BiblicalTraining's mission is to lead disciples toward spiritual growth through deep biblical understanding and practice. We offer a comprehensive education covering all the basic fields of biblical and theological content at different academic levels.
Read More

Servant of Jehovah

The interpretation of these passages has been contested. Some contend that the prophet was speaking of himself, a view that can sustain itself only by the unwarranted removal of Isa.49.3 (in whole or part) from the text of Isaiah and by the most tortuous and unlikely interpretation of Isa.53.1-Isa.53.12. A much more prevalent view is that Isaiah was speaking of the mission, suffering, and marvelous continuance of Israel, the nation. This view accords with Isa.49.3 but makes difficult an explanation of Isa.53.1-Isa.53.12 in credible terms; for in what possible sense can the national sufferings be understood as vicarious when the prophet himself says (e.g., Isa.42.18-Isa.42.25) that it was all their own fault? Besides, though Israel is spoken of as the servant (e.g., Isa.43.10), the portrait of the servant-nation outside the key passages and of the Servant in the passages is dramatically different. The only interpretation capable of sustaining itself through all the details of the four passages is that which sees Isaiah as looking forward to the perfect Servant and his perfect act of service.

Bibliography: H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Isaiah, 1968; E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, 3 vols., 1972; H. Blocher, The Songs of the Servant, 1975; E. J. Hamlin, A Guide to Isaiah 40-66, 1979; J. A. Motyer, “Messiah,” IDB, pp. 987-94.——JAM and WB

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

|| 1. Historical Situation

2. The Authorship of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66

3. The Prophet of the Exile

4. The Unity of Isaiah 40-66

5. Principal Ideas of Isaiah 40-66

6. The Servant-Passages

(1) Date of the Servant-Passages

(2) Discussion of the Passages

(3) Whom Did the Prophet Mean by the Servant?

(4) The Psychology of the Prophecy

7. Place of the Servant-Passages in Old Testament Prophecy

8. Large Messianic Significance of the Servant-Passages

1. Historical Situation:

A century and a half had passed since the great days of Isaiah in Jerusalem. The world had vastly changed during those long decades when politicians had planned, armies surged back and forth, and tribes and nations had lost or won in the struggle for existence, place and power. The center of the world had changed--for Assyria had gone to its long home, and the city claiming preeminence was not Nineveh but Babylon.

Nowhere perhaps had time laid a heavier hand than on the city of Jerusalem and the country of Judah. For city and land had come to desolation, and the inhabitants of the country had become familiar with the strange sights and sounds of Babylonia, whither they had been carried by their conquerors. Many had found graves in the land of the exile, and new generations had arisen who had no memory of the hill country of their fathers. It is the situation of these captive Jews in Babylonia which is reflected and they who are addressed at the waning of the long night of captivity by the stirring message recorded in Isaiah 40-66 (leaving out of account here disputed passages in Isaiah 40-66).

2. The Authorship of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66:

The more one studies the problem of the authorship of these chapters, the more unlikely does it seem that their author penned them 150 years before the time with which they are vitally connected. It is obviously impossible to treat that problem in a detailed way here, but one may sum up the arguments by saying that in theological ideas, in style, and use of words they show such differences from the assured productions of Isaiah’s pen as to point to a different authorship. And the great argument, the argument which carries the most weight to the author of this article, is that these late chapters are written from the standpoint of the exile. The exile is assumed in what is said. These chapters do not prophesy the exile, do not say it is to come; they all the time speak as though it had come. The message is not that an exile is to be, but beginning with the fact that the exile already is, it foretells deliverance. Now of course it is conceivable that God might inspire a man to put himself forward 150 years, and with a message to people who were to live then, assuming their circumstances as a background of what he said, but it is improbable to the last degree. To put it in plain, almost gruff, English, it is not the way God did things. The prophet’s message was always primarily a message to his own age. Then there is no claim in the chapters themselves that Isaiah was their author. And having once been placed so that it was supposed they were by Isaiah--placed so through causes we do not know--the fact that in speaking of passages from these chapters New Testament authors referred to them by a name the people would recognize, is not a valid argument that they meant to teach anything as to their authorship. The problem had not arisen in New Testament times. Isaiah 40-66, as Professor Davidson has suggested, has a parallel in the Book of Job, each the production of a great mind, each from an author we do not know.

