXX renders it as thaumasontai (“afraid”), but this could just as well be a similar struggle and question as we are asking today.  The suggested emendation (if I am remembering correctly) of the Hebrew to mean “startled” derives from an Arabic cognate meaning just that.  I would advance a caution, however, against an easy equation between cognate and meaning from one language to another.  If pressed, I would easily make a text-critical argument for the originality of “sprpinkle,” based largely upon the fact that MT makes sense with it and the root and form is attested elsewhere in a context that makes sense. 

Throughout the passage (see my translation again) there are constant mentions that the servant is bearing iniquity, suffering for, etc.  He is the one upon whom YHWH has bared YHWH’s arm (53:1), a statement likely relating to punishment; he “carries our pains” (53:4)  and is “pierced for our transgressions . . . . “(53:5) and is the one bearing “the iniquity of us all” (53:6).  “He was stricken,” the text reads, “for the transgressions of his people” (53:8)  and may serve as an offering (53:10) and “will make many righteous” (53:11, presuambly through his suffering).

Every time I read this text I cannot help but see vicarious suffering, be it past or future event.  The language is too overt.  I simply do not know how one can maintain the servant is not suffering vicariously (or, a socio-historical reading, how remnant Israel is not suffering for all Israel).  See especially on this point Isa 49:5 – “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him . . . . “

So what do you think?  Vicarious suffering, or not?  And why?


13 thoughts on “Does the Servant Suffer Vicariously in Isaiah 52:13-53:12?

  1. Sean LeRoy says:

    I think it’s vicarious all the way, and not just that passage though it is perhaps the most famous, but all throughout the OT there is woven into Israel’s narrative the notion that The Messiah would suffer for/in place of (his) people. It’s perhaps the key theme of the OT, IMO.
    You pointed out many good reasons why this is so in the post, but I’d add one thing – the issue for me isn’t one so much of “interpretation” (as the “liberals” would use term it, leaving open the door for competing interpretation(s) or relative ones) as it is “application”. The difference is subtle and more than semantics, for me, since Jesus himself said the OT was about him; therefore, the Apostolic apologetic was not one of “quick let’s find these random scattered passage that sound like they refer to Jesus and interpret them as so”, but more like seeing the whole narrative cohering in him.

  2. anummabrooke says:

    John, you’ve probably seen this resource before, but if not: you’d probably enjoy Tryggve Mettinger’s and Samuel Nyström’s *A Farewell to the Servant Songs*. It really puts the nail in the coffin on the “servant songs,” and really names the anti-Judaism that has animated the hypothesis that the songs are not original to 2 Isaiah.

  3. Michael says:

    Good thoughts, John. I’m with you, both on remnant Israel as the servant and that she suffers vicariously for Israel. Not sure about the timing.

    BTW – I really am going to read your article soon. Trying to make time. I mentioned it in a forum for an online class, and it caused a classmate all kinds of angst! 🙂

  4. John Anderson says:

    Mike: Thanks for your reply. I’m not sure timing is of much consequence. If pressed, I’d date the final shaping of this material to the postexilic/Persian period.

    On my article, I am curious about this forum and your mention. The topic itself may be a bit hairy when others hear it, but I’d like to think when folk read it they are at least a bit less troubled (though should remain, as Brueggemann says, “unsettled”).

    Brooke: Indeed, I am familiar with Mettinger’s volume. It is a very fine, thin book that does exactly what you describe, and does it well. I had thought about mentioning it in the post, but apparently forgot. Thank you for mentioning it.

    Sean: I appreciate your response. I, however, disagree that this is the messiah being spoken about here. At least from the perspective of ancient Israel. That is a later Christian understanding of this text, which is fine and legitimate in its own terms as well. If anyone, though, in Isaiah should be called “messiah,” it is the Persian king, Cyrus (see Isaiah 45:1).

  5. anummabrooke says:

    a text-critical argument for the originality of “sprpinkle,” based largely upon the fact that MT makes sense with it and the root and form is attested elsewhere in a context that makes sense.

    Without getting into the case for “sprinkle” or “startle,” I’m going to press you on this: I don’t think that the datum “the MT makes sense and the form is elsewhere attested” amounts to a textual-critical argument. A transmission error is *at least* as likely to create a sensible text as an insensible one. For a really textual-critical argument, you’d have to demonstrate that one “narrative of transmission error” is more/less plausible than another.

  6. John Anderson says:


    Fair enough. Let me say this: depending on whose version of what constitutes textual criticism you are reading, the datum that “MT is not senseless” is indeed a criteria. That said, reading Tov’s seminal monograph on the topic has disabused me of the view that MT should be given a priori preference. I also emerged from reading Tov with a bit of an unclear sense of how he envisages the task and purpose of textual criticism. Early on he says its purpose is to recognize the diversity of the textual witnesses, and does a fine job highlighting this through about half the volume; only towards the end does he transition and begin to talk of arriving at an Urtext, which myself and others in class found a bit puzzling. Tov also has raised some important questions and cautions about traditional text-critical criteria with which I trust you are acquainted. Either way, the task of TC has been muddied a bit for me, but I do think for some a preference for MT if it makes fine sense is adequate. I don’t recall at present what the Qumran Isaiah Scroll has here (and I’m a bit pressed for time); if it is indeed ‘yzh’ then I think that supports the originality of “sprinkle” from a manuscript perspective.

    I do, however, agree with you that a translation issue is possible, evidenced by the Greek “surprised.” But as I said, it seems the desire to translate “yazzeh” as “startle” derives from an Arabic cognate meaning “spring, leap.” I just don’t see the point in going there if MT makes sense and the form exists elsewhere in a similar context.

    • John Anderson says:

      Ok, I just peeked at the relevant page from the Great Isaiah Scroll at Qumran (see image HERE, the third line). It is a bit hard to make out but looks like “yzh” to me. (Unfortunately, the translation offered at this site, is “startle”).

  7. brianfulthorp says:

    I agree it is a reference to Israel but I can agree with the Gospel writers and the Early Church who could not but help see the work of Christ on the cross (vicarious atonment) in this passage.

  8. Sean LeRoy says:

    I beg to differ…by the time Isaiah rolled around (no matter how you date it) I believe the cumulative, organic teaching of the Bible is that the Messiah would suffer (in addition to doing a whole lotta other things!); this is what the prophets wrote about and, more to the point, at least some during the time of Isaiah believed it.

  9. John Anderson says:


    I disagree. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “cumulative, organic teaching of the Bible.” If you are referring to a canonical approach, I don’t see how that informs the historical perspective much at all.

    I would also challenge the assumption that there is a single messianic concept. For instance, at Qumran we see evidence of two messiahs. Perhaps my buddy Mike Whitenton, a messianic EXPERT, can weigh in.

  10. Sean LeRoy says:

    That’s cool; I meant by cumulative and organic that the OT built upon itself especially under the support of certain core teachings (of which the Isaianic passage is surely a mature flowering), and in so doing nurtured the faith of the OT saint. Didn’t Peter himself say as much in his 2nd epistle – that the message and intent of the Prophets (i.e. composers of the OT) was the sufferings and glory of the Messiah?

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