Day 16      Isaiah 52 ... Suffering Servant

Isaiah's four songs about a "suffering servant" are among the richest, and most closely studied, passages in the Old Testament. This chapter illustrates why the servant songs sparked fierce debates among the ancient rabbis seeking to understand them. The first part of the chapter stirs anticipation for a glorious time when God will restore Jerusalem and prove to all, "Your God reigns!" It looks like Israel will gain revenge on their enemies at last.

But the author explains how God will "redeem Jerusalem" by introducing the mysterious figure of the suffering servant, whose appearance was "disfigured beyond that of any man...marred beyond human likeness". Who is this suffering servant? And how will such a wounded person bring about a great victory?

Jewish scholars puzzled over these passages for centuries. They seemed to have grave significance, but what exactly did the prophet mean? Some to the servant songs refer to the nation of Israel as a whole, but passages like this one portray the servant as a specific individual, a great leader who suffers terribly. Although Isaiah holds him up as the deliverer of all humankind, he resembles more a tragic figure than a hero.

Some Jewish scholars speculated the prophet was ascribing himself or perhaps a colleague, such as Jeremiah. Still others focused their hopes on a Messiah to come. They looked for a king from humble origins, one whose power would depend not on swords, but on the spirits of people committed to him. In general, however, the idea of the suffering servant never really caught on within the Jewish nation. They longed for a victorious Messiah, not a suffering one.

The image of the suffering servant went underground, as it were, lying dormant for centuries. Then, in a dramatic scene early in his ministry, Jesus quoted from one of Isaiah's servant passages. After reading aloud in the synagogue, Jesus "rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'" (Luke 4:20-21).

At last, a link snapped into place for some, but not all, of Jesus' listeners. The Messiah had come at last - not as a conquering general, but as a humble peasant, a carpenter's son from Nazareth.

Point to Ponder: If you had been a Jew in Jesus's day, would you have been disappointed in the Messiah?