The Servant Songs of Isaiah
Tom Wilson, Levin, New Zealand
Those, mainly liberal, scholars who claim that two or more authors wrote the prophecy of Isaiah contradict New Testament evidence. The argument that chapters 40-66 were the work of another prophet named Deuterolsaiah who lived during the Babylonian captivity must be rejected on the grounds that New Testament writers, inspired by God, attributed extracts from both parts of the prophecy to Isaiah himself, John 12. 38-41; cp. Matt. 3. 3; 12. 17-21; Lk. 3. 4-6; Acts 8. 28, 32-33; Rom. 10. 15-16, 20-21.
There are two main parts to Isaiah: prophecies of condemnation and judgment, ch. 1-35; and prophecies of restoration and comfort, ch. 40-66. These are separated by a parenthetical, more personal division, ch. 36-39. The last section, which concerns us here, may be analysed: Israel's coming Deliverance, ch. 40-48; Deliverer, ch. 49-57; and Destiny, ch. 58-66.
Within the final section there are four passages known as the 'Servant Songs' of Isaiah. The name was probably first coined from the recurring word 'servant' and from the phrase 'Behold, my servant' with which the first and last of these songs are introduced, 42. 1; 52. 13.
As the New Testament makes clear, the 'Servant' in question is the Lord Jesus Christ, Matt. 12. 17-21.
The image of service was used by our Lord of His own ministry, Mark 10. 45, and perhaps sums up more than any other word the main thrust of the Gospel writers as they wrote of Him. It is appropriate, then, that Isaiah, often called 'the Messianic Prophet' and 'the Evangelical Prophet', should present God's Servant in a way so consistent with the Gospels.
The First Servant Song, Isa. 42. 1-4
Here the Servant of Jehovah is shown to be the 'Elect' or 'Chosen One' in whom God delights. His Spirit was to be upon Him when He came not only to God's chosen people Israel, but to the nations. He was to bring 'judgment', or 'justice', not with the arrogance of earthly rulers but in meekness and lowliness, vv. 1-3; cf. Matt. 11. 29. When God's Spirit did come upon Him, it was like a dove descending, in keeping with the gentle character He was to demonstrate throughout His life on earth, Matt. 3. 16. As the incarnate Son He was in every respect God's perfect Servant. It was when Matthew saw this that he quoted the First Song, Matt. 12. 17ff. Even in His death He was the obedient Servant, Rom. 5. 19; Phil. 2. 7, 8.
Yet, He was not weak. He would fulfil all the expectations of those who greeted Him at His appearing, Luke 2. 25-38. He was never deterred from His mission of establishing justice on the earth.
He will yet rule the nations in righteousness. God's Servant awaits that complete fulfilment, when at His return He will ratify all God's covenant promises. Then, though a Servant, He will take His rightful place as monarch over the whole earth. As this First Song tells us, in that day He will 'set judgment' ('establish justice') in the earth and even those who live in remote places ('isles') will expectantly look for Him to institute His 'law', or 'authority', v. 4.
The Second Servant Song, Isa. 49. 1-6
Here the Servant Himself speaks, telling of His commission from God, 'It is a light (small) thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth', v. 6.
Some confusion has been caused by reference to the Servant as 'Israel' in verse 3. But clearly, the passage can only refer to Christ, vv. 1-2, because the Servant is to bring Israel back to God and become a light to the Gentiles, vv. 5-6. In personifying Israel the Servant is seen to be fulfilling all that that nation should have done under God in reaching the nations, had it not instead rejected the Messiah at His first coming.
Truly, in Christ God has shown His glory 'to restore the preserved of Israel' and to be 'a light to the Gentiles', v. 6. Paul and Barnabas understood this when they told the recalcitrant Jews at Antioch in Pisidia that their witness was that which would become 'a light of the Gentiles and for salvation unto the ends of the earth', Acts 13. 47. Thus we see the Servant chosen by God, His Spirit upon Him, to bring the light of the glory of God to the whole world. This can only be fully realized at our Lord's return.
The Third Servant Song, Isa. 50. 4-9
The Third Song is presented against a background of Israel's sins for which she must be 'divorced' as a faithless wife, v. 1. She would be sent away from her Palestine 'home' to be exiled in a foreign land and, in our age, among the nations.
In contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness, the Servant will be wholehearted in His obedience (although the actual word 'Servant' is not used in this Song). Yet, for this He will suffer and be put to death. In subjection He would 'give His back to the smiters', His 'cheeks to them that plucked off the hair'. Thus, the Servant said, 'I hid not my face from shame and spitting .. . shall I not be confounded . . . I know that I shall not be ashamed', vv. 6-7.
The beard was regarded as a sign of respect, and those who plucked off the hair were expressing utter contempt. All this was fulfilled with appalling literalness, Matt. 26. 67; 27. 30; John 19. 1-3.
Here we have a further dimension of the Servant's ministry, rejection by God's chosen people. Yet, though in the analogy Israel is 'divorced', she will be restored at our Lord's return. Another prophet foresees her at that time being in great mourning for her crimes against the Servant of the Lord; 'They shall look on me whom they have pierced . . . In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem', Zech. 12. 10-11.
The Fourth Servant Song, ha. 52. 13 - 53. 12
But the Servant had come with a commission from God and the very antagonism and rejection of His people was the means of bringing reconciliation to the world. This very familiar Fourth Song sets out the cross and its victorious outcome in remarkable, awful detail.
His exaltation will come through deepest suffering. What appears to onlookers to be divine judgment, so terrible were His afflictions and their effects upon His physical form, was later shown to be vicarious.
His sufferings were in fact judgments by God upon Him for the accumulated sins of the whole world, including those who hated Him 'without cause', John 15. 25; cf. Ps. 69. 4. Through deepest agony He fulfilled His commission to 'justify many' and 'bear their iniquities', v. 11. He was the divinely appointed 'offering for sin' ('trespass offering', Newberrv), v. 10. But this One, having tasted death for all, is now 'crowned with glory and honour', Heb. 2. 9.
Thus the Fourth Song reaches a glorious crescendo, 'He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors'.
This is not only a climax to the Fourth Song, but in fact to the four Songs. In these He has been presented as God's Chosen Servant, with His Spirit upon Him, appointed by God to this purpose from before His birth; 'formed from the womb' to be His Faithful Servant to Israel and a light to the Gentiles. Fittingly, the Songs finally dwell upon what that would mean to the Suffering Servant, rejected by His own and put to death by those He had come to save.
Ultimately, He is seen to be God's provision in His Son for a lost world, long prophesied and prepared for, the Sin Offering by which all the offences people have ever committed were atoned for.
Awaiting final fulfilment at our Lord's return, we look forward with Him to the day when 'He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied'. Then as never before we shall be able to heed the Father's call, 'Behold, My Servant'!