Read: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6
Background Considerations Within Isaiah 40-55 many students of the book have seen a major theme develop around the idea of “the servant.” The term “servant” appears in this section with a good deal of intensity and consistency and differently than elsewhere in the book. Here the servant is often identified literally as Israel or a portion of Israel, but debates have raged about whether the title belongs to a person or the nation. Of some interest are the so-called “Servant Songs” found in Isaiah 42:1-5; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12. Christians, of course, have argued that the servant here is no one less that Jesus, especially as depicted in Isaiah 53.
Is it possible that we have here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, words and themes which carried redemptive significance for the people who first heard the prophet, as well as for later inspired writers in the New Testament, even if altered somewhat in application? Are we bound to an either/or scenario (either the Old Testament interpretation or the New Testament one) or shouldn’t we allow the possibility of a both/and approach which recognizes that the prophet was talking to real people in need of a word from God in their time, as well as the option that these words might find more or different or deeper meaning later? How might it be helpful for an ancient audience to leap out of their present with an announcement centuries ahead of its time? Is it also the case that new circumstances might demand new adaptations of familiar words? And what might it mean that New Testament writers read and interpreted their Bibles (the Greek Old Testament, for the most part) through the lens of the events of Jesus’ life and death?
Prophetic interpretation and how we go about it plays a role here too. If the job description of prophets weights ministry toward predictions of the future, one would focus more attention on fulfillment down the road. But if prophets were primarily God’s spokespersons, as the original term for prophet suggests, we cannot escape the original impact on a real audience in real time and space. How much of the text of the “prophetic” books of the Bible is actually oriented to the future and how much to the present for the hearers? And how much grows from the past?
Relevant Biblical Passages
- Read quickly through Isaiah 40-55 again this week.
- Isaiah 42:1-4 – The first of the four “Servant Songs,” these verses capture with remarkable tenderness and warmth the gentle role of the servant who refuses to injure even a bent and bruised roadside reed. What are the characteristics of the servant as pictured here? What kind of leader would this be, in the mode of servant leadership? What would happen if Christians behaved like this in gentleness and persistence to ensure fairness and justice for those around us? Any other applications? Any other places in the Bible which develop the idea of service to others? How might a good Bible dictionary help us see the wider biblical picture about service?
- Isaiah 49:1-6 – The second “Servant Song” adds new dimensions to the picture of the servant in Isaiah 40-55. We now have a “Call Vision,” not entirely unlike that of Jeremiah in chapter 1. What role does the servant, identified as Israel (or a part of Israel?), play for Israel and among the nations?
- Isaiah 44:21-45:7 – While not one of the songs, this passage is one of several “Cyrus” passages in Isaiah 40-55: 41:2-4 and 25-29; 46:8-13. An overview of these sections demonstrates the common theme, spelled out in detail only in 44:21-45:7. The idea of Cyrus as a shepherd (leader of God’s people) and particularly a mashiach/messiah (anointed one) of God is truly amazing. The only foreigner to receive the title of anointed leader, Cyrus plays a significant role in delivering the captives from Babylon following his 539 conquest. We have what is called the “Cyrus Cylinder,” in the British Museum, which records Cyrus’ acts of conquest and return of peoples and their sacred objects and traditions to their homelands. While Judah is not mentioned, it was one of the many groups restored to their home and worship by this “messiah.”
Contributions to the study of Isaiah The dynamic treatment of the theme of servant and service adds to the book of Isaiah a truly important theme and model worthy of emulation.
Lessons for Life Orienting oneself to the service of others is surely one of the central pillars of the Bible and Christianity and should receive higher priority in the lives of those who focus primarily on personal salvation. What would that mean for how Christians are perceived and Christianity accepted?