By Elena Mirus, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Isaiah 53:4-11 is part of the Fourth Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah. It describes a Servant of God who is held in low esteem because he is thought to be stricken and afflicted by God (v. 4). But in reality, he bears the iniquity of the people (v. 6) while he himself is innocent. By bearing their iniquities the Servant causes many to be accounted righteous (v. 11). Isaiah 53 is a famous passage within both Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions and requires careful study to fully appreciate the meaning of the passage and the references it contains. The identity of the Suffering Servant is a highly debated topic in scholarly research. Does the description of the Suffering Servant refer to Israel as a whole? To Isaiah himself? To the Messiah? Isaiah 53 also makes revolutionary contributions to the theological topic of vicarious atonement. By examining scholarly research and Christian Tradition, this exegetical paper will strive to shed light on the content of Isaiah 53.
II. Historical Analysis
There are two concepts from Jewish culture and religion that need to be understood to comprehend the content of the passage. The first is the belief in the direct and invariable correlation between sin and suffering. This belief is referenced in the second half of verse 4, “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4 RSVCE). Why did the people consider the Servant to be smitten by God? The traditional Jewish understanding of suffering was that suffering was always God’s punishment for sins. “The person who suffered…was disclosed as a sinner” (McKenzie 1968, 133). This was not the view of the harsh few. In fact, “for the ancient world, this attitude was the orthodox, correct, indeed the devout, one” (Westermann 1969, 262).
This belief is demonstrated in the Old Testament in the book of Job. After Job is struck with various afflictions, Job’s friends come to him. “Witnessing Job’s sufferings, they conclude that he must have sinned, and…they keep insisting with increasing vehemence that Job should confess his hidden iniquity and admit that God was just in judging him and punishing him in this way” (Bergsma, Pitre 2018, 542). It is interesting to note that Job’s suffering was not at all the result of sin, but rather a test of his righteousness. However, even in the face of Job’s claim of innocence, his friends and even his wife continue to assume that he has committed a grave sin.
In the time of the New Testament accounts, the belief that suffering was always a result of sin continued to prevail in Jewish culture. This can be seen clearly in the story of the healing of the man born blind in John 9. The story begins with the disciples asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). The disciples believe that blindness, the suffering of the man, had to be a result of sin. Because the man was blind from birth, they consider that his blindness might have been a curse on his parents, but nevertheless, they believe that it was the direct result of sin. As in Job, Jesus’ reply shows that this man is also innocent, disproving again the belief in the direct and invariable correlation between sin and suffering.
As is indicated in Isaiah 53:4, the Servant endures terrible sufferings, the result of which is that the people believe that he is a terrible sinner upon whom God had laid a curse. But the writer of Isaiah 53 reveals that this is not the case. The claim of Isaiah 53 is not, however, that the suffering of the Servant is not the result of sin, but rather that the suffering of the Servant is a result of the sins of the people, which he is bearing for their sake. This brings us into the second concept that needs to be understood: the idea of vicarious atonement.
The concept of vicarious atonement is found primarily in the Jewish celebration of the Day of Atonement, the rituals for which are prescribed in Leviticus 16. The Day of Atonement “was the definitive ritual that both cleansed and reconsecrated (made holy) the priests, the people, and the sanctuary” (Bergsma, Pitre 2018, 215). On this day, various animals were offered as sacrifices to atone for the sins of the Israelites. One animal, a goat, was sent out into the wilderness to die, bearing the sins of the Israelites.
“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21-22)
Isaiah 53 bears many similarities to Leviticus 16. For example, verse 5 says “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities,” and verse 6 declares, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5,6). It seems that Isaiah 53 is describing a ritual of atonement, but in a totally new way. “Certainly, substitution in various forms had [been] obtained both and Israel and the world about her and before her…But the things that was new and revolutionary for the present speakers was the fact that in this case suffering which gave power to be a substitute was found residing in a quite ordinary…person whose suffering, disfiguring as it was, had brought him into contempt and abhorrence” (Westermann 1969, 263). Vicarious atonement through animals was not a new concept for the Israelites, but the idea of vicarious atonement through the suffering of a man was revolutionary. “The presentation of the prophet differs from the older view only in its admission that the righteous may suffer. If they do, then the unrighteous members of their group may be delivered from suffering because the righteous had sustained it. This was a revolutionary view, for in traditional wisdom suffering was inflicted only upon those who deserved it, the guilty” (McKenzie 1968, 134).
