26 November 2007

Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12

"Therefore 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." (Isaiah 53:12)


Isaiah 53 is the most difficult chapter in the Bible. It was written by an anonymous prophet (one of the two or three prophets whose work is gathered together in the book of Isaiah) during the time when the Jews were exiled in Babylon around 540BC. But who or what is it talking about?

It doesn't help either that the Hebrew it is written in is very difficult and some verses are almost untranslatable - compare some of the various Bible translations and you'll see.

The identity of this 'suffering servant' has baffled many readers for centuries. Is the prophet talking about someone he knew, like the prophet Jeremiah, or a contemporary leader, or even about himself? Or is this servant the people of God as a whole, for in the rest of his chapters (Isaiah 40-55) 'God's servant' is the nation, or at least a faithful part of it?

These are unanswerable questions, but the first Christians had a quite different take on this obscure and difficult passage. When they looked at their Bible, our Old Testament, as they tried to make sense of what had happened to Jesus they found their answer here. Jesus was God's true servant, the Messiah, the chosen one, who had suffered and died as part of God's plan to bring salvation. For examples see Matthew 8:17Luke 22:37Acts 8:32-33 and 1 Peter 2:22-25.

This is why this reading features in Holy Week and Good Friday services. Whether this anonymous prophet meant anything like that is another and very controversial question, but that's how the first Christians, and possibly Jesus himself, read it.

To Ponder

Why do you think this 'suffering servant' poem might have been chosen as one of the readings in this week's theme of 'Christ the King'?

The servant in this poem suffers as part of his discipleship. What insights might there be into the nature of our discipleship today?

Do you find anything disturbing or unhelpful in the images in this poem?