Compare ISAIAH.

3. The Prophet of the Exile:

Out of the deep gloom of the exile--when the Jew was a man without a country, when it seemed as if the nation’s sins had murdered hope--out of this time comes the voice most full of gladness and abounding hope of all the voices from the Old Testament life. In the midst of the proud, confident civilization of Babylonia, with its teeming wealth and exhaustless splendor, came a man who dared to speak for Yahweh--a man of such power to see reality that to him Babylonia was already doomed, and he could summon the people to prepare for God’s deliverance.

4. The Unity of Isaiah 40-66:

In recent criticism, especially in Germany, there has been a strong tendency to assign the last chapters of this section to a different author from the first. The background it is claimed is not Babylonian; the sins rebuked are the sins of the people when at home in Judea, and in at least one passage the temple at Jerusalem seems to be standing. That these chapters present difficulties need not be disputed, but it seems to me that again and again in them one can find the hand of Second Isaiah. Then undoubtedly the author quotes from previous prophecies which we can recognize, and the suggestion that some of the difficult passages may be quotations from other older prophecies which are not preserved to us, I think an exceedingly good one. The quotation of such passages in view of the prospect of return, and the prophet’s feeling of the need of the people, would seem to me not at all unnatural. If a later hand is responsible for some utterances in the latter part of the section, it seems to me fairly clear that most of it is from the hand of the great unknown prophet of the exile.

The questions regarding the Servant-passages as affecting the unity of the book will be treated later.

5. Principal Ideas of Isaiah 40-66:

The first part of this section vividly contrasts Yahweh and the idols worshipped with such splendor and ceremony. All the resources of irony and satire are used to give point and effect to the contrast. Cyrus the Median conqueror is already on the horizon, and he is declared to be God’s instrument in the deliverance. The idols are described in process of manufacture; they are addressed in scornful apostrophe, they are seen carried away helpless. On the other side Yahweh, with illimitable foresight and indomitable strength, knows and reveals the future. They know and reveal nothing. He brings to pass what He has planned. They do nothing. Not only the idols but Babylonia itself is made the victim of satire--and the prophet hurls a taunt song at the proud but impotent city.

Israel--the people of Yahweh--the elect of God--is given the prophet’s message. The past is called up as a witness to Yahweh’s dealings. His righteousness--His faithfulness to His people--shall not fail. They are unworthy, but out of His own bounty salvation is provided. And with joy of this salvation from exile and from sin the book rings and rings. The Zion of the restored Israel is pictured with all the play of color and richness of imagery at the prophet’s command. And this restored Israel is to have a world-mission. Its light is to fall upon all lands. It is to minister salvation to all races of men.

But back of and under these pictures of great hope is the prophet’s sense of his people’s sin and their struggle with it. In the latter part of the book, especially Isaiah 59 and 64 this comes out clearly. And the mood of these chapters expresses the feeling out of which some of the deep things of the Servant-passages came. There is no need to insist that the chapters as they stand are in the order in which they were written. We know from other prophecies that this was not always true. But even if a man were convinced that the chapters now occurring after the Servant-passages were all written after them, he could still hold, and I think would be justified in holding, that in places in those chapters the reader finds the record of a state of the prophet’s mind before the writing of those passages. The former view would be, I think, the preferable one. At any rate the point of view is logically that out of which some of the deep things in the Servant-passages came.

In profoundness of meaning the climax of the book is reached in these passages where the deliverance from exile and the deliverance from sin are connected with one great figure--the Servant of Yahweh.