Although it is a debated topic in scholarly literature, the reference to a lamb in verse 7, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7), is often considered to aid in the interpretation of Isaiah 53 as an atonement ritual. “Contemporary scholars still routinely explain the lamb imagery in Isaiah 53 by referring to the ritual sacrifices in the Pentateuch, especially in Leviticus” (Schipper 2013, 318). Scholars claim that the lamb refers to the goat ritual in Leviticus 16. Tryggve N.D. Mettinger ties the lamb imagery in verse 7 to Leviticus 16 by comparing “the way that the goat was set free in the wilderness to Isa 53:8, which states that the servant ‘was cut off from the land of the living’” (Schipper 2013, 318).
In Isaiah 53, the prophet takes the traditional concepts of suffering as a result of sin and vicarious atonement and applies them in a new way. While the Servant suffers as a result of sin, it is not a result of his own sin, as would be supposed, but rather the sin of the people. This introduces a new kind of vicarious atonement, that of a man suffering for other men. His righteous suffering heals the iniquities of the people.
III. Grammatical Analysis
In exegesis, it is always important to understand the issues surrounding the grammar in the passage. This is especially true of Isaiah 53. There are many words in this passage that convey a greater meaning than the English reader would suppose. The first word that needs to be considered is in verse 4, which says, “yet we esteemed him stricken” (Isaiah 53:4). The word “stricken” had connections to leprosy. “The word stricken has often been taken to mean that the Servant was a leper; cf. Lev. 13.22,32, where ‘plague’ (of leprosy) is literally ‘a striking’, and in II Kings 15.5, where Azariah is “smitten” with leprosy” (North 1956, 135). In Talmud Sanhedrin 98, the Messiah is called naguua which means “a ‘leper’ and one who ‘is stricken with sickness’” (Santala 1976, 179). The word naguua is taken from Isaiah 53:4. This identification of “stricken” with “leper” has caused dissention about whether Jesus could be the Servant Messiah described in Isaiah 53, since he did not experience the curse of leprosy. Although this is an interpretation that goes back to Jewish rabbis and early Christian Fathers, the use of the word “stricken” does not have to be taken literally in this verse. The purpose of this passage is to give “the impression that the Servant was subjected to every conceivable pain and indignity” (North 1956, 135). Leprosy was a disease that has associated with a high level of indignity and pain. A person with leprosy was considered unclean and was a social outcast. Thus, using the word “stricken” invokes not only the literal idea of leprosy, but the associated ideas of indignity and great suffering.
The words in verse 7 continue this idea that the Servant was subjected to every type of pain. But in verse 7, instead of the sickness motifs of verse 4, the theme found is that of “violent action on the part of other people” (Westermann 1969, 264). The word “oppressed” is a translation of the word nagas which “implies the use of physical violence” (Westermann 1969, 264). The Servant will not only endure sickness but will endure physical violence as well. This is supported by the phrase “he opened not his mouth” which is “only meaningful in the context of violent action on the part of other people.…The sentiment is found in an individual lament, the context being the same as here – Ps. 38:14, ‘But I am…like a dumb man who does not open his mouth’; where it is preceded by ‘those who seek my life lay snares’” (Westermann 1969, 264). It is interesting to note that Psalm 38 also has strong sickness themes, “my wounds grow foul and fester” (Psalm 38:5), and the theme of suffering as a result of sin which was discussed in the historical section “there is no health in my bones because of my sin” (Psalm 38:3).
Verse 8 is difficult to translate because the Hebrew is obscure. This is especially true of the first line. The RSVCE translates the first line as, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away,” but there are two other possible translations. “He was taken from prison and from judgement” (Isaiah 53:8 AV) and “‘Without hinderance and without judgement he was taken’, i.e. no one made any attempt to secure for him a fair trial” (North 1956, 136). In his commentary on Isaiah 40-55, North suggests that a modification of the King James Version (AV) may be best: “‘After arrest and sentence he was taken (off)’, to execution” (North 1956, 136). The general consensus seems to be that the line refers to the fact that the Servant will be “executed after a judicial sentence” (North 1956, 136).
