To understand any text in the Bible we have to see it in its historical and literary context. In the case of Isaiah 53, this not only means reading the whole of the book of Isaiah – all 66 chapters – to see how this chapter “fits” with the overall themes and messages, it also means placing it in its historical and social context. What was happening at the time when these words were written? How would the initial audience have understood them, and how was the message relevant to them?
Biblical scholars have long recognised that the book of Isaiah has three major parts which differ from each other in terms of content and style as well as in their messages. The differences are so significant that most scholars agree that they were written by three different writers, at different times. Consequently, scholars often refer to the three divisions as “First Isaiah” (or Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (or Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55), and “Third Isaiah” (or Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66). If you read the book through as a whole you will notice that there are logical breaks between the three divisions, and the style of writing changes significantly. It is argued that only chapters 1-39 were written by the prophet Isaiah (or by one of his followers) in the eighth century BCE, that chapters 40-55 were written in the sixth century during the exile which began in 586BCE by an unnamed writer, and that chapters 56-66 were written after the return from exile in 515BCE when the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was underway. Third Isaiah was possibly compiled as an anthology consisting of twelve “oracles” which may have originally been written (or spoken) by multiple prophets. There is a considerable amount of evidence within the book that it was not all written at the same time. For example, the name “Isaiah” occurs several times in chapters 1-39 but never after, and specific details in chapters 40-66 suggest that the writers had detailed knowledge and experience of the exile. For example, Second Isaiah refers to the Persian king Cyrus twice by name and says of him “I have aroused Cyrus … and he shall build my city and set my exiles free” (45:13). Cyrus lived 600-530BCE and Isaiah’s ministry was between 740 and 698BCE, more than a century before Cyrus was born, but he would have been well known to someone living at the end of the exile. Interestingly, Isaiah 45:1 calls Cyrus God’s מַשִׁיחַ anointed, using the word from which we get the English “Messiah”. The Greek translates it is as Χριστός Christos, from which we get the word “Christ”. This is the only place in Isaiah where the word מַשִׁיחַ / Messiah is used, and it describes a Persian king, probably because he was chosen by God as a saviour figure to restore the vanguished kingdom of Israel.
The chapter we are looking at – Isaiah 53 – is in Second Isaiah where it is one of four poems, or songs, which describe an unnamed “servant of the Lord.” In two of the songs it appears that the writer may be speaking about himself:
- The second song begins by saying “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” and goes on to say “You are my servant,” which makes it seem that the writer is describing his own calling by God. However, there is some confusion because the verse continues “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (49:1-3). I’ll come back to this shortly. The identification of the writer as the servant is maintained because the writer goes on to say “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob* back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him …” (v5). If this servant is Israel how can Israel be called on to bring Jacob/Israel back to God?
- Similarly, in the third song the writer again describes his calling: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4) He describes the people’s response to his message using servant terminology: “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” (v10), apparently speaking of himself as this servant.
The identification of the servant as Israel, noted in the first point above, is not unusual in the context of Isaiah. On several occasions the writer of Second Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant. For example:
- 41:8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off.”
- 43:10 You are my witnesses [speaking to Israel, see v1], says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen.
- 44:1 But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!
- 44:21 Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; , you will not be forgotten by me.
- 45:4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.
- 48:20 Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it forth to the end of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (Incidentally, this verse is one of the many which provides evidence that Second Isaiah was written during the time of the exile in Babylon.)
- 49:3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, in whom I will be glorified.”
In fact, almost every time the writer of Second Isaiah uses the word עֶבֶד servant it refers to Israel. In only two or three places is the servant unnamed or not identified. The fourth song begins with the same servant terminology, but it is unclear whether the writer here is speaking of himself or not: “See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high” (52:13).** Because of the confusion (especially in the second song) about whether the writer is describing himself or Israel as God’s servant, there is a possibility that he both speaks to Israel but also personifies and represents Israel. In other words, the prophet as God’s servant, and as a member of the nation of Israel, acts as a “servant” on two levels: individually, and corporately as a representative of the wider community.
* The name of the patriarch Jacob was changed to “Israel”. “Jacob” is used in poetry as the semantic equivalent of “Israel.”
** The fourth poem actually begins in 52:13 and includes all of chapter 53 – the chapter divisions are a late invention and don’t form part of the most ancient manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.