The Servant of the Lord - Study Four – Part A
Teaching from Dr Deane Woods
FROM the series Messiah in Isaiah
In the lead-up to the Spring Harvest Bible teaching event in the United Kingdom in 1984, songwriter/composer Graham Kendrik authored a now famous song to fit the theme for that year. He titled it, “The Servant King”. Do you recall the lyrics?
Verse 1 From heav’n You came, helpless Babe Entered our world, Your glory veiled; Not to be served but to serve And give Your life that we might live
Chorus This is our God, the Servant King He calls us now to follow Him To bring our lives as a daily offering Of worship to the Servant King
Verse 2 There in the garden of tears My heavy load He chose to bear; His heart with sorrow was torn ‘Yet not my will but Yours,’ He said Verse 3 Come see His hands and His feet The scars that speak of sacrifice; Hands that flung stars into space To cruel nails surrendered
Verse 4 So let us learn how to serve And in our lives enthrone Him; Each other’s needs to prefer For it is Christ we’re serving In many ways, these stanzas exemplify the essence of the four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah.
In this present article (the first of the four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah), the writer’s purpose is to introduce them in a virtual mini-series, present a brief overview of each and thereby show how they “connect” so as to portray Isaiah’s complete, inter-related understanding of the promised Messiah. He does this in terms of a single theme –the Servant of the LORD - set centrally and significantly in the immediate and wider contexts of his prophetic book.
Immediate Context: Centrality & Overview
In essence, the Servant songs (also called the “Songs of the Suffering Servan”t) are four songs in the Book of Isaiah (Is. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; and 52:13-53:12. They were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. The songs are four stylistic poems written about a certain "servant of the LORD”. God calls the servant to lead the nations and bring in righteousness and justice, but the servant is horribly abused among and by them. Finally, he is divinely rewarded in sovereignly appointed ways. These informative vignettes are shown to be of central significance as Isaiah’s progressive Messianic overview presentation unfolds.
The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world. The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).
The second song (49:1-6), further defines the Servant’s mission. He is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a). Furthermore, God says, “I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’” (49:6b).
The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the Servant’s work and tenacious faith. God has given Him a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5). While He experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help (Him)” (50:7, 9), so He sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).
The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering. This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted, he did not open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he opened not his mouth” (53:7). “They made his grave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
The question, of course, remains: "Who is the Servant?" It seems very clear that in this first passage the Servant is the Lord Jesus. The Jews recognized, long before Jesus' time, that this was a reference to Messiah. In almost all their ancient translations from the Hebrew and Aramaic, they insert between the third and fourth words of verse 1 the word Messiah: "Behold, My Servant, Messiah...". So, before Jesus came, the Jews knew to whom this verse referred. Matthew, speaking as an inspired apostle, applies these words directly to the Lord. For those of us who believe the Scriptures, and in Him – THE Servant of the Lord - there is no question. He is the Lord Jesus, the promised Messiah. We are called upon to “behold Him” in all His Messianic, Kingly glory (Is. 33:17) as the all-sufficient Saviour and Lord!
In the book of Isaiah, the word servant “not infrequently seems to be derived from court style settings where the official of the king was known as his servant” is one commentator’s view. An official of this sort would exercise considerable power on the king’s authority. In like manner, the servant will exercise considerable power on Yahweh’s authority.
Jewish people, naturally, tend to think of the servant as Israel, and there are a number of references in this book to Yahweh’s servant as Israel (41:8; 49:3), Moses (63:11), David (37:35), Jacob (44:1, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:5), and descendants of Jacob (65:9).
However, the prophet might also have an individual in mind. Could that have been Hezekiah, who is mentioned positively in chapters 36-39, or Cyrus, whom Yahweh chose to free Israel from bondage (44:28; 45:1, 13)? We are not told. While the Servant Songs do not identify the servant as the Messiah, the historical person who most fulfilled this idea was Jesus. (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 15:21).
The Wider Context: Historical Background & Outline
No passage of Scripture should ever be studied without reference to its historical background and it’s religio-cultural milieu. In what follows, this author is indebted to the analysis and insights of Ray Stedman, whose sensitive treatment to these afore-mentioned aspects are hereby readily acknowledged.
