The Reformation Study Bible (RSB) and HarCol both call this passage the fourth and last servant song, the others being 42:1-9, 49:1-7, and 50:4-11. The JSB calls out this as “one of the most difficult and contested passages in the Bible.”
As expected, the RSB makes the unqualified statement that “The ‘Suffering Servant’ is Jesus Christ.” HarCol points to Acts 8:32-35, which to me ambiguously connects Christ to this passage, and claims that the early church thought the servant to be Jesus. The JSB recognizes that Christians see Christ in this passage, but quickly refers the reader to the “considerable attention” given by medieval rabbinic commentators to refuting that view.
The JSB does not claim that Christians clearly miss an obvious meaning with their Messianic viewpoint; rather, as I mentioned above, they recognized this passage as quite difficult to grasp, particularly regarding the identity of the servant. They do point out that while many commentators have equated the servant with Messiah (though not necessarily Christ), nowhere else does Deutero-Isaiah mention an individual Messiah. This point is one textual critics use to demarcate Isaiah son of Amoz from this second, exilic author.
The alternatives given by the JSB commentators, then, are these:
- The entire nation of the Jewish people suffering at the hands of the Babylonians.
- A righteous minority of Jews suffering unjustly for the sins of the rest of the nation. Both this and the previous option are supported by Deutero-Isaiah’s common use of the term “servant” to refer to the nation, or at least the righteous among Israel.
- A specific individual (Messiah), but JSB considers this unlikely as I wrote above.
- Deutero-Isaiah himself
- Isaiah son of Amoz
- Jeremiah the prophet
So seven possible interpretations, just regarding the identity of the servant. Add to this the evocative story surrounding this servant and we have a truly interesting but mysterious passage.
Personally, it seems to me that if one accepts the truth of the New Testament scriptures as I do, then equating the servant here with the Christ is inescapable. However, for those unconvinced that Jesus is the Messiah, trying to make him into God’s suffering servant would seem ludicrous.