The Suffering Servant
(Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12)
For many Christians it is clear who could only be meant by the Servant in Isaiah: Jesus of Nazareth! Dürer paints him as a “Man of Sorrows”. It is a small picture, in which we are to delve into devoutly, in order to sympathize with Christ. Christ is slumped over, resting his head on his right hand and looking sadly at us. He is covered with wounds. The bundle of brushwood and the scourge remind us of his suffering. Behind him, the entrance of a burial cave is indicated. It surrounds him like a glow. The stone parapet in front of him may allude to his coffin. It is exciting what you can discover on the golden background. In addition to thistle vines, which remind us of Christ’s pain, there is an owl above Christ’s head. It has spread its wings and is defending itself against two birds attacking from the left and right. It is known from ornithology that small birds have it in for owls and really “mob” them. The owl is here a symbol for the guiltless persecuted, beaten and insulted Christ. By the way, Dürer has struck the fine drawings in hundreds of dots with so-called nail punches into the gold background!
Fig. 1: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Christ as Man of Sorrows, 1493/94, oil and tempera on panel, 30.1 x 18.8 cm, Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle
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.
So he shall startlemany nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Who has believed what we have heard?
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 sufferingand acquainted with infirmity,
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases,
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted;
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 was 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[c] with the rich,
although he had done no violence.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with affliction.
When you make his life an offering for sin,[e]
he shall see his offspring and shall prolong his days.
Out of his anguish he shall see;
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,
because he poured out himself to death
and was numbered with the transgressors.
Here begins the fourth and last song of the Servant of God. It forms the climax of the literary production of the Servant who will be “exalted and very high” (52,13) and comes close to the holy, high God whom Isaiah had seen (6:1-4). In the Song there are alternating speakers. YHWH speaks at the beginning and at the end. In the middle part (from p. 121) a collective (“we”) reflects as part of the “many” from the people Israel the fate of the Servant.
It remains open until the end who the Servant is. Does he stand for a historical individual? Is he a messianic figure? The individual interpretation of the Servant as a suffering Messiah has old Jewish (not first Christian!) roots; in the Middle Ages, in the context of the persecutions of the Jews, it becomes a collective interpretation that sees in the Servant a prefiguration of all the sufferings of the Jewish people (Berges 2015, 370f.). Taking the individual textual findings together, a collective interpretation of the Servant ultimately suggests itself. The Servant is then to be understood as a group of those who have returned home from the exile and now, together with some of those who stayed at home, become YHWH’s witnesses and ambassadors, the ideal figure of Israel (Berges 2016, 184ff.).
Fig. 2: Albrecht Dürer, Lamentation for Christ, 1500-03, oil on wood, 151 x 121 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek
Fig. 1: Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSVUE) © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.