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Servant of the Lord (Yahweh, Jehovah)

See also Servant of the Lord

SERVANT OF THE LORD (YAHWEH, JEHOVAH) (עֶ֫בֶד, H6269; LXX παι̂ς, G4090, sometimes δου̂λος). A figure in the Book of Isaiah.

The Servant Songs.

The principle underlying the selection of these Songs is that all portray a single distinctive figure: “the Servant of the Lord.” Some scholars have carried this line of argument to the extent of postulating a separate author and period of origin for these passages (esp. S. Mowinckel). The general tendency today, however, is to interpret them in relation to their context in Isaiah, as an integral part of the prophet’s message.

Interpretation of the Servant.

Is there a Servant-figure?

Some modern scholars (e.g., M. D. Hooker) dispute that these passages are intended to portray a Servant-figure. The term “servant” is one frequently used in the OT for those who are obedient to God, and is therefore applied to Israel as she fulfills her vocation.

Certainly other figures in the OT are described as “servants of God,” esp. the prophets, the patriarchs, and other individuals such as Moses and David (each of these frequently; see e.g. Gen 26:24; Exod 14:31; Deut 34:5; 2 Sam 7:5; Isa 20:3; Amos 3:7). To refer to someone as “servant of the Lord” was no novelty.

In Isaiah the term “servant” is used as frequently outside the Servant Songs as within. Note these passages in the vicinity of the Songs: 41:8, 9; 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20. All of these are applied to Israel, sometimes in terms similar to the language of the Songs.

Who is the Servant?

Interpretations may be divided into three basic classes, the collective, the individual, and the cultic. The various interpretations advanced are usefully set out by C. R. North (The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, 6-116) and H. H. Rowley (The Servant of the Lord, 4-48).

1. Collective interpretations. The Servant is explicitly addressed as “Israel” in 49:3. This fact, and the close correspondence between the language of the Songs and that applied to Israel as God’s Servant in surrounding chs., have led many to see in the Servant-figure a projection of the prophet’s ideal for the nation. It is the nation as a whole which is to undergo redemptive suffering. Others restrict the reference to a pious remnant within the nation, thus making allowance for the fact that the Servant has a mission to Israel (49:5, 6; cf. 42:6) and suffers for the people (53:4-6, 8, 11, 12). A further candidate for the title is the Davidic dynasty.

2. Individual interpretations. The Songs refer to the Servant in the singular and describe the life and experience of an individual (His birth, obedience, suffering, death, and triumph). That this is not a mere poetical personification of the nation is shown by His mission to Israel, as mentioned above. Interpreters have therefore taken the Servant as either a specific historical figure known to the author (e.g., Moses, Jeremiah, Cyrus, Zerubbabel, the prophet himself, or some unknown contemporary), or an ideal figure of the future—the Messiah. The latter was the predominant Christian interpretation until the end of the last cent.

3. Cultic interpretations. These interpretations, largely from Scandinavian scholars, see the background to the Servant-figure in a cultic ceremony, involving the symbolic death and rising again of the king, deriving from the Babylonian myth of the dying and rising god, Tammuz, and its liturgy. The Servant would, in this view, be neither a historical figure, past, present, or future, nor a collective personification of the nation, but a mythological symbol. The existence of such a mythology and ritual within Israel is highly controversial, and such interpretations have received little support outside Scandinavia.

4. Synthetic interpretations. Few scholars today hold to an exclusively collective or an exclusively individual interpretation. Some would see a progression of thought from the collective figure of the earlier Servant Songs to a more fully individualized figure in the fourth. The ideal for Israel was summed up in an ideal individual—the Messiah. “What began as a personification (has) become a person” (Rowley). Such an understanding of the Servant is best able to do justice to the apparently conflicting evidence of the text, as mentioned above. (See esp. the close juxtaposition of 49:3, where the Servant was addressed as “Israel,” and 49:5, 6, where He had a mission to Israel.) It is reinforced by the growing recognition that the Israelite distinguished less sharply between the individual and the community than does the modern Western mind. The notion of “corporate personality” (associated particularly with the name of H. W. Robinson) makes it possible for the Messiah not only to act for Israel, but also to sum up Israel in Himself. The Servant, therefore, is Israel—the ideal Israel, who is capable of fulfilling the destiny of which the empirical Israel fell short. As such He can suffer and die to redeem the people of God, as their Representative as well as their Substitute.

