A Form Critical Analysis of the Fourth Servant Song in Isaiah 52:13-53:12


The Fourth Servant Song, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, long a cornerstone of Christian prophetic literature, provides ample fuel to the debates that arise from its ambiguity.  Who is the servant?  Who was made to suffer and was despised?  A plethora of questions exist to be honestly wrestled with in order for a more comprehensive theology to stem from this piece of poetic literature.  Form criticism creates a framework from which to observe the thought-flow of the poem and presents clues as to the meaning and intention of the poet.  The relevance of form criticism to this poetic literature is established through the analysis of its boundaries and internal structure.  Directly proceeding from the internal structure, a deeper analysis of the sub-forms within the overall structure indicate the thematic purpose of the poem.

A Startling Journey

The Song demarcates its bounds quite nicely, with 53:10’s jolting command of “Behold.”  It is a clear indication of a new thought, perspective, as well as clear change in momentum from the previous passages.   Motyer highlights the exclamatory order to “Behold” as a climactic transition from the “the whole series of commands which began at 51:1 and brings the promises (51:1-8) and blessings (51:17-52:12)” (Motyer 423).  Similarly, the ending of the poem is delineated by the next powerful command of “Sing” in 54:1.  Ignoring the chapter divisions, it remains obvious that “Sing” is a beginning of a new dialogue due to the content of the opening line addressing the barren women of the land.

Validating these boundary markers, the content of the poem within shows a focus on the servant and the suffering in contrast to to bold statements about God Himself depicted in the surrounding passages.  In 52:11-12, a command to depart is followed by a promise of protection from the LORD.  In 54:1-3, a poem to barren women, that again brings encouragement and reassurance of future glory.  The form highlights these passages as separate in thought and intent from the Fourth Song.

Having said that, within the walls of the Fourth Song the listener is taken on an unpredictable journey.  At a 50,000 foot level, the passage follows an A-B-A format.

A – The grand introduction to the Servant (52:13-53:1)

X –  A confessional about unjust suffering  (53:2-9)

A’ – A final grand conclusion to the Servant and Sufferer (53:10-12)

Goldingay emphasizes the continuity between the opening and closing proclamations of the servant in presenting that continued usage of the positive imperfect verbs induce a “before and after” comparison (Goldingay 472)  The change in verb styles indicates a connection in thought between the two bookends bridged by the confessional text.  The challenge to the listener is to understand the connections between the positive opening and closing announcements and the very negative confessional.

Form criticism upon this three-part chiastic structure builds an individual understanding of each component before evolving a more comprehensive theological statement.  The obtuseness of genre exists both to keep the reader in anticipation as well as to arrive at a novel conclusion which will be made clear through a detailed, form-critical analysis.

The Grand Introduction to the Servant (52:13-15)

The first strophe of this Song presents the Servant as a radically unique figure.  The first tricolon in 52:13, uses powerful descriptors to illuminate the Servant as an exalted figure.

“My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted. “

Isaiah 52:13 NASB

The phrases “will prosper”, “be high”, “lifted up”, and “greatly exalted” show an increasingly positive depiction of the Servant.  The poet is not only characterizing the Servant by stating his ability to act wisely and his “high” position, but also the treatment imbued upon him by the people, namely they will lift him up and they will greatly exalt him.  The Servant, at first glance, can be no less than a mighty king.  Upon who else would the nations bestow such hero worship? And yet the next cola of the strophe present the same Servant in the exact opposite light of disfigurement and suppression.  Verse 15 depicts the utter shock of the kings as they can do nothing but “shut their mouths at Him.”  All would have a similar reaction.

Isaiah 52:15cd-53:1ab, serves as the bridge to the confessional lament.  Childs indicates that the chiastic device seen in the combined metaphors of seeing (52:15b, 53:1b) and hearing (v.15b and 53:1a) “confirms the continuity between the group of Israel in v15b and the confessing voice of 53:1ff (Childs 413).”

A 52:15c For what had not been told them they will see, Seeing
B 52:15d And what they had not heard, they will understand. Hearing
B’ 53:1a Who has believed our message? Hearing
A’ 53:1b And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed Seeing

Smart focuses on the key phrase “the arm of the LORD” as a linguistic marker in Second Isaiah indicating a decisive involvement of God in either “destroying his enemies or in bringing salvation” (Smart 205).  With this phrase, the intent of the poem is unveiled as salvation-oriented.  Goldingay observes that the rhetorical questions that conclude the transition leave both an implied sense of hopelessness as well as the seed of hope in that where once there was unbelief, now there is belief blooming.  (Goldingay 495).  With this transition, the reader is aware that God will reveal his Servant for who he is, despite unbelief.  The chiastic structure also serves to transition the monologue from the perspective of God’s proclamation of His Servant, to the perspective of the people.

