The Song of the Suffering Servant as an Image of Christ – Isaiah 53

What follows is a paper I wrote for my Writings of Isaiah Class at BYU. We were required to discuss a portion of Isaiah that we found interesting, so I chose the Song of the Suffering Servant. We had to do a literary analysis and a doctrinal analysis.

Throughout his ministry, Isaiah often bore witness of the Messiah with powerful conviction. One such example of this conviction is evident in Isaiah 53, the fourth Servant Song: The Song of the Suffering Servant. This Song is a witness of the atoning sacrifice of the Savior, Jesus Christ as evident by the powerful use of poetry and imagery familiar to the House of Israel. Literary and doctrinal analyses of this section will lead the reader to understand the power of the poetry and learn the conviction of Isaiah that Jesus Christ suffered for the benefit of the world and in the end, the Atonement is the means for their salvation.

Literary Analysis

The fourth Servant Song is contained within the Deutero-Isaiah portion of Isaiah’s writings. This could imply that the authorship is not necessarily Isaiah, but considering the quotations of this chapter in the New Testament (consider John 12 in particular), it was most likely written by Isaiah (Lett). Since this chapter is contained in the Deutero-Isaiah section, whether or not it was written by Isaiah himself, it is important to understand that it was probably written while Israel was in exile in Babylon. Each of the four servant songs were written to give hope to the people of Israel in this exile state, as evident by the powerful doctrines contained within each of the different songs. In the case of the Fourth Servant song, Israel is personified in an individual who then strives to serve them, being sinless and perfect. The fourth Servant Song gives hope to the imperfect, the suffering, and the lost people of Israel that they’ll be saved if they have faith in this Servant. Considering this audience is key to understanding how this song would impact those who read it.

As the fourth Servant Song, Isaiah 53 in its entirety is prose for its word choice and poetry for its form. Scholars include Isaiah 52:13-15 in the song, as it acts as an introduction to the song present in chapter 53 (Schipper). When those introductory verses are included, the entirety of the poem shows a significant amount of parallelism in the form of a chiasmus. Isaiah 52:13 and 53:12 both carry the theme that the servant was an “exalted and extolled” being that was “numbered with the transgressors.” Verses 3 and 7 carry the theme that he was “despised and rejected of men” and was “oppressed” and “afflicted” with the people “[hiding their] … faces from him” and the Servant “[opening] not his mouth.” This draws the reader to consider the differences between the Servant and the people of Israel, enhancing the impact of how the Messiah will save them from sin.

This form of parallelism and structure then highlights the most important line in the entire song: verse 5. Without the chiasmus surrounding this verse, it is safe to say that it would not have the same profound effect or importance. The song begins by pointing out how “despised” the Servant is and then concludes with much of the same imagery and language but with a shift to how the servant is willing to save them regardless of their actions. This shift at the central verse draws the attention of the reader and puts significant emphasis on “with his stripes we are healed.” The atonement is one of the key themes of the entire song and is made more powerful with this emphasis given by the structure of the poetry.

A lot of imagery is used throughout the song, and it gives more meaning to the theme. Some of the most profound imagery is that of the lamb. This imagery of the lamb is specifically portrayed through the use of metaphor and simile. Verse 6 states “all we like sheep have gone astray” and verse 7 poses “he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb.” Each instance of the lamb imagery draws from ideas in Leviticus about the sacrificial lamb, of which followers of the Law of Moses should be familiar (Schipper). The primary audience of this song is the House of Israel, which should be intimately familiar with the Law of Moses. If this imagery of the lamb throughout the entire song is indeed connected to the Law of Moses, then it becomes even clearer to the audience that Isaiah is talking of the Messiah, the ultimate and perfect sacrifice that fulfills the Law.

