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The Servant Songs of Isaiah

OK, roll up the sleeves of your mind, because this section really is going to dig deeper.  The study of Isaiah is a rich and rewarding one, but it is not as easy as it may seem.  For Christians, especially Christians who have been raised in the church, we are very familiar with certain passages that get read at Christmas and Easter every year.  Perhaps we aren’t aware that these sayings come from Isaiah, but we are familiar with phrases like,

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,”

and

“For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

or

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.”

If we are going to be good students of the Bible we must not be too quick to apply these directly to Jesus.  Scripture must always be read in the context in which it was written.  Isaiah was a preacher, proclaiming a message to the people of Jerusalem during the final days of Hezekiah and into the beginning of the wicked reign of King Manasseh.  Isaiah saw the wickedness of Manasseh and knew that the end was near for Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Babylonians were going to come in and destroy the city (the prophet Jeremiah was the witness to this event), tear down the Temple, and carry the people off to be in exile for 70 years.  This broke Isaiah’s heart.  After chapter 40 of his book, Isaiah began looking past the 70 years of exile and towards the hope of a restored Jerusalem and a people that were reunited with a proper relationship with Yahweh.  When we read Isaiah, and when we read about the Kingdom of God, we must first read it in the very literal, temporal sense of the restoration of the physical city of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple that took place under the leadership of Zurubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

With this in mind, we can now turn our attention to an extremely important, yet incredibly enigmatic, central character that recurrs in Isaiah’s teaching.  This is the Servant of the Lord.  Who is the servant?  Is it Isaiah?  Is it Cyrus, king of Persia, who would be the instrument for setting the people free?  Is it Zurubbabel, Ezra, or Nehemiah?  Or is it a future king that would reestablish the kingdom and make up for all the wickedness of the kings that Isaiah had witnessed?  Regardless of who it was, this Servant was also considered to be a Messiah (which simply means, “Annointed One.”  Remember, all the kings were annointed at their coronation and thus were, technically, messiahs).

The purpose for this article is twofold.  First, it is to expose you to the fact that not everyone is quick to attribute the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah to Jesus of Nazareth.  Second, it is to demonstrate just where the connection to Jesus as the Servant from Isaiah comes from.

This will be done in three parts.  First, the Servant Songs themselves.  Second, a commentary that gives a very different read on Isaiah 53 (just to show you the thought process), and third, the biblical connections to Jesus.

The Servant Songs

Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah 49:1-7

Isaiah 50:4-9

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Isaiah 61:1-3

A Different Perspective

53:1-11a, The Many Acknowledge the Servant Has Borne Their Sin.

In thanksgiving psalms, the person rescued speaks of his vindication to the many, but here the many speak while the servant is silent, thus illustrating v. 7 (cf. Ps. 39:2, 9). They can hardly believe their rescue came from one so lowly (Isa. 53:1-3). Servants in the Bible were often of lowly origin: Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah all reminded God of their lack of talent; even David in the estimate of his family was totally unsuitable as a candidate for kingship (1 Sam. 16:1-13).

In Isa. 53:4-6, the speakers declare the servant has borne their sins. Here we must attempt to answer two difficult questions: who are the speakers, and how does the servant bear others’ sins? The speaker seems to be exiled Israel, not the nations. In Second Isaiah the nations are spectators at the reemergence of Israel. They are part of important scenes as chorus, not protagonist. Israel, therefore, is “the many” whose sin the servant bears.

How does the servant bear the sins of Israel? One must avoid reading nt ideas into the Isaian text (Mark 10:45; 14:24; and parallels use similar language to interpret the death of Jesus) or denying vicarious suffering in the ot simply because it is not found anywhere else. A good starting point is the observation that most Hebrew words for sin can mean both the act and the state resulting from the act. “To bear the sin” therefore means to bear the consequences of sin. The people of the Exile, for example, had to bear the consequences of the sins of their pre-exilic ancestors, “Our fathers sinned and are no more [they are not living so as to suffer the consequences of their act], and we bear their sins” (Lam. 5:7).

