Context of Isaiah 53: what the Servant Songs reveal about the Servant
Why Christians should read all the servant songs — not just Isaiah 53
My fascination with the context of Isaiah 53 probably began at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. A famous place for religious and political debate.
Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell have spoken there. But you don’t need a following of millions. Since 1872, it has been a place where anyone can get up and speak their mind.
On a sunny day in Hyde Park, I heard a Christian preaching a familiar message about Jesus as the servant of Isaiah 53. In fine Speakers’ Corner tradition there were many questions — some bizarre, some insulting. But it became interesting when three Jewish men approached the speaker.
They offered a critique that had substance. Christians all cite Isaiah 53 — but they don’t read it in context. If they did they would realise the prophet is speaking about Israel. Rabbi Tovia Singer summed up this argument well:
Isaiah 53, which is the fourth of four renowned Servant Songs, is umbilically connected to its preceding chapters. The “servant” in each of the three previous Servant Songs is plainly and repeatedly identified as the nation of Israel.
This article is the second in a series on Isaiah 53. In the first part, I looked at the history of Jewish interpretation of the chapter. This second article will look at the three previous Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1–9; 49:1–6; 50:4–11).
The servant of the Lord in the Hebrew Bible
The title ‘servant of the Lord’ is common throughout the Hebrew Bible. Rabbi Singer is correct — Israel is commonly identified as the servant of the Lord.
However, Moses was also frequently addressed as the servant of the Lord (for example Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7,8; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:1). David was also commonly referred to as the servant of God in 1 and 2 Samuel (for example, 1 Samuel 19:4; 2 Samuel 3:18; 2 Samuel 7:5,8) and in Isaiah (37:35).
Isaiah’s usage is consistent with this pattern. Yes, of course, Israel is the servant of the Lord:
But you, Israel, My servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
Seed of Abraham My friend —
You whom I drew from the ends of the earth
And called from its far corners,
To whom I said: You are My servant;
I chose you, I have not rejected you… (Isaiah 41:8–9)
Yet, Isaiah also spoke of a servant who was an individual like Moses and David — the Messiah. This sounds very Christian but is actually the interpretation of an early Jewish midrash (Tanchuma Toldot). The servant in Isaiah is the Messiah who will surpass Moses and David.
Servant song 1: Isaiah 42:1–9
If we return to Rabbi Tovia Singer’s article, he quotes a number of passages where Israel is called the servant (Isaiah 41:8–9; 44:1; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3).
Can you spot the missing reference? Isaiah 42. Remember, Rabbi Singer had argued the servant is clearly Israel in all the servant songs.
Was it an overcite? Possibly, we know that the famous Jewish commentator Rashi argued chapter 42 was about Israel. However, this is not a common view in Jewish tradition.
Probably the earliest paraphrase of this passage comes from the Targum of Jonathan (c.150 BCE — c.350 CE):
Behold, my servant, the Messiah,
whom I bring,
my chosen in whom one delights:
as for my WORD,
I will put my Holy Spirit upon Him;
He shall reveal my judgment unto the nations.
(Targum of Jonathan on Isaiah 42:1)
Major Rabbis throughout Jewish history have interpreted Isaiah 42 to be about the Messiah — in a similar way to the Targum:
- Maimonides’ (Rambam)12th century
- David Kimchi (RaDaK) 12th-13th century
- David Altschuler (in Metzudad David) 18th century
- Malbim 19th century.
For example, Rambam stated Isaiah taught about the death of the Messiah:
But the Messiah will die, and his son and son’s son will reign in his stead. God has clearly declared his death in the words, לא יכהה ולא ירוץ עד ישים בארץ משפט “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4) (Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin)
New Testament citations (for example Matthew 3:17; Matthew 12:17–21; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22) of this first servant song reflect the most common interpretation in Jewish tradition. That Isaiah 42 was about the Messiah.
Servant song 2: Context
Rabbi Tovia Singer did include a citation from the second Servant Song:
And He said to me, “You are My servant,
Israel in whom I glory.”