The next line in verse 8 also poses some difficulties. The RSVCE translates it as, “and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living?” The King James Version translates it as “and who shall declare his generation?” (Isaiah 53:8 AV). North claims that “AV is here to be preferred to RV…both on grammatical grounds and because in Hebrew poetry lines are ‘end stopped’, i.e. the sense does not run on from one line into another, as it quite commonly does in English” (North 1956, 136). But the issue with both translations is that “the word rendered ‘generation’ could mean ‘condition’ or ‘fortune,’” which would render the line, “‘Who gave a thought to his fate?” (North 1956, 136). The meaning of the line seems to be that the Servant is forgotten and neglected in his death.
Verse 10 includes a phrase of immense importance for the understanding of the passage, “when he makes himself an offering for sin” (RSVCE Isaiah 53:10 emphasis added). “Offering for sin” could also be translated “offering for guilt.” In fact, this phrase is a single word in Hebrew.
Isaiah states that the Servant would be an ‘offering for guilt’ (אשם). This is a unique category of offering within Israel’s sacrificial system…An אשם was a multifaceted remedy for breaches of the covenant that were committed specifically against Yahweh. The אשם was a remedy for a מעל, or for a violation of the sanctity of anything that Yahweh designated as holy…A מעל was a significant breach of the covenant that required exile from the community, or from that which was holy. It was a sin specifically against God (Fesko 2021, 6).
By using this word (אשם), Isaiah is claiming that the people that the Servant is suffering for have committed a sin against God (מעל). They have broken the covenant in a significant way and deserve to be exiled from all that is holy. Their מעל needs to be repaired. “But in this case, the nation’s מעל is repaired, not by a vicarious animal substitute (e.g., Lev 5:15–17), but by the Servant” (Fesko 2021, 7). As discussed in the historical section, the Servant is described in the context of vicarious atonement. He suffers in place of the people and reconciles them with God.
The words used in Isaiah 53 serve to illustrate the true meaning of the passage, which is not clear at first glance. The original Hebrew words portray the Servant as one who will suffer the worst of every kind of indignity and pain for the sake of a people who have separated themselves from God.
IV. Rhetorical Analysis
In order to interpret a passage correctly, the passage must be categorized into the correct genre. Isaiah 53 falls into two genres: poem and prophetic oracle. First, it is a poem, not prose, which means that it is written in poetic language and style. The result is that in the process of interpretation, not everything can or should be taken literally. A poem is meant to convey not hard facts, but symbols and ideas. The difficulty is that Hebrew poetry can be hard to spot. “…little is known about the exact nature of biblical Hebrew poetry. Unlike its classical and modern counterparts, ancient Hebrew poetry has no distinctive scheme of accentuation, meter, or rhythm to differentiate it from prose” (Hill, Walton 2000, n.p.). This results in it being confused with prose and incorrectly interpreted. Poetry is a common genre in the Old Testament writings. “Hebrew scholars contend that almost one-third of the OT is written in an identified form of poetic expression.…As inspired by the Holy Spirit, poetry was the communication genre employed in many prophetic books” (Bushy 2021, n.p.).
The other genre to consider for Isaiah 53 is prophetic oracle. Prophetic oracles were usually oral proclamations given to the people of Israel by a prophetic messenger. These oral proclamations were later written down in order to preserve them. This serves to explain why many prophetic oracles were given in poetic form, as Hebrew poetry was written to be read aloud. Prophetic oracles were regarded as messages from God, the prophet being God’s mouthpiece. Because they were messages from God who is outside of time, prophetic oracles often spoke of future events. They also usually had several horizons of fulfillment, which means that they may be fulfilled in some way earlier on and then be fulfilled more fully later. This could explain debate on who the Servant of Isaiah 53 is. It is possible that all of the options – the prophet himself, Israel, the Messiah – are all correct in some way and are simply different horizons of fulfillment.
