Isaiah includes four songs sung about or by a person identified as God’s Servant. The nation of Israel was supposed to fill that role, but proved unwilling and incompetent. The early church immediately discerned the life and ministry of Jesus Christ in these songs. This post examines the first one.
The second half of Isaiah divides into three large sections.
The first, chapters 40-48, predict the end of the Babylonian captivity and the return of the Jews to their homeland. The Servant makes an appearance, but the passage reveals that Cyrus, and not any leader of Israel, will make it possible.
The second, chapters 49-55, show that the returning exiles will not have learned anything from captivity. The Servant therefore has the double task of calling Israel back to God and bringing salvation to the whole world. The last three Servant songs dominate these chapters. They reveal him as Redeemer.
Although the third section, chapters 56-66, does not mention the Servant, his work as the Redeemer is evident. The nation of Israel finally recognizes its sin and repents. The entire world accepts God’s offer of peace, with the exception of the wicked, who want no part of it. God creates a new heavens and new earth, where the redeemed from all over the world live in joyful obedience to God, as mankind was supposed to live in the first place
Introducing the Servant
The first use of the word “servant” in the second part of Isaiah occurs in 41:8, where it explicitly addresses Israel and tells Israel not to fear rejection.
Chapter 41 also identifies God as one who has “raised up one from the east” (41:3) and “from the north” (41:25). God identifies this one as Cyrus in 44:27. Except for Egypt, all who invaded Israel came from the east, but since the most direct route was through the desert, they attacked from the north. Likewise, Cyrus was from Persia, east of Babylon, but he attacked it from the north.
We got our chapter numbers from a thirteenth-century archbishop and the verse numbers from a sixteenth-century Bible printer. They are indispensable, but not always in the most helpful places. In any case, we need to ignore them from time to time in order to understand the context and structure of whatever passage we’re reading.
Chapter 41 reads like a courtroom scene, where God lays out an indictment against the nations of the world and their idols. He introduces several statements with the interjection, “behold.” Although some translations omit it, Isaiah’s first Servant song (42:1-9) likewise starts with “behold.” The word dramatically introduces the solution to the problems laid out in the indictment.
Who the Servant cannot be
So who is this Servant? The nation of Israel? Or Cyrus? Or someone else?
Cyrus had no higher task than to release Israel from Babylon and return the people to their homeland. The song says that the Servant will establish justice in the earth. God will give him as a covenant to the people, and not just Israel, but all over the world. He will be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind ” (42:5-6, ESV).
That was always Israel’s task, but Israel has never had either the ability or the will to carry it out. God declares that Israel, the servant of 41:8, is a blind and deaf servant in 42:19. The other nations of the world have not seen God’s glory, because God never revealed it to them. Israel saw God’s glory and paid no attention.
So God showed his law great and glorious by causing Israel to suffer the curse of the law (Leviticus 26:14-46, Deuteronomy 28:15-68). The nation of Israel, therefore can’t be the Servant. It needs the ministry of the Servant to become what God intended for it to be.
Who the Servant must be
What else does the passage say about the Servant?
He is one whom God upholds. The emphasis seems to belong not so much on the word “uphold,” but on the fact that God himself upholds this Servant. In contrast to the impotence of idols, God can uphold a Servant who will accomplish his work. He does so by putting his own Spirit on him.
The Servant’s task is to bring justice. He will not accomplish it by being self-assertive. He will not prevail by shouting anyone down. Instead, he is gentle to the damaged (bruised reed) and worn out (smoldering wick). And the forces that wound, dishearten, and discourage people in the world will have no power over the Servant. He will accomplish his task of bringing justice to all the nations of the world.
The same God who created heaven and earth, gave it life, and continues to perpetuate life calls and upholds Servant not to make a covenant, but to be one. The Servant serves as a light for the nations, capable of opening blind eyes. He will release prisoners from their darkness. And the song declares that God will not share his glory with any other. Not with idols, and not with any of the people of the world.
The Servant is God’s chosen, one “in whom my soul delights.” Again, not all translations include “soul,” but it is present in the Hebrew. We don’t often associate “soul” with God. Indeed, the word “soul” doesn’t mean quite the same thing in the Old Testament as in the New Testament. In the psalms, “my soul” is often a poetic substitute for “I” or “me.” But the soul is a human trait, and God intends to unite himself with humanity, a point made more explicit as the Servant songs progress.
The best is yet to come
God could not delight in any merely human mediator to fulfill the task set before the Servant. He will not share his glory with any other. The Servant can only be Jesus, fully God and fully human. We don’t see justice established on earth––yet. We have the promise that Jesus will not grow faint or be discouraged until he has completed what only he can accomplish.
The number of prophecies in Isaiah alone that were fulfilled in Jesus’ earthly ministry is truly astounding. Many more remain unfulfilled. What Jesus already accomplished provides full assurance that he will accomplish the rest at the proper time. And that will be glorious.
Isaiah. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Bull idol. Source unknown
Jesus washing feet. Source unknown