(Isaiah 49:3, Jewish Publication Society (JPS) 1985)
Clearly, this verse states that Israel is the servant. However, we need to read what comes before and after to understand the verse. Isaiah 48 represents a key turning point:
Listen to this, O House of Jacob,
Who bear the name Israel
And have issued from the waters of Judah,
Who swear by the name of the LORD
And invoke the God of Israel —
Though not in truth and sincerity…
Though I know that you are treacherous,
That you were called a rebel from birth.
(Isaiah 48:1–8, JPS 1985)
Israel was under the judgement of God. Though they swore by the name of the Lord, they had rebelled against him constantly. Yet God would not reject his people. He promised to send a servant:
For the sake of My name I control My wrath;
To My own glory, I am patient with you,
And I will not destroy you…
I, I predicted, and I called him;
I have brought him and he shall succeed in his mission.
Draw near to Me and hear this:
From the beginning, I did not speak in secret;
From the time anything existed, I was there.
“And now the Lord GOD has sent me, he endowed with His spirit.”
(Isaiah 48:9–16, JPS 1985)
The servant’s mission, whose success was guaranteed by the Lord, was to redeem his people Israel (Jacob):
Go forth from Babylon,
Flee from Chaldea!
Declare this with loud shouting,
Bring out the word to the ends of the earth!
Say: “The LORD has redeemed
His servant Jacob!” (Isaiah 48:9–20, JPS 1985)
Servant song 2: Isaiah 49: 1–6
Did you notice in Isaiah 48 the two servants? Israel — the wayward servant in exile. In contrast, an obedient servant will come to their rescue. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the Servant Songs.
So we must read Isaiah 49:3 in this context. Israel, God’s servant, is in exile because of her rebellion. Yet he has sent a servant to redeem them. Which servant does God address in verse 3?
Verse 6 answers this definitively. This servant will bring Israel and even the Gentiles (non-Jews) back to God. Therefore he must be distinct from Israel:
Yea, He saith: ‘It is too light a thing that thou shouldest be My servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also give thee for a light of the nations, That My salvation may be unto the end of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49:6, JPS 1917)*
Servant Song 3: Isaiah 50:4–11
The third servant song continues this contrast between the rebel servant (Israel) and God’s faithful servant who suffers on their behalf. The verses that immediately precede this song depict Israel as an unrepentant rebel:
Thus said the LORD:
Where is the bill of divorce
Of your mother whom I dismissed?
And which of My creditors was it
To whom I sold you off?
You were only sold off for your sins,
And your mother dismissed for your crimes.
Why, when I came, was no one there,
Why, when I called, would none respond?
Is my arm, then, too short to rescue,
Have I not the power to save?
(Isaiah 50:1–2, JPS 1985)
In contrast, the servant did not disobey. He was willing to suffer for God and Israel:
The Lord GOD opened my ears,
And I did not disobey,
I did not run away. I offered my back to the floggers,
And my cheeks to those who tore out my hair.
I did not hide my face
From insult and spittle. (Isaiah 50:5–6, JPS 1985)
Israel is called to turn to God and listen to the word of his servant:
Who among you reveres the LORD
And heeds the voice of His servant? —
Though he walk in darkness
And have no light,
Let him trust in the name of the LORD
And rely upon his God. (Isaiah 50:10, JPS 1985)
As I look back, I’m glad for those Jewish men in Speakers’ Corner. They asked uncomfortable questions you wouldn’t hear in a Christian Bible study group.
They were right, I knew Isaiah 52:13–53:12 intimately. But I knew very little about the chapters that immediately preceded it. Less so the other Servant Songs.
But as I got to know the Servant Songs, and the book of Isaiah, the context brought out the message of Isaiah 53 all the more clearly. The servant is the Messiah who will redeem Israel and the rest of the world.
The final Servant Song makes clear how — we will turn to this passage in the final part of the series.
*I used the earlier JPS translation here as it better reflects the Hebrew, the 1985 version blurs the distinction that exists in the Hebrew between the servant and Jacob.