The Remarkable Suffering Servant of Isaiah 40-55

Robert Ellis  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 34 - Fall 1991


Servanthood is a prominent concept in Isaiah 40-55.[1]These chapters are generally seen as a literary unit. The majority of scholars relate their perspective to the exilic period; see William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 374. The word “servant” (‘ebed) appears twenty-one times in these chapters.[2]‘ebed occurs more frequently in Isaiah 40-55 than any other section of the book. The term occurs nine times in chapters 1-39 and ten times in chapters 56-66. In the majority of passages where ‘ebed occurs the reference is obviously to Israel as the servant of Yahweh or of gentile rulers.[3]In eight occurrences the servant is specifically identified as Israel (41:8, 9; 44:1, 2, 21 [twice]; 45:4; 48:20). Five occurrences of ‘ebed are in passages which clearly imply that the servant is Israel (42:19 [twice]; 43:10; 49:7; 54:17). One time the word is clearly used to refer to the prophets as Yahweh’s servants.[4]44:26. However in four passages-Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12-the identity of the servant has been anything but obvious for interpreters.[5]The word ‘ebed occurs in these passages in 42:l; 49:3, 5, 6; 52:13; and 53:11. While the word does not occur in 50:4-9, the general opinion of scholars is that this pericope is also a servant passage. The word does occur in 50:10, where the referent is con­troversial. These pericopes depict a servant of Yahweh who labored on a divine mission to Israel and the gentiles, innocently suffering on their behalf. Many people, probably beginning in the prophet’s day, have sought to understand the identity and significance of this suffering servant. In fact, H. H. Rowley has commented that “No subject connected with the Old Testament has been discussed more than the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah.”[6]H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965), 3. Several surveys of the study of the identity of the servant have been pub­lished; the most significant are Herbert Haag, Der Gottesknecht bei Deuterojesaja, Ertrage der Forschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1985); C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study, 2d ed. (Oxford: University Press, 1956); Arthur Samuel Peake, The Servant of Yahweh (Manchester: University Press, 1931), 1-74; and Rowley, 3-60. The most extensive recent bibliography is available in Haag, xvii-xliii.

In 1892 Bernhard Duhm published a commentary on Isaiah which has profoundly influenced a whole century of scholarly discussion of Isaiah.[7]Bernhard Duhm, Das Buchjesaia (G6ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892). One of Duhm’s proposals was that the four suffering servant passages mentioned above represent a unique strain of thought in Isaiah 40-55.[8]Ibid, xv, xx, 284, 339, 350-51, 364-65. He stated that these passages, which he called the “servant songs,” describe one whose unusual character and work set him apart from other servants in Isaiah 40-55. Old Testament scholarship has generally accepted Duhm’s delineation of four unique suffering servant passages. According to Norman H. Snaith, “The great majority…have followed Duhm, to such an extent that the existence of the four Servant Songs has come to be regarded as one of the firm results of modern O. T. study.”[9]Norman H. Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord in Deutero-Isaiah,” in Studies in Old Testament Prophecy, ed. H. H. Rowley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1950), 187.

Duhm’s proposal, however, has not gone without challenges. Many scholars have recognized that the term “song” is a misnomer for these passages, which might be more correctly termed “poems” or “oracles.”[10]E.g., Marco Treves, “Isaiah LIII,” Vetus Testamentum 24 (January 1974):98; James M. Ward, “The Servant Songs in Isaiah,” Review and Expositor 65 (Fall 1968): 43; and Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary, trans. D. M. G. Stalker, Old Testament Library, ed. G. E. Wright et al, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 92. Yet Duhm’s terminology is retained by most interpreters be­ cause of the widespread influence of his work. Scholars also debate Duhm’s limitation of the four songs, suggesting that they include more­ or fewer-verses or that other passages should be included in the list of servant songs.[11]For a discussion of this issue and bibliography see James Muilenburg, “The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, Introduction and Exegesis,” in The Interpreter’s Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), 406; North, 128; Rowley, 6; and Ward, 434-35. For a defense of Duhm’s approach see North, 128-38. A growing trend among recent scholars is the conviction that the servant songs must be interpreted in relation to their context, not apart from it, as Duhm suggested.[12]Colin G. Kruse “The Servant Songs: Interpretive Trends Since C. R. North,” Studia Bib/ica et Theologica 8 (April 1978): 24. Some recent representatives of this trend are Muilenburg, 406-8; Harry M. Orlinsky, “The So-Called ‘Servant of the Lord’ and ‘Suffering Servant’ in Second Isaiah,” in Studies on the Second Part of the Book of Isaiah, Vetus Testamentum Supplement Series (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 13; Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,”   187-88; and Peter Wilcox and David Paton-Williams, “The Servant Songs in Deutero­ lsaiah,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42 (October 1988): 79.

For the purpose of this article, the assumption is made that Duhm has correctly identified the limits of the servant songs as 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12. While the consideration of the context of these songs is an essential part of interpretation, it is nevertheless legitimate to examine the songs in relationship with one another due to their similarity of theme.[13]For a similar perspective see Westermann, 92. The aim of this article is to provide a brief study of the remarkable servant of the four servant songs. It will summarize the servant’s character and career with a view to answering the question of his identity.