- The Servant suffers for our guilt (vv. 4-6)
- He bore our griefs and sorrows (v. 4a)
- We esteemed him stricken (v. 4b)
- He was wounded and bruised for our sins (v. 5a)
- It was his wounds that healed us (v. 5b)
- We went astray and the iniquity was laid on him (v. 6)
- He bore our griefs and sorrows (v. 4a)
- The way the Servant suffers (vv. 7-9)
- He suffers submissively (v. 7)
- He was tried and killed (v. 8)
- Although he was innocent he was buried with the guilty (v. 9)
- The Outcome of the Servant’s Suffering (vv. 10-11)
- It was the Lord’s will that the Servant suffers (v. 10a)
- The Servant will live and see his offspring (v. 10b)
- He shall see the results of his suffering and be satisfied (v. 11a)
- His knowledge will make many to be accounted righteous (v. 11b)
- He shall bear their iniquities (v. 11c)
In Hebrew poetry, the structure of the poem holds great significance. “Rather than a rhythm of sound or words, Hebrew poetry frequently uses a rhythm of thought – or meticulously structured thought patterns” (Bushy 2021, n.p.). The center of the poem is often the most important part – what the poem is ultimately about. Isaiah 53:4-11 is part of the 4th Servant Song in Isaiah. In the context of the whole poem, verses 4-6 are roughly in the center. The main subject of this poem is the vicarious suffering of the Servant described in verses 4-6, all the other parts of the poem are there to support that theme.
C. Literary Devices
Isaiah 53 makes abundant use of allusion, especially in reference to vicarious atonement. The imagery in the poem refers the hearer again and again to the sacrificial laws in Leviticus, especially the rituals for the Day of Atonement, as discussed in the historical section. Another literary device that is used is repetition. Repetition can be used simply to emphasize a concept. For example, the words “transgressions” and “iniquity” are repeated throughout the poem because they are important concepts within the theme of the poem. Repetition is also used in Hebrew poetry to draw parallels between lines. In verse 7, the phrase “he opened not his mouth” is found in both the second and fifth lines. This draws attention, not only to the submissiveness of the Servant (repetition to emphasize a concept), but also to the parallel meanings within the verse. The oppression and affliction of the Servant in the first line of verse 7 is likened to a lamb being led to slaughter and a sheep before shearers. Parallelism can also come from repetition of ideas/concepts instead of repetition of particular phrases or words. This type of parallelism is used in verses 4-5.
“Surely he took up our infirmities [a]
and carried our sorrows [b]
yet we considered him stricken by God [c]
smitten by him [c’], and afflicted [c’’]
But he was pierced for our transgressions, [d]
he was crushed for our iniquities; [d’]
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, [b’]
and by his wounds we are healed. [a’]” (Ling 2007, n.p.).
Verses 4-5 are part of the center of the poem, the most important part. The use of parallel repetition draws attention to this part of the poem and highlights the suffering of vicarious atonement.
V. Canonical Analysis
- The Immediate Context
Isaiah 53:4-11 is part of the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). The beginning of the Servant Song, 52:13-15, is the announcement from the mouth of God that the Servant shall be exalted and lifted up and this shall shock many because of his marred appearance. Isaiah 53:1-9 describes the Servant and what he endures. Verses 1-3 depict the Servant as a man with no beauty that was despised and rejected by men. Verses 4-9 detail the suffering of the Servant and why he suffered – “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). Isaiah 53:10-12 speaks of the exaltation of the Servant and explains that it was the Lord’s will that the Servant should suffer. Isaiah 53:4-11, which is being examined here, is the center of the Servant Song which details the suffering of the Servant and the reason for it.
In regard to the immediate context, it is interesting to note that the passages directly proceeding and following the Fourth Servant Song have bridal themes. Isaiah 52 speaks of Zion as a bride, daughter of Zion, who is released, comforted, and purified. Isaiah 54 speaks of a barren one who will no longer be put to shame for her Maker will be her husband and will have compassion on her. It cannot be a coincidence that this Servant Song is placed between these two passages, which speak of renewal and comfort for the bride, Zion, and the establishment of a covenant of peace. This Servant Song, therefore, relates how the renewal of the bride will take place – through the affliction of the Suffering Servant who bears the iniquities of the sinners, having compassion on them.
- The Section of the Book
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is considered to be “the fourth in a series of independent ‘servant-songs’, telling the story of a special individual figure known as the “Servant of the Lord” (Eved Yahweh) …The other three servant-songs are 42:1-4, 49:1-6 and 50:3-9” (Sawyer 1986, 143). Some scholars believe that there are additional Servant Songs within the book of Isaiah, but these are the four that are universally recognized. These passages paint a picture of a Servant of God, chosen by God from the womb, upon whom God will pour out his Spirit. This Servant will patiently endure great suffering, especially at the hands of others, but this suffering is willed by God and will be the salvation of the poor and sinners.