The book of Isaiah is divided into three parts: The first section (chapters 1-35), deals with Isaiah's times. He speaks to his contemporaries. This section is set against the backdrop of the Assyrian period (as early as 25th century B.C. till 612-609 B.C.). Although Judah is powerful, wealthy, and influential, it is spiritually decadent. Isaiah speaks to these times and talks about the injustice of his period (late 8th – 7th century B.C.). Though God looks for righteousness and justice, what he sees is the cry of the oppressed, and Isaiah predicts that judgment is coming. "He will whistle for Assyria" (Is. 7:18). The Assyrians will be the rod that God uses to chasten his people. In those opening chapters Isaiah speaks very explicitly about the problems that exist in the nation and about the judgment that is coming. Thus, the theme of the first 35 chapters may be deduced as being one of “Thorough Condemnation”!
The second section of Isaiah (Chapters 36-39), is a veritable historical interlude, between the first and third sections and introduces at least one of the causes of Israel’s Babylonian captivity. Thus, the theme of this section may be described as “Thoughtful Contemplation”!
In the third section (chapters 40-66), Isaiah speaks about the Babylonian captivity, which is to take place at least 130 years after his time. He predicts its coming, tells them what it will be like, prophesies the regathering to the land, the rebuilding of the temple, and the restoration of the nation in Judah. Thus, the theme of these final chapters is suggested as being that of “Thankful Comfort”. Isaiah proclaims the reasons for His condemnation of His people, but then graciously prepares them for the exile well in advance, comforting them in advance. Isn’t it true that this same principle becomes the framework of our experiences of life, as well?
It is in this closing section (chapters 40-66, Isaiah presents One whom is designated as the “Servant of the Lord” - His Servant who will effect salvation, the One through whom God will accomplish his purposes in the nation to whom He will eventually come. This Servant is very much the centre of Isaiah's thinking and writing, particularly in the section from Chapters 40 through 53.
Thus, the first Song of the four “Servant” presentations is found in Isaiah 42:1-4. To appreciate the significance of the pertinent prophecies ensconced here, we need to observe that chapter 41 depicts a court scene. God calls all the Gentile nations to stand before the bar of judgment. He is the judge, prosecuting attorney and the jury. He calls for these nations to present their case. Two groups of Gentiles are addressed: Those off to the East (from Mesopotamia), and those from the West (adjacent to the Mediterranean coast).
The issue in this divine court scene is this: Who can bring about justice in the world? Who can effect justice? Who can act and set things right? God calls the nations to present their case; then He presents His case. He describes His mighty acts in history and how He is going to effect salvation. He then asks the nations, "How will you set things right?"
It must be remembered that when Isaiah was writing there were several large empires that were already established or in the process of being consolidated. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires were both established during this time. The city of Rome was founded by Romulus & Remus shortly after Isaiah's time. This was also the classical period of Greece, the Golden Age. Philosophy flourished. The Arts and Theatre came to the fore. In this context, God calls on the nations are to give an answer - a solution to the problems that faced mankind, “worldwide”! How could they heal a broken, suffering, struggling humanity, in spite of man’s contemporary “progress” in wisdom, philosophy and technological advance? In reply, they are silent – dumbstruck to the fact that they don’t have the answer! They are lost for words, even though these nations provided the great thinkers of their eras, people upon whom most of our western thought is based. Tragically, they have no answer, so in 41:28-29, God gives his verdict:
28 For I looked, and there was no man; I looked among them, but there was no counselor, Who, when I asked of them, could answer a word. 29 Indeed they are all worthless; Their works are nothing; Their molded images are wind and confusion.
The Gentile nations have nothing to say. but then another figure is introduced into the courtroom - He is the Servant of the Lord. First God calls to “behold the nations” (Is. 41:28); then, in 42:1, he calls on all to “behold the Servant”! He fixes our attention on the one he has designated here as his Servant. Of course, this is always the answer to man's problems -- fixing our eyes on the Servant of the Lord, getting our eyes off the thoughts and philosophies that are alternatives to the solution the Servant poses.
Next, note how the Servant is described in the passage under this present review:
42 “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. 2 He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. 3 A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. 4 He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”
Justice is the outworking of righteousness. So, when Isaiah writes "The Servant of the Lord will bring about justice in the world," he is saying that he will establish things according to a right standard -- things will be as they ought to be. Thus, there is nothing nor anyone who can “make things right” as God intends them to be other than the Servant of the Lord, Jesus, the promised Messiah.
In this first Servant Song, Isaiah reveals something of the resources of the Servant, then His demeanor, and finally, His persistence in fulfilling His ministry. 1. The Servant’s Resources – Gifted by the Father. (vs. 1)