The Servant’s Character and Career

Isaiah 42:1-4

In the first song Yahweh presents the servant to an unspecified audience. This divine speech gives a brief description of the servant and his task. In 42:1a Yahweh says, “Behold, my servant!-the one I uphold, my chosen, in whom my being delights. I have placed my Spirit upon him.”[14]The Septuagint has “Jacob, my servant . . . Israel, my chosen,” but the reading is certainly inferior to the Masoretic text. See R. N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Ronald E. Clements (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1975), 71-72. All Scripture quotations are from the author’s own translation. The verse emphasizes Yahweh’s love, election, spiritual empowerment, and support of the servant. The terms “servant . . .uphold . . . chosen” echo the language of 41:8-10, where they are applied to the nation of Israel as the servant of Yahweh. This linguistic connection ties the first song closely to its context.

The song gives a general description of the servant’s task as bringing forth or establishing mispat for the nations of the earth (42:lb, 3b, 4b). The word mispat, often translated “justice” or “judgment,” can have a wide range of connotations.[15]Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, reprint ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 1048. Snaith has stated that in the first song mispat refers to a dispensing of retribution on the nations.[16]Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,” 193; cf. Isa. 41:15-16. However, such a view is incongruent with the servant’s unassuming gentleness (42:2-3) and the nations’ eagerness to experience the servant’s action on their behalf (42:4).[17]In order to avoid this contradiction Snaith translated 42:3 in such a way that the servant is the bruised reed which will not be broken and the dim wick which will not be extinguished. Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,” 193. See also P. A. H. de Boer, Second­ Isaiah’s Message, Oudtestamentische Studien (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1956), 102. An aid to understanding the concept of mispat in the first song is its parallelism with torah in 42:4b. The latter word, which can also have a wide range of connotations, fundamentally means “direction, instruction, law” or “teaching.”[18]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 435. Therefore, the servant’s task appears to be the bringing forth of justice in the sense of establishing the teaching or truth of Yahweh in the earth. This mission of disseminating Yahweh’s truth provides an answer to the problem of the falseness of idolatry, which is a prominent topic in Isaiah 40-41.[19]Edward J. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah (Dublin: Browne and Nolan, 1943), 2:20. Cf. Jacques Guillet, “La Polemique Contre Idoles et le Serviteur de Yahve,” Biblica 40, no. 1 (1959): 428-34.

Verses 2-3b and 4a indicate something of the manner in which the servant will conduct his mission. First, verse 2 indicates that the servant will accomplish his task in a quiet, unassuming way, for “He will neither cry out, nor lift his voice, nor make himself heard in the street.” Second, verse 3 describe the servant’s manner by means of two metaphors: “A bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish.” These metaphors suggest that the servant will act with such gentleness that even the weakest of persons will not be harmed. Third, verse 4a indicates that the servant will patiently endure in his mission without growing faint or attempting to escape from his responsibility. This statement of perseverance gives a hint that the task will involve some personal suffering for the servant, a theme which be­ comes progressively more prominent in the course of the songs.[20]Westermann, 96.

As stated above, the first servant song has a close link with its immediate context, which speaks of Israel as Yahweh’s servant. However, the first song also has its own distinctiveness. While Israel the servant in chapter 41 is an avenger whose work destroys (41:15-16), the servant in the first song gently performs a function which benefits the nations of the earth (42:2-4).[21]See C. C. Torrey, The Second Isaiah, A New Interpretation (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928), 323. While the servant Israel suffered chastisement because of her disobedience to Yahweh (42:18-22; 43:22-28), the servant in the first song is dutifully obedient even in the face of difficulties (42:4).

To summarize, the servant in 42:1-4 is one who is chosen and empowered by Yahweh to establish his truth in the earth. In accomplishing that task he will display extreme gentleness and enduring patience.

Isaiah 49:1-6

In the second song the servant himself speaks in an address to the nations. By means of a typical prophetic form of speech the servant reports that Yahweh called him from his mother’s womb and equipped him for his mission by giving him a unique capacity to communicate.[22]Westermann, 207. Cf. Jer. 1:5. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 136, identified the form of speech as a prophetic call narrative. In verse 2 the servant says that Yahweh “made my mouth like a sharp sword, hidden in the shadow of his hand; he has established me as a polished arrow, concealed in his quiver.” The metaphors indicate that the servant will perform an aggressive work through the spoken word which will be penetrating and widely influential in its range.[23]Muilenburg, 566-67; and Westermann, 208. Verse 2 also suggests a divine concealment of the servant until the appropriate time for his dramatic action.[24]Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 137; and Muilenburg, 567. Wester­mann, 208, argued that the hiddenness refers not to a time of inactivity before the mission was begun, but to divine protection in the sense of Pss. 17:8; 27:5; and 64:3(2).

In verse 3 the servant indicates that Yahweh said to him, “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” This is the only time in the songs that the servant is named. However, the exact meaning of this identification has been a matter of controversy among interpreters.[25]Several interpreters have suggested that “Israel” is a gloss in 49:3; e.g., Johannes Ljndblom, The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah, Lunds Universitets Arsskrift (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1951), 30; Orlinsky, 80-89; Westermann, 209; Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 136-38; and Walther Zimmerli andJ. Jeremias, ”paistheou,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967). However, there is no textual support for its omission, except for one minor Hebrew manuscript; see North, 118-19; and Muilenburg, 567. Since 49:5-6 indicates that the servant’s task in­volves a mission to Israel, the question arises as to how Israel could have a mission to Israel. This complicated issue will be analyzed later. Regard­ less of the significance of the name Israel, the song clearly indicates that one purpose of the servant’s work is to glorify Yahweh.