6. The Servant-Passages:

The word "servant," as applied to servants of God, is not an unfamiliar one to readers of the Old Testament. It is applied to different individuals and by Jeremiah to the nation (compare Jer 30:10; 46:27); but its message is on the whole so distinct and complete in Second Isa that we can study it without any further reference to previous usage.

The "servant" first appears in Isa 41:8. Here the reference is undoubtedly to Israel, chosen and called of God and to be upheld by Him. Here Israel is promised victory over its enemies. In vivid picture their destruction and Isracl’s future trust and glory in God are portrayed.

There are several incidental references to Israel as Yahweh’s servant: created by Yahweh and not to be forgotten (Isa 41:8); Cyrus is said to be called for the sake of His servant Jacob (Isa 45:4); Yahweh is said to have redeemed His servant Jacob (Isa 48:20).

In Isa 44:26 "servant" seems to be used with the meaning of prophet. It is said of Yahweh that He "confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers."

In Isa 42:19 we find the failure and inadequacy of Israel presented in the words, "Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I send?" This passage is an explanation of the exile. Israel proved unworthy and sinned, hence, its punishment, but even in the exile the lesson had not been taken to heart.

In Isa 43:8 ff Yahweh summons Israel the servant, who in spite of blindness and deafness yet is His witness. It has at least seen enough to be able to witness for Him in the presence of the heathen.

In Isa 44:1-5, leaving the unworthiness of the actual Israel, there comes what seems to me a summons in the name of the possible, the ideal. The underlying thought is a call to the high future which God has ready to give.

This covers the reference to the servant outside the great Servant-passages to which we now come. There are four of these: Isa 42:1-9; 49:1-9 a; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12; 61:1-4 perhaps represents words of the Servant, but may refer to words of the prophet, and, as at any rate it adds no new features to the picture of the Servant already given in the passages undoubtedly referring to him, we will not discuss it.

(1) Date of the Servant-Passages.

Ewald long ago suggested that the last of the Servant-passages must have been borrowed from an earlier composition, which he assigned to the age of Manasseh. "If we find in the study of the passage reason for its vividness, we shall not need to seek its origin in the description of some past martyrdom."

Duhm quoted by Cheyne thinks the Servant-passages post-exilic. The gentleness and quiet activity of the Servant for one thing, according to Duhm, suggest the age of the scribes, rather than that of the exile. But might not an age of suffering be a time to learn the lesson of gentleness? According to Skinner, Duhm thinks the passages were inserted almost haphazard, but Skinner also refers to Kosters, showing that the passages cannot be lifted without carrying some of the succeeding verses with them. This is particularly significant in view of the recent popularity of other theories which deny the Servant-passages to the hand and time of Second Isa. The theory that these passages form by themselves a poem or a set of poems which have been inserted here can boast of distinguished names.

There does not seem much to commend it, however. As to the argument from difference as to rhythm, there is disagreement, and the data are probably not of a sort to warrant much significance being applied to it either way. The fact that the passages are not always a part of connected movement of thought would play great havoc if made a universal principle of discrimination as to authorship in the prophecies of the Old Testament. If we succeed in giving the fundamental ideas of the passages a place in relation to the thought of Deutero-Isaiah, an argument for which cogency might be claimed will be dissipated. But even at its best this argument would not be conclusive. To deny certain ideas to an author simply because he has not expressed them in a certain bit of writing acknowledged to him is perilous business. A message of hope surely does not preclude an appreciation of the dark things.

The truth of the matter is that even by great scholars the temptation to a criticism of knight-errantry is not always resisted. And I think we shall not make any mistake in believing that this is the case with the attempt to throw doubt upon the Deutero-Isaianic authorship of the Servant-passages.

(2) Discussion of the Passages.

