The Suffering Servant in Yeshayahu 53


An Anonymous Servant

In Yeshayahu 52-53, the prophet foretells that Hashem's servant ("עַבְדִּי") will prosper and be exalted.  This will astonish onlookers who had previously viewed the servant as wretched and despised. They will not be able to imagine how someone who had been so degraded could ever reach such a lofty stature.  Yeshayahu then backtracks to depict the original suffering of the servant:


נִבְזֶה וַחֲדַל אִישִׁים אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת וִידוּעַ חֹלִי וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ נִבְזֶה וְלֹא חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ.

He was despised, and forsaken of men, A man of pains, and acquainted with disease, And as one from whom men hide their face: He was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Throughout the description, the servant is never identified by name. To whom is Yeshayahu referring?  What made the servant so despised initially, and why will he merit great reward in the future? Finally, who are those who will be so shocked by the change?

Suffering for the Sins of Others?

In describing the suffering of the servant, the onlookers emphasize how the servant suffered not for his own sins, but for the iniquities of others:


(ד) אָכֵן חֳלָיֵנוּ הוּא נָשָׂא וּמַכְאֹבֵינוּ סְבָלָם וַאֲנַחְנוּ חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ נָגוּעַ מֻכֵּה אֱ-לֹהִים וּמְעֻנֶּה. (ה) וְהוּא מְחֹלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲוֺנֹתֵינוּ מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא לָנוּ. (ו) כֻּלָּנוּ כַּצֹּאן תָּעִינוּ אִישׁ לְדַרְכּוֹ פָּנִינוּ וַי"י הִפְגִּיעַ בּוֹ אֵת עֲוֺן כֻּלָּנוּ. (ז) נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו. (ח) מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים מִפֶּשַׁע עַמִּי נֶגַע לָמוֹ. (ט) וַיִּתֵּן אֶת רְשָׁעִים קִבְרוֹ וְאֶת עָשִׁיר בְּמֹתָיו עַל לֹא חָמָס עָשָׂה וְלֹא מִרְמָה בְּפִיו.

(4) Surely our diseases he did bear, and our pains he carried; Whereas we did esteem him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. (5) But he was wounded because of our transgressions, He was crushed because of our iniquities: The chastisement of our welfare was upon him, And with his stripes we were healed. (6) All we like sheep did go astray, We turned every one to his own way; And the Lord hath made to light on him The iniquity of us all. (7) He was oppressed, though he humbled himself And opened not his mouth; As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, And as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb; Yea, he opened not his mouth. (8) By oppression and judgment he was taken away, And with his generation who did reason? For he was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due. (9) And they made his grave with the wicked, And with the rich his tomb; Although he had done no violence, Neither was any deceit in his mouth.'

These verses seem to imply that Hashem spared the guilty, allowing them to live in peace, at the expense of his loyal servant who was downtrodden in their stead. Does this not contradict the notion that everyone is punished for their own sins, as Devarim 24:16 states, "אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ יוּמָתוּ"?! Where is the justice in the servant's fate?  Does the phrase "וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל" suggest that he willingly accepted his anguish, or that he simply had no choice? Finally, for whom was the servant vicariously punished – was it on account of Israel or foreigners?

Life After Death?

In describing the servant's fate, several verses suggest that he not only suffered, but that he actually died. We are told: "כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים" and that "וַיִּתֵּן אֶת רְשָׁעִים קִבְרוֹ וְאֶת עָשִׁיר בְּמֹתָיו". How, then, is one to understand the description of his future exalted status? Is Hashem referring to a reward in the World to Come? If so, though, how will this be witnessed by others, as implied by Yeshayahu 52:13-14?  Must some of these verses be reinterpreted?