Verse 4 contains a poignant lament by the servant concerning an unfruitful task at which he had labored: “In vain I have toiled. For nothing­ness and vanity I have exhausted my strength.” The words offer an amplification of the frustration implied in the first servant song (42:4a). To balance his words of lament, the servant also expresses at the end of 49:4 his confidence in Yahweh’s recompense.

Verses 5 and 6 of the second song describe the servant’s mission as a twofold task. One aspect involves Israel: “to return Jacob to him [Yahweh]” and “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel.” While the latter statement can refer to the political   restoration of the Judeans to their homeland, the former statement also seems to imply a spiritual restoration in the sense of trying to turn (tesobeb) Yahweh’s rebellious people back to him.[26]Westermann, 211. The context of the second song involves both the ideas of political restoration (48:12-22; 49:8-26) and repentance from sin (48:1-11). See North, 145-46. It is possible that the servant had already been laboring at the task of bringing Israel to repentance, and that such a task is the vain labor mentioned in verse 4.

The second aspect of the servant’s task is described in verse 6. In response to the servant’s failure in the past, Yahweh surprisingly broadens his area of responsibility.[27]Lindblom, 26; and North, 144. Yahweh states that the mission to Israel is a “trifling” or “light thing” in comparison with his ultimate purpose. Thus, the servant will now enlarge his mission so that he will also be “a light to the nations” in order that bringing Israel to repentance, and that such a task is the vain labor mentioned in verse 4.

The second aspect of the servant’s task is described in verse 6. In response to the servant’s failure in the past, Yahweh surprisingly broadens his area of responsibility. Yahweh states that the mission to Israel is a “trifling” or “light thing” in comparison with his ultimate purpose. Thus, the servant will now enlarge his mission so that he will also be “a light to the nations” in order that Yahweh’s salvation may extend to the ends of the earth. This instruction gives more specificity to the general statement in the first song that the servant will establish mispat and torah in the earth.

There are certain points at which the second servant song has direct links with its context. Specifically, the reference to the servant as Israel (49:3) also occurs in 48:20. The language in the second song about being a light to the nations (49:6) also appears in 42:6. However, in other aspects the second song stands apart from its context. In chapter 48 the servant Israel is a wholly passive recipient of God’s action, while the servant in the second song is aggressively active (49:2). In chapter 48 the servant Israel experiences pain because of his rebellion, while the servant in the song suffers because of his obedience (49:4). Chapters 47 and 48 speak of the destruction of Babylon as the means of redeeming Israel, while the view of the second song is the insignificance of Israel’s redemption in comparison with the salvation of the nations (49:5-6).[28]Orlinsky, 116; and Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,” 198, have argued that the second song does not depict a redemption of all nations. Orlinsky stated that the “light” which the nations receive is simply a knowledge of the redemption of Israel, and the “salvation to the ends of the earth” is only the salvation of Israel, since that is the only salvation in which the prophet is interested. Such an interpretation fails to account for the straightforward contrast in verse 6 between the insignificance of a mission to Israel when compared with a mission to all nations. For further discussion of the position advocated in this article see Kissane, 2:128; Lindblom, 26; Muilen­ burg, 569; North, 143-44; Torrey, 382; and Westermann, 211.

While the second song reiterates several ideas presented in the first song, it also adds new features to the description of the servant’s character and career. The second song calls the servant by the name of Israel and depicts him as an aggressive spokesman for Yahweh. It also delineates his task as the restoration of Israel, the glorification of Yahweh, and the communication of Yahweh’s salvation to all the earth. Finally, the song indicates the servant’s frustration over the apparent failure of his mission.

Isaiah 50:4-9

In the third servant song, as in the second song, the servant speaks in the first person.[29]Joachim Begrich, Studien zu Deuterojesaja, Theologische Biicherei, reprint ed. (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1969), 54, identi­fied the form of the third song as an individual lament. A better proposal is that of Westermann, 226, who called it an individual song of confidence. In verses 4-5a he testifies to an intimate relationship with Yahweh in the form of the daily training Yahweh gives him in hearing and speaking. The servant describes himself as the disciple of Yahweh whose mission involves the spoken word, a key theme in the second song. He obediently uses the word “to sustain the weary.”[30]The meaning of the infinitive translated “to sustain” (la’ut) is uncertain. The context suggests a sense of sustaining, helping, or teaching. See Muilenburg, 583, for other options.

While the first two songs suggest that the servant will face difficulties, the third song more pointedly describes the extent of his opposition. In verse 6 the servant states, “I gave my back to those who struck me and my cheeks to those who plucked out my beard. I have not hidden my face from insult and spitting.”[31]The depiction of the obedient servant’s suffering in the third song places him in contrast with the description in 50:1-3 of Israel who suffered because of her iniquities. Along with this statement about his suffering the servant also expresses his confidence that Yahweh will vindicate him and that his enemies will perish (vv. 7-9). The third song, however, does not report on the final fate of the servant or his opponents. The open question of their welfare points toward the fourth song.[32]Westermann, 232.

