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Old Testament II - "The Suffering Servant" in Second Isaiah.

Updated: Jan 17

The purpose of this paper is to explore Second Isaiah and in particular a portion of the text commonly known as, “The Suffering Servant” (52:13-53:12). However, before I do that, I will lay the groundwork by studying, first, an historical overview and than a literary examination of Second Isaiah. This will be followed by an exploration of the theological foundation of Second Isaiah. I will look at how Isaiah and the Prophets approached their writings as it related to their understanding of God.


Of course, they all shared the concept of being rooted in a tradition of faith, with a passionate and determined conviction about the future of their people, as well as being advocates concerned for present tense social relations and institutional practices and policies. The second half of this paper will be an exegesis of the “Suffering Servant”. I will show that the Prophet has indeed followed the theological foundations mentioned above.


Historical Overview of Second Isaiah

“Second Isaiah” is appended to the end of the book associated with Isaiah of Jerusalem and is not an independent book. So, why did the unity of the Book of Isaiah go unchallenged for so long? Biblical Scholars have suggested that Biblical authors wrote as Scribes, recording what was dictated to them by God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.


Scribalism discounts the differences between Isaiah 1-39 and 40-55 by maintaining that events and persons, including Cyrus (600 BC-530 BC), mentioned in 40-45, was revealed to Isaiah of Jerusalem (8th century BC). They deliberately kept the text uniform so as to provide continuity in God’s plan for Israel. However, most Scholars regard Second Isaiah as having a unity and coherence of its own. Along with the different historical situation, some one hundred years after Isaiah of Jerusalem, these chapters possess a literary style, and vocabulary of its own. Though clearly dependent on First Isaiah’s message, Second Isaiah is also easily distinguishable.

Second Isaiah shares the eighth-century prophet’s emphasis on the holiness of God and his vision of God as the great King, and he at least adapts the earlier prophets idea of the Davidic King, democratizing it to apply it to the entire nation. Second Isaiah presupposes an Israelite audience living in Babylon toward an end of the Babylonian exile. (597-539 BC) The Prophet announces to this audience that the end of their exile in Babylon is imminent. Babylon, not Assyria is Israel’s main enemy and the burden of the prophet’s message is the promise of deliverance, not the threat of judgement.


The Prophet twice refers to Cyrus, the Persian ruler (44:28,45:1) as a figure of who has come to the attention of his audience. I believe this also pre-supposes Cyrus’s dethroning of his Median overlord Ast Yages (550 BC) and most likely Cyrus’s defeat of the Lydian King Croesus (547/6 BC). This places Second Isaiah between the years of 545 and 539 BC.


In relatively long and notably lyrical oracles, Second Isaiah reassures the exiles that God will control history. In spite of their present circumstances, the Lord would soon demonstrate power by bringing the Israelites back to their own country in a second exodus more glorious than the first. Equally powerful would be the Wrath of God. This would occur when God’s judgement would come down on both the Babylonians and their gods.


Literary Aspects of Second Isaiah


Chapters 40-66 commonly called Second Isaiah (or Second and Third Isaiah) originated before the fall of Babylon (October 29, 539BCE) to the armies of Cyrus, King of Persia, and during the generations following. More than a generation had past since their expulsion from their homes in Palestine. Many people had given up hope of ever returning and began to assimilate into Babylonian society. Others, however, kept up the idea of someday being liberated from their oppressors.


Second Isaiah enters the scene as change is in the air. Their freedom is now being offered by a perceived God-send, Cyrus, and the exiled community now begins to reflect on both what was and what can be for Israel. They ask the question of why is this happening to us? Second Isaiah informs the community of their past and the results of exile. The anonymous author of the first bipartite section (Ch 40-55{40-48; 49-55}) exults in joyful anticipation of exiled Judah’s restoration to Palestine, for which Cyrus is God’s precipitating agent (44:28).


Second Isaiah emphasizes the significance of historical events of God’s plan that extends from creation to redemption and beyond. The Author emphasizes the concept of God as exclusive creator and Lord of all, whose ultimate glorious manifestation will be accompanied by a new creation. A noteworthy feature of his prophecy is the Songs of the Servant (42:1-4n). Textually, Second Isaiah, when put together with First and Third Isaiah presents a moving picture of assumed hope of God’s people in a world whose time’s are in God’s hands.


Theological Foundation of Second Isaiah


Second Isaiah posses three central theological aspects.

