Who is the suffering servant?

Who is the suffering servant?

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“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He 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 that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

If we didn’t know better, we might hazard a guess that these verses were written by the Apostle Paul or one of the authors of the Gospels. But, instead, they were written some 600 or so years before the birth of Christ. They were in our reading today from the Hebrew Scripture. From Isaiah.

The Book of Isaiah is sometimes called the Fifth Gospel, which for Isaiah must feel rather like being called the Fifth Beatle. It’s called that because of the number of times it’s quoted in the NT. At Christmas time, the traditional 9 Lessons and Carols normally include readings from Isaiah. And Isaiah appears again during Lent and Holy Week.

And rather like the half dozen or so people referred to as the Fifth Beatle, the book of Isaiah as we know it is probably the work of 3, possibly 4, different authors. They are distanced by the times in Israel’s history that they are writing about. But it’s thought that our chapter today was probably written after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

The suffering servant

It’s part of a passage referred to as The Suffering Servant and it starts in verse 13 of chapter 52. So, today we only get a part. As Christians we tend to be familiar with these verses. We look through our particular lens and usually take Jesus to be the suffering servant – and the Gospel writers do the same, interweaving verses from Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 into the crucifixion narratives. 

And we understand something of Jesus’ mission amongst us and the anguish that he felt, in part at least, through this very text. In the Acts of the Apostles, it’s these same verses that Philip started with to explain the good news of Jesus to the eunuch, as they were travelling through the wilderness in his chariot.

But there are many other ways to read this and it’s extremely difficult to pin down exactly who the poet had in mind when he wrote these lines. And perhaps that’s the genius on display here. That the words of scripture can come alive for each of us in very different ways and in different times.

As a community

Isaiah’s original audience were probably living in Babylon, exiled there after the destruction of Jerusalem. They may have thought of Isaiah himself as being the suffering servant. But there’s a case to be made for Moses and Jeremiah too.

Or they may well have identified that figure with themselves – the people of Israel – suffering as a community rather than via an individual. Broken now, this passage brought hope that they would someday be exalted and lifted-up (52:13). They would read in these verses the promise that their present suffering ultimately served a larger purpose (53:11-12). 

That view may have something to tell us today. One of the marks of the last 18 months or so of lock-down, where we’ve all had to cope with living differently, is the common cause that we have found with each other. The community spirit. The applauding of key workers, often doing roles that we previously didn’t give much significance to. We should be earnestly holding on to that way of thinking – of both suffering together and being lifted-up together.

The least expected direction

Or maybe those original readers and hearers saw in these verses a kingly, Messiah-like figure who would come and save them. Perhaps even a radically different saviour to themselves – who wasn’t even an Israelite. Earlier in Isaiah, the writer had talked, incredibly, of Cyrus of Persia being both the Lord’s shepherd and the Lord’s anointed! It was Cyrus, a person of a different culture and different faith, who decreed that Israel should return to their land and provided the funds to make it possible (44:28; 45:1-6,13. See also Ezra 1:1-11). Was Cyrus, a pagan, the Suffering Servant?

Again, perhaps we need to learn to look for inspiration and for guidance from peoples and places that we wouldn’t normally consider either. That our deliverance may come from the least expected direction too.

We make assumptions

Or rather than speaking metaphorically, was Isaiah describing a real person who was physically or mentally suffering in some way – and at the same time being powerfully used by God? 

It made me wonder how often we attribute, or see the media attribute, words like ‘suffering’ and ‘victim’ and ‘vulnerable’ to others when we don’t really know their situation. We make assumptions. And that’s them pigeon-holed.

What does that do to the esteem, the self-worth, of those named this way – and only this way? And with discussions here and in Europe on Assisted Dying, there are potentially life and death consequences of those kind of labels.

Yet this very same person is also described in our text as ‘the righteous one…who shall make many righteous’. The one who is suffering is also righteous and exalted! An intercessor. We need to be very careful when we think about or describe people to look at the whole person and not just part.

Is the ‘we’, you and me?

But it’s not just the identity of the Suffering Servant. We also need to ask ourselves who is the ‘we’ in this chapter? “Who has believed what we have heard?”; “he was despised, and weheld him of no account”; “yet we accounted him stricken”; “we all like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” 

Is the ‘we’, you and me? Is it us who are struggling to make sense of the suffering servant’s life and fate? Or is it our convictions that get over-turned? Do we become less sure about our certainties? 

If so, we need to look at this passage and notice how our perception shifts of how we see the person that is suffering. How our viewpoint tracks back and forth in these verses, as the person is first lifted-up, then becomes someone of no account and isolated from the land of the living – and then back to someone through whom ‘the will of the Lord shall prosper.’ 

Again, we might see resonance here with our own experience in the last year or so. How the way that we thought of others rose and fell during that time. We might feel a call to say sorry to God for some of those ways of thinking.

And at the very end, God joins the ‘we’. In verse 12, we and God stand together and marvel at the opposing realities. We see the servant’s suffering and their exaltation. The wonderful shift from judgement to praise.

Do you see yourself?

We should therefore question how we think of those who suffer in any way. Migrant communities, homeless people, the person enduring famine or war. Or how we think of those from a different culture or religion. How easily do we think of these as people of ‘no account’, as it says in verse 3, – when in God’s economy it might very well be these very same people who bring us our own redemption.

We should be radically challenged in our hospitality and welcome. We may be the ones being saved by the actions of these others, rather than the other way round.

And maybe you see yourself within the description of the suffering servant? If so, take heart for these verses might be telling you that you are being used by God to bring salvation for others. I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch saw himself in these verses too. Did he see a link between the words that he read and his own experience, a connection to the negative way that he was viewed and treated by society? Perhaps the eunuch was used by God to open Philip’s eyes to the inclusivity of God’s kingdom – as much as Philip being used to open up the Gospel to the eunuch?

Are we being used by God?

So, please, read again from 52:13 to 53:12. Be open to the different interpretations. Be open to who ‘we’ are and who the suffering servant is. And be open to recognize that you and I might need to change and transform our frame of reference. That we might need a little help from our friends and foes alike.

And if you do see yourself here, then be prepared to be used by God in a way that may be life-transforming – for both you and for those that you encounter. Amen

“Who is the suffering servant?” was delivered by Ian Banks to an online congregation from Bury and Heywood on Sunday October 17th 2021. It was based on Isaiah 53:4-12.



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1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this sermon at Zoom Church. Time to think again about previously considered issues, but also giving new insight into the readings.

    As a child, I believed that the Suffering Servant was a prediction of the suffering Jesus would go through. Later, that it referred to the suffering of the people of Israel.

    The sermon invited us to think about how we view those who we label as ‘victims’ or ‘the suffering’, questioning the impact of imposing those labels on people.

    I think it is dangerous to attribute those labels to people – they stick, they quickly become embedded in our culture, and can lead to unhealthy and excluding decisions.

    However, if you can see victim/vulnerability as situational descriptions, then you remain open to the fact that situations can change.

    Recognising inspiration, guidance and help from unlikely and new sources has been a recurring theme through many church services, and I was reminded of a Cafe Church meeting where we discussed Lawrence Kushner’s poem ‘Jigsaw.


    I think it is also important to remember not to dismiss the familiar (Mark 6:3)

    Listening to the sermon, I wondered – if we view those in need of help as being ‘of no account’, how might that impede us from asking for help? Or accepting offered help, for fear that we will be judged in the same way?

    Thank you.

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