Isaiah 53, as well as the other three Servant Songs, is part of the second half of the book of Isaiah, sometimes referred to as the Book of Comfort. “In the second half of the book (Is 40-66), oracles of hope and consolation predominate. Since antiquity, this portion of Isaiah seems to have been interpreted as one long description of the glorious age to come – the age when God will do ‘new things’ for Zion (Is 42:9; 43:19; 48:6) – and of ‘what is to come hereafter’ (Is 41:23)” (Bergsma, Pitre 2018, 735). The Servant Songs are often in the past or present tense, but they are positioned in the part of the book that talks about the future, the age to come. Thus, they can be interpreted to be referring to a person and events that take place in the future and are part of the “new things” that God is going to do. “These are the ‘new things’ that God is declaring through the prophet (Is 48:6): a new exodus from death to life, in which God’s children not only will be set free from captivity in Babylon but will journey in hope to a restored city of ‘Zion’, who…will be in fact ‘comforted’ and renewed like the garden of ‘Eden’” (Bergsma, Pitre 2018, 736). The Servant Songs are woven into these themes in Isaiah 40-66. This indicates that the Servant is the “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) who will bring to pass these “new things” that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
- The Context of the Whole Book
Isaiah 53 serves as an answer to the problem of the sinfulness of Judah that is condemned throughout the book of Isaiah. The first oracle in the book, which introduces the themes of the book, speaks of a “sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity” (Isaiah 1:4). The Servant of Isaiah 53 is the one who “was bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5) and who has “borne our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4). In the same oracle, Isaiah relates the words of God, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?…I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams…I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs” (Isaiah 1:11). The Servant of Isaiah 53 was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7) and he made “himself an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10). The sacrifices of a sinful people who do not turn from their iniquities will no longer suffice. A new kind of sacrifice is necessary, the self-sacrifice of the Servant of the Lord.
- The Context of the Whole Canon
As discussed in previous sections, Isaiah 53 has to be seen in the light of the sacrificial laws of Leviticus in order to understand that the Servant is an offering of vicarious atonement. But it is the New Testament that must be considered when trying to understand the identity of the Servant. The Christian tradition holds that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is Jesus Christ, the Messiah. This is made explicit in the first letter of Peter.
He [Christ] committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:22-24).
Peter portrays Christ as the innocent sufferer who bore the sins of the people on the cross. The parallels with Isaiah 53 are clear and the last sentence is almost a direct quote of Isaiah 53:5.
|He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed
|There was no deceit in his mouth (9) He opened not his mouth (7) He had done no violence (9) The will of the Lord shall prosper (10) Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (4-6) My servant [will] make many to be accounted righteous (11) With his stripes we are healed (5)
VI. Liturgical Analysis
- Good Friday
The use of a passage in the Lectionary can shed light upon how the passage is viewed within the tradition of the Church. The Suffering Servant Song is read in its entirety during the Good Friday service, which is the time in the Church specially set aside for the contemplation and remembrance of the Passion and death of Jesus Christ. Combined with the other readings, the interpretation of Isaiah 53 within the Church can be clearly seen.
The psalm on Good Friday is passages from Psalm 31. This psalm has close associations with the Passion of Christ, particularly because Christ quotes it on the cross when he says, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). Psalm 31 also has similar themes to Isaiah 53. Both speak of a man who is considered a “dread” by the people (Psalm 31:11) and who suffers greatly, “I am like a dish that is broken” (Psalm 31:12). Isaiah 53 tells of how the Servant is saved by the Lord, and in Psalm 31 is found the faithful plea, “deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors” (Psalm 31:15).
The second reading on Good Friday is Heb 4:14-16; 5:7-9, which portrays Jesus as the great high priest. This is important for the analysis of Isaiah 53, in which the Suffering Servant is described as a sacrifice, the subject of vicarious atonement. Hebrews shows that Christ was both the sacrifice and the high priest, a theme which is indeed present in Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53 says that the Servant “makes himself an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10). Normally, a sacrifice does not make itself, the priest makes the sacrifice, but Isaiah 53 is clear that the sacrifice is the Suffering Servant. Within the Jewish tradition, it is hard to reconcile the two concepts. Hebrews gives the answer, Jesus, who is both priest and perfect sacrifice.
