THE WIDER CONTEXT: THE SERVANT SONGS
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).
• This song, 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 grave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
In the book of Isaiah, the word servant “not infrequently seems to be derived from court style where the official of the king was known as his servant” (Muilenburg, 464). An official of this sort would exercise considerable power on the king’s authority. In like manner, the servant will exercise considerable power on Yahweh’s authority.
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 there are a number of references in this book to Yahweh’s servant as Israel (41:8; 49:3), Moses (63:11), David (37:35), Jacob (44:1, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:5), and descendants of Jacob (65:9).
However, the prophet might have an individual in mind—such as Hezekiah, who is mentioned positively in chapters 36-39, or Cyrus, whom Yahweh chose to free Israel from bondage (44:28; 45:1, 13) (see Blenkinsopp, 210, 212; Watts, 660).
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).
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
“49:1-6 is a major turning point…. So far the addressee has been Jacob-Israel. Henceforth it will be Jerusalem-Zion. So far Yahweh’s promise has thus concerned the fall of Babylon and the end of the Judeans’ enforced residence there. Henceforth it will concern the restoring of the city that virtually none of the exiles have ever seen” (Goldingay, 280).
These verses focus on the call and the mission of the servant. Then follows Yahweh’s promise to bring his children home (49:8—50:3).
ISAIAH 49:1-4. YAHWEH HAS CALLED ME FROM THE WOMB
1Listen, islands, to me; and listen, you peoples, from far:
Yahweh has called me from the womb;
from the bowels of my mother has he made mention of my name:
2and he has made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand, he has
hidden me: and he has made me a polished shaft; in his quiver has he kept me close:
3and he said to me, “You are my servant; Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely the justice (Hebrew: mispat) due to me is with Yahweh, and my
reward with my God.”
“Listen, islands, to me; and listen, you peoples, from far” (v. 1a). The first question is the identity of the one who is speaking. Verses 1b-3 make it clear that it is the servant. However, as noted above, the servant has many identities. Who is this servant? We cannot determine this with precision, but see below on verse 3.
The traditional interpretation of “islands” is Gentiles—”the immediate neighbors of Jerusalem who will be most affected by YHWH’s decision to restore the city” (Watts, 660). Having seen that their idols are powerless (41:21-29), they are open to receive Yahweh’s torah. They will welcome Yahweh’s teaching. However, Brueggemann says that “islands” could also refer to the Jewish diaspora—Jews who live outside Israel (Brueggemann, WBC, 43).
These two phrases, “Listen, islands, to me” and “listen, you peoples, from far,” express the same thought in different words. This kind of parallel structure is common in Hebrew poetry. Commentaries often call this kind of parallel structure “apposition.” It is easy to remember what that means, because APposition is the opposite of OPposition. APposition strengthens or reinforces by repetition. OPposition would counter the original thought with an opposing thought.
“Yahweh has called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother has he made mention of my name“ (v. 1b). These two phrases are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a).
It is at Yahweh’s initiative that the servant serves. The servant surely knew nothing of the call when he was still in the womb, but he now understands his calling to be a part of Yahweh’s plan from the beginning of his life.
“and he has made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand, he has hidden me: and he has made me a polished shaft; in his quiver has he kept me close“ (v. 2). These two phrases are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a).
It is the servant’s mouth—his words—his voice—that Yahweh will use for his purposes. The first chapter of Genesis revealed that God’s words have great power. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:9). Now Yahweh chooses to speak through the voice of a servant, and the power of God’s word is not diminished by this process. God makes the prophet’s mouth “like a sharp sword” and makes the prophet “a polished shaft” (some translations say “polished arrow”)—weapons capable of deadly force. It is God’s purpose to use the prophet to save instead of to destroy. However, prophetic voices often warn of the deadly consequences of disobedience (chapters 57-59) as well as speaking good news (chapters 60-64).
“a polished shaft” (v. 2). Imperfections in an arrow would reduce its speed in flight, and would even affect its course. A polished arrow would fly fast and true. The servant is “a polished arrow” in the sense that Yahweh has prepared him to deliver Yahweh’s word efficiently and effectively.
“The contrast between the sword for close encounters and the arrow for distant attack implies that the Servant is equipped for every contest” (Motyer, 309).
“in his quiver he has kept me close” (v. 2). Those who have weapons do not always brandish them. Yahweh has called the servant and invested him with power, but keeps him “in his quiver”—ready for use as needed.
“and he said to me, ‘You are my servant; Israel, in whom I will be glorified'” (v. 3). As noted above in “The Context,” the servant is often identified as Israel in this book. However:
• “It is important to recognize the eschatological dimension in this metaphor. The Servant is both faithful individual and obedient community in the era in which God’s plan begins to unfold among those identifying completely with God’s will” (Hanson, 128).
• Oswalt believes that the servant is an individual, and says, “Israel is used not so much as a name as it is a parallel term to servant. It is as though the Lord had said, ‘You are my Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ Thus it is the function, not the identity, of Israel that is emphasized. This Servant is going to function as Israel.” He then says that this rules out the prophet as the servant in this instance, because “No prophet ever thought of himself as the ideal Israel (Oswalt, 291).
• Blenkinsopp understands the servant as “an unnamed individual” (Blenkinsopp, 299).
• Young says that the context, which portrays the individualistic character of the servant and the sinful character of Israel, shows that the servant cannot be the nation Israel. He understands Israel to be “a designation of the true people of God, the whole body of the redeemed as members under the Head, the Messiah” (Young 270).