(1)  The Prophetic Books are rooted in as an Order of Tradition of Faith.


The Prophets and ongoing Prophetic Tradition do not work in a vacuum, but proceed from a remembered theological and textual tradition. We may identify several dominated traditions that lie behind the Prophets.


First, there is the Covenant Tradition of Moses. This tradition contributes to the dominant patterns and structures of Prophetic proclamation. It also includes not only the Saving tradition of Exodus, which is taken up by almost all the Prophets, but also the Ethical tradition of command, and the Liturgical Practice of Covenant-Blessing and Covenant Curse.


Secondly, the Prophet is variously informed by the Priestly tradition of ancient Israel, with their concern for the reality of sin and guilt, right sacrifice, and the urgency of purification and cleanliness. There is a modern habit of contrasting the Priestly and Prophetic. However, it is clear that all the traditions are present in and active for the Prophets.


And thirdly, the Wisdom tradition, reflected in the Book of Proverbs, is effective in the Prophets. This tradition is focused on the disciplined discernment of life and especially of non-human life. The tradition is visible through a variety of images and analogies held together by an affirmation of the harmony of Creation under the rule of God.


(2) The Prophet has a passionate and determined conviction about the future of his people.


The Prophet is not a prognosticator, predictor or fortune-teller. Rather, the Prophet is convinced that the world is morally coherent and that God’s purpose for the future of the world is powerful and will prevail. Second Isaiah and all the Prophets believe that God’s intention for the future is truly identifiable and can be known. For them, the future is not blind fate, or an arbitrary intervention, or a puzzling mystery.


Indeed, the future can be confidently expected, for those who understand who God is and what God has willed and promised. Nevertheless, when God’s intention for the world is ridiculed or dismissed through human arrogance, trouble (judgement) is sure to come sometime in the future. Yet, God’s intention for the well being of Creation (fertility, peace, justice, righteousness and joy) is also sure and will be established. The future is known and certain because the character of God is known and reliable.



The Prophet is primarily an advocate concerned for present-tense social relations and institutional practices and policies. 


The Prophet is convinced that God holds a righteous purpose for the present age. This stems from God’s old promises and commands that can not be resisted. On the one hand, the Life of the Community must attend to the moral harmony of all of Creation and must exist in terms of a moral harmony rooted in God’s rule. On the other hand, the Prophet is attentive to social issues and problems that create injustice, pain and suffering, which lead to negative feelings and a movement toward an absence of God.


Thus the Prophet, rooted in the past and open to God’s future, believes that the present moment of life is a critical moment that speaks to loyalty to God and that impinges upon public power and purpose. The Prophetic Books provide a resource and a foundation from which a passionate insistence is voiced in the present and a passionate advocacy is sounded.

That insistence and advocacy is daring and radical, and frequently subversive of all that is considered settled. While the Books of the Prophets as bodies of literature are finished and closed, their powerful voices continue to generate energy and courage and hope for obedience to God, obedience that is often costly and always life-giving.

Second Isaiah: An Exegesis

52:13-15 –  (A) This first part of the fourth song, the speaker is Yahweh.

“See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals – so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them which they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.”  

God will exalt His cruelly disfigured servant (taken here to be Israel) to the numbered astonishment of the world’s rulers (49.7,23). Gods deliverance and exaltation of Israel will astound the nation who formally despised this disfigured slave.

God affirms that His servant shall prosper. Before he prospers, however, the servant will be marred so that he will no longer resemble a human being. Marred-Hebrew, disfigurement; abstract for concrete; not only disfigured, but actual disfigurement itself. In essence, He is the embodiment of disfigurement. Humanity would be dumbfounded with amazement at one so marred. Yet the highest, even kings (Ch. 49.7-23) shall be dumb with awe and veneration.  (“ Shut … mouths; Job 29: 9-10; Micah 7.16) The Servant’s words will astonish world leaders. Thus, this first part of the Servants song is a summary of Messiah’s history, which is set forth more in detail in chapter 53.

53:1-10 – (B) The second part of the fourth song, the speaker is Israel or a Congregation.

The nations speak, expressing their astonishment at the deliverance of Israel, which forces them to revise their assessment of Israel.

53:1-3 “Who has believed what we have heard? And to who has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty, that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised and we held him of no account.”   