To summarize, the third servant song expands the portrait of the servant by depicting him as a disciple of Yahweh who obediently listens and speaks a message which helps the weak. The song also conveys the intensity of the persecution which the servant endured and the equal strength of the servant’s confidence in Yahweh’s help.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12[33]A few interpreters have argued that 52:13-15 and 53:1-12 are separate pericopes; e.g., Orlinsky, 18-23; Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,” 199; and Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 169. However, the great majority of scholars have accepted Duhm’s designation of 52:13-53:12 as a unified piece; see Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 169. The most significant connections between 52:13-15 and 53:1-12 are the similarity of theme, the usages of “my servant” in 52:13 and 53:11, and the natural transition of thought from 52:15 to 53:1; see David J. A. Clines, I, He, We, & They, A Literary Approach to Isaiah 53, JSOTS, reprint ed. (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983), 32; Muilenburg, 618-19; and Westermann, 256. Another important interpretive issue is the relationship of the fourth song to its context. Many scholars have noted that the last song stands distinctly apart from its context; e.g., Roy F. Melugin, The Formation of Isaiah 40-55, BZAW (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1976), 74; Muilenburg, 614-15; and North, 165-77.

The fourth servant song is one of the most amazing passages in the Old Testament because of its strikingly unique message and high literary quality.[34]Torrey, 409, commented about the song: “This is a composi­tion which no thoughtful student of history can read without a feeling of awe. It is the most wonderful bit of religious poetry in all literature.” Muilenburg, 615, noted that “The dramatic power of the poem as a whole is almost overwhelming.” Unfortunately, a number of translational difficulties exist in the song.[35]See D. F. Payne, “Recent Trends in the Study of Isaiah 53,” Irish Biblical Studies I (1979): 6-8, who stated that “The difficulty lies in the fact that word after word is ambiguous, or rather, offers a range of possible meaning…”  The Hebrew text is rather corrupted and the shifting verb tenses in chapter 53 make the establishment of a temporal sequence problematic.[36]See Clines, 48-49; and North, 74. These difficulties notwithstanding, the basic message of the fourth song is not ambiguous. The song depicts the servant’s career in terms of a vicarious suffering which provides atonement for the sins of others followed by a divinely appointed exaltation.

The fourth song is framed by two divine speeches which appear in 5 2:13-15 and 53:11b-12. The first speech begins with a divine presentation similar to that of the first song and a divine prediction of the servant’s success and exaltation. The first divine speech also makes two surprising revelations about the servant. One is the statement in verse 14 that the servant’s appearance was terribly disfigured. The other surprising revelation appears in the first clause of verse 15, whose translation has been highly controversial. The clause appears to say that “He [the servant] will sprinkle many nations.” This translation of the verb (yazzeh) has been challenged because of the awkwardness it brings to its immediate context and the vagueness of its meaning within that context.[37]Scholars have proposed several alternative translations. Most popular is the translation “he will startle” or “astonish,” which would provide synonymous parallelism between the first two lines of verse 15; see the Revised Standard Version. Such a translation follows the Septuagint, but requires either an emendation of the Masoretic text or dependence on a spurious root for the verb. For helpful discussion see Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 633; Muilenburg, 617-18; Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 170; and Edward ]. Young, Studies in Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), 199-206. In spite of these difficulties, “sprinkle” is the most appropriate translation for the verb based upon its usage in the Masoretic text.[38]Muilenburg, 618; and Young, Studies in Isaiah, 206. The claim that the servant will sprinkle many nations suggests a cultic act related to atonement – a concept which chapter 53 develops.[39]The verb niiziih has a cultic connotation in twenty of its twenty-three usages in the Old Testament. The latter part of verse 15 indicates in dramatic language that nations and kings will be shocked by the servant’s life, which will involve unprecedented events. The exact nature of their surprise is explained in the rest of the song.

The middle section of the fourth song, 53:1-lla, is a report about the servant’s career which is made by individuals who observed him.[40]Begrich, 62-66 and 147-52, identified the form of chapter 53 as an individual psalm of thanksgiving. Such a form may be in the background of Isaiah 53; however, the chapter also has narrative elements which are not characteristic of such a form. See R. N. Whybray, Thanksgivingfor a Liberated Prophet, An Interpretation of Isaiah Chapter 53, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (Sheffield: University Press, 1978), 109-28. Melugin, 74, more appropriately designated the form of the chapter as a salvation speech. These individuals are not specifically identified, but the most natural suggestion is that they are the nations and kings mentioned in 52:15 who were astonished by the servant.[41]For a summary of other interpretations see Clines, 29-33; and North, 151. That astonishment appears again in 53:1. This link with regard to astonishment provides evidence for the unity of 52:13-15 with 53:1-12 and for identifying those giving the report of 53:1-11a as the international community.

