The Suffering Servant as the Leper Messiah

My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).

In the last post, I introduced the suffering servant in Second Isaiah. In the first song, the servant counter-intuitively brings justice by patiently and quietly enduring injustice. Second Isaiah addressed the Jews in Exile, letting them know their judgment had passed and they would soon be allowed to return home to Jerusalem.

The Fourth Song: He Was Despised and Rejected

This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.

I won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)

He/him refers to the Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly, many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace, healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.

In the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself. It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song, that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked human (52:14).

We see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him (53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins NRSV Study Bible says,

“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).

(HC 53:4-6 footnote)

And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.

Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.

He Grew Up Like a Young Plant

The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)

They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The Servant as Messiah

First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.

So I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,

See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

(Isa 52:13 NRS)

When the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only implicit.

The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:

At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.

(Rut 2:14)

The Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.

Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].

If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.

A Leper Messiah

Here is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.

(Isa 53:4 NRS)

The Talmud comments,

The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.

(Sanhedrin 98b)

Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.

The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”

“… like a leper messiah,” 2:25

David Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,

One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.

Ziggy Stardust,” AZ Lyrics

Rabbi Bowie?

Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.

But God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes with it.

And out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.

The First Principle of Recovery

Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.

Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.

A Deal for You

Book cover Dark Nights of the Soul on rustic table
Winner Nonfiction, Writer’s Digest Self-Published Ebooks, available on Kindle through January for $0.99. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083JNXHZF

My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, won the Nonfiction category in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Ebook Awards. In honor of this, it will be available on Kindle for only $0.99 throughout the month of January! (You can also get it in paperback if you prefer). I am humbled, amazed, and grateful. Thank you to Writer’s Digest and to anyone who reads it.