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Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs. The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world.
• The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).
• The second song (49:1-6), further defines the Servant’s mission. The Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a). Furthermore, God says, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth” (49:6b).
• The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the work and tenacious faith of the Servant. God has given the Servant a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5). While the Servant experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help me” (50:7, 9), so the Servant sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).
• The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering. This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he didn’t open his mouth” (53:7). “They made his gave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
The identity of the Servant, who seems to be an individual in some places and a group in others, has been a subject of scholarly debate—with little consensus. Jewish people tend to think of the Servant as Israel, and it is probable that the prophet thought in those terms—although the writer might have had an individual in mind.
“Whether or not the writer viewed (the Servant) as messianic, the historical person who most fulfilled this idea was Jesus. In the New Testament the servant is, indeed, identified with Christ (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 15:21). The Servant Songs do not identify the servant with messianic concepts found elsewhere in Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 9, 11), but the identification of the servant with Christ allowed the Church to develop a concept of a suffering Messiah, a concept essentially foreign to Judaism” (Myers, 928).
Chapters 54 and 55 continue to flesh out the work of the Servant. They call the people to rejoice, because “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (54:5). They promise that God’s “loving kindness shall not depart from you” (54:10). They invite those who thirst, “Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1). They counsel, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6). They promise, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace (55:12).
ISAIAH 50:4-6. YAHWEH HAS GIVEN ME THE TONGUE OF THE TAUGHT
4The Lord Yahweh (Hebrew: ado·nay yhwh) has given me the tongue of those who are taught (Hebrew:lim·mu·dim—a disciple or learned person), that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary: he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.
5The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away backward.
6 I gave my back to the strikers, and mycheeks to those who plucked off the hair; I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting.
“The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught (lim·mu·dim—a disciple or learned person), that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary “ (v. 4a). This is the voice of the Servant—in this instance, apparently the prophet. It can hardly be the nation Israel here, because it is Israel who is weary and needs sustaining. Also, these verses describe a kind of faithful discipleship that does not describe Israel in this time.
The phrase, “The Lord Yahweh four times in these verses (vv. 4, 5, 7, 9). In each instance, the Lord God enables the Servant—”has given me a tongue” (v. 4), “has opened my ear” (v. 5), “will help me” (v. 7), “will help me” (v. 9). Not only does “the Lord Yahweh” empower the Servant, but these references serve to authenticate the Servant’s work.
The Lord God has given the Servant the tongue of a teacher (or a disciple or a learned person). This suggests that there has been an ongoing communication between God and the Servant—with God conveying wisdom and the Servant listening, as good disciples do, to absorb every syllable. Without having listened to God, the Servant would have nothing to say to his weary people. Having listened, however, the Servant has God-given power to sustain the weary. That is no mean feat, because these people have suffered through a long exile and are very, very weary. God has commissioned the Servant to encourage them—to bring them hope. That would be impossible except that God makes it possible.
The Servant sustains the weary “with words.” In the Bible, God’s word is powerful, whether spoken by God (Genesis 1:3ff) or by one of the prophets. The New Testament describes the incarnation as the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). God still works today through the preaching of the word (Romans 10:14-15). His saving power is manifested in our words of invitation, our kind words, our words of comfort, and our proclamation (whether from a pulpit or neighbor to neighbor).
“he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught” (v. 4b). God speaks to the Servant daily. Each morning the Lord wakens the Servant’s ear to listen. The sense that we get here is that the Lord gives the Servant encouragement and marching orders each morning. The Servant, therefore, needs never be uncertain regarding what to say or do.
Like any discipline, daily discipleship gets easier with the passing of each faithful day. The disciple who listens and obeys today will find it a little easier to listen and obey tomorrow. We will see what that means in the Servant’s life when we get to verses 6-9. Those verses show the strength that the Servant developed through daily discipleship.
