A scholar friend of mine once remarked, “I must confess: if there is anything that convinces me that the Bible is inspired, and from God, it is Isaiah 53.” Isaiah 52:13–53:12 comes out of nowhere. There is no precedent for an innocent servant of God suffering and dying for the iniquities of others. It is shocking, graphic and brutal, yet profound.

Yet Yahweh was pleased to crush him; he afflicted [him] (with sickness). If she (or you) places his life a guilt offering, he will see offspring, he will prolong days and the will of Yahweh will succeed in his hand. From the trouble of his life, he will see light.1 He will be satisfied. In his knowledge, my righteous servant shall make many righteous and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide to him [a portion] among the many, and with [the] strong ones he shall divide bounty, because he exposed his life to death and was counted with transgressors, and he carried [the] sin of many and will intercede for transgressors (Isa 53:10–12).2

Who is the Servant in Isaiah?

Is the servant the nation Israel or an individual? Scholars often assume it’s always Israel. At the churches where I have taught, the standard belief is the opposite: The servant is always an individual servant, namely Jesus. Both opinions are problematic. Here’s why.

1 Previous to Isaiah 49, the servant is Israel (or synonymously, Jacob).

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” (Isa 41:8–9).

You [Israel] are my witnesses (“you” is plural in the Hebrew),” declares Yahweh, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isa 43:10).

“But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!” Thus says Yahweh who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen (Isa 44:1–2).

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are to me a servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me (Isa 44:21).

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me (Isa 45:4).

But is the servant always the people of Israel? No.

2 The servant is sometimes an individual, but there is a shift in Isa 49:1–3. Note the first person language for the servant:

Listen to me coastlands, pay attention peoples from afar. Yahweh called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me and he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he concealed me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my judgment is with Yahweh, and my wage with my God.”