The Suffering Servant (Part 1)

by David Padfield

The 53rd chapter of Isaiah has often been called the "Suffering Servant" passage. It is the fourth in a series of passages dealing with "the Servant" or "the Servant of the Lord." The gospel writers identify Jesus of Nazareth as fulfilling these verses. From these passages in Isaiah we are given a view of His life and character in the days of His flesh, His tenderness as well as His power, and the great deliverance He would bring, not only for the Jews, but for all the world.

Isaiah began his ministry about 740 B.C. and ended in 680 B.C. God, through Isaiah, gives us a clear picture of what was to happen, not only in the immediate future for Israel, but how He was going to bring the Messiah, His "Suffering Servant," into the world and allow Him to be sacrificed for the sins of the world.

Chapters 40 through 66 of Isaiah discuss the Babylonian captivity and the reasons for it, and finally the restoration from it. However, there was going to be a greater deliverance than that from Babylon, and there would be a greater "messiah" than Cyrus, the king of Persia.

Isaiah 53 is one of the best-loved passages of Scripture. It was this very passage that caused the Ethiopian to inquire of Philip, "of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?" (Acts 8:34). Philip began at Isaiah 53 and "preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35).

We need to point out that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is introduced earlier in the book of Isaiah, and is mentioned in four separate sections of the book. In this article, we will examine all four sections of Isaiah which deal with the Suffering Servant.

The Servant Has A Mission

"Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands shall wait for His law." (Isa. 42:1-4).

Who is it that God upholds, chooses, delights in and gives His Spirit to? A servant! God rejects tyrants and overlords and chooses a servant! When the Pharisees took counsel against Jesus in order to destroy him, the multitudes followed our Lord and He healed them. Matthew directly applied these verses to Christ, saying the healings were performed "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet" (Matt. 12:15-21).

We notice in Isaiah 42:1 that the Servant was to be chosen by God—not just anyone could perform this task. God would delight in this One. We recall the words of the Father at the baptism of Jesus, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). Again, at the transfiguration of Jesus, we hear the Father say, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" (Matt. 17:5).

One demonstration of the delight the Father would have in Him was the coming of the Holy Spirit upon His Servant. This was fulfilled at the baptism of our Lord. John the Baptist bore witness of this and said, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God." (John 1:32-34). Jesus Himself said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).

The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42:2 stands in sharp contrast with worldly conquerors—His demeanor is different from that of ordinary men. Jesus did not enter into violent disputes with false teachers, but rather used the power of words and reason. Even His enemies had to admit, "No man ever spoke like this Man" (John 7:46).

Christ would have pity on their low estate (Isa. 42:3). Matthew tells us that when Jesus "saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). The Servant of the Lord would not crush men, nor quench their spirit. He would not bind burdens hard to bear (Matt. 23:4; Acts 15:5, 10). In view of these words we have to recall the kind and tender invitation of our Savior to sinners (Matt. 11:28-30).

Isaiah 42:4 also contains an implied difficulty, i.e., the possibility of the Suffering Servant growing weak (Isa. 42:4).

His mission is to the "coastlands" or the "islands" (Isa. 42:4), "and in His name Gentiles will trust" (Matt. 12:21). The kingdom of Cyrus was limited to one section of the earth. The Law of Moses was for the nation of Israel alone. The Suffering Servant would be of benefit to all mankind.

The Servant Has Great Difficulties In His Mission

"Listen, O coastlands, to Me, and take heed, you peoples from afar! The Lord has called Me from the womb; from the matrix of My mother He has made mention of My name. And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He has hidden Me, and made Me a polished shaft; in His quiver He has hidden Me. And He said to me, 'You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' Then I said, 'I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain; yet surely my just reward is with the Lord, and my work with my God.' And now the Lord says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel is gathered to Him (for I shall be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and My God shall be My strength), Indeed 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 give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.' Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One, to Him whom man despises, to Him whom the nation abhors, to the Servant of rulers: 'Kings shall see and arise, Princes also shall worship, because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel; and He has chosen You.'" (Isa. 49:1-7).

The Servant is the speaker in these verses, but He did not take this duty upon Himself—the Lord called Him into this service. Again, the Gentiles are invited to listen (Isa. 49:1). The Lord knew His Servant from His mother's womb—this rules out the possibility of the Servant being the nation of Israel.

The Servant was to "restore the preserved ones of Israel" (Isa. 49:6). Saul of Tarsus who was among this righteous remnant of Israel (Rom. 9:1-8; 11:1-5).

In fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, Christ became a light to the Gentiles. "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned" (Matt. 4:15-16; cf. Isa. 9:1-2). After Paul had been rejected by the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia, he said, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:46).

Jesus told the Syro-Phoenician woman that He had been sent to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt. 15:22-24). When the disciples were sent out on the Limited Commission they were told not to go to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5-6). However, in the Great Commission the apostles were sent to all nations of the earth (Matt. 28:19).

The Servant Will Suffer

"The Lord God has given Me The tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary. He awakens Me morning by morning, He awakens My ear to hear as the learned. The Lord God has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away. I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help Me; therefore I will not be disgraced; therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed. He is near who justifies Me; Who will contend with Me? Let us stand together. Who is My adversary? Let him come near Me. Surely the Lord God will help Me; who is he who will condemn Me? Indeed they will all grow old like a garment; the moth will eat them up." (Isa. 50:4-9).

The specific prophecies of Isaiah 50:4-9 were fulfilled by Christ when Pilate "delivered Him to be crucified" (Matt. 27:26).

Servants of God have always had difficulty fulfilling their mission. The Suffering Servant would not flee from His work as Jonah did (Isa. 50:5; Jonah 1:3). We hear our Lord tell those in the first century, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt. 5:10-12).

The striking language of Isaiah 50:6 calls to mind the suffering of our Lord before His journey to the cross, where His back was given to the smiters and where wicked men plucked the beard from off His face (Matt. 26:67-68; 27:26-31).

No reason is given in this section of Scripture for His suffering—we are left to wonder why He had to suffer. Others may desert Him as He goes deeper into His work (Isa. 50:8), but the One who vindicates Him is always near (cf. John 8:29; 16:32). The ultimate vindication of Christ would come through the resurrection from the grave. Paul wrote concerning "Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3-4).

For further study