Two reasons are given why all ought to believe. (A.) It was the reports of the “Ancient Prophets”; (B.) And “The arm of Jehovah exhibited in the Messiah on earth.” (v.2) Young plant, compare to Jeremiah 23.5; these are sometimes considered Messianic Allusions. This means that the Messiah grew silently and insensibly, as a sucker from an ancient stock, seemingly dead. (v.3) Like a leper, he suffers painful loneliness and rejection by the community. (Job 19:13-19). A report beginning with rhetorical questions (40.12,50.8-10). The Servant’s background and appearance (52:14) are undistinguished; his person rejected.

The Servant’s outward appearance suggested nothing special. There may be an allusion in the term root to Israel’s Messianic expectations (11:1; 11:10) but the Servant had no grandeur to suggest a Royal status. The servant was despised by the nations. The Servant has an indistinguishable background and does not have a commanding physical presence and he was despised and rejected by the people.

53:4-6 – “ Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Bruised- A crushing inward and outward suffering. Chastisement- it was the correction inflicted by a parent on children for their good.

It was not punishment strictly, for that can only take place where there is guilt, which he had not. But he (Israel or a Congregation) took for himself the chastisement whereby peace (reconciliation) with God would effect the Children of God. By the Servant’s Vicarious Suffering, he restores all people to God. The people, who thought the Servant’s punishment was a fitting retribution for his deeds, discovered that he was suffering for them.

Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nation’s original impression, they see that the Servant’s suffering was Vicarious. It was God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself. Because of the Servant, Israel is now whole and experiencing a general sense of well being. (“peace”, 48:18)

53:7-12 – The Servant’s willing submission to suffering leads to his exaltation.

53:7-9 – “ 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. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.  Who could have imagined his future? For he cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” 

Oppressed: This verb means, to have payment of debt sternly exacted (Deuteronomy 15.2,3) and so to oppressed in general; the exaction of the full penalty of our sins in his sufferings is probably alluded to. And …or, and yet he suffered, or bore himself patiently. The Servant suffered quietly and innocently, was then was unjustly executed and shamefully buried. Unlike Jeremiah (11:18-12:6) or Job, the Servant does indeed suffer silently. He is unjustly condemned (compare Luke 22:37) executed and ignominiously buried (compare Matthew 27:57-60) see Acts 8:32-33 9b). Some emend to read, “and his tomb with evildoers” (others read, “with demons” {satyrs})

The Babylonian exile could be seen as a prevision of justice despite Israel’s sins, since they were more righteous than their Babylonian oppressors. (Hab. 1:12-17) In many ways they saw their exile as being cut off from the hand of the living, that being Jerusalem. Many Israelites saw the death and burial of their nation. (Ezek. 37:11-14)

(C) In the last part of the fourth song, the speaker is again Yahweh:

53:10-12 – “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 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.”

The Servants suffering exhibits God’s judgement against sin and God’s mercy upon a sinful humanity. The Servant brings blessings to many. The poem is taken to describe the purpose of God’s people, the Covenant Community.

The Servant through his Vicarious Actions will make many Righteous. The Servant will be awarded for his work in bearing the Sins of others and interceding for their Transgressions. Like a Sin offering, the Servant’s suffering brings forgiveness to many. The Servant will be exalted among the great and strong, (52:13) numbered with the transgressors.  

Jehovah, still speaking, is exalting with joy that He will see the ‘Blessed Fruits’, the ‘Harvest’ and the ‘Results’ of the sufferings that His Servant, Israel, had to make in order to justify the People of God. The satisfaction for God is seeing the full fruit of His hard work in maintaining a relationship with Israel and the world that would be altogether realized in the Last Days (Isaiah 2:2-4).   



(1) The Harper Collins Study Bible

New Revised Standard Version

Harper Collins, San Francisco. 1993.


(2) The New Oxford annotated Bible

New Revised Standard Version

Oxford University Press. New York, 1989.


(3) A Journey through the Hebrew Scriptures

Frank S. Frick

Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Fort Worth Texas



(4) The Portable Commentary – Vol. 1 Old Testament

Jamieson & Fausset: Editors

William Collins and Son Ltd



Originally entitled: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 The Suffering Servant Exegetical Research Paper submitted to Dr. Mike Cheney as a Master of Theological Studies course requirement for 501E - Introduction to Hebrew Scriptures St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta Published on March 7th, 2002 {Revised January 17th, 2024}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2024

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