The Confessional Concerning the Sufferer

Muthunayagam perceives the genre of this Second Strophe as “a liturgical speech, confessional in nature” (Muthunayagam 132)Changing the pronominal representation of the audience from “they” to “we”, the strophe extending from 53:2-53:9 itself can be further divided into a concise, three-Scene narrative.  In this narrative, Watts is in the camp giving the Servant and the Sufferer separate identities, namely Darius and Zerubabbel  (Watts 220).   However, no convincing argument is presented in either direction and therefore no assumption over identity of each will be made.

Scene 1 53:2-3 The development of the Sufferer in the presence of the people
Scene 2 53:4-53:6 The pain and affliction born by the Sufferer for the sake of the people.
Scene 3 53:7-53:9 The resulting death and burial of the Sufferer.

The Sufferer is presented in this tripartite format to narrate three perspectives of the Sufferer and the suffering he is forced to endure.

The first Scene begins with the Sufferer literally sprouting from nothing.  Verse 2 is broken into two components: 2ab describe that his beginnings were humble, less than relevant, and in no way advantageous.  Usage of terms such as “tender plant” and the exposed “root” illustrate the fragility of the Sufferer.  Verse 3 furthers the development of the Sufferer in the negative by the inclusio of “despised and rejected” in v3a and “despised/no esteem” in v3d.  Motyer identifies this inclusio within the form of an Isaianic palistrophe (Motyer 428).  The center two cola of the verse show that the Sufferer led a life of sorrow prior to the upcoming suffering in the later Scenes.  Further, the fact that he was despised and rejected, depicted as “one whom men hid their faces” (v3c).  This first Scene places the Sufferer against a backdrop of pre-existant worthlessness, rejection, and sorrow.

Scene 2 tells of the pain inflicted upon the Sufferer.  Judging from the brevity of their defense, it appears the people may feel remorse, if not guilt, over the torture inflicted upon the Sufferer.  The defense, “that he was “stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted” assumes that this was the lot in life of the Sufferer as predestined by God.  However, verses 5-6 immediately change the tone from defensiveness to one of remorse in which the people understand the Sufferer as persecuted on their behalf.

Within Scene 2, three separate literary structures lead to the same thematic conclusion: the Sufferer was tormented for the people.  First, as Goldingay proposes, the synonymous parallelism that characterizes verses 4-6 serves no real purpose except when the parallelism is broken in verse 6, seemingly with the intention of emphasizing this verse (Goldingay 471).  In light of this parallelism, the highlight of this Scene is that as stated by Isaiah 53:6c is that “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Second, Motyer reveals that the verse [6] is a palistrophe which opens with “All we (kullanu)” and closes with “us all (kullanu)” (Motyer 431) .  This palistrophe highlights the guilt that exists in the people; “we have turned, every one, to his own way,” and echoing the communal flaws in the Book of Judges in which everyone did what was right in their own eyes.  Third and finally, the inclusio of transgression/iniquity in v5ab to iniquity in v6c, illustrate this theme of the people’s iniquity and transgression burdened upon the Sufferer.

The final Scene in this confessional narrative gives a glimpse into the character of the Sufferer.  The repeated usage of “his mouth,” emphasizes that the Sufferer bore his suffering without complaint (v7a and v7e) and did not attempt to alleviate his suffering (v9d).  The emphasis on the lack of defiance illustrates the character of the Sufferer as completely humble to the task and position given to him.

Collectively, the three Scenes of this confessional narrative paint a picture of the Sufferer through uncovering his background history, through clarifying his purpose in suffering, and finally through emphasizing his conviction.

A Central Focus Creating a Theology Through Form and Setting

There is a central theme that protrudes out of the apex of the confessional and serves as a fulcrum in the perspective of the people.  Surrounding the quatrain of v5c-6b exactly 14 cola of the confessional exists on either side, highlighting the significance of this quatrain.

“upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way; “

– Isaiah 53:5c-6b

With an eye on this cornerstone passage, the reader can see how the structure of the poem has resulted in a theological argument which is foreign to the Israelite community.

