Isaiah’s Songs of the Servant

We have said before that Isaiah is sometimes known as the Fifth Gospel or the Gospel in the Old Testament. No other Old Testament book is as full of God’s wonderful promises of salvation. No other book contains as many prophecies concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. And so many of those promises are wrapped up in just four passages in the second half of Isaiah which have been known for more than a century as the Songs of the Servant. Isaiah chapters 40 to 54 contain so many passages about the sins of Israel, which are being punished by a time of Exile, and God’s judgment on all the nations. (B.Duhm commentary 1892) But in the middle of that there are wonderful promises of hope, focussed on some individual far into the future who would bring justice and freedom and light in the darkness. The Servant of God.
Isaiah 42:1 ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.’

Here is my servant. Some people think this servant refer to the nation of Israel as a whole. Others think it is more likely to refer to the faithful remnant within Israel, because part of the servant’s mission is to bring Israel back to God. Other people have suggested that the Israel refers to a particular individual in Israel’s history, such as Moses, or the prophet Jeremiah, or Cyrus, or Zerubbabel, or even to Isaiah the prophet himself. But by the time of Jesus the Jews had recognised that the Servant of God would be God’s agent who would redeem his chosen people, the person still to come who would be God’s Messiah.

This first song reveals that God’s servant will be anointed and chosen by God. He will be God’s delight. And he will be inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. As Christians with hindsight we can immediately see how Jesus fulfilled these prophecies perfectly on the occasion when he was baptised in the river Jordan by John the Baptist.
Luke 3:21 When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
The words from heaven are an echo of Psalm 2:7 “You are my son, this day have I begotten you”. At the same time they are obviously a fulfilment of Isaiah 42:1. ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him. It is clear in so many places that Jesus thought of himself as God’s servant. Mark 9:35 “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And right from Jesus’s baptism it is clear that the principal background for that picture of God’s Messiah is the Servant Songs in Isaiah. Mark 9:35 “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
In Isaiah 42 the mission of God’s servant empowered by the Holy Spirit is to bring justice to the earth.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.’

And this justice is not only for Israel, but for all the nations, for the whole of the earth. This mission of the servant to extend salvation beyond Israel is developed in the second of the servant songs in Isaiah 49
ISAIAH 49:1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations:
before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
3 He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.’
4 But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due to me is in the LORD’s hand, and my reward is with my God.’
5 And now the LORD says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength—
6 he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’

The servant’s first task is to bring the nation of Israel back to God, to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD
But then the servant is also called to bring the Gentiles to God
for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD and my God has been my strength—
6 he says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’

Remember the Song of Simeon, the prophetic words when Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby which are so significant that they are often referred to by the name which comes from the first two words in Latin, the “Nunc Demittis.” The Holy Spirit had previously revealed to Simeon that he would live to see the Christ, the Messiah. And when he held the baby Jesus, Simeon prophesied in these words.
Luke 2 29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’

Simeon recognised that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour. Simeon realised that God’s servant would bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. And specifically Simeon recognised that Jesus would be the fulfilment of the prophecies in the Servant Song of Isaiah 49. This isn’t really surprising. We know that Jews in the time of Jesus commonly understood the Servant Songs to be prophecies about the Messiah. In fact the second half of Isaiah is jam packed with promises about this wonderful salvation even when the focus is not on the servant himself. Straight after the first servant song we read this.
Isaiah 42:5 This is what God the LORD says— he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
Isaiah foretold that God would make his servant a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles. And the salvation he would bring is described in words we will return to another day when we find them again in Isaiah 61,
to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

Similar ideas appear just after the second Servant Song.
Isaiah 49 8 This is what the LORD says:
“In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’

Freeing the captives and bringing those trapped in darkness into the light. Bringing justice to all the nations? But how will God’s Servant bring this wonderful salvation? Back to the start of the second song.
ISAIAH 49:1 Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations:
before I was born the LORD called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
3 He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendour.’

The servant is God’s messenger. God’s faithful servant is chosen and called and empowered first and foremost to be a prophet, with a mouth like a sharpened sword. His words will display God’s splendour and bring the light of God’s salvation. At the same time his words will reveal God’s judgment and bring God’s justice to the world. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets of God were often called God’s servants. And that is the idea which begins the third of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 50
4 The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.
The servant of God will be a great prophet. But how was that fulfilled in Jesus. We naturally focus on Jesus as the Son of God but we tend to forget that the Jews who first heard him would instead have understood Jesus to begin with as a prophet.
Jesus himself said, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own house’.
The response of the crowds to the healing of the widow’s son at Nain is that ‘a great prophet has arisen among us’.
When he was warned about Herod’s threats, Jesus replies to ‘that fox’ that it is impossible for a prophet to perish away from Jerusalem. Here Jesus accepts not only the role, but also the fate, of the prophet.
The Samaritan woman at the well recognized ‘that Jesus is a prophet’; the rulers mocked at Jesus, saying that ‘no prophet comes from Galilee’; the man healed from blindness says about Jesus, ‘he is a prophet’.
In reply to Jesus’ question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’, the disciples replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others one of the prophets.’ Jesus did not contradict or correct those beliefs. They were just the first level of understanding. He was a prophet.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem crowds asked ‘Who is this?’ and the pilgrim crowds arriving with Jesus replied, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.’
In the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, Jesus represents himself as the last in the line of the prophets, and Matthew tells us says that those who wished to arrest Jesus feared the crowds, ‘because they held him to be a prophet’.
Even after the resurrection, when the disciples on the road to Emmaus are asked why they are sad, they begin to speak about Jesus, ‘a prophet mighty in word and deed’.
So of course as Christians we believe and confess that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. But to begin with the disciples and the crowds only recognised Jesus to be a prophet. Specifically, the prophet fulfilling the promises in Isaiah’s Servant Songs.
The third Song goes on like this.
ISAIAH 50 4 The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
5 The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
6 I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
7 Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me!
9 It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me. Who will condemn me?

Here in the third Servant Song we begin to get a glimpse of what being God’s servant will demand. The servant will be obedient, not rebelling or turning away from God’s plan. But that will lead to beatings and needing to turn the other cheek. The servant will face mocking and spitting. There will be accusations and there will be charges. And there will be times when all the servant can do is set his face like flint and put his trust in the God his helper who will not let him be put to shame, relying on God for his vindication. That is what it would cost for the Servant of God to bring Israel back to God and to be the light to the gentiles and to bring God’s salvation to the world. Because then the fourth Song in Isaiah spells out very graphically that the Servant of God will be the Suffering Servant.
ISAIAH 52 3 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness
…..
53:1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2 He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Isaiah’s Songs point us to the Suffering Servant who would be despised and rejected. The faithful and obedient servant, enduring terrible suffering which is completely undeserved. Yet this servant is at the same time “the arm of the Lord”, God at work in the world. Because that was the only way to bring God’s salvation. Time and again Jesus taught that the Son of Man must suffer many things. The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the Servant King, washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus very clearly viewed his ministry, his life and his death, to be a fulfilment of the Servant Songs and especially the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. As we count down to Easter we will come back to that fourth Song next week. Until then, bow down and worship. For this is your God.

This entry was posted in Isaiah.

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