There are four passages in the book of Isaiah, in particular, Isaiah 40-55, that have traditionally been referred to as the “Servant Songs.” In these four passages, some figure, whom the Lord refers to as “my servant,” is, variously, talked about in third person, addressed in second person, or speaks in the first person. The four passages are:
The history of scholarship on these passages is a very involved and complicated one, and I can’t take the time in this post to rehearse all the theories and arguments. I’ll simply state my own position. I believe that these four passages are related to each other and work together to provide a kind of narrative history of this servant figure. The figure is either an individual, or group of individuals spoken of collectively as if they were one person, who lived in the prophet’s own day. However, the language used to describe this servant is so exalted that it goes beyond the actual life and circumstances of this individual or group, and points to another servant who would truly fulfill the language’s expectations. For two millennia, primarily on account of how Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament, the historic Christian church has confessed that this servant is Jesus Christ—and not just the “servant of the Lord,” but the “suffering servant of the Lord.”
The first servant song is 42:1-7
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” 5 This is what God the LORD says– he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
The New Testament cites or alludes to this passage in at least two different ways. First, there is a direct citation in Matt 12:15-21. Referring to Jesus, Matthew says,
Many followed him, and he healed all their sick, 16 warning them not to tell who he was. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: 18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. 19 He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. 20 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. 21 In his name the nations will put their hope.”
Second, there appear to be allusions to Isa 42:1 in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) and transfiguration (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; see also 2 Pet 1:17).
But for neither the citation, nor the allusion, is there any usage of this passage with reference to the death of Christ. Indeed, as one reads through Isa 42:1-7, one might well ask whether there is any reference at all to this servant being a “suffering servant.”
I believe there are, indeed, two different statements in this passage that either suggest or anticipate that this servant will be a suffering servant. I will discuss one of these today, and the other in tomorrow’s post.
The first one comes in v. 4, in words that, interestingly, Matthew leaves out in his otherwise full citation of vv. 1-4. The Lord says of his servant that “he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.” For years, I have told my classes that, in the Bible, whenever God or an angel tells someone “fear not” or “do not be afraid,” it actually indicates that there is something to be afraid of. In the same way, in this passage, when the Lord says that his servant “will not falter or be discouraged,” it means that there was something which, in fact, could have caused his servant to falter, something which could have caused the servant to be discouraged. Indeed, I would even go beyond this and suggest that there is actually a bit of overstatement in the Lord’s declaration. In other words, the Lord’s words here should not be interpreted to mean that the servant does not falter or become discouraged at all. Rather, the meaning is that the servant will not ultimately be discouraged. There will be plenty of reason to be discouraged, and the servant may indeed suffer a period of discouragement, but he will not ultimately be deterred from his mission.
The servant has a very tall order to fill. He is to bring justice to the nations. He is to open blind eyes. He is to free captives from prison and release prisoners from the dungeon. One may well imagine that, in accomplishing this mission, the servant will face opposition—opposition of a kind that could easily cause someone to falter or be discouraged. As we make our way through the servant songs, we will see the servant encountering that opposition. But at this point in the narrative formed by the servant songs, that opposition is only hinted at.
In Hebrews 12:2-3 the author tells his readers:
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
I don’t believe the author of Hebrews wants us to understand that Jesus was completely unafraid of the cross that he had to face, that he was completely unaffected by the shame with which he was covered, that he was completely uncowed by the opposition that came his way. Rather, I believe the author’s intention is to show us a very human Jesus who, despite his fears and despite his discouragement, through his faith in his Father and his God, did not ultimately surrender to the opposition came his way, but rather endured the cross, scorning its shame, and was rewarded by being exalted to God’s right hand. In the same way, when the author says that his purpose in writing is that his readers “will not grow weary and lose heart,” the probability is that they already have. But this does not mean that this has to be conclusion of the matter. Rather, like their Master, through faith in their God and Father, they can persevere to the end, they can endure the shame and opposition they are facing, and when they have done so, like their Lord, they will be richly rewarded—they will receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken (v. 28).
“He will not falter or be discouraged.”
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed;
Nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
Ere He found His sheep that was lost.
In days to come, as we work our way through the servant songs and other passages, we will at least come to understand—however poorly, however dimly, however weakly—something about those deep waters and that dark night.
March 6, 2014