Arg 1 52:13-53:1b The Appearance of a Servant Unexpected in Form and Stature
Arg 2 53:1c-53:3 The Appearance of a Sufferer Condemned From Birth
Arg 3 53:4-53:5b People Understand that the Sufferer bore their Punishment
Fulcrum 53:5c-53:6b People Understand that Despite their Guilt, They are Healed
Arg 4 53:6c The LORD Chose for the Sufferer to Bear the Punishment of the People
Arg 5 53:7-53:9 LORD Chose the Sufferer and He Humbly Accepted in Silence
Arg 6 53:10-53:12 The Sufferer Enables the Servant to Justify the People and is Rewarded

For the first time in Jewish theology, the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement was introduced.  The historical setting adds credence to this theology as the only possible solution.  By this time, the Israelites have been in exile for some time, with seemingly no hope for return.  Their underlying guilt in unfaithfulness to YHWH has convinced them that the restoration they seek may never materialize.  The literary setting is similar to the historical in that the confessional of a group or community is being addressed to a figure in authority.  The people in the confessional have clear thoughts of remorse as well as gratefulness for their atonement.

A Final Grand Conclusion to the Sufferer

Before proceeding, the concluding strophe must first bring the reader to closure regarding the Sufferer.  In a turn of events, the first two cola of v10 make the LORD, himself, the source of the suffering.  This is possibly a third-party observation of the Sufferer for what he has done and for what he will become.  Upon briefly addressing the Sufferer’s grief, the poem, in rapid succession, moves to the glorious rejuvenation of the Sufferer.

  1. 10d – He shall see His Seed.
  2. 10e – He shall prolong His Days
  3. 10f – And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand
  4. 11a – He shall see the labor of His soul
  5. 11b – and be satisfied

The repetition of “the will of the LORD” in v10a and v10e confirms the approval of the work of the Sufferer as well as the reward of the Sufferer.  The poet uses such a rapid ascent to guide the reader away from the plight of the Sufferer.

“By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many…” – Isaiah 53:11c

The Servant is reintroduced as a Saviour.  The Sufferer is now viewed as an enabler of the Servant’s task.  In the v12, a repetition triplet is employed to characterize the Sufferer.

  1. 12ab – The Reward of the Sufferer
  2. 12cd – The Sacrifice of the Sufferer
  3. 12ef – The Intercessory work of the Sufferer.

The perspective has once again shifted, this time to the LORD, himself.  In assuming that the imperfect verbs shared between this Strophe and the Opening Strophe are indicative of the Servant’s transformation, Goldingay takes the position that the Servant and Sufferer are one and the same (Goldingay 472).  The alternative perspective, assuming independent individuals, is that the Sufferer must diminish in order for the Servant to ascend.  Regardless, the LORD’s characterization of the Sufferer is in clear contrast to that of the people’s confessional in the Second Strophe.


The People’s Perspective of the Servant The LORD’s Perspective of the Servant
The Scornful Beginnings of the Sufferer The Reward of the Sufferer
The Regretted Torment of the Sufferer The Sacrifice of the Sufferer
The Unjustified Sacrifice of the Sufferer The Intercessory work of the Sufferer.


While the People viewed the Sufferer as a tormented soul unfairly condemned, the LORD’s perspective shows the Sufferer as an exalted individual with a clear purpose behind his suffering.

A Genre Unto Itself

A genre in this mold had not exist prior to this poem.  The debate exists as to whether the Fourth Song is a song of thanksgiving or a song of lament.  Schipper pits Otto Kaiser argument against Begrich’s.   J. Begrich contends that Isaiah 53 is a song of thanksgiving due to the praise of the Servant and Sufferer.   Kaiser, on the other hand, interprets the servant as Israel. Therefore, the Fourth Song is a lamentation of that exilic community (Schipper 54).  The conflict is explained in the light of the birth of substitutionary atonement.  For the first time in the history of Jewish theology, it is possible for an individual or community to have lamentable guilt and yet give thanks in expectation of salvation.  Through it’s form and structure, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the Fourth Song of the Servant, presents a revelation of God’s seemingly transformed plan for the atonement and restoration of the remnant through substitutionary atonement.


Works Cited

Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.

Goldingay, John. The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary. First Edition edition. London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2005. Print.

Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. InterVarsity Press, 1993. Print.

Muthunayagam, Daniel Jones. In Relationship between Election and Israel’s Attitude towards the Nations in the Book of Isaiah. Delhi: ISPCK, 2000. Print.

Schipper, Jeremy. Disability and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Smart, James D. History and Theology in Second Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 35, 40-66. N.p. Print.

Watts, John D. W. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 25, Isaiah 34-66 (watts), 420pp. Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987. Print.



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