Q&R with Brad Jersak: Is Isaiah’s “suffering servant” Jesus or the Jewish people?

Isaiah 49:7

Question:

Hi Brad,

I recently learned of your contributions to a book called Stricken By God?
I was researching Isaiah 49:7 due to the Rabbinical claim that the Suffering Servant is not Jesus, but is actually the Jewish people throughout their history of persecutions.

This has always been a nagging doubt to me. It doesn’t help that Isaiah 49:7 in some translations says “abhorred by the nations” which sounds like the nation of Israel is te servant, but other translations say “abhorred by the nation” which sounds like Jesus inside of Israel.

In Stricken By God? Bob Ekblad wrote, “The LXX appears to include Israel with the nations among those who abhor the servant (49:7).” I was wondering if you could point me towards more info on this topic, because it has re-assured my faith a bit.

Response:

I sure wouldn’t make my faith at all contingent on nailing down the subject of the Servant’s identity in Isaiah. It doesn’t at all depend on that. One reason for that is that the NT authors didn’t strictly think of Isaiah’s prophecies as a direct prediction of the coming Messiah. It’s more nuanced than that. Here’s how it seems to work:

1. God’s “servant” refers to a specific vocation rooting all the way back to Abraham. Through Abraham, all the families of the world would be blessed.

2. Israel is to walk in that vocation. But as we see in Isaiah, they had blown their vocation badly. And they are suffering for it badly. But God wants them to know he hasn’t left them. He’s with them in their suffering. They are collectively God’s suffering servant [that’s why it’s in the plural sometimes] and he will raise them up again so that… 

3. Through Israel, the Messianic Servant would arise and ultimately fulfill their destiny. When Christ came, he identified with the vocation and fulfilled God’s purpose for Israel, even though he too would suffer. In fact, the blessing would come by means of his suffering, since through death he would destroy the power of death and reign as Prince of Peace across all nations. 

4. The apostolic authors and preachers sought to understand the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, of Christ’s mission and kingdom. They discovered this as their meaning-making took them to their Scriptures, where they could retroactively identify Jesus Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s suffering servant vocation. 

All that to say, the suffering servant of Isaiah is probably both, and this will include overlap since the common feature is their Abrahamic vocation. I hope that you find this response helpful.  

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