“We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14). This illuminates the claims in Isaiah 53 that, “it was the will of the Lord to bruise him” and “he makes himself and offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10). Jesus is God, the Lord, and so what the Lord wills is Jesus’ will and vice versa. Thus, it being God’s will for the Servant to suffer does not cancel out the free offering of the Servant of himself as a sin offering. The two are in fact one movement of the heart of God. But combining Hebrews with Isaiah also shows the work of the Trinity. Hebrews says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). So, although Jesus, the Suffering Servant, is God, he is also Son. He obeys the will of the Father perfectly, because that will is one with his own. But in his incarnate state, “in the days of his flesh,” he also submitted his human will to the Father (Hebrews 5:7).
Hebrews goes on to say, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was human and experienced pain and temptation and yet was sinless, just like the Servant of Isaiah 53, who experienced every kind of pain and maltreatment but was sinless and did not respond with deceit or violence. Because of his sinless sacrifice, the Servant of Isaiah 53 becomes a source of righteousness for others – “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11). Hebrews describes Jesus in the same way – “Being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).
All of these themes culminate in the Gospel reading for Good Friday, the Passion narrative according to John (John 18:1-19:42), which describes in beautiful detail the suffering and death of Jesus, prophesied by Isaiah, and reflected on in Hebrews.
- For the Sick
In addition to being read in its entirety on Good Friday, excerpts from Isaiah 53 (Isaiah 53:1-5, 10-11) are used as one of the options for the first reading for masses for the sick. This gives insight into the pastoral applications and interpretations of the text. Isaiah 53 paints a picture of the compassion of God. Seeing the brokenness and suffering of humanity, caused by sin, God had compassion, and lowered himself to become man so that he could suffer with us. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried out sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). In his great mercy, the Father sent the Son to be born of a woman and to bear humanity’s sorrows and “with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
In his great providence, God did not only send the Son to heal humanity’s sins but also to relieve the burden of the effects of sin. This is usually manifested in hope for the coming restoration (Heaven) made possible by Christ’s “offering for sin” that will “make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:10,11). But the Lord does not limit himself to this. In many cases he sends his healing power upon man’s physical body here on earth. There are many different options for readings to pair with Isaiah for a mass for the sick, but the option from the Gospel of Matthew directly quotes Isaiah 53. It is the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17). After Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, many were brought to him, and he cast out demons and healed the sick. Then Matthew says, “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Matthew 8:17). Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4, showing that from the time of the Gospel writers, Isaiah 53 was considered to be a prophecy not only of Jesus’ ministry of healing sins but also his ministry of healing physical infirmities.
VII. Magisterial Analysis
The writings of the Magisterium support and enrich the preceding analysis. In one of his sermons on the Passion, Pope St. Leo the Great used Isaiah 53 to argue for the reality of the humanity of Jesus.
“Therefore in assuming true and entire manhood He took the true sensations of the body and the true feelings of the mind…. It was in our humility that He was despised, with our grief that He was saddened, with our pain that He was racked on the cross. For His compassion underwent the sufferings of our mortality with the purpose of healing them… And this Isaiah has most plainly prophesied, saying, “He carries our sins and is pained for us, and we thought Him to be in pain and in stripes and in vexation. But He was wounded for our sins, and was stricken for our offences, and with His bruises we are healed” (Sermon LVIII, Leo the Great).
Leo refers to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 to show that Christ was human and suffered as a human. He took on the sufferings that come with mortality and even continued to the point of bearing our iniquities on the cross. Leo also says, “For the saving of all through the Cross of Christ was the common will and the common plan of the Father and the Son” (Sermon LVIII, Leo the Great). This supports what was discussed in the canonical analysis – the will of the Lord and the will of the Suffering Servant are one “common will.”