The subtlety of the prophet’s thought defies systematic analysis. It is in some such synthetic interpretation that the Biblical data will be most fully satisfied.

To describe the Servant as a messianic figure, in the sense of an individual who is central to the eschatological fulfillment of God’s purposes for His people, is therefore a correct, though not an exhaustive, description; and a messianic application of the Servant passages, and esp. of the passage where the individual terminology is clearest (52:13-53:12), will be in accordance with the intention of the prophet.

The character and mission of the Servant.

Working from the traditionally delimited Servant Songs (though the limitations of this approach have been indicated above), the following picture emerges:



The Servant in later Judaism.

Possible echoes of the Servant-figure have been detected in the OT itself, particularly in Zechariah 9-14; a meek and suffering figure occurs in 9:9, 10; 11:4-17; 12:10-14; 13:7-9. It is the character of the figure portrayed, rather than any verbal echo, which might suggest the influence of the Servant in Isaiah.

In later Hel. Judaism there is little evidence of a messianic understanding of these passages, except what is implicit in the LXX tr. of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. (See Zimmerli and Jeremias, The Servant of God, 42-44, 53-55.)

In Palestinian Judaism, on the other hand, a persistent messianic exegesis exists side by side with an embarrassment at the idea of a suffering Messiah. Thus the Targ. of Jonathan on 52:13-53:12 explicitly identifies the Servant as the Messiah, but systematically manipulates the text to transfer every idea of suffering from the Servant to Israel, the Gentiles, or the wicked. Several other indications of a messianic exegesis in Palestinian Judaism are listed by Jeremias (Zimmerli and Jeremias, op. ct., 59-79). While some are disputed, their overall significance far outweighs the few isolated indications of an interpretation of the Servant as either the nation or a historical individual. This is the more surprising in view of the apologetic use made of these passages by Christians. The rabbis generally preferred rather to ignore the Servant-idea than to interpret it as other than messianic. The evidence, therefore, suggests that in Palestinian Judaism of the time of Christ and afterward a messianic exegesis of the Servant was so firmly established that even the demands of the anti-Christian polemic could not unseat it.

The Servant in the NT.

The NT writers are unanimous in stating both that the Servant is a messianic figure, and that Jesus is the Servant. What is in dispute is the extent of the influence of this figure in the NT. Some recent writers have argued that it was of minor importance, and that Jesus’ predictions of His suffering were based not on the Servant-idea, but on the “Son of Man” of Daniel 7 (esp. M. D. Hooker).

In the teaching of Jesus.

It is relevant, too, that the heavenly voice at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:11), which is generally agreed to allude to Isaiah 42:1, must have influenced His subsequent view of His mission.

Thus the Servant-idea appears as a major factor in Jesus’ understanding of His own mission as one of redemption through a vicarious suffering and death.

In the rest of the NT.

This material is, however, not impressive in its bulk. It would appear that the view of Jesus as the Servant of the Lord, while prominent in Jesus’ own teaching, and preserved in the earlier parts of the NT, esp. in connection with the teaching of Peter, was later superseded by the titles “Lord” and “Son of God,” though the fact of Christ’s vicarious and atoning death, which the Servant passages explicitly teach, was firmly established as the basis of His redemptive work.


A. For the whole article: W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God (revised ed. 1965) (= TWNT, V [1954], 653-713).

B. For sections I-III: H. W. Robinson, The Cross of the Servant (1926; reprinted in The Cross in the Old Testament [1955], 55-114); J. S. Van der Ploeg, Les Chants du Serviteur de Jahvé (1936); I. Engnell, “The ‘Ebed Yahweh Songs and the Suffering Messiah in ‘Deutero-Isaiah,’” BJRL, XXXI (1948), 54-93; C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (1948); J. Lindblom, The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah (1951); H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord (1952), 1-88; S. Mowinckel, He That Cometh (1956), 187-257; H. Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament (1956), 39-53.

C. For section V: H. W. Wolff, Jesaja 53 in Urchristentum (1942); J. L. Price, “The Servant Motif in the Synoptic Gospels,” INT, XII (1958), 28-38; C. K. Barrett, “The Background of Mark 10:45,” in New Testament Essays in memory of T. W. Manson (ed. A. J. B. Higgins, 1959), 1-18; O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (1959), 51-82; M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (1959); B. Lindars, New Testament Apologetic (1961), 77-88; R. T. France, “The Servant of the Lord in the Teaching of Jesus,” Tyndale Bulletin, XIX (1968).