When I was in Bible college in the early 1970s, one of my classmates, Mike, and I decided to visit a Jewish synagogue. There was a small Orthodox synagogue within a couple of miles of the Bible college we were attending. I called the synagogue and asked if it would be okay for my friend and I to attend their Friday night Sabbath service, and they said it would be fine.
There are only a couple of things I remember about the service itself. One was that the speaker that night, a visiting rabbi, remarked how he had just a couple of weeks earlier attended a meeting in New York city of the National Conference of Christian and Jews. He related to the congregation that night that one of the things he heard mentioned at the conference was that, while we are all aware that Hitler killed six million Jews, it was not so well known that over the centuries Christianity had been responsible for the death of twenty million Jews. Of course, that made my friend and I feel a bit conspicuous.
The second thing I remember about the service was that at one point during the liturgy, everyone turned around and faced the back of the synagogue, everyone, that is, except for my friend and I. We were in the very back row, and when the whole congregation turned around, we, kind of surprised by this, didn’t quite know what we should do, and ended up just standing there as we had been, as if we were receiving the praises of the congregation! What’s that word that has crept into our modern vocabulary? Oh yes, “facepalm.” Well, that’s how I feel now as I look back on our naivety.
After the service, they graciously invited us to come downstairs with them for some refreshments. As we conversed with some of the men who appeared to be among the leaders of the congregation, I was looking for an opportunity to do my question-asking and evangelizing. You see, I had visions of becoming an evangelist or missionary among the Jewish people. I was, at least in my own mind, fairly acquainted with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah 53, the fourth of the “Servant Songs” which we have been looking at in this Lenten series. So I was waiting for an opportunity to ask them about Isaiah 53.
The opportunity came, and I asked my question. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but it was something like this: “Isaiah 53 seems to pretty clearly prophesy what happened to Jesus in his crucifixion and his death on the cross. Can’t you see that Jesus is the Servant of the Lord prophesied about in Isaiah 53 and other parts of the Old Testament?”
I can’t remember the exact words they used in their reply either. But it was something like this: “There are many ways to understand Isaiah 53 and who the Servant of the Lord is. Probably, most of us in this congregation believe that the Servant of the Lord is the Jewish people. We are the Servant of the Lord. It is the Jewish people who are the Servant of the Lord. We are the ones who are suffering and dying for the sins of the world.” I don’t recall that any of them made the explicit connection with what had been said earlier that night in the Sabbath service. But it wouldn’t have been too hard to have done so if they had tried. Twenty million Jews killed over the centuries by Christians. Six million Jews murdered in Nazi gas chambers. For them, that was the fulfillment of Isaiah 53.
So, for the first time, that night I heard an alternate interpretation of the identity of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53, and, of course, the other servant songs in Isaiah 42, 49, and 50. Over the years, as I studied the book of Isaiah, I would come to find out that there are many theories as to the identity of the Servant of the Lord. A very abbreviated list includes the following:
An anonymous contemporary of Isaiah
The nation of Israel
A righteous remnant within Israel
Idealization of Israel’s mission to the world
The prophets as a whole0
An un-named prophet
Unknown teacher of the Law
The Davidic Dynasty
An un-named leprous rabbi
The wise saints of Daniel 12
In the second servant song in Isaiah 49, which we began to look at last time, the servant, speaking in the first person, says,
1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4 But I said, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing. Yet what is due me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
Notice that , in verse 3, the servant quotes the Lord as saying to him, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” It is this verse, among other things, which provides the justification for what those men in the synagogue that night had argued—Israel is the Servant of the Lord. Israel is the servant who dies for the sins of the world.
One could certainly adopt this interpretation based on this statement in verse 3. However, it is not as easy as that. A problem for this understanding comes in verses 5-6:
5 And now the LORD says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength—6 he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
So, while on the one hand the servant is called Israel in verse 3, yet, in verses 5-6, his mission is to bring Israel back to God, to restore Israel. Even though the servant is called Israel, yet this servant’s task is to restore Israel. So it begins to look like the servant is not actually identical to Israel, but is rather a person or a smaller group, within Israel, who is given the commission to bring Israel back to God. This understanding, then, prompts the search to find out just who this individual or smaller group may be.
The historic Christian answer through the centuries is that this individual is Jesus Christ, and that, in some way, Jesus himself becomes the new Israel, while at the same time trying to restore and bring back to God the nation called Israel. Does this sound confusing? Well, as evidenced by that list I provided above, it is confusing. And, among other things, one of the most prominent debates among the scholars and commentators is over the identity of the servant figure.
I’ll come back to this question in the next post. But I want to close off this one by just noting the enormity of the servant’s task. Israel is regularly characterized in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament as
and quite a few other adjectives I could have included.
The servant’s task is to restore Israel back to God. Does this list give you any reason to think that the servant’s mission will be one that will be easily accomplished? No wonder the servant was led to cry out at one point, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.” Every indication so far in these servant songs has been that the servant’s mission will be a difficult one to accomplish.
But accomplish it he will.
March 10, 2014