The Suffering Son of David


There is adequate evidence in the Hebrew Bible to conclude that the Jewish Messiah, the anointed Redeemer, would suffer at the hands of his people, and atone for their sins. The most graphic scriptures depicting this suffering are found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, where it is said he will be “smitten” and “afflicted.” Rabbinic literature picks up on this suffering messiah theme and depicts this One as the “scholar leper” who waits at the gates of Rome, ready to go forth to fulfill his redemptive call.1

Within the Hebrew Bible a second thread of scripture depicts the Messiah as a king (Ezek 37:22) who will judge the peoples (Isa 66:15–16 ) and rule over a kingdom on earth (2 Sam 7:12–13; Dan 7:13–14). The prophet Nathan recognized that David’s kingdom would be a perpetual one (2 Sam.7:16), that David’s lineal descendants would sit as kings in Jerusalem (Ezek 37:24), and that one would in fact be the Messiah. Rabbinic literature also recognizes this One as the Davidic Messiah and is replete with affirming citations.2 In fact, it is clear from the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) that the angels (Luke 1:31–33), the Pharisees (Matt 22:42), and the Jewish masses (Matt 12:22, 21:8–9) recognized that the Messiah would be the Son of David (Matt 1:1; 21:9), and that he would liberate the Jewish people from Roman rule, and establish righteousness.3

It is not a surprise, then, that the sages and post-destruction rabbis saw two different Messiahs—a Messiah ben Yoseph and a Messiah ben David. This “confused” reading was undoubtedly because of the two separate themes running through the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible): a suffering Messiah (Isa 53) and a kingly Messiah (Zech 9:9). However, it would not have been a surprise, based upon a careful reading of the dual messianic roles throughout the Hebrew Bible assigned to this Anointed One, had the sages and rabbis reached the conclusion that there was one Messiah who displayed both the characteristics of the suffering servant and the conquering king. David, in addition to being a king who extended the kingdom and ruled over it with a strong hand, was a type of suffering servant, and could well accommodate in his personage both the suffering servant and the strong king models. King David was God’s servant and descended into the depths of suffering during his life. This corresponds to Yeshua the Messiah’s path of suffering

The Suffering Servant

All the pre-17th century rabbis agreed that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 referred to Messiah.4 As an introduction to this Suffering Servant, Isaiah 52:13 proclaims “See, my servant will act wisely.” What follows is a description of the one who was acquainted with suffering (53:3) deep in his nefesh (soul) (53: 11) at the hand of the Lord (53: 10). This Isaiah pericope is one of the four servant songs (Isa 42:1–4, 49:1– 6; 50:4–9), where each presents a facet of the servanthood of the Messiah.

It is noteworthy that David is referred to no fewer than sixteen times in the Hebrew Bible as “my servant,”5 and many other times in the context of servanthood. David certainly was God’s servant, and though he was far from perfect, he suffered greatly for his service. He undoubtedly first learned service through his shepherding. This is a job that requires attentiveness at all times to insure that the sheep do not go astray.6 This shepherd quality is highlighted in the Hebrew Bible related to the Davidic Messiah:7 “So I will set up one Shepherd over them, My servant David—He will tend them, He will feed them Himself and be their shepherd” (Ezek 34:23).

Suffering at the Hands of King Saul

David suffered from his enemies and one of his closest is King Saul. Saul was a sick man who had violent bouts of rage, and an evil spirit visited him from time to time. Sometimes David was able to soothe Saul through his skillful harp playing (1 Sam 16:14–23). But Saul was insanely jealous of David’s popularity (1 Sam 18:6–9). David was forced to flee from Saul,8 hiding in caves,9 forests,10 towns,11 the wilderness of the hill country,12 and around the Dead Sea in wadis,13 in efforts to avoid Saul’s murderous rants and unrelenting pursuit to kill him. This persecution was not due to David’s sin or fault; in fact, it was due to his uprightness. David did not retaliate against Saul, even though he had ample opportunity to do so when he caught Saul off guard in a cave in Ein-gedi
(1 Sam 24:3–4). David refused to “kill God’s anointed,” and only cut off the corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam 24:4), and his conscience bothered him because he did that
(1 Sam 24:5–7). Again, when Saul pursued him in the wilderness of Ziph, David had an opportunity to kill him while he was sleeping, but once again he refused to “touch God’s anointed,” instead respecting the office of King (1 Sam 26:1–12). David suffered without retaliating, “turning the other cheek,” while only emoting to God. He sought God as his refuge.14 He was a man acquainted with grief and sorrows and his countenance was worn due to the enduring struggle with Saul, and the constant fear for his life. It is these emotions that are recorded in some of the most moving biblical psalms he composed in which the intensity of his pain and suffering can be heard through his cries to God.15

Additionally, David had a great love for Saul’s son, Jonathan, and mourned terribly when he learned of his death on the battlefield. He memorialized Jonathan in a song in which he expressed his love and grief for him (2 Sam 1:25–26). David is a suffering servant of God.

Suffering the Deaths of Two Sons

There perhaps is no greater pain than to suffer the death of one’s child. That is exactly what David experienced when his new-born child died (2 Sam 12:14–18). This was a penalty for his sin of adultery with Batsheva, and his treatment of her husband Uriah whom he exposed in battle to die.16 His only consolation was that he would someday go to see his child. Nonetheless, David grieved deeply. He expressed that pain in some of the psalms that he wrote (Ps 32:3–4).