“The Lord Yahweh has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away backward”(v. 5). The Lord wakened (v. 4b) or opened (v. 5) the Servant’s ear, and the Servant responded positively. In this situation, it must be tempting for the Servant to rebel—to run away—because he will suffer for doing God’s will (as we will see in the next verse). Some prophets were less faithful. Jonah did run away. Jeremiah complained. When the Lord calls we are always tempted to run the other direction, because “restricted is the way that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).
“I gave my back to the strikers” (v. 6a). This sounds like scourging—a terrible beating with whips or rods that sometimes kills the one who is beaten.
“and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair” (v. 6b). This is another form of physical punishment—one intended to inflict physical pain, disfigurement, and humiliation. In that culture, the beard was an important part of a man’s identity. A man would shave his beard only to express mourning. For someone to shave a man or to pluck his beard was to humiliate—to show great contempt.
“I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting” (v. 6c). While insults and being spat upon might seem mild compared with scourging and having one’s beard plucked out, this sort of humiliation is nevertheless terrible. Unlike our current culture, which is long on tolerance and short on shame, the people of that time and place took shame seriously. But even today we tend not to take insults lightly and would recoil at being spat upon.
Questions arise. Who would take offense at the Servant’s ministry? Why would they take offense? The answer, very simply, is that in any community, there are people who “go along to get along”—who accommodate themselves to their circumstances and become comfortable. In some cases, such people become wealthy and powerful. They would not look kindly on anyone who would upset their comfortable lives.
Also, some people would think of any proposal to return to Jerusalem as the height of folly. Jerusalem had been destroyed. To take a large group of people through a hostile desert to the rubble of a city that no longer exists sounds like a prescription for disaster. They would say, “Better to stay where we are! Better not to take the chance!”
And, of course, Babylonian authorities could be expected to take serious offense at any hint that someone planned to free their slaves.
ISAIAH 50:7-9. FOR THE LORD YAHWEH WILL HELP ME
7For the Lord Yahweh (Hebrew: ado·nay yhwh) will help me; therefore I have not been confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be disappointed. 8He is near who justifies me; who will bring charges against me? Let us stand up together: who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me; who is he who shall condemn me? Behold, all they shall wax old as a garment, the moth shall eat them up.
“For the Lord Yahweh will help me; therefore I have not been confounded: therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be disappointed” (v. 7). The Lord called the Servant to say things that offended people, so the Servant could be tempted to blame the Lord for his predicament. However, rather than blaming God, the Servant speaks of God’s help. Knowing that God leads him aright, the Servant feels neither disgrace nor shame. He sets his face like flint—shows steely determination. He has rock-solid confidence that God will vindicate him in the long run, so he is able to endure suffering in the short run.
“He is near who justifies me; who will bring charges against me? Let us stand up together: who is my adversary? Let him come near to me” (v. 8). The Servant challenges all comers to a courtroom battle. He has the Lord as his defense counsel, so he needs to fear no prosecutor. He boldly dares his opponents to stand with him before the bar—to confront him in a legal proceeding where he will have a chance to defend himself. It becomes clear here that his earlier failure to resist violence (v. 6) reflected principle rather than lack of spirit.
“Behold, the Lord Yahweh will help me; who is he who shall condemn me?” (v. 9a). The Apostle Paul will put it this way: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31; see also 8:33-34). Paul’s question doesn’t ask the identity of the opponent, but instead asks, “Who cares who the opponent is? What difference can it make?” That is what the Servant is saying when he says, “Who will declare me guilty?” Who, indeed! The Servant’s accusers will find themselves fighting God.
“Behold, all they shall wax old as a garment, the moth shall eat them up” (v. 9b). The Servant does not fear his own fate. He is confident that his enemies will find themselves worn out and eaten up.
The Servant not only encourages the exiles but also serves as a model for them. He has suffered and been shamed, but demonstrates confidence in the Lord—confidence of vindication. He therefore serves as an example for the exiled community to follow. “In spite of its weakness and suffering and lack of visible signs of hope, the exiled community can stand boldly without shame and disgrace as they trust God to deliver God’s people in the future, just as God delivered Israel in the past” (Olson, 358).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Olson, Dennis T., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan