The Suffering Servant
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Good Friday.
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9;
The Passion according to John.
[The Good Friday readings in Biblical Words – the Lectionary studies blog– include commentaries on the complete Passion narratives for the Gospels of Matthew (2020), Mark (2021), and Luke (2022). Those readings suggest the full force of Good Friday.
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Acts .
Background: the First Three Servant Songs.
Throughout the twentieth century scholars recognized that these four “Servant Songs” go together. The “servant” is presented differently here than in the rest of Isaiah 40-55.
The first three “Songs” are given here without commentary. It is good to read them as background to the Fourth Song to catch the atmosphere of the whole Servant presentation. The commentary on the Fourth Song given below has been used in the Lectionary studies for Good Friday for some years, and is only slightly revised here.
The First song: God speaks.
1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth [land];
and the coastlands wait for his teaching [torah].
5Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
(Isaiah 42:1-9, NRSV.)
[This passage was commented on in the Lectionary Studies Blog for
January 12, 2020.]
The Second song: the Servant speaks.
1Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
2He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
3And he said to me, “You are my servant,
4But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”
5And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
might be gathered to him, Israel
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength –
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:1-6, NRSV.)
[This passage was commented on in the Lectionary Studies Blog for
January 19, 2020.]
Third song: the Servant speaks.
4The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher [or “disciples”]
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens –
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
(Isaiah 50:4-9, NRSV.)
The Fourth Servant Song.
This song is the actual prophetic reading for Good Friday. It is one of the most important passages in the entire Jewish scriptures for Christians.
This is a complex text. It involves different scenes and speakers, and we need a map to follow the full drama. Here is a rather simplified one.
- The text makes clear that God is speaking in 52:13-15 and in at least 53:11b-12.
- It is equally clear that someone else is speaking – a plural, as in “we” and “for our…” – in 53:1-6 at least, and perhaps all the way to 53:11a.
Thus we have the following structure:
God introduces the Servant as newly exalted , 52:13-15.
A group proclaims that the Servant’s suffering was for their sins, 53:1-11a.
God announces the Servant’s reward for that suffering, 53:11b-12.
What the “we” passages describe is the astonishing career of the Servant (whom God introduced). A remarkable series of words and phrases describes the disfigurement, rejection, and general suffering of this figure.
Let’s begin by focusing on the God speeches together, without being distracted by the details of the Servant’s labors.
13See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.
14Just as there were many who were astonished at him
– so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals –
15so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
11Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
In between these two God speeches, the “many” speak. Many scholars think that in at least verses 1-6, if not throughout, it is the nations that speak. Others think that in at least verses 7-10, if not the whole passage, Israel, or a saving remnant of Israel, speaks.
1Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering [sorrows] and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
4Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep [ewe] that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined [or declared] his future [or generation]?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9They [or He] made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin [Hebrew unclear here],
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
(Isaiah 53:1-10, NRSV.)
This Servant was disfigured, despised, and generally hounded to death – a fate that he submitted to like a sacrificial animal taken to slaughter. (There are approximately twenty different terms and expressions in 53:2-8 that express suffering of various kinds. See the list in the Appendix on Terminology at the end of this article. Some one had an amazing fund of rhetorical resources to portray this mysterious figure whose suffering determined the destiny of people far and wide!)
Further, this suffering by the Servant was on somebody else’s account, or for their benefit. “…[T]he Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6, NRSV). The Servant suffers for someone else, and that someone else has finally come to realize the truth of all this, and is declaring that truth as a new revelation (“Who has believed what we have heard?”, 53:1).
The whole passage spoken by the “we” or the “many” is designed to evoke great compassion at the suffering and disrespect endured by the Servant. But even more, it evokes wonder because this suffering was not only undeserved but was endured on behalf of others, to spare them from guilt and punishment because of their transgressions.
What is this really about? What lies behind the imagery of the Suffering Servant?
A fairly straightforward reading sees here an interpretation of Israel’s historic destiny.
The Servant’s career is Israel’s historical decline, defeat, and apparent extinction – beyond any reasonable hope of recovery. That is to say, it is the destruction and exile of first the old Northern Kingdom (eighth century) and then of the Kingdom of Judah (sixth century). Ultimately, we are talking about political entities, that had previously been the objects of God’s favor. As of the time of the composition of the Servant Songs, no Israelite political entity had existed for two generations.
The divine announcement is that there was a secret purpose working through that defeat and disaster – a secret purpose that, when known, will be astonishing to both the other nations and kings as well as to the defeated and exiled offspring of Israel themselves.
From the other parts of Isaiah 40-55 we learn the following: The sinfulness of Israelites in running after other gods (who are really no-gods) has demonstrated to the nations its futility and falsehood. This is because there is really only one Lord of history to whom unqualified loyalty is due. It is through Israel that other nations will learn this. Israel suffers vicariously so the other nations can learn from the error of its (Israel’s) ways. It was through Israel’s sinfulness [apostasy from Yahweh], leading to punishment and death, that the greatest lesson of all was learned: idolatry and multiple gods are a way of death.
Israel has demonstrated this lesson to the world, suffered for its waywardness, but will be raised up again to live among the nations as Yahweh’s restored and honored Servant.
The Servant as King.
In the later twentieth century, scholars shied away from seeing royal features in the Servant. The Servant songs never say clearly that the Servant is a king. (They are addressed to people still subject to Babylonian and Persian emperors.)
Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the collective-individual character of the Servant makes most sense as a royal figure. He will stand honored among kings and he certainly plays a representative role: his experience is Israel’s collective experience. Most likely there were old rituals and ceremonial rhetoric about sacred kingship remembered by those exiled from the Jerusalem royal palace. The language and sacred auras of such royal traditions were revived and given new power by interpreting Israel’s destiny as that of the king who, even in his humble and despised condition, would eventually receive a glorious and honored future.
In any case, the Servant makes most sense to me as a royal figure, the figure seen also in several psalms (22 and 118, for example). He stands as a personification of the Israel whose ritual suffering clears the people of their iniquities from the recent past.
The chapter that immediately follows the fourth song (that is, Isaiah 54) presents the exuberant personification of the Mother City. In the sacral realities and the prophetic rhetoric of that age, King and City were the makers – and the victims – of all major historical developments. In our passage, God declares that such a major development is about to occur for the insignificant community of exiles that still responds to the name “Israel.” Furthermore, that community will soon be led in prosperity by God’s Servant, to the astonishment of all the nations!
The Psalm for Good Friday has, with good reason, been read as a Suffering Servant liturgy.
The first part of this psalm alternates between the miserable condition of the speaker and the goodness of God’s past actions:
1a. I am abandoned and unheard, verses 1-2;
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
2a. You heard and saved the Israelite ancestors, verses 3-5;
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
1b. I am a worm, despised and mocked, verses 6-8;
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver --
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
2b. You have known and kept me since my birth, verses 9-10.
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
The logic of this alternation creates a claim upon God by the speaker, expressed in the simple plea of verse 11: “Do not be far from me … ”
Liturgies of Death.
The piteous descriptions of slaughter in the second part of the psalm (verses 12 to 18) are intended to evoke indignation at the cruelty suffered by the speaker. Besides the opening line of the psalm (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), this description of physical death has the closest ties with the Passion narratives in the Gospels. (The mocking of verses 6-8 is also echoed in the Passion Narratives, where the mocking is emphasized more than the suffering.)
This passage presents a single sustained metaphor – which is then repeated. It is that of a hunted animal, probably the “Deer of the Dawn” referred to in the title prefixed to the psalm. This beautiful wild animal is assaulted by enemies all around, bulls, lions, and dogs.
The attention is directed steadily from a large ring surrounding the animal toward the center of its body, as that body is violated:
Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
As these beasts pierce the skin of the victim, the inner organs are exposed and torn open:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast.
And the final drained and lifeless carcass is evidence of a ruthless slaughter:
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. (Verses 12-15, NRSV.)
Nothing in the book of Job exceeds this evocation of compassion.
The imagery of the animal hunted and surrounded by beasts is repeated, more briefly.
For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shriveled [been “pierced” in KJV];
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots. (Verses 16-18, NRSV.)
In this imagery, the “clothes” divided among the hunters are, of course, the victim’s skin, to become “garments” for the hunters.
The agonizing and suffering part of the psalm concludes with the speaker’s final plea for deliverance.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion! (verses 20-21).
The Reversal: Good News to the Nations.
