The Suffering Servant

Scripture Reading

See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him
so marred was his look beyond human semblance
and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man
so shall he startle many nations,
because of him kings shall stand speechless;
for those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.

Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him,
nor appearance that would attract us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by people,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
each following his own way;
but the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.

Though he was harshly treated, he submitted
and opened not his mouth;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
or a sheep before the shearers,
he was silent and opened not his mouth.
Oppressed and condemned, he was taken away,
and who would have thought any more of his destiny?
When he was cut off from the land of the living,
and smitten for the sin of his people,
a grave was assigned him among the wicked
and a burial place with evildoers,
though he had done no wrong
nor spoken any falsehood.
But the LORD was pleased
to crush him in infirmity.

If he gives his life as an offering for sin,
he shall see his descendants in a long life,
and the will of the LORD shall be accomplished through him.

Because of his affliction
he shall see the light in fullness of days;
through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
and he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.
(Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12)

Scripture Study

52:14. “Beyond human semblance”: this phrase sums up the description given in 53:2–3 and shows the intense pain reflected in the servant’s face: the description is so graphic that Christian ascetical writing, with good reason, reads it as anticipating the passion of our Lord: “The prophet, who has rightly been called ‘the Fifth Evangelist’, presents in this Song an image of the sufferings of the Servant with a realism as acute as if he were seeing them with his own eyes: the eyes of the body and of the spirit. […] The Song of the Suffering Servant contains a description in which it is possible, in a certain sense, to identify the stages of Christ’s Passion in their various details: the arrest, the humiliation, the blows, the spitting, the contempt for the prisoner, the unjust sentence, and then the scourging, the crowning with thorns and the mocking, the carrying of the Cross, the crucifixion and the agony” (John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, 17; cf. idem, Dives in misericordia, 7).

53:1. St Paul cites this verse to prove the need for preaching (Rom 10:16). The verse also underlines the extraordinary degree of undeserved suffering endured by the Servant. It is sometimes interpreted as a further sign of the humility of Christ, who, being divine, took on the form of a servant: “Christ is a man of humble thought and feeling, unlike those who attack his flock. The heart of God’s majesty, the Lord Jesus Christ, did not come with loud cries of arrogance and pride; he came in humility, as the Holy Spirit said of him: Who has believed what we have heard?” (St Clement of Rome, Ad Corinthios, 16, 1–3).

53:4–5. “He has borne our griefs [or, pains]”: the servant’s sufferings are not due to his own personal sins; they are atonement for the sins of others. “The sufferings of our Savior are our cure” (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, De incarnatione Domini, 28). He suffered on account of the sins of the entire people, even though he was not guilty of them. By bearing the penalty for those sins, he expiated the guilt involved. St Matthew, after recounting some miraculous cures and the casting out of devils, sees the words of v. 4a fulfilled in Christ (Mt 8:17). He interprets Jesus Christ as being the servant foretold by the prophet, who will cure the physical suffering of people as a sign that he is curing the root cause of all types of evil, that is, sin, iniquity (v. 5). The miracles worked by Jesus for the sick are therefore a sign of Redemption: “Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross (cf. Eph 1:7; Col 1:13–14; 1 Pet 1:18–19), but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 517).

Scripture Reflection

This passage presents us with challenges typical of poetry.  It uses words and phrases rich in meaning but capable of more than one interpretation.  “My servant” is a case in point.  Is this servant the nation Israel—or the prophet—or the messiah?  Does the word “servant” mean one thing in one place and something else in another place?  Did God intend Israel to understand “my servant” one way in its original context and the church to understand it another way?

Very early in the life of the church, Christians identified the servant as Jesus Christ—the messiah—the one who “took our infirmities, and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17).  Matthew specifically identifies Jesus as the one who fulfills this Isaian prophecy (Matthew 12:17-21).  In the book of Acts, Philip, “beginning from this scripture, …preached to (the Ethiopian eunuch) Jesus” (Acts 8:35).

We should acknowledge that it is possible—even probable—that the prophet thought of the servant in one way but that God intended the church to reinterpret the prophet’s words in the light of the coming of Jesus Christ.  As noted above, the poetic quality of this passage lends itself to a variety of meanings.  It stands to reason that God would inspire the prophet to write in such a manner so that his words could be reinterpreted to reveal Jesus at the appropriate time.

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV.