Identifying the Servant Israel in Isa. 49:3
The suffering servant in Isa. 49:3 cannot be the nation of Israel. It is certainly true that the prophet Isaiah identified the servant in Isa. 49:3 by the name “Israel” when he wrote,
3 And He said to me, “You are my servant, O’ Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
וַיֹּאמֶר לִי עַבְדִּי אָתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר
However, notice what the prophet Isaiah wrote just a few verses later, writing the words of the servant:
5 And now said Yahveh who formed me from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob back to Him, and Israel shall be gathered to Him, and I shall be glorious in the eyes of Yahveh, and my God shall be my strength— 6 And He said, “It is a small thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel. I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles, so that you may be My salvation unto the end of the earth.”
וְעַתָּה אָמַר יַהְוֶה יֹצְרִי מִבֶּטֶן לְעֶבֶד לוֹ לְשֹׁובֵב יַֽעֲקֹב אֵלָיו וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לא יֵאָסֵף וְאֶכָּבֵד בְּעֵינֵי יַהְוֶה וֵאלֹהַי הָיָה עֻזִּי וַיֹּאמֶר נָקֵל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד לְהָקִים אֶת שִׁבְטֵי יַעֲקֹב ונצירי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהָשִׁיב וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם לִֽהיוֹת יְשׁוּעָתִי עַד קְצֵה הָאָֽרֶץ
Notice that the servant named Israel in Isa. 49:3 is responsible:
- “to bring back Jacob to Him” (Isa. 49:5)
- “to raise up the tribes of Jacob” (Isa. 49:6)
- “to restore the preserved of Israel” (Isa. 49:6)
If the servant named Israel in Isa. 49:3 refers to the nation of Israel, how then can the nation of Israel bring itself back to Yahveh, raise itself up, gather itself, and restore itself? Clearly, the servant Israel and the nation of Jacob/Israel are two distinct entities.
It is well attested in scripture that the son of David (i.e., the Messiah) would be responsible for gathering the dispersed of Israel and bringing them back to the holy land,1 the same tasks assigned to the servant Israel in Isa. 49:5–6.
The manner in which the prophet Isaiah names the servant Israel and then proceeds to mention another Israel whom the same servant Israel is supposed to bring back, raise up, gather, and restore, clearly indicates that the servant Israel is not same as the other Israel who is brought back; they are two distinct entities.
If the servant Israel is not the nation of Israel, then who is it? It’s easy to understand why someone would think the servant Israel in Isa. 49:3 is the nation of Israel. After all, the majority of the Tanakh focuses on the experiences of the nation of Israel. However, the name Israel originally belongs to the patriarch Israel.2 That being said, it is common for the King Messiah to be alluded to in scripture by the names of his ancestors. For example, in Jer. 30:9, we see that the Messiah is named “David.”3
In the same manner, the Messiah is named “Israel” in Isa. 49:3, after the patriarch Israel, his ancestor. We know this must be the case because of the manner in which the prophet Isaiah speaks of the servant Israel bringing back, raising up, gathering, and restoring another entity named “Jacob/Israel” which is evidently distinct from the servant Israel himself.
That the servant Israel in Isa. 49:3 referred to Christ was asserted by the New Testament authors4 as well as the early Church fathers.5
Exegesis of Isa. 53:8
מֵעֹצֶר וּמִמִּשְׁפָּט לֻקָּח
וְאֶת דּוֹרוֹ מִי יְשׂוֹחֵחַ
כִּי נִגְזַר מֵאֶרֶץ חַיִּים
From imprisonment and judgment he was taken,
And his generation, who shall consider?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
Because of the transgression of my people,
A plague was to him.
Debate involving this verse primarily concerns two matters:
- the Hebrew word לָמוֹ (lamo), translated as “to him” or “to them”
- the prefixed preposition מ in the word מִפֶּשַׁע (mipesha), altogether translated as “for the transgression” or “because of the transgression.”
First, the prefixed preposition מ. Some argue that this preposition should not be translated as “for” as it is in the King James Version. However, this translation is not impossible since the prefixed preposition מ is sometimes used in the sense of “for,” “because of,” “on account of.”6 Thus, the Hebrew phrase מִפֶּשַׁע means “for the transgression” or “because of the transgression.”
Next, the Hebrew word לָמוֹ. This is a unique word which consists of the preposition ל which is usually translated as “for,” combined with a rare pronominal suffix מו-. Some (most Jewish translations) translate this word as “for them,” indicating a plural object. Others (most Christian translations) translate this word as “for him,” indicating a singular object.
Jewish rabbi David Kimchi (רד"ק) was one of the first Jewish commentators to argue that the Christian translation as “for them” was a corruption of the actual meaning of the word לָמוֹ.
In his commentary on Psa. 2:12, he wrote,7
והנוצרים שמפרשים אותו על ישו...