Pope St. John Paul the Great, in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, provides an analysis of Isaiah 53 in light of the Passion of Christ. John Paul claims that the text of Isaiah 53 contains a description of “the stages of Christ’s passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the cross, the crucifixion and the agony” (John Paul II 1984, §17). But what especially strikes John Paul is how Isaiah conveys the depth of Christ’s sacrifice. “Behold, he, though innocent, takes upon himself the sufferings of all people, because he takes upon himself the sins of all. ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’: All human sin in its breadth and depth becomes the true cause of the Redeemer’s suffering” (John Paul II 1984, §17). Jesus takes on every human evil. He burdens himself with every human grief and sorrow. No ordinary man could do this, “he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself” (John Paul II 1984, §17). This is why the Church interprets the Suffering Servant to be Jesus. He is the only one who can totally fulfill the prophecy because he alone is the God-man. “Here we touch upon the duality of nature of a single personal subject of redemptive suffering. He who by his passion and death on the cross brings about the redemption is the only-begotten Son whom God ‘gave.’ And at the same time this Son who is consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man” (John Paul II 1984, §17). The only way that the claims made about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 can be taken literally is if the Servant is the Incarnate God, who is both human and divine.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI takes one step further by relating the content of Isaiah 53 to the Eucharist during a Corpus Christi sermon. “‘This is my Blood’. Here the reference to the sacrificial language of Israel is clear. Jesus presents himself as the true and definitive sacrifice, in which was fulfilled the expiation of sins which, in the Old Testament rites, was never fully completed…. Jesus Christ says that his Blood ‘is poured out for many’ with a comprehensible reference to the songs of the Servant of God that are found in the Book of Isaiah” (Benedict XVI 2009, n.p.). This confirms the previous analysis of the sacrificial language in Isaiah 53, which refers to the animal sacrificial rituals of the past but puts them in a new light, with a man being the victim. With the coming of the New Covenant, there is a new form of sacrifice. “And it was during the Last Supper that he made this new Covenant with his disciples and humanity, confirming it not with animal sacrifices as had happened in the past, but indeed with his own Blood” (Benedict XVI 2009, n.p.). The sacrifice of the New Covenant is not the unblemished animals of old, but the Lamb of God and it is his blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Because he gives the gift of himself, “Jesus is at the same time victim and priest: a victim worthy of God because he was unblemished, and a High Priest who offers himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and intercedes for the whole of humanity” (Benedict XVI 2009, n.p.).
The Catechism also makes repeated reference to Isaiah 53. Speaking of God’s plan for salvation, the Catechism says, “The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of ‘the righteous one, my Servant’ as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin. Citing a confession of faith that he himself had ‘received’, St. Paul professes that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.’ In particular Jesus’ redemptive death fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant” (CCC §601). Isaiah 53 is fulfilled in the universal redemption won by Christ on the cross.
The Catechism also uses Isaiah 53 in the section on Anointing of the Sick. “Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’ But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the ‘sin of the world’” (CCC §1505). God became fully man and took the infirmities of man upon himself. He experienced every kind of suffering. He did heal physically, but these were signs of the healing of sin that his suffering, as the Suffering Servant, would win for humanity.
- The Literal Sense
Isaiah 53:4-11 is an oracle within the section of the book of Isaiah known as the Book of Comfort. It is a description of a figure who is a servant of God. This Servant experiences every kind of pain and affliction. Jewish tradition held that suffering was a direct consequence of sin Because the Servant endures grievous suffering, the people consider him to be smitten by God as a result of his sin. But the oracle claims that the Servant is righteous and had done no violence. The oracle does not deny the assumption that the Servant is suffering as a result of sin, but rather that the sin the Servant is suffering for is not his own sin but the sin of the people, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). This introduces the idea of vicarious atonement.
Allusions to Leviticus 16 indicate that the writer of the oracle had the rituals for the Day of Atonement in mind when writing the passage. The Servant is referred to as a sin offering (Isaiah 53:10), a term which refers to the offering made to repair a breach of covenant. What is radically new is the idea that a man can be the subject of vicarious atonement instead of an animal. But the Servant is not only referred to as the sacrifice itself, but also the one who offers the sacrifice, which would make him the priest.
Because it was the will of the Lord that the Servant should suffer, the Lord saves him and causes him to prosper, but not until after “he was cut off out of the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8). The self-sacrifice of the Servant causes many to be accounted righteous because he bore their iniquities as a sacrifice of vicarious atonement.
