3 Facts About Isaiah’s Suffering Servant
Isaiah 53 is central for understanding the identity of Jesus Christ; in part because NT writers frequently quote it to explain the cross. Evangelicals tend to read this passage as how “the suffering servant removes sinners’ guilt before God” or how people “need the servant to bear their guilt” (cf. ESV Study Bible, fn. on 52:13-53:12). But, reading all four servant passages in the broader historical-literary contexts reveals much more.
Honor-shame realities saturate the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah (cf. 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). Here are three honor-shame facts about the servant of the Lord.
1—The Servant’s purpose is God’s glory. God’s honor is ultimate purpose of the servant’s ministry, God’s motivation for choosing and empower the servant. The messiah’s justice-restoring salvation is a means to the end goal of God’s name being rightly honored. He is an instrument of God’s salvation to all nations.
- “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. (40:8)”
- And [the Lord] said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
2—The Servant endures shame. The servant bears unspeakable shame from others. Rejection and ridicule characterize the servant’s ministry.
- “…one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers.” (49:7)
- “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull my beard. I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” (50:6)
- “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (53:2b-3)
3—The Servant is divinely honored. Vindication from the sufferings and insults comes by way of divine elevation. The Servant is uniquely honored by God to an exalted position.
- “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.” (41:2)
- “I am honored in the eyes of the LORD.” (49:5c)
- “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves.” (49:7b)
- “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” (50:7)
- “Behold my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” (52:13).
The context of Israel and exile The presence of honor-shame themes in the Servant Songs should be expected. The context is God restoring Israel out of exile to Jerusalem. Isaiah depicts this historic moment of salvation with the language of “new creation” and “new exodus.” Yet again, God would rescue his people from shame and restore their honor. The servant songs are found a section of Scripture (Isa 40-66) saturated by honor and shame. To paint a picture of the larger socio-theological context of the Servant Songs, here are a few of the many verses:
All the makers of idols will be put to shame and disgraced; they will go off into disgrace together. But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation; you will never be put to shame or disgraced, to ages everlasting. (Isa 45:16-17, NIV)
Do not fear, for you will not be ashamed; do not be discouraged, for you will not suffer disgrace; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the disgrace of your widowhood you will remember no more. For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name. (Isa 54:4-5)
Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours. (Isa 61:7)
The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Isa 62:2-3)
Considering the bigger picture of God’s promises to redeem Israel from the shame of exile, one would expect God’s servant to likewise bear a similar fate to enact such a salvation. That is what we read in the servant passages (see above).
First, the infamous question—Who is the servant, Israel or Jesus? Without delving into the endless exegetical/religious/political debates surrounding this question, my answer is simply this—Yes, the servant is the messianic Son of David who represents the “new Israel.” The concept of “corporate solidarity” (i.e., the head represents the entire body), or “collectivism,” overcomes a contrived dichotomy at multiple levels.
Second, these Isaianic passages about the Suffering Servant should reframe our Christology. The common picture of Jesus as a sinless person who endured God’s wrath to forgive our sins is not entirely complete. Jesus Christ is the person who endured shame and yet was divinely honored for the purposes of God’s glory (Phil 2:4-10; Heb 1). While the death and resurrection is the climax of these prophetic passages, these aspects of the Suffering Servant were realized in the Messiah’s entire life. An “Honor Christology” reflects this significant biblical motif, and frames the portrait of Jesus in more digestible terms for Majority World contexts.
Third, these passages call us back to the biblical text with fresh eyes. Hopefully you’ll re-read the four Servant Songs (or the whole book of Isaiah!) noting its honor-shame dynamics.