January 16 – the Servant Songs of Isaiah

January 16, 2021 Randy Bushey
DCF 1.0

~by Randy Bushey

See, my Servant will act wisely; He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted (Isaiah 52:13)

Slavery was a common – if ghastly – component of regular life in many ancient cultures. Some were born into slavery. Others joined the ranks of this disadvantaged class as a consequence of financial bankruptcy or as a result of war.

The status of a slave was one of dependence, dishonour, and shame. The Hebrew term ebed referred to a servant – often a bondservant, owned by a master – or slave.

However, in sharp contrast, stands the honoured Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

In our study of The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, we’ve divided Isaiah’s prophecy into 2 major divisions:
– chapters 1-39 contain much about warnings of judgment for disobedience
– chapters 40-66 present a very different picture in content and tone: repentance, forgiveness, atonement and salvation.

(Here’s a memory hook: Isaiah’s 66 chapters equates with the 66 books of the Bible; Old Testament has 39 just like the first section, with 27 in the NT and second part.)

And that 2nd section contains the Servant Songs defining the role and mission of the future Messiah.

Song #1 (Is.42:1-9)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. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.*

In his Gospel narrative, Matthew – the Gospel to the Jews who quotes Isaiah 8 times – affirms this prophetic passage as being fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 12:18-21).

Song #2 (Is.49:1-7)…Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name… He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.
… 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 honoured in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength— 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.” This is what the LORD says—the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers: “Kings will see you and rise up, princes will see and bow down, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

In what may be the least familiar of the Songs, the phrase, You are my servant, Israel (v.3) appears at first glance to equate the Servant with the Jewish nation.

However, the text goes on to say that the Servant will be the Lord’s agent to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to Himself (v.5); and to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept (v.6).

In context, the Servant is an individual filling a vicarious role to restore Israel in their relationship with the Lord. The prophet portrays the Servant as the embodiment of the nation and the One who would accomplish for God what the nation had failed to do.

Song #3 (Is.50:4-11)The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught…The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord GOD helps me…therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near… Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty? …Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?

This Song occurs in response to 4 questions posed by the Lord to the Jewish people:

When I came, why was there no-one? When I called, why was there no-one to answer? Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you? (v.2).

The Servant’s obedient response is contrasted to the Israel’s sin.

Song #4 (Is.52:13-53:12) – See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness…

This, by far the most well-beloved of the Songs and one of the best known – at least by Christians – passages in all of the Old Testament is written as that of an eye-witness observing at the foot of the Cross. Throughout the balance of chapter 53, the grievous suffering of the Servant is most clearly predicted and depicted – 7 centuries before the time of Christ!

Song #5 (Is.61:1-11) – The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendour…I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness…the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

This 5th song is sometimes excluded because the term servant is omitted from the text. However, it clearly points to Christ in an extended poem of celebration of the coming Messiah and proclamation of gospel redemption. Consequently, Jesus read from this text early in His ministry while teaching in the synagogue of His hometown, Nazareth.

Takeaway: Don’t miss the gravity and poignancy of this moment: Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20-21).

* each Servant song not quoted in its entirety.

• graphic by Carol Kramberger, freeimages.com