Additional Questions

In addition to the conceptual and theological issues raised above, the chapter is replete with textual difficulties:

  • "כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמְמוּ עָלֶיךָ רַבִּים כֵּן מִשְׁחַת מֵאִישׁ מַרְאֵהוּ" – How do these two clauses relate to each other? Do the words "כֵּן מִשְׁחַת מֵאִישׁ מַרְאֵהוּ" constitute the content of the onlookers' remarks and describe the state of the servant in the past, or are they meant as a contrast to the people's initial shock and depict what his stature will be in the future?  Regardless, what does "מִשְׁחַת מֵאִישׁ מַרְאֵהוּ" mean?
  • "מִי הֶאֱמִין לִשְׁמֻעָתֵנוּ" – Who is the speaker of this verse, and until which verse do his words extend?
  • "וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ" – Who hid their face from whom and why?
  • "מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו" – What are the people implying about their welfare? Does "מוּסַר" refer to trials, rebuke, or removal?
  • "מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח וְאֶת דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ" – What does it mean that the servant was taken from both "prison" and "judgement"?  About what had he wished to converse with his generation?
  • "אֲחַלֶּק לוֹ בָרַבִּים" – What is being promised in this reward; what is to be divided "בָרַבִּים"?

Polemical Issues

Our chapter is probably one of the most debated Biblical passages in Christian-Jewish polemics.  It has been understood by Christians to refer to the suffering and death of Jesus which they believe served to atone for the "original sin" of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. They further see allusions to Jesus' resurrection in the description of the physical rewards heaped on the servant after he has "been cut off from the land of the living". Given the import of these readings for religious doctrine, it is not surprising that many Jewish exegetes were impacted by the polemics and relate to the Christian claims in their interpretations of the chapter.

Other Occurrences

This is not the only place in which Yeshayahu refers to a servant of Hashem ("עַבְדִּי").  In Yeshayahu 42:1-4 we read:


(א) הֵן עַבְדִּי אֶתְמׇךְ בּוֹ בְּחִירִי רָצְתָה נַפְשִׁי נָתַתִּי רוּחִי עָלָיו מִשְׁפָּט לַגּוֹיִם יוֹצִיא. (ב) לֹא יִצְעַק וְלֹא יִשָּׂא וְלֹא יַשְׁמִיעַ בַּחוּץ קוֹלוֹ. (ג) קָנֶה רָצוּץ לֹא יִשְׁבּוֹר וּפִשְׁתָּה כֵהָה לֹא יְכַבֶּנָּה לֶאֱמֶת יוֹצִיא מִשְׁפָּט. (ד) לֹא יִכְהֶה וְלֹא יָרוּץ עַד יָשִׂים בָּאָרֶץ מִשְׁפָּט וּלְתוֹרָתוֹ אִיִּים יְיַחֵלוּ.

(1) Behold My servant, whom I uphold; Mine elect, in whom My soul delighteth; I have put My spirit upon him, He shall make the right to go forth to the nations. (2) He shall not cry, nor lift up, Nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. (3) A bruised reed shall he not break, And the dimly burning wick shall he not quench; He shall make the right to go forth according to the truth. (4) He shall not fail nor be crushed, Till he have set the right in the earth; And the isles shall wait for his teaching.

Yeshayahu 49 once again speaks of "עַבְדִּי", this time explicitly identifying him with Israel:


(א) שִׁמְעוּ אִיִּים אֵלַי וְהַקְשִׁיבוּ לְאֻמִּים מֵרָחוֹק י"י מִבֶּטֶן קְרָאָנִי מִמְּעֵי אִמִּי הִזְכִּיר שְׁמִי. (ב) וַיָּשֶׂם פִּי כְּחֶרֶב חַדָּה בְּצֵל יָדוֹ הֶחְבִּיאָנִי וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְחֵץ בָּרוּר בְּאַשְׁפָּתוֹ הִסְתִּירָנִי. (ג) וַיֹּאמֶר לִי עַבְדִּי אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר...

(1) Listen, O isles, unto me, And hearken, ye peoples, from far: The Lord hath called me from the womb, From the bowels of my mother hath He made mention of my name; (2) And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword, In the shadow of His hand hath He hid me; And He hath made me a polished shaft, In His quiver hath He concealed me; (3) And He said unto me: 'Thou art My servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'...

What is the relationship between the various passages? Do these descriptions refer to the same individual in Chapter 53?  Can they shed light on any of the questions raised above?