As for other poetic features, the song uses dramatic language to place guilt on the people of Israel. Phrases such as “he made his grave with the wicked” (verse 9) and “he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (verse 7) places the blame on those that do not accept him. This gives a dramatic feeling for the purpose of conveying the importance of the doctrine. Ambiguity of word choice is also evident in the original Hebrew of the document and can lead to a few different interpretations. Verse 8 demonstrates this with the King James translation stating, “He was taken from prison and from judgment,” yet the Septuagint translation states “In his humiliation, his judgement was taken away.” These, and other translations, make it ambiguous and difficult to determine the true meaning (Chalke). Was he delivered from these things or was he taken away because of these things? This type of ambiguity makes it clear that the reader needs to interpret for himself the meaning of the poem through the Spirit and careful study of other scripture.

Doctrinal Analysis

The greatest piece of doctrine found in this song is that of the Atonement of the Savior. In the previous section, the Literary Analysis section showed that the Servant of the Song is the Messiah. In Christianity, the Messiah is the Savior, Jesus Christ. The entirety of this passage is focused specifically on the atoning mission of the Savior. Phrases such as “for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (verse 8) and “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted” (verse 7) draw to mind the final moments of the Savior’s life. In particular, it should remind a reader familiar with the New Testament of the Atoning sacrifice of the Savior.

Some may argue that the passage isn’t symbolic of the Savior (Janowski). Yet, the text from this passage of Isaiah is so symbolic of the Savior, that John, in the New Testament, quotes it in John 12. In fact, it is evident that John specifically chose some of these passages as “[Isaiah] 53:1 occupied a place in the cultural encyclopedia of those reading and hearing John” (Lett). Those reading John’s testimony of Christ would know that John was interpreting the Savior as the Servant. “To put it another way, John intends for the reader to discern metaleptically the ‘resonant interplay of signications’ between the entire Servant Song and the mounting rejection of Jesus” (Lett). John, one of the special witnesses of the Savior, saw that “mounting rejection” and used it to show that Isaiah was speaking of Christ in the passage. It is important, then to read the passage with imagery of the Savior in mind.

Knowing that the passage is about the Savior, it is easy to learn more about Him through these words of Isaiah. As mentioned in the Literary Analysis section, the “with his stripes we are healed” phrase in verse 5 is the most important piece of doctrine in the entire passage. The gift of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is reliant on faith in Christ and repentance, but it is imperative to remember that no one can be healed without Him. He is the one that performed the perfect sacrifice “as a lamb to the slaughter” (verse 7) even though “all we like sheep have gone astray” (verse 6). Followers of Christ should learn to not despise and reject Him, and learn to accept His great atoning sacrifice. He was perfect, and it is through his sacrifice that we are healed.

Conclusion

Though the Atonement of the Savior is a difficult topic to study, these words of Isaiah help shed some light on what the Savior did for the world. Isaiah paints a beautiful, though tragic, image of the Savior through the Song of the Suffering Servant to all of those in the House of Israel. The atoning sacrifice of the Savior is the focus of this writing and Isaiah teaches careful readers of the power of this sacrifice. Isaiah affirms that though “[the Savior] was numbered with the transgressors” (verse 12), “[was] despised and rejected of men” (verse 3), and “brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (verse 7), it is “with his stripes [that] we are healed” (verse 5). The Savior sacrificed Himself for the good of all men.

References

Chalke, Steve, et al. The atonement debate: papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement. Zondervan, 2008.

Janowski, Bernd, et al. The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian sources. William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Lett, Jonathan. “The Divine Identity of Jesus as the Reason for Israel’s Unbelief in John 12:36–43.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 135, no. 1, 2016, pp. 159–173., doi:10.1353/jbl.2016.0004.

Schipper, Jeremy. “Interpreting the Lamb Imagery in Isaiah 53.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 132, no. 2, 2013, pp. 315–325., doi:10.1353/jbl.2013.0022.

Cover image from Book of Mormon Central.

David Van Komen Written by:

I am just an abnormal normal guy that loves the Internet, physics, and lots of other great and wonderful things. Though I don't seem it, I enjoy writing about whatever interests me.

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