The nations give a report on the servant’s life of suffering in verses 2-9. They indicate that the servant had an insignificant, unpromising beginning and that he was literally “a man of pains, who knew sickness.” It is difficult to know the precise nature of his suffering. The words “pains” (mak’ob6t) and “sickness” (half) may be stereotyped terms which were used to describe suffering in general.[42]See Clines, 27; Muilenburg, 620; Payne, 14; Westermann, 262; and Zimmerli and Jeremias, 671. Cf. Job 33:19; Ps. 38:18 (17); 69:27 (26); Jer. 6:7. It is also possible that the reader should interpret the words literally as references to bodily illness. At any rate, because of his unattractiveness and suffering, others despised and rejected him (v. 3). In fact, his contemporaries, including the speakers, thought that his affliction was the punishment of God (v. 4). However, the speakers came to the shocking realization that the servant suffered not because of his own sins but for the sake of others. The speakers declare that the servant ”has taken up our sickness and has borne our suffering . . .he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our sins” (vv. 4-5). Therefore, the servant suffered vicariously to alleviate the physical suffering of others and to remove the penalty of their sins. The realization of this fact moves the speakers to confession in verse 6: “All of us have strayed like sheep. Each one has turned to his own way, and Yahweh has put the guilt of all of us upon him.” Substitutionary sacrifice was well known in Israel and the ancient Near East. However, the amazing new reality which the speakers announce is that the power to atone rested in an unassuming per­ son who was despised for his suffering.[43]Westermann, 263. Orlinsky, 52-62, has argued that Isaiah 53 does not speak of the vicarious suffering of a person for the sins of others on the grounds that such an idea appears nowhere else in the Old Testament. He stated that such an idea would in fact represent a superceding of the covenant and be “nothing short of blasphemy” (55). See also Norman H. Snaith, “Isaiah 40-66: A Study of the Teaching of the Second Isaiah and Its Consequences,” in Studies on the Second Part of the Book of Isaiah, VTS (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 204; and Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 175-82. However, Isaiah 53 con­tains numerous clear statements of substitutionary suffering which cannot be interpreted otherwise without doing violence to the text. See the evaluation of Orlinsky’s approach by Payne, 10-11. For an analysis of the Old Testament roots of the sacrificial concepts in chapter 53 see Josef Scharbert, “Stellvertretendes Siihneleiden in den Ebed-Jahwe-Liedern und in altorientalischen Ritualtexten,” Biblische Zeitschrift n.s. 2 (July 1958): 210-13.

Verses 7-8 provide a description of the servant’s suffering through persecution and probably arrest.[44]The translation of verses 8-12 is especially difficult. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine the complex problems; only the general sense of these verses will be presented. See Muilenburg, 625-31, for a helpful overview of the difficulties and proposed solutions. Throughout the process the servant suffered silently. This report of his submissive, quiet demeanor reflects descriptions in the first two songs of the servant’s gentleness and patient endurance. Verse 9 states that ”his grave was set among the wicked.” The reader cannot be certain whether the speakers had already witnessed the servant’s death or whether they saw it as imminent. In either case an ignominious death seems to be in view.[45]Zimmerli and Jeremias, 671. Some interpreters have claimed that the song does not unambiguously imply the servant’s death, e.g., G. R. Driver, “Isaiah 52:13-53:12: The Servant of the Lord,” in In Memoriam Paul Kahle, ed. Matthew Black and Georg Fohrer, BZAW Berlin: Alfred Topelmann, 1968), 104-5; Orlinsky, 62; and J. Alberto Soggin, “Tod und Auferstehung des leidenden Gottesknechtes Jesaja 53:8-10,” Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 87, no. 3 (1975):346-55. For additional discussion of the issue see Clines, 27-29; North, 148-49; and Payne, 8-10. Payne, 9, concluded that “the linguistic picture in Isaiah 53 is undeniably one of death, with words such as ‘death,’ ‘living,’ ‘grave,’ actually used.” The report from the nations ends in verses 10-lla with an anticipation of the servant’s future reward.

The fourth song concludes with the second divine speech in verses 11b-12.[46]Interpreters have debated the extent of the last divine speech; see Melugin, 74. The approach taken here is that of Westermann, 256, 267. Yahweh again speaks of his servant’s exaltation, saying, “I will allot him a portion with the great . . .because he poured out his life to death . . . and bore the sins of the multitudes” (v. 12). While the text has no explicit statement of a resurrection, it indicates that the servant will know reward in a future existence.[47]North, 152. The unmistakable emphasis of Yahweh’s final speech is the servant’s intercession for others, which verses 11b-12 mention four times.

To summarize, 52:13-53:12 completes the portrait of the servant begun in the previous songs by indicating the extent and effect of the servant’s suffering and his final fate. That suffering spanned the servant’s entire life and precipitated his death. The amazing result of the suffering was the alleviation of the afflictions of others and the atonement of their sins. Because of his vicarious life and death, the servant will experience exaltation as a reward from Yahweh.


The Servant’s Identity

The question which looms large in the mind of any reader of the servant songs is that of identity: who was (or is) this remarkable suffering servant? A mere listing of all of the solutions which scholars have proposed for this question would fill a small volume. The purpose here is to summarize and evaluate the major approaches to this question, rather than to delineate every proposal.

The Collective Approach

One major approach to the issue of the identity of the servant is the collective view, which proposes that Israel in one form or another is the servant of the songs. Since the middle ages this position has been standard for Jewish interpreters, and in the nineteenth century it was predominate among Christian scholars.[48]North, 2, 17-18; and Ward, 434. In this century the popularity of the collective view has significantly waned among scholars of the Christian tradition, although advocates can certainly be found.[49]See Kruse, 24.