• Brueggemann notes that the servant is identified as Israel (v. 3), but that the servant has a mission to Israel (v. 6). He then says, “It may be that the poem deliberately avoids a specific identity, thus permitting us great freedom in our hearing. The church characteristically utilizes its interpretive freedom in listening, to hear in the poem the servant Jesus” (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, 101).
“But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity'” (v. 4a). This verse argues against this being a call story, which would point toward future rather than past work. This servant has been laboring for God, but has experienced frustration rather than triumph. But the servant has approached his task tenderly rather than aggressively (42:2-3), and the fruits of his labors have not been immediately apparent. Every servant of God can relate to that. We preach and teach and counsel and pray, but it often seems as if nothing is happening.
“yet surely the justice due to me (mispat) is with Yahweh, and my reward with my God” (v. 4b). The operative word in this verse is “yet.” “YET surely the justice due to me is with Yahweh.” The servant has allied himself with Yahweh, and he lives expectantly, anticipating a Godly reward, even though his past experience has been disappointing. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This servant is walking in faith.
The Hebrew word mispat is usually translated “justice” or “judgment.” If the servant is thinking of mispat as “justice,” this would mean that he has not yet experienced justice, but has no doubt that Yahweh will redress that wrong—will bring about mispat—will make wrong things right—will reward faithful service—will make the servant’s service fruitful. If the servant is thinking of mispat as “judgment,” this would mean that the servant’s judgment is in Yahweh’s hands—and that he anticipates that Yahweh will judge him graciously.
ISAIAH 49:5-6. I WILL ALSO GIVE YOU FOR A LIGHT TO THE NATIONS
5Now says Yahweh who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, and that Israel be gathered to him (for I am honorable (Hebrew: kabod) in the eyes of Yahweh, and my God has become my strength); 6yes, he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give you for a light to the nations (Hebrew—goyim), that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth.”
“And says Yahweh who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel be gathered to him” (v. 5a). These two phrases (“to bring Jacob back to him” and “that Israel be gathered to him” are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a)
Now the servant summarizes the mission that Yahweh planned for him from before his birth. The words “Jacob” and “Israel” are synonymous here. Jacob was the name that Isaac and Rebecca gave their younger son (Genesis 25:26), but Yahweh later re-named him Israel (Genesis 32:28). Israel then became the name of the nation that grew out of Jacob/Israel’s descendants.
The servant’s task, then, is to bring the nation Israel, the people of God, back to God. Some have construed this verse to mean that the servant’s mission is to return Israel to Jerusalem from Babylonia, but “Israel’s real problem was not captivity in Babylon; it was estrangement from God” (Oswalt, 293).
“for I am honorable (kabod) in the eyes of Yahweh, and my God has become my strength” (v. 5b). These two phrases are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a).
Kabod is a word more usually translated “glory” (the KJV translates this phrase, “yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord”). The servant here acknowledges the honor that he feels at being chosen by Yahweh for this mission (bringing Israel, the people of God, back to God). Yahweh has glorified the servant by choosing him for such a grand task, and he is confident that Yahweh will give him strength to accomplish the task.
“yes, he says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel'” (v. 6a). These two phrases (“to raise up the tribes of Jacob” and “to restore the preserved of Israel”) are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a).
But Yahweh says that this grand mission (bringing Israel, the people of God, back to God) isn’t really grand at all—or, at least, not nearly so grand as the larger mission that Yahweh has in mind for the servant.
“I will also give you for a light to the nations (goyim), that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth'” (v. 6b). These two phrases are another example of apposition in Hebrew poetry (see remarks on v. 1a).
Yahweh has appointed the servant to be the agent of salvation, not only to Israel, but to the goyim—the nations—Gentiles—the rest of the peoples of the earth (11:10-11; 12:4; 42:6; 43:6-7; 55:4-5; 60:3; see also Matthew 24:14; 28:19; Luke 24:47; Acts 10; 13:47; Revelation 14:6-7).
ISAIAH 49:7. YAHWEH, WHO IS FAITHFUL, HAS CHOSEN YOU
7Thus says Yahweh, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despises, to him whom the nation abhors, to a servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall worship; because of Yahweh who is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
“Thus says Yahweh, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despises, to him whom the nations abhor, to a servant of rulers” (v. 7a). Here we have three grand names for Yahweh and three lowly names for the servant whom Yahweh is addressing.
“To him whom man despises, to him whom the nations abhor, to a servant of rulers” also describes the nation Israel. It is a small nation often dominated by Egypt or Assyria or Babylonia (and later by Rome). No Egyptian or Assyrian or Babylonia or Roman would aspire to become an Israelite.
But this humble state is not the way the story will end. Continue reading!
“Kings shall see and arise, princes, and they shall worship” (v. 7b). Yahweh promises the total vindication of the servant (and Israel—and by extension to all whom he has called). They have been perceived as lowly, but God will reveal their true glory. Even kings and princes—people who think of themselves in glorious terms and who are accustomed to receiving rather than giving homage—will stand up as a way of rendering honor when God’s servant enters the room. They will prostrate themselves before God’s servant.
“because of Yahweh, who is faithful, even the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you” (v. 7c). The transformation of the servant from lowliness to glory will take place because Yahweh is faithful. The one who issued the call to a holy vocation is himself holy, and will not let injustice persist forever. Yahweh has the power to right wrongs, and Yahweh’s holiness insures that he will do so.
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.
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Blenkinsopp, Joseph, The Anchor Bible: Isaiah 40-55, Vol. 19A (New York: Doubleday, 2002)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
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)
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.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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