Isa 42:1-9: In these verses Yahweh Himself is the speaker, describing the Servant as His chosen, in whom His soul delights, upon whom He has put His spirit. He is to bring justice to the Gentiles. His methods are to be quiet and gentle, and the very forlorn hope of goodness He will not quench. He is to set justice in the earth, and remote countries are described as waiting for His law. Then comes a declaration by the prophet that Yahweh, the Creator of all, is the speaker of words declaring the Servant’s call in righteousness to be a covenant for the people, a light to the Gentiles, a helper to those in need--the blind and imprisoned. Yahweh’s glory is not to be given to other, nor His praise to graven images. Former prophecies have come to pass. New things He now declares. One’s attention needs to be called to the distinction of the Servant from Israel in this passage. He is to be a covenant of the people: according to Delitzsch, "he in whom and through whom Yahweh makes a new covenant with His people in place of the old one that has been broken."

Isa 49:1-9 a; Here the Servant himself spoaks, telling of his calling from the beginning of his life, of the might of his word, of his shelter in God, of a time of discouragement in which he thought his labor in vain, followed by insistence on his trust in God. Then Yahweh promises him a larger mission than the restoration of Israel, namely, to be a light to the Gentiles. Yahweh speaks of the Servant as one despised, yet to be triumphant so that he will be honored by kings and princes. He is to lead his people forth at their restoration, "to make them inherit the desolate heritages; saying to them that are bound, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves."

Clearly the Servant is distinct from the people Israel in this passage. Yet in Isa 49:3 he is addressed as Israel. The word Israel here may be a gloss, which would solve the difficulty, or the Servant may be addressed as Israel because he gathers up in himself the meaning of the ideal Israel. If it is true that the prophet gradually passed from the conception of Israel as a nation to a person through whom its true destiny would be realized, this last suggestion would gain in probability.

One notices here the emphasis on the might of the Servant, and in this passage we come to understand that he is to pass through a time of ignominy. The phrase "a servant of rulers" is a difficult one, which would be clear if the prophet conceived of him as one of the exiles, and typically representing them. The Servant’s mission in this passage seems quite bound up with the restoration.

Isa 50:4-11: In the first part of this passage the Servant is not mentioned directly, but it seems clear that he is speaking. He is taught of God continually, that he may bring a message to the weary. He has opened his ear so that he may fully understand Yahweh’s message. The Servant now describes his sufferings as coming to him because of his obedience. He was not rebellious and did not turn back from his mission. Flint-like he set his face and with confidence in God met the shame which came upon him. After language vivid with a sense of ignominy his assured consciousness of victory and faith in God are expressed, .

In Isa 50:10-11, according to Delitzsch, Yahweh speaks, first encouraging those who listen to the Servant, then addressing those who despise his word. Cheyne thinks the Servant mentioned in 50:10 may be the prophet, but I prefer Delitzsch’s view.

Isa 52:13-53:12: The present division of 52:13-53:12 is unfortunate, for obviously it is all of a piece and ought to stand together in one chapter.

In Isa 52:13-15 Yahweh speaks of the humiliation and later of the exaltation of the Servant. He shall deal wisely--the idea here including the success resulting from wisdom--and shall be exalted. Words are piled upon each other here to express his exaltation. But the appearance of the Servant is such as to suggest the very opposite of his dignity, which will astonish nations and kings when they come, to understand it.

Entering upon Isaiah 53 we find the people of Israel speaking confessing their former unbelief, and giving as a reason the repulsive aspect of the Servant--despised, sad, sick with a visage to make men turn from him. He is described as though he had been a leper. They thought all this had come upon him as a stroke from God, but they now see how he went even to death, not for his own transgression but for theirs. Their peace and healing came through his suffering and death. They have been sinful and erring; the result of it all God has caused to light upon him.

They look back in wonder at the way he bore his sufferings--like a lamb led to the slaughter; with a false judicial procedure he was led away, no one considering his death, or its relation to them. His grave even was an evidence of ignominy.

Beginning at Isa 53:10 the people cease speaking, according to Delitzsch, and the prophecy becomes the organ of God who acknowledges His Servant. The reference to a trespass offering in 53:10 is remarkable. Nowhere else is prophecy so connected with the sacrificial system (A. B. Davidson). It pleased God to bruise the Servant--his soul having been made a trespass offering; the time of humiliation over, the time of exaltation will come.