Two factors provide the major support for the collective approach. One is the plain statement by Yahweh in Isa. 49: 3 which says, “You are my servant Israel.” The other is the context of the songs. As mentioned above, the majority of the passages in Isaiah 40-66 which speak of a servant of Yahweh identify him with Israel. The first song in particular has close links with a context which refers to Israel as Yahweh’s servant. Advocates of the collective approach also point out that the individualistic language of the songs is not incompatible with their interpretation in light of the Old Testament concept of Israel as a corporate personality.[50]E.g., Otto Eissfeldt, “The Ebed.Yahwe in Isaiah 40-55 in the Light of the Israelite Conceptions of the Community and the Individual, the Ideal and the Real,” The Expository Times 44 (October-September 1933): 264-66; Morna D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant, The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1959), 42; Muilenburg, 579-80; Peake, 56; and H. Wheeler Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel, reprint of rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 39-42.

A significant obstacle for the collective view, however, is that the second song, which identifies the servant as Israel, also indicates that the servant has a mission to Israel (49:5). The obvious question is how Israel can have a mission to Israel. Because of this problem some collectivist interpreters have suggested that the servant is not the entire nation but a minority of people within Israel who were to have a mission to the nation at large.

Scholars have proposed numerous versions of the minority theory. Some have said that the prophet depicted the servant as a righteous remnant of Israelites over against those who had rebelled against Yahweh,[51]E.g., A. Kuenen, The Prophets and Prophecy in Israel, trans. Adam Milroy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1877), 220-23; Melugin, 169; and H. Wheeler Robinson, The Cross in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1955), 79. In a similar vein Robert H. Kennett, The Servant of the Lord (London: Edward Arnold, 1911), 115, identified the servant as the Hasidim; and H. L. Ginsberg, “The Oldest Interpretation of the Suffering Servant,” Vetus Testamentum 3 (October 1953): 402-3, linked the servant with the “enlighteners” of Dan. 11:33-12:10. or an “ideal Israel” which was to restore “dead Israel.”[52]E.g., S. R. Driver, Isaiah, His Life and Times and the Writings Which Bear His Name (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1888), 177-78; and Eissfeldt, 266-68. The most popular version of the minority theory in recent years has been the suggestion that the servant symbolizes the exiles who returned from Babylon. Their return was a “light to the nations” in the form of a demonstration of Yahweh’s redemption of his people, and the suffering of the exiles was an intercession for the entire nation.[53]E.g., de Boer, 115-17; Hooker, 50; Arvid S. Kapelrud, “The Identity of the Suffering Servant,” in Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. Hans Goedicke (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 311; and Snaith, “The Servant of the Lord,” 189-91.

While the collective approach in its various expressions has some strengths, certain difficulties are also apparent. One is the highly individualistic language of the songs, especially the last. While it is undeniable that the Old Testament often depicts Israel as a corporate personality, the specificity of the individual language in Isaiah 53 makes it difficult to view the servant as anything but a person.[54]North, 205-6, noted that “The real difficulty . . . is not that the portrait of the Servant is highly individualized, but that a markedly heightened individualization appears pari passu with anonymity. This also seems intentional.” The individualistic language certainly does not make the collective view impossible, but it does weaken its viability.

A second difficulty for the collective approach is the manner in which the servant in the songs is distinct from the servant Israel in the rest of Isaiah 40-66. In these chapters Israel the servant is depicted as a passive recipient of Yahweh’s salvation, while the servant of the songs has an active mission.[55]Ibid., 206. Moreover, Isaiah 40-66 emphasizes that Israel suffered as a punishment for her own sins.[56]See especially 43:24. By contrast the consistent picture of the servant in the songs is that of an innocent figure who suffered not for his own sins but on behalf of others. It is quite difficult to imagine that the prophet would depict sinful Israel as one who was “not disobedient” (50:5) or “did no violence nor spoke deceit” (53:9). It is also unlikely that the prophet would describe Israel going into exile with the words ”led like a lamb to the slaughter. . . he did not open his mouth” (53:7).

A third difficulty for the collective approach is the concept in the fourth song that the servant suffered to atone for the sins of others. One cannot say that a righteous remnant of Israelites has suffered vicariously for the nation at large, nor that the Babylonian exiles alleviated the suffering of other Israelites in the exilic or postexilic period. When judgment fell on Israel, the whole nation suffered for her sins.[57]North, 203.

The proposal that the servant in the songs is Israel has some appealing features and seems especially viable when one looks only at the first song. However, the approach proves to be an inadequate interpretation of the servant songs as a group and of the fourth song in particular.

The Individualistic Approach

Another approach to the question of the identity of the servant is that which sees him as an individual. Such a view is met with the immediate difficulty of the statement in 49: 3 that the servant is Israel. That difficulty is mitigated by the fact that the second song also indicates that the servant has a mission to bring the Israelites back to Yahweh (49: 5). As discussed above, the statement of a mission to the nation is a clue that Israel in verse 3 refers to something other than the whole nation. One suggestion for solving this difficulty, the remnant theory, was presented in the preceding section. Another option is that Israel in 49:3 is a reference to an individual who personifies the nation.[58]Edward]. Young, The Book of Isaiah, New International Com­mentary on the Old Testament, ed., R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), 3,270-71. Such an interpretation provides viability for the individualistic view.

