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When driving through the mountains, close proximity limits one’s sight to a single mountain or two. But when viewed with a bit of distance and perspective, that single mountain can be seen as belonging to an entire range of mountains. It is a mere contribution to an even greater vista.
It has been said that Old Testament prophecy can be explained in similar fashion. When considered up close, the fuller significance of the prophecy can sometimes be missed. But with the right viewpoint and a bit of perspective, the fuller significance of a passage can be seen.
So it is with the Servant Songs of Isaiah. These passages—Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12—make reference to the Servant of the Lord, and each could, like a single mountain, command attention that extends well beyond the treatment given here. In fact, one might feel the temptation to dwell only with one song without reference to the others. Another temptation might be to collapse each passage into the other, rushing from the victory of 42:1–9 to the suffering of 52:13–53:12. The tack taken here will be to summarize the broad strokes of each passage before taking a step back to admire the fuller vista that emerges.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. (vv. 1–4)
The first song (Isa. 42:1–9) depicts the Lord’s Servant establishing justice. The prophets frequently accused the people of God of committing injustices. This was often expressed in their failure to care for or protect the poor, widows, and orphans. The Lord’s Servant, however, would not break the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick (v. 3). His faithful accomplishment of this justice is referenced in verses 4 and 5. The work of the Servant in establishing justice, one of the most important functions in ancient Near Eastern kingship, is reminiscent of the messianic kingdom that is depicted in the Old Testament. The execution of this justice would be the going forth of a law (torah) in which the nations would hope. This mission of the Servant as “light for the nations” is expressed further in the Servant’s work of opening the eyes of the blind and setting captives free (vv. 6–7). Unlike the weak idols (v. 8), the God who created the heavens and the earth will accomplish all this (v. 5). In short, emerging from the ashes of the Babylonian exile would come a Servant of the Lord who would establish His kingdom of justice that would constitute not only the hope of Israel but the hope of the nations.
And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (vv. 5–6)
There are several similarities between the first song and the second song, which is recorded in 49:1–7. In both passages, the Servant is a light to the gentiles (42:6 and 49:6). In each instance, the coastlands are mentioned (42:4 and 49:1). Further, Isaiah 42:10, which some would include in the first Servant Song, mentions His praise going to the end of the earth. Similarly, in 49:6 His glory will reach the end of the earth. In 49:1, there is the call to listen, which is featured commonly in Isaiah (46:3; 46:12; 51:1; 51:7; 55:2). In 49:2, the Servant will have a ministry of prophecy that is depicted in imagery similar to that which appears in Revelation, where the Lord has a sharp sword coming from His mouth (Rev. 1:16; 19:15, 21). While in Isaiah 49:3, the Servant is associated with Israel, the Servant is differentiated from Jacob and Israel in verse 5. The Servant’s mission is to return Israel back to the Lord, but the Servant is too great, too glorious to merely serve as savior to Jacob; He will be a light to the nations.
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as 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. (vv. 4–6)
The third Servant Song (Isa. 50:4–9), demonstrates the faithfulness of the Servant to the Lord (vv. 4–5). Yet, this faithfulness results in suffering (v. 6). Through this, the Lord sustains and helps the Servant (vv. 7, 9). Even in the face of suffering, He did not turn back, just as Jesus stared down the suffering awaiting Him in Jerusalem, and rather than turning back, set His face like a flint toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). Since the Lord is with Him, the Servant is unafraid of His accusers (Isa. 50:8–9). In light of His work, a call issues forth for a response to the Servant, to obey His voice and trust in the name of the Lord (v. 10). But in verse 11, there is the dire warning of judgment that is to come.
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (53:1–6)
The fourth Servant Song (Isa. 52:13–53:12), brings together many of these strands, and it becomes crystal clear that the victory of the Servant will be achieved through suffering, not just despite suffering. The Servant will be marred, beaten, and wounded for the transgressions of His people. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). His suffering will result in the sprinkling of many nations (52:15) and healing (53:5).
Servant Songs in the New Testament
Some of the most memorable questions in the New Testament are answered in relation to the Servant Songs. Whether it is the eunuch asking Phillip if the fourth song is about Isaiah or someone else (Acts 8), or John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20), the significance of these songs cannot be overstated. “Phillip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Jesus responds to John’s disciples with a summary of His ministry as depicted in Isaiah in particular:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me. (Luke 7:22–23)
This description draws, at least in part, on the work of the Servant in the first song, which mentions opening the eyes of the blind and setting the captive free.
When staring up close at one of the mountains, one might receive a limited view, but upon stepping back, the vista of a Servant who achieves victory for the nations comes into focus. From the New Testament perspective, the work that the Servant performs accomplishes the redemption of God’s people and ushers in the kingdom of God. The Servant solves the dilemma presented in Revelation 5. Only Jesus Christ, God’s Servant, can break the seals of the scroll and accomplish God’s purposes for the heavens and the earth. His kingdom of justice will be achieved through the crucible of suffering in order that the praise of His glorious grace might extend throughout all the earth.
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9–10)