By his knowledge we are told--here a momentary reversion to the time of humiliation taking place--by his knowledge he shall justify many and bear their iniquities. Then comes the exaltation--dividing of spoils and greatness--the phrases suggesting kingly glory: all this is to be his because of his suffering. The great fact of Isaiah 53 is vicarious suffering.

(3) Whom Did the Prophet Mean by the Servant?

(a) Obviously not all of Israel always, for the Servant is distinguished from Israel. (b) Not the godly remnant, for he is distinguished from them. Then the godly remnant does not attain to any such proportions as to fit the description of Isaiah 53. (c) And one cannot accept theory that the prophetic order is intended. The whole order is not great enough to exhaust the meaning of one of a half-dozen of the greatest lines in chapter 53.

Professor A. B. Davidson’s Old Testament Prophecy contains a brilliant and exceedingly able discussion of the question which he approaches from the stand-point of Biblical rather than simply exegetical theology. His fundamental position is that in the prophet’s outlook the restoration is the consummation. In his mind the Servant and his work cannot come after the restoration. The Servant, if a real person, must be one whose work lies in the past or the present, as there is not room in the future for him, for the restoration which is at the door brings felicity, and after that no sufferings of the Servant are conceivable. But there is no actual person in the past and none in the present who could be the Servant. Hence, the Servant cannot be to the prophet’s mind a real person.

See Coniah.

Of course Davidson relates the result to his larger conception of prophecy in such a way as to secure the Messianic significance of the passages in relation to their fulfillment in our Lord. The ideas they contain are realized in Him.

But coming back to the prophet’s mind--if the Servant was not a person to him, what significance did he have? The answer according to Davidson is, He is a great personification of the ideal Israel. "He is Israel according to its idea." To quote more fully, "The prophet has created out of the divine determinations imposed on Israel, election, creation and forming, endowment with the word or spirit of Yahweh, and the divine purpose in these operations, an ideal Being, an inner Israel in the heart of the phenomenal or actual Israel, an indestructible Being having these divine attributes or endowments, present in the outward Israel in all ages, powerful and effectual because really composed, if I can say so, of divine forces, who cannot fail in God’s purpose, and who as an inner power within Israel by his operation causes all Israel to become a true servant" (compare Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy, 435-36).

Now it seems to me that Davidson is more effective in his destructive than in his constructive work. One must confess that he presents real difficulties in the way of holding to a personal Servant as the prophet’s conception. But on the other hand when he tries to replace that by a more adequate conception, I do not think he conspicuously succeeds.

The greatest of the Servant-passages (it seems to me) presents more than can be successfully dealt with under the conception of the Servant as the ideal Israel. The very great emphasis on vicarious suffering in Isaiah 53 simply is not answered by theory. Words would not leap with such a flame of reality in describing the suffering of a personification. The sense of sin back of the passage is not a thing whose problem could be solved by a glittering figure of speech. There it surges--the movement of an aroused conscience--and the answer to it could never be anything less than a real deed by a real person. My own feeling is that if language can express anything it expresses the fact that the prophet had a real personal Servant in view.

But what of the difficulties Davidson suggests? Even if the answer were not easy to find, one could rest on the total impression the passages make. One cannot vaporize a passage for the sake of placing it in an environment in which one believes it belongs. As Cheyne in other days said, "In the sublimest descriptions of the Servant I am unable to resist the impression that we have the presentment of an individual, and venture to think that our general view of the Servant ought to be ruled by those passages in which the enthusiasm of the author is at its height."