Numerous expressions of the individualistic approach have appeared. The proposals have been of two general types: those which identify the servant as a historical individual and those which see him as a futuristic individual.

A Historical Individual

Many interpreters have proposed that the servant of the songs was a historical individual. These proposals fall into three categories: a named historical figure, an unnamed individual, and the author of the songs.

While the approach has few advocates today, in the past a number of scholars identified the servant with various historical individuals. More than a dozen names have been proposed.[59]North, 20-21, 39-42, 49-57, 89; and Rowley, 13-20; have listed the proposals of Cyrus, Eleazar, Ezekiel, Hezekiah, Isaiah of the eighth century, Jehoiachin, Jeremiah, Job, Josiah, Meshullam, Moses, Nehemiah, Sheshbazzar, Uzziah, Zedekiah, and Zerubbabel. Two other proposals made are those of Julian Morgenstern, “The Suffering Servant-A New Solution,” Tutus Testamentum 11 (October 1961), 406-31; and “Two Additional Notes to ‘The Suffering Servant-A New Solution,’ ” Tutus Testamentum 13 (July 1963), 321-32; who linked the servant songs with a Davidic descendant named Menahem; and Treves, 100-108, who suggested that the fourth servant song depicts the high priest Onias of the Maccabean period. Two of the more popular suggestions have been Cyrus and Jehoiachin – the former because of his appearance in Isaiah 44-45 as Yahweh’s anointed and the latter because of his suffering in exile.[60]See North, 46, 50-51, 55, 57; and Rowley, 14-16.

Other scholars have claimed that the songs depict an unnamed contemporary of the prophet. Duhm stated that the servant was an anonymous historical figure of the prophet’s day who died of leprosy.[61]Duhm, xx, 368-71. A similar suggestion is that the servant was an anonymous exilic contemporary of the prophet whom the prophet considered to be the messiah. This messianic figure suffered persecution and martyrdom.[62]Rudolf Kittel, Great Men and Movements in Israel, trans. Charlotte A. Knoch and C. D. Wright (New York Macmillan, 1929), 392-400. See also W. Rudolph, “Der exilische Messias, Ein Beitrag zur Ebed-Jahwe-Frage,” Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissen­ schaft n.s. 2, nos. 1-2 (1925), 90-114; and “Die Ebed-Jahwe-Lieder als geschichtliche Wirklichkeit,” Zeitschrift fur die alttestamentliche Wissenschraft n.s. 5, nos. 2-3 (1928), 156-66; and G. R. Driver, 105.

A number of scholars, including several recent interpreters, have proposed that the prophet viewed himself as the servant. Their conclusion is that the songs are an autobiographical report about the servant – prophet’s mission and the suffering he underwent in accomplishing it. In support of this view advocates have noted that the second and third songs are written in the first person.[63]The first and fourth songs, however, describe the servant in the third person. Proponents of the autobiographical view have typically viewed the statements in the fourth song about the servant’s vicarious suffering, death, and exaltation as hyperbolic rather than literal language.[64]Some recent advocates of the autobiographical approach are Otto Kaiser, Introduction to the Old Testament, A Presentation of Its Results and Problems, trans. John Sturdy (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1975), 266; Orlinsky, 77, 88-92, 96; and Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 71, 135, 150, 171. Not all advocates of the view that the prophet of Isaiah 40-55 is the servant have claimed that he is the author of all four songs; see North, 72.

Several difficulties confront the proposals which understand the servant to be a historical individual. One is the fact that Isaiah 53 has so many straightforward statements about the servant’s vicarious suffering. As discussed above, any attempt to interpret those statements figuratively does violence to the intent of the text. Another difficulty for the historical-individual approach is imagining how one figure could accomplish all that is described in the songs. It is almost inconceivable that the prophet would suppose that any historical personage, including himself, might be able to establish justice in the earth and provide atonement for others. Christopher R. North has stated, “Many prophets, and even kings, have doubtless contributed something to the picture. Even so, there are features in it which transcend the bounds of any single human life.”[65]North, 199. See also Peake, 47; and Rowley, 20.

The view that the prophet thought of himself as the servant faces additional difficulties, such as the prophet describing the circumstances of his own death in advance and failing to achieve the destinies described in the songs. So far as the prophet’s oracles indicate, he did not establish worldwide justice; he was not a “light to the nations”; and he did not atone for others. If the prophet claimed for himself the amazing feats depicted in the songs, then one would have to view him as a self-deceived dreamer.[66]Rowley, 12.

A Futuristic Individual

Many advocates of an individualistic approach to the identity of the servant have proposed that the songs depict a futuristic person. One general objection which may be raised against a futuristic approach is the language in the fourth song which describes the servant’s suffering as a past event, leaving only his exaltation to the future. Some contend that this temporal arrangement indicates that the servant must have been a con­ temporary of the author, not a future figure.[67]See Rudolph, “Der exilische Messias,” 107. In response North has argued that all of the events described in the fourth song are actually set in the future. In the song the prophet has chosen to move the listener (or reader) to a future time when the nations give a testimony about what they have observed of the servant’s suffering. While the testimony speaks of the suffering as a past event, that testimony is itself placed in the future, along with its framework of Yahweh’s proclamations about the servant’s future exaltation. Moreover, the conditional description of the servant’s suffering in 53:10-11 is a clue that the suffering is futuristic.[68]68North, 96, 210-11 Such an interpretation of the fourth song makes a futuristic approach to the servant’s identity feasible.

