The Servant of the Lord

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1).

- Isaiah 42:1–9

Theologically speaking, the prophet Isaiah has one central message: The children of Israel have failed in their vocation to be God’s holy servant. Therefore, if the Lord’s people are going to serve Him in holiness, they must be cleansed and trust in Him alone. Isaiah gives this message in summary form in chapters 1–6 of his book, depicting the sin of Israel and Judah in Isaiah 1–5 and then, using his call to ministry as an illustration, showing the way forward through his own cleansing and trust in God in Isaiah 6.

Most of Isaiah 1–39 emphasizes the people’s failure even under good kings such as Hezekiah, but at points the prophet foresees the restoration of Israel and Judah under the righteous Son of David—the Messiah—who will reign in the fear of the Lord (for example, 9:1–7; 11). Isaiah 40–66 focuses on the cleansing of God’s people that lay ahead in the prophet’s day. Servanthood emerges as a prominent theme, since the Lord first called Jacob’s children out of Egypt to serve Him (Ex. 3:12; 8:1). Today’s passage, the first of four major Servant Songs in Isaiah, employs the servanthood motif explicitly.

Controversy has raged over the years as to the subject of these Servant Songs (see also Isa. 49:1–6; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). Some contend that they are about King Cyrus of Persia, who sent the exiled Israelites and Judahites home in 538 BC (2 Chron. 36:22–23), because Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as one who does God’s will (Isa. 44:24–28; 45:1–4). Jews argue that the Servant Songs tell the story of the people of Israel, for Isaiah describes God’s old covenant people as His servant in 41:8; 44:1, 21; 45:4; and elsewhere. Christians, of course, believe that the Servant Songs reveal the work of Jesus the Messiah.

Isaiah does apply servanthood language to Cyrus, but he cannot be the subject of the Servant Songs, for a pagan king who brutally conquers could by no means be the tender servant who does not break the “bruised reed” or quench the “faintly burning wick” (42:3). The theory that the people of Israel are the subject of these songs is not so easily dismissed, especially since Isaiah emphasizes Israel’s vocation of servanthood so clearly. Isaiah has in mind both the people and an individual, an ideal Israel who fulfills the call to servanthood and at the same time atones for Israel’s failure to serve the Lord. This ideal Israel has a mission to Israel “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (v. 7).

Coram Deo

The Jewish view of the Servant Songs is not wrong in what it affirms but in what it denies. Because Israel’s failure to be the Lord’s servant is so clear in Isaiah, the Servant Songs must ultimately be about an ideal Israel, an Israel who perfectly obeys the calling of God on the nation. This is Jesus, whom the New Testament reveals as the new Israel of God (Matt. 2:13–15; John 15:1–17). Jesus, the ideal Israel, has atoned for the sins of Israel, namely, all those who trust in Him.

Passages for Further Study

2 Samuel 3:18
Jeremiah 30:10–11
Matthew 12:15–21
Philippians 2:5–11

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