Imagine for a moment you are a citizen of Judah during the prophetic span of Isaiah’s ministry. The dates maybe somewhere around 740-700 BC. You saw your brothers in the North fall underseige to the Assyrians and there are strong, very strong warnings that the Babylonians are coming your way to do the same to you in the South. Mingled in Isaiah’s words are those of hope. A surprising mention of a servant. In obviously distinctive and fresh language, a vision and an application of a servant who will do things for the nation never before seen or heard. The ‘servant of God’ strand flowing through Isaiah marks a significant mysterious character whose qualities rival any prophet, priest, or king. Five ‘songs’ are featured in the latter portions of Isaiah.
Who is this servant? If you were hearing Isaiah’s words, you would truly be baffled. Is it Cyrus, Hezekiah, Eliakim, a missionary, Isaiah himself, a reincarnated Moses or Elijah, the nation of Israel, another king, God himself, is it the people of God corporately, are they individual ‘believers’, or is it an individual who is a messianic figure? The options abound for the hearers. He is a mystery man!
The servant is first introduced in Is. 42:1-9 “Here is my servant” the great solution.
Vv. 1-4 God addresses Israel. Justice is used three times in these verses (1, 3, and 4). He is not just for Israel, but for the nations (Gentiles) (1). Notice how gentile he is and full of humility (2, 3).
Vv. 5-7 God (Ha’ El- “He who is indeed the true transcendent God”) addresses the Servant. His purpose is delineated in (6,7) “a light for the Gentiles.” There is a future reference to Is. 61 in v. 7 “to free the captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” Also this verse looks back at Isaiah 7.
Vv. 8-9 God address Israel again.
There is a hint of opposition; his task is not easy, but doable. The character and mission of the Servant: will bring salvation and a new world order. The Spirit and justice dominate this ‘song.’
The second one is found in Is. 49:1-6. The ‘failure’ and ‘success’ of the servant: rejected by Israel, but will bring salvation to the gentiles and then to Israel.
Vv. 1-3 Israel as it was meant to be. Israel the person became a nation- here the nation is becoming a person. The first Israel could not do it, the second one will!
Vv. 4-6 The agent, the task, and the result. V. 5 task- redeem Israel. V. 6 ‘a light for the Gentiles,’ the second time this is mentioned.
First song, the mystery man looks like a king, in this second song, he looks like a prophet (v. 2- “mouth”).
”Servant Song” number three comes from Is 50:4-11. Contradicting the ‘no-one at all’ of verse 2, there is one who testifies to listening and responding (5). “Once more the Servant speaks, letting us into some of the most deeply personal areas of his life: his communion with God, the physical and mental suffering which marks his way, and the assurance of final vindication that buoys him up. It is almost as if he is speaking more to himself than to others. In this third song, the world at large is left out of the picture, and attention is focused on the Servant himself and his ministry to the people of God.” [i]
‘Sovereign Lord’ Adonai Yahweh is mentioned four times as sort of an introductory marker (4,5,7,9).
V. 4 ‘instructed’- total knowledge to disciple and counsel. ‘Sustains the weary’- he consoles, heals, cares for, shepherds, speaks the proper word in season.
V. 6 ‘offered my back’ – Nothing he will not endure if obedience demands it.
V. 7 ‘set my face like flint’ – resolutely set out, firm resolve, determined.
V. 10 ‘who…obeys the word of his servant?’- The servant is not to be wondered at or admired, but obeyed!
V. 11 ‘provide yourselves’ – trust in self. ‘your fires’ – a different gospel. ‘torment’ – their reward- a place of pain.
The most well-known of the Servant Songs comes to us from Is 52:13-53:12. The most graphic and appalling of descriptions regarding who the servant is and what the purpose of his mission on the planet is. The fourth song is the most elaborate and poignant of them all. It is the zenith of Isaiah’s message and discussion about who God is and what he is about. It is as though we forgot the message and Isaiah needed to remind us with suddenness and intrusiveness. Almost as if he is screaming at us, “Don’t you get the picture. Let me draw it out for you one more time.” The irony of it all- the servant is exalted yet abused and quiet. Buried within the Song is kind of a macro view of birth to death.
Vv. 52:13- 53:1 God is speaking
Vv. 53:2-6 Israel is speaking
Vv. 53:7-12 God is speaking
Notice in this whole section who says nothing.
Servant Song #1 was a picture of a king, #2 had hints of a prophet, and in this one we have the qualifications of a priest (52:15).
In the Ancient Near East (ANE), one would cover their mouths with their hand as they approach another king. Here is 52:15, we see that the Servant is the King of kings, all including kings will shut their mouths because of who this servant is! What a picture.
I love the flow at the end of the song- The dead (9) is alive (11), the condemned (8) is righteous (11), and the helpless (7) is the victor (12)!! That is us friends. The whole reason for Jesus coming to the planet. The story of redemption and presence in our lives.
The final song comes in Is. 61:1-11. The good news comes. The Servant is anointed to bring the messianic jubilee, where the people will be restored to the land after exile. There is no introduction by God. The servant says, ‘here I am.’ Lots of review and progression from the previous Songs.
Look at all the verbs involved in what the Servant has done and is going to do- preach, bind, proclaim, release, proclaim (again), comfort, provide, bestow, rebuild, restore, and renew.
Isaiah’s tree imagery pops out in v. 3- ‘oaks of righteousness.’
Jesus broke the silence and the mystery of who the Servant was in Luke 4 when he preaches his first sermon. He purposely turns to Isaiah 61 and reads a portion of that Song. He purposely stopped short at the section about vengeance because that day has not come yet. His time on earth at that time was for revelation about Father and reconciliation of humanity.
Everything explodes with Jesus! He is the Servant. He is the mystery man. Everything stated in the five Servant Songs is true and is fulfilled. A new definition of freedom- not just socio/economic, but physical and spiritual as well.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour into a special literary aspect of Isaiah. It is so cool to find this stuff and see how the Holy Spirit wove it into the Word. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” Prov. 25:2
[i] Barry Webb, “The Message of Isaiah” from The Bible Speaks Today Series. (Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 1996)