The rest of the psalm proclaims a total reversal! The prayer has been answered, and the delivered one thanks God for salvation. God raised the suffering one from ignominy to glory.
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him (verse 24).
Furthermore, this deliverance has world-wide significance:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and the families of the nations
shall worship before him (verse 27).
The sufferer in this drama is not just a marginal resident; this is a figure of destiny (a royal figure) whose rescue from death is good news for others far and wide.
The basic movement in the psalm is the same as in the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Great suffering to death by a faithful servant is finally rewarded with exaltation by God. And all of that is recognized by the nations as an amazing work of God for their benefit!
When the Passion stories report Jesus’ great cry of god-forsakenness on the cross (Mark and Matthew 27:46), the hearers know what’s in the rest of the psalm! The suffering one was on his way to exaltation.
Addendum: The Triumphant King of Palm Sunday
"Hallelujah," Mike Moyers, courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.
As a supplement to the Suffering Servant as king we may consider the royal figure in Psalm 118. The use of this psalm in the drama of Palm Sunday focuses on the triumphant entry into the city and temple (verses 19 to 28). The earlier part of the psalm, however, indicates that there has been some major action prior to the triumph.
5Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
6With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
10All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
11They surrounded me,
surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
12They surrounded me like bees;
they blazed like a fire of thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
13I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
The king was surrounded by enemies, against whom he fought valiantly. The details probably reflect ritual actions – burning thorns, fighting off bees, and the repeated symbolic action of “cutting off” enemies.
The king’s successful defense is acclaimed by the desperate people whose fate depends on the king’s victory.
15There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16 the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
17I shall not die, but I will live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
18The Lord has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.
This speaker (king) has fought a great symbolic battle against enemies (nations) and almost perished. Many ritual actions have been performed, accompanied by the choral voices of many “righteous,” who await the outcome of the struggle with desperate hope. There is at least one note that it is Yahweh (the Lord) who subjects the king to this dangerous ordeal (“the Lord has punished me severely”), but it is also Yahweh who has finally saved him – so he can go forward to the great triumphant entry into the city and temple!
Half of this psalm is about the suffering of the king; half of it is about the triumphant celebration of the king’s victory.
It should be noted that the ritual battle takes place east of the city and temple. The triumphant entry comes from the Mount of Olives, down through the Kidron valley (“the valley of the shadow of death” where the powers of evil assault the king – in Gethsemane). It then goes up to the temple altar where the king fulfills his vows to God because of the victory (Psalm 118:27-28).
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9.
(This is the alternate reading; the first reading is Hebrews 10:16-25. The alternate, however, is closer to the human suffering Jesus.)
Let’s just listen to this passion of the human Jesus.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin….
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death [thinking of Jesus reciting Psalm 22?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered [like the “Israel” who = the Servant]; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
(Hebrews + 5:7-9, NRSV).
(Hebrews + 5:7-9, NRSV).
Appendix on Terminology.
Terminology about the Servant’s suffering (Isaiah 53:2-8)
- grew up [like] young plant 53:2 ya‘al kayyōnēq
- no form or majesty 53:2 tō’ar … hādār
- despised 53:3 nibzéh
- rejected 53:3 ḫadal ’îshîm
- man of suffering 53:3 ’îsh mak’ōbōth
- with infirmity 53:3 ḥōlyí
- bore infirmities 53:4 nāśā’ ḥōlyím
- carried diseases 53:4 mak’ōbîm sābāl
- stricken 53:4 nāgūa‘
- struck down 53:4 mukkéh
- afflicted 53:4 me‘ūnéh
- wounded 53:5 meḫōlāl
- crushed 53:5 medukkā’
- [received] punishment 53:5 mūsar
- [received] bruises 53:5 ḥaburāh
- oppressed 53:7 niggaś
- afflicted 53:7 na’anéh
- taken away 53:8 luqqāḥ
- cut off from the living 53:8 nigzar mē’eretz ḫayyîm
- stricken [for them] 53:8 nega‘ lāmô
Terminology about what the Servant removed or bore.
- infirmities 53:4
- diseases 53:4
- transgressions 53:5
- iniquities 53:5, 11
- sheep gone astray 53:6
- iniquity 53:6
- transgression 53:8
- sin of many 53:12
- [interceded for] transgressors 53:12