ואמ' נגע למו היה לו לומר לו כי למו הוא כמו להם לשון רבים
And the Christians who explain it about Yeshuʿa...and [the prophet] said, “A plague was ‘to them’ (למו), but [if it was about Yeshuʿa] he should have said ‘to him’ (לו), for למו is like להם, a plural expression.”
Kimchi argues that if the Christian translation as “to him” was correct, the word would have been לו, “to him,” rather than למו, which he asserts is equivalent to the plural להם, “to them.” However, Kimchi is incorrect as the pronominal suffix is not always understood as plural. In fact—and this is most noteworthy—Kimchi contradicts his own opinion. In his grammatical treatise entitled Sefer Mikhlol,8 he specifically wrote concerning the pronominal suffix מו:
מוֹ הוא בנוי הנסתרים בהתחבר עם הפעלים והשמות ומלים… ויש מוֹ בנוי היחיד המסתר: כִּי יִסְכּוֹן עָלֵימוֹ, וְיַמְטֵר עָלֵימוֹ בִּלְחוּמוֹ. כי המ"ם והו"ו כמו שכתבנו יש בו סימן רבים וסימן יחיד. כי המ"ם סימן הרבים הנסתרים והו"ו סימן היחיד הנסתר. לפיכך יבוא על הרבים ועל היחיד.
מוֹ is a 3rd person, masculine number, plural number suffix when joined with verbs, nouns, and words… מוֹ is also a 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number suffix: (Job 22:2) הַלְאֵל יִסְכָּן גָּבֶר כִּי יִסְכֹּן עָלֵימֹו מַשְׂכִּיל; (Job 20:23) וְיַמְטֵר עָלֵימוֹ בִּלְחוּמוֹ. For the מ and the ו (i.e., מוֹ), just as we wrote, contains the indication of the masculine gender, plural number and the indication of the masculine gender, singular number. For the מ is the indication of the 3rd person, masculine gender, plural number, and the ו is the indication of the 3rd person, masculine gender, singular number. Therefore, it (i.e., מוֹ) occurs for the [3rd person,] masculine gender, plural number and for the [3rd person,] masculine gender, singular number.
1 cf. Isa. 11:12
2 cf. Gen. 32:28
3 Consider the following commentaries or translations of Jer. 30:9:
- David Kimchi’s commentary on Jer. 30:9:
אפשר שאמר זה על דוד המלך שיקימנו מעפרו בעת תחיית המתים, ואפשר שיאמר על המשיח בנו ויקרא שמו דוד.
“It is possible that it said this about King David who will be raised from the dust at the time of the resurrection of the dead. And, it is possible that it says this about the Messiah, his son, and it called his name ‘David.’”
- Targum Yonatan on Jer. 30:9:
וְיִפלְחוּן קְֹדָם יוי אֲלָהֲהוֹן וְיִשתַמעוּן לִמשִיחָא בַר דָוִיד מַלכְהוֹן דַאֲקִים לְהוֹן׃
And they shall serve Yahveh their God and listen to the Messiah the son of David their king whom I shall raise for them.
- Metzudat David commentary on Jer. 30:9:
זהו מלך המשיח הבא מזרע דוד
This is the King Messiah who comes from the seed of David.
4 Luke 2:32 cf. Isa. 49:3, 49:6; Matt. 2:15 cf. Exo. 4:22; Hos. 11:1
5 Justin Martyr. Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. Ch. C, CXIV, CXXVI
6 cf. Joel 3:19; also, see Gesenius, on מִּן, p. 482–3, 2. e.
7 Kimchi’s commentary on Psalms was one of many Jewish works in which Christian censors deleted passages deemed offensive to Christianity. However, a few manuscripts of his commentary on Psalms did survive with the relevant passages intact. The first image is from Schiller-Szinessy’s The First Book of the Psalms according to the Text of the Cambridge MS. Bible Add. 465 with the Longer Commentary of R. David Qimchi, critically edited from nineteen manuscripts and early edition, p. 11. The second image is from Edward Pococke’s Porta Mosis, Vol. 1, p. 244–245, wherein he cites another edition of Kimchi’s commentary on Psa. 2:12.
8 Folio רסו—(p. 266)
Driver, Samuel Rolles; Neubauer, Adolf Abraham. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters. Vol. 1. Oxford: Parker, 1876.
Driver, Samuel Rolles; Neubauer, Adolf Abraham. The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters. Vol. 2. Oxford: Parker, 1876.
Gesenius, Heinrich Friedrich Wilhelm. Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures. Trans. Tregelles, Samuel Prideaux. London: Bagster, 1860.
Kimchi, David (דוד קמחי). Sefer Mikhlol (ספר מכלול). Venice: Bomberg, 1545.
Pococke, Edward. The Theological Works of the Learned Dr. Pocock. Trans. Twells, Leonard. Vol. 1. London: Mitre and Crown, 1740.
The First Book of the Psalms according to the Text of the Cambridge MS. Bible add. 465. Ed. Schiller-Szinessy, Salomon Marcus. Cambridge: Deighton, 1883.