David also lost his rebellious son Absalom, who was slain in battle when his hair got caught in an oak tree and the mule he was riding continued, leaving him hanging and helpless. He was thrust through in that condition with three darts to his heart and then dealt a final fatal blow (2 Sam 18:9–15). When David heard of the death of his son he cried: “My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 19:1). David’s grief was heartfelt, and he appeared to be inconsolable (2 Sam 19:2–5).

Suffering Depicted in the Psalms

Whereas Isaiah 53 generalizes the sufferings of the Messiah, Psalm 22 depicts them more graphically and personally. This psalm composed by King David obviously comes out of the depths of the agony he experienced. Although it prophetically refers to Messiah Yeshua who suffered death by crucifixion, nevertheless, the experiences are transmitted through David who descended into the abyss of darkness, and emerged to compose his emotions in a psalm. One can hear the plaintive cries and the soulish agony and suffering in David’s voice when he cries out:

My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?
Distant from my salvation
are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cried out by day. . . .
By night, but there is no rest for me. . . .
Am I a worm, and not a man?
Am I a scorn of men,
despised by people? . . .
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are disjointed.
My heart is like wax—
melting within my innards.
My strength is dried up like a clay pot.

This Psalm is perhaps the one most cited for David’s affliction and prophetic allusion to the crucifixion of Yeshua. However, the portrait of David’s suffering and prophetic allusions to Messiah are found throughout the psalms that David penned, and should be read holistically in order to grasp the severity of his agony. It is David who comes closest in song and psalm to portraying a soulish affliction that speaks of Yeshua’s sufferings, and he was able to do so by being in touch with his own experiences. Consider for example Psalm 38, where he cries:

There is no health in my flesh. . .
There is no wholeness in my bones. . . .
My wounds are foul and festering. . . .
For my heart is filled with burning pain. . . .
I am numb and utterly crushed.
I groan because of anguish in my heart. . . .
[A]nd my pain is before me constantly.


This portrayal of David’s sufferings is not intended to diminish the suffering of Joseph who was thrown in a pit and wound up in prison in Egypt, estranged from his parents and his brothers for several decades. Of course, there are others in Scripture who also experienced the depths of suffering. Job (Iyov) is the iconic figure for suffering. He lost his home, his wife and children and experienced horrendous physical suffering and psychological and spiritual torment while being accused by his friends. It could just as well have been Messiah ben Iyov. Yet, scripture makes it clear that the Messiah was to come from Judah and from the house of David. There is no express support in the Hebrew Bible for a two-messiah act,rather, only references to multiple functions which could apply to one Messiah. Similarly, Scripture reveals different names for God, each indicating a different characteristic. Nonetheless these are simply multiple attributes of One God.

The two threads of scripture depicting the Messiah as “suffering” and “conquering” can be subsumed within the personage of King David, who ruled and suffered. Although Joseph is a shadow or a type of the suffering savior, the Messiah was not to come from his direct line; he was to descend from David through Solomon.It is thus David who is the more perfect prototype of the Messiah who would come twice: first, as one who suffered for his people’s salvation, and a second time as one who would judge the nations and establish his kingdom rule. Although King David cannot compare to his divine progeny, the Messiah, in either suffering or reigning, he does echo the greater David to come in both spheres.

Modified from an article that appeared in Teaching from Zion 36 (April 2017): 20–22.

Rabbi Elliot Klayman, a retired professor of law from The Ohio State University, is the current Executive Director of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He is the editor of Kesher, a theological journal, and currently edits The Messianic Outreach. He lives in San Diego with his wife of 43 years, and sits on the Board of Kehilat Ariel—San Diego, a messianic congregation. He enjoys teaching, sport activities, and his four grandchildren.

1 b. San 98 a & b.

2 See for example, Ben Sira, I Macc & Psalms of Solomon 17.

3 This Davidic Messiah, according to one traditional understanding, would defeat Armilus (Rome) and resurrect Messiah ben Yoseph. Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon, 1979), 166; b. San 98a bifurcates the Messiah and explains that if the people are worthy they get Messiah ben David, but if they are not worthy they get Messiah ben Yoseph.

4 Moshe Alshekh, 16th century Rabbi. Targum Jonathan, a fourth century work, renders Isaiah 52:13 as “Behold, my servant the Messiah.”

5 2 Sam 3:18; I Kings 11:13, 34, 36, 38; 2 Kings 19:39, 20:6; I Chron 17:4; Ps 89: 3, 20; Isa 37:35; Jer 33:21–22, 33:26.

6 Yeshua highlights the servant qualities of the Good Shepherd contained in John 10: 1–16.

7 See Isaiah 34 where the good shepherd who serves well is compared to the bad shepherd who does not.

8 I Sam 19:1–4, 9–16, 20:1, 21:1.

9 I Sam 22: 1.

10 I Sam 22: 5.

11 I Sam 23: 7

12 I Sam 23: 14, 25–26.

13 I Sam 24.

14 See Psalms 57 & 59 where David expresses his emotions concerning Saul and Saul’s men who seek to kill him.

15 See Psalms 38, 64 & 69.

16 Some Rabbis throughout the ages have sought to mitigate this responsibility by maintaining that Batsheva was not really married since it was the custom before the men went out to war to give a bill of divorcement as a hedge in the event that they did not return. And some midrashim point out that Uriah was treacherous and deserved what he got. However, these rabbinic attempts to rehabilitate David fail to justify David’s sinful actions.