The first thing we need to remember in dealing with the difficulties Davidson has brought forth is the timelessness of prophecy, and the resulting fact that every prophet saw the future as if lying just on the horizon of his own time. As prophets saw the day of Yahweh as if at hand, so it seems to me Deutero-Isaiah saw the Servant: each really afar off, yet each really seen in the colors of the present. Then we must remember that the prophets did not relate all their conceptions. They stated truths whose meaning and articulation they did not understand. They were not philosophers with a Hegelian hunger for a total view of life, and when we try to read them from this standpoint we misjudge them. Then we must remember that the prophet may here have been lifted to a height of prophetic receptivehess where he received and uttered what went beyond the limits of his own understanding. To be sure there was a point of contact, but I see no objection to the thought that in a place of unique significance and importance like this, God might use a man to utter words which reached far beyond the limits of his own understanding. In this connection some words of Professor Hermann Schultz are worth quoting: "If it is true anywhere in the history of poetry and prophecy, it is true here that the writer being full of the spirit has said more than he himself meant to say and more than he himself understood."

(4) The Psychology of the Prophecy.

This does not mean that something may. not be said about the connection of the Servant-passages with the prophet’s own thought. Using Delitzsch’s illustration, we can see how from regarding all Israel as the servant the prophet could narrow down to the godly part of Israel as experience taught him the faithlessness of many, and it ought not to be impossible for us to see how all that Israel really meant at its best could have focused itself in his thought upon one person. Despite Davidson’s objection, I can see nothing artificial about this movement in the prophet’s mind. There was probably more progression in his thought than Professor Davidson is willing to allow. If it is asked, Where was the person to whom the prophet could ascribe such greatness, conceiving as he did that he was to come at once? surely a similar question would be fair in relation to Isaiah’s Messiah. The truth is that even on the threshold of the restoration there was time for a great one suddenly to arise. As John the Baptist on the Jordan watched for the coming One whom he knew not, yet who was alive, so the great prophet of the exile may have watched even day by day for the coming Servant whose work had been revealed to him.

But deep in the psychology of the prophecy is the sense of sin out of which these passages came and indications of which I think are found in the latter part of the book. The great guilt-laden past lay terribly behind the prophet, and as he mused over the sufferings of the righteous, perhaps especially drawn to tim heart-rent Jeremiah, the thought of redemptive suffering may have dawned upon him. And if in its light, and with a personal sense of sin drawn from what experiences we know not, he grapples with the problem, can we not understand, can we not see that God might flash upon him the great conception of a sin-bearer?

7. Place of the Servant-Passages in Old Testament Prophecy:

At last the idea of vicarious suffering had been connected with the deep things of the nation’s life, and henceforward was a part of its heritage. To the profoundest souls it would be a part of the nation’s forward look. The priestly idea had been deepened and filled with new moral meaning. The Servant was a prophet too--so priest and prophet met in one. And I think Cheyne was right when he suggested that in the Servant’s exaltation in Isaiah 53, the idea of the Servant is brought nearer to that of king than we sometimes think. So in suggestion, at least, prophet, priest and king meet in the great figure of the suffering Servant.

A new rich stream had entered into prophecy, full of power to fertilize whatever shores of thought it touched. In the thoughts of these passages prophecy seemed pressing with impatient eagerness to its goal, and though centuries were to pass before that goal was reached, its promise is seen here, full of assurance and of knowledge of the kind of goal it is to be.

8. Larger Messianic Significance of the Servant-Passages:

But whatever our view of the meaning of the prophet, we must agree (compare Mt 8:17; 12:18-21; 26:67; Joh 12:41, et al.) that the conception he so boldly and powerfully put upon his canvas had its realization, its fulfillment in the One who spoke to the world from the cross on Calvary. And in its darkly glorious shadow the Christian, with all the sadness and joy and wonder of it, with a sense of its solving all his problems and meeting the deepest needs and outreaches of his life, can feel a strange companionship with the exilic prophet whose yearning for a sin-bearer and belief in His coming call across the long and slowly moving years. In the light and penetration of that hour he may be trusted to know what the prophet meant. Professor Delitzsch well said of that passage, "Every word is as it were written under the cross at Golgotha."