- The Allegorical Sense
The teaching of the Catholic Church is that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of the Messiah, Christ Jesus, and of his passion and resurrection. This indicates that the cross is the sacrificial altar where Jesus offered himself, making him both victim and high priest. Through this new ritual of vicarious atonement, Jesus offers his own blood as the expiation for sins. He bears all of the iniquities of every person from every place and time. It was the will of the Lord that the Servant suffer and die. God sent his Son into the world to redeem mankind. The Son, of one will with the Father, made himself an “offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10). In this way he makes many to be accounted righteous, not only by removing the barrier of sin that stands between man and God but also by providing the grace needed to live a righteous life.
- The Moral Sense
Referring to Isaiah 53, Saint Pope John Paul the Great says that the innocent and voluntary suffering of Christ sheds light on the question of suffering. “Christ gives the answer to the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering not only by his teaching, that is, by the good news, but most of all by his own suffering, which is integrated with this teaching of the good news in an organic and indissoluble way. And this is the final, definitive word of this teaching: ‘the word of the cross,’ as St. Paul one day will say” (John Paul II, 1984, para. 18). God became man and suffered and died for each human person. As a result of original sin, evil often prevails in this world and innocent people suffer and die. Evil seemed to prevail over Christ. He is the most innocent man that ever lived on this earth, he is God, but he suffered and died at the hands of the people. But in dying voluntarily for the sins of humanity, by bearing their iniquities, and then rising again on the third day, Christ prevailed over evil once and for all. Evil still exists and people still suffer, but they do not suffer alone, they suffer together with Christ, and they can look forward to their final victory in him. “With his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
The lesson that lies in Isaiah 53 is that suffering is redemptive. Christ’s suffering is redemptive but so is the suffering of each and every person if it is voluntarily accepted. Christians are called to follow the example of Christ. The example of Christ leads to the cross, to the offering of self in love. By uniting their suffering to Christ’s, each Christian can give their offering of self. By not opening their mouth when they are oppressed and afflicted, each Christian can give their offering of self. By joyfully accepting unavoidable suffering, each Christian can give their offering of self. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
- The Anagogical Sense
“By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11). Before the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah, Jesus, entrance into Heaven was impossible. Man lived under a death curse of his own making. Unable to pay the price for his sins, man could not be cleansed in order to enter into the Heavenly kingdom. Through his sacrifice of vicarious atonement, Jesus, fully man and fully God, paid the price for sins and bore the iniquity of all. By removing the barrier of sin, Christ made way for the Holy Spirit to cleanse each man and to dwell in him, readying him for the kingdom of Heaven.
Benedict XVI. 2009. Homily: Holy Mass and Eucharistic Procession to the Basilica of Saint
Mary Major on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Retrieved from
Bergsma, John and Pitre, Brant. 2018. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament.
San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Bushy, Randy. 2021. The poetry of Isaiah 53. Bethel Gospel Chapel.
<https://bethelnorthbay.com/2021/01/23/january-23-the-poetry-of-isaiah-53/> 23 Jan.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 1997. 2nd ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Fesko, J.V. 2021. Imputed righteousness: the Apostle Paul and Isaiah 53. The Master’s
Seminary Journal 1:5-9.
Hill, Andrew E. and Walton, John H. 2000. A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids:
John Paul II. 1984. Salvifici Doloris. Retrieved from http://www.clerus.org/bibliacleruso
Leo the Great. Sermon LVII (on the Passion, VII). Retrieved from http://www.clerus.org/bibl
Ling, Matthew. 2007. Parallelism in Isaiah 53:4-5. Pilgrim Heart.
<https://matthewling.typepad.com/pilgrim_heart/2007/06/parallelism-in-.html> 25 June
McKenzie, John L. 1968. Second Isaiah. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday.
North, C.R. 1956. Isaiah 40-55: The Suffering Servant of God. Torch Bible Paperbacks. Great
Britain: SCM Press.
Santala, Risto. 1976. Suffering messiah and Isaiah 53 in the light of rabbinic literature.
Sawyer, John F. A. 1986. Isaiah Volume 2. The Daily Study Bible (Old Testament).
Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Schipper, Jeremy. 2013. Interpreting the lamb imagery in Isaiah 53. Journal of Biblical
Westermann, Claus. 1969. Isaiah 40-66. The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: The