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The Servant's Atonement in Isaiah

by Douglas Kennard In the time of Jesus the book of Isaiah was one of the most read and most copied books of the collection of scrolls that became our Old Testament.  A memorable feature of Isaiah is a series of poems known as the Servant songs.  Isaiah 53 appears to describe a day when God’s people will have their sins atoned through Isaiah’s servant.Doug Kennard

Differing interpretations of the suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53 are reflected in the translations, however David A. Sapp and Otto Betz present convincing cases for the following development: (1) In the Hebrew tradition known as the Masoretic text the Servant’s afflictions and death are portrayed as an individual vicariously atoning; (2) the Greek version of Isaiah known as the Septuagint (LXX) tones down the Servant’s suffering (he does not die, but is divinely rescued), almost to the point of being representative atoning; (3) while a later rabbinic text, Targum Jonathan—an Aramaic translation of the prophets—transposes suffering from the Servant/Messiah to Israel’s enemies. This reinterpretation makes Israel’s enemies the sacrifice of atonement (Isa 43:3). Some think there is an “Isaac Typology” (based on Genesis 22:1–14) that lies behind Isaiah 53, and its influence is to be seen in early Judaism and the N. T. where the motif of vicarious suffering and death in atonement emerges. The people who wrote and collected the Dead Sea Scrolls noticed these features and even changed aspects in one of their copies of Isaiah (1QIsa) from the MT to be more Messianic with regard to offering Himself as atonement for humanity.  Another scroll from cave four (4Q541) follows suit.

Yahweh promises to exalt His Servant because He voluntarily provided a “substitutionary atonement,” having died as a vicarious sacrifice on behalf of guilty people to cleanse and save them (Isa 52:13–15). Israel responds in a confession of their sin and belief in the Servant’s atoning death (Isa 53:1–9; Zech 12:10–11). Israel’s confession probably takes place as the Servant is honored in a future, eschatological kingdom. This confession fits the pattern of the Servant offering Himself as purification and guilt offering on their behalf, thus “vicarious atonement.” Because of the effectiveness of the Servant’s offering, the Servant will be blessed with a continuing inheritance (Isa 53:10–12).

Israel understands that the human abuse and death of the Servant was ultimately because Yahweh placed their iniquity and covenant curse upon the Servant as a vicarious substitutionary atonement as one would find in a guilt or purification offering (Isa 53:3–6, 10). The theological meaning of the Servant’s death is carried by sacrificial terminology. The Servant atones for many nations and Israel in their sin through the pattern of covenantal atonement (purification or guilt offering). In His marred appearance the Servant is identified as “He will sprinkle many nations” (Isa 52:14–15). Such a concept of corporate sprinkling indicates the establishment of a covenant and the atonement forgiveness which accompanies this relationship (Exod 24:8; Heb 9:13; 1 Pet 1:2). To effect this atonement, the Servant is vicariously sacrificed by God (Isa 53:4–6). The sins of the people are confessed upon the scape-goat to bear them away into the wilderness. This vicarious “bearing” of the people’s sin is what the Servant accomplishes (Isa 53:4, 10). The Servant’s death is to deal with our corporate iniquities, to bring atonement, and peace with God. Such atonement and reconciliation are what one would expect as benefits from a guilt offering (Isa. 53:10 MT guilt offering, though the LXX sin offering).

There is no object taken, so no reparations are required, only Israel’s conscious confession of their sin, which is in fact the voice of Isaiah 53:1, “Who has believed our message?” Isaiah presents this confession of corporate Israel as in the future Kingdom era (Isa 52:7–10; 54:1–17). As has been shown, the servant’s substitutionary sacrifice is informed especially by the language of the cult, not a courtroom situation (especially Lev 5:1, 17; 10:17; 16:22; 17:16; 20:19 and Num 9:13; 14:34). Within this Jewish vicarious sacrifice, the Messiah’s atonement is truly effective to save.


Dr. Doug Kennard (ThD) is Professor of New Testament at Houston Graduate School of Theology.