How could the servant bear the sin of his contemporaries, “the many”? A partial answer is given by 50:4-11, in which the disciple accepted the sufferings of the Exile as sent by God; he offered his back to the smiters, his cheek to those who plucked his beard. Most of the exiles did not regard the Exile the way the servant did, to judge from the preaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They fled from it, either attempting to return prematurely or giving up all hope of return and settling in. They did not bear the consequences of their sin. True expiation could come about only through obedient submission in the period of punishment and obedient return in the period of restoration. But so long as Israel, in the person of the servant, acted obediently, the nation continued to exist. In 53:4-6, the many finally come to this awareness.

Verses 7-9 speak of an unjust trial ending in a disgraceful death. Actual death seems unlikely; the servant’s rehabilitation in vv. 11b-12 would have to be a heavenly judgment scene. Rather, a “death experience” is described, like the psalmic “going down to the pit” (e.g., Pss. 28:1; 30:3; 88:4; 143:7). The servant’s entire life, from birth (Isa. 53:2) to death, was one of suffering and rejection.

In the last stanza of the speakers’ statement, 53:10-11a (unfortunately the text is damaged), the many see that the servant’s suffering was part of God’s plan. There is a hint in v. 10d, explicit in vv. 11b-12, that his reward is to possess the land; in Deuteronomy “to lengthen the days” is a phrase describing life in the promised land.

53:11b-12, The Servant’s Reward.

The servant’s self-conscious acceptance of the pain of exile as the deserved punishment from God, his “bearing of the sin” of Israel and his leading it in the exodus-conquest, wins him the great prize—possession of the land. To be in God’s land, Zion, makes one righteous, pleasing to God. Isa. 8:16-9:7, which speaks of possessing the land after the darkness of defeat, provides important clues to the meaning of the verses. Verse 11a should read, with lxx, “he shall see the light,” a reference to the dawning light in 9:2. Isa. 9:3 likens the joy of possessing the land to the joy of warriors dividing spoil (v. 12ab).

Due to the servant’s exemplary bearing of the guilt of all Israel, the whole people is now free to enjoy the great gift—the land. The servant’s suffering is accepted as valid, while the many—and the nations—look on in amazement.1

How we came to see Jesus as Isaiah’s Servant

The reason Christians so readily identify Jesus as the Servant in Isaiah is because Jesus and the Apostles did.  Isaiah is the most quoted OT prophet in the NT writings.  When Jesus stood up in the synagogue, at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4, he read from the Servant Song in Isaiah 61 and claimed that he was fulfilling that prophecy in their presence.

The important thing to remember is that Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah was a radical departure from the contemporary interpretation of the text by the rabbis of his day.  The Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a mighty warrior who would suffer through battle and bear the iniquities of the nation through the bloodbath of overthrowing the oppressive armies that were still plaguing their holy city.

Below is a chart that demonstrates how the Apostles interpreted Isaiah after the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  After Jesus completed his ministry and the Holy Spirit had been poured out in a dynamic way on ALL the people, not just the leaders, they were able to look back at Isaiah and the other prophets and see clearly what the intention was in their writings.

The Suffering Servant
Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the Suffering Servant.
The Prophecy The Fulfillment
He will be exalted (52:13) Philippians 2:9
He will be disfigured by suffering (52:14; 53:2) Mark 15:17, 19
He will be widely rejected (53:1, 3) John 12:37, 38
He will bear our sins and sorrows (53:4) Romans 4:25; 1 Peter 2:24, 25
He will make a blood atonement (53:5) Romans 3:25
He will be our substitute (53:6, 8 ) 2 Corinthians 5:21
He will voluntarily accept our guilt and punishment (53:7) John 10:11
He will be buried in a rich man’s tomb (53:9) John 19:38-42
He will justify many from their sin (53:10, 11) Romans 5:15-19
He will die with transgressors (53:12) Mark 15:27, 28; Luke 22:37

2

(Footnotes)

1Mays, J. L., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. 1996, c1988. Harper’s Bible commentary . Harper & Row: San Francisco

2New Geneva study Bible. 1997, c1995 (electronic ed.) . Thomas Nelson: Nashville

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