The interpreters who have advocated a futuristic identification have generally seen the servant as either a messianic or a prophetic figure.[69]See Zimmerli and Jeremias, 667. The messianic view will be considered first.

A number of ancient Jewish interpreters identified the servant with the Davidic messiah, usually giving a nonliteral interpretation of the death of the servant in the last song.[70]See North, 11-17. Interpreters of the Christian tradition down to the end of the eighteenth century almost unanimously advocated a messianic identification of the servant.[71]Rowley, 4. While the messianic approach has had some modern supporters, it has not been the dominant scholarly position in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[72]Modern representatives of the messianic approach are Franz Feldmann, Das Buch Isaias, Exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament (Miinsterc Aschendorffschen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1926), 2,16-28; Johann Fischer, Das Buch Isaias, Die Heilige Schrift des Alten Testamentes (Bonn, Peter Hanstein, 1939), 2,8-21; Kissane, 2,173-80; North, 207-19; E. Power, “Isaias,” in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. Bernard Orchard (New York, Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1953), 542; and Young, Studies in Isaiah, 103-25.

The cornerstone of the messianic approach for Christian interpreters has been the strong link which the New Testament makes between the suffering servant and Jesus. The New Testament repeatedly interprets the person and work of Christ in terms of the language of the servant songs.[73]E.g., Matt. 8,17; 12,17-21; Luke 22,37; John 12,38; Acts 8,27-35; Rom. 10,16; 15,21; 1 Pet. 2, 21-23.

An evaluation of the messianic interpretation requires some definitional parameters. The word “messiah” literally means “anointed one.”[74]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, 603. Accordingly, when the Old Testament refers to the concept of the messiah it usually has the Davidic kings in view. These kings were thoroughly political human figures who were designated by anointing. The New Testament dramatically expands the idea of the messiah by applying it to Jesus, the final Davidic king. He is no merely human political figure but the very Son of God and also the fulfillment of the servant concept of the songs. The New Testament perspective notwithstanding, the question must also be asked whether or not the author of the songs intended to portray the servant as the messiah in the usual Old Testament sense of that concept-as the Davidic king.

Some advocates of the messianic interpretation have suggested that the songs do associate royal characteristics with the servant. They have noted a parallel between the servant’s public presentation by Yahweh in the first song (42:1) and the designations of Saul and David as kings (1 Sam. 9:17; 16:1-13). They have also identified political overtones in the first and second songs with regard to the servant’s tasks of establishing justice in the earth (42:1-4) and bringing the dispersed Israelites back to Yahweh (49:5-6). Ac­ cording to messianic interpreters, such royal conceptions serve to legitimize the claim that the author of the songs portrays the servant as the Davidic messiah.[75]See Kissane, 2:173-80; North, 91; and Westermann, 93, 97. See also Ivan Engnell, The ‘ebed Yahweh Songs and the Suffering Messiah in “Deutero-Isaiah” (Manchester: University Press, 1948),   12-42, who connected the servant with the Mesopotamian   Tammuz myth as well as the Davidic king.

In the above discussion of the first song it was claimed that the servant’s establishment of justice involved the teaching of Yahweh’s truth. If such an interpretation is correct, then the servant’s mission in that song is more didactic than political. The presentation of the servant in 42:1 does employ similar language to Samuel’s designation of Saul as king; however, the political implication of the language in the first song is quite subtle, if apparent at all. The only terminology in the songs which conveys a definite political concept is the statement in 49:5-6 about the servant’s mission to return the dispersed Israelites. The songs give no indication that the servant would be anointed as king or that he would be of the Davidic line.[76]See North, 139-41, 210, 218. When looking from the New Testament’s perspective, the servant of the songs is certainly messianic. How­ ever, from an Old Testament perspective the servant is not clearly portrayed as a messianic figure.[77]See Peake, 45; and Rowley, 56. Rowley, 61-64, has defended the view that the ideas of the Davidic messiah, the son of man, and the suffering servant were three distinct concepts for the Jews which were first united in Christ.

Another line of argument used by some advocates of the futuristic approach is the claim that the servant is primarily a prophetic figure. Several descriptions of the servant and his mission have prophetic connotations, some of which were noted above. The statement in the first song about the servant conveying the torah to the nations implies a verbal mediation of Yahweh’s truth (42:2-4).[78]North, 141; and Westermann, 97. That idea is made explicit in the second song, where the servant is a spokesman whose mouth is like a sharp sword (49:1-2). In the third song the servant indicates that he is a disciple of Yahweh who hears and speaks words which help the weary (50:1-2). Some remarkable parallels also exist between the songs and the call accounts of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.[79]Cf. Jer. 1:5, 9, 10, 18, 19; Ezek. 2: 2, 6, 8-9; 3:1-2, 8-9 and Isa. 42:1, 4; 49:1, 5-7; 50:4, 7-9. Finally, the career of the servant reflects some aspects of Jeremiah’s experience of opposition.[80]See the “confessions” of Jeremiah (11:18-23; 12:1-6; 15:10-21; 17:12-18; 18:18-23; 20:7-18).

The songs certainly ascribe prophetic characteristics to the servant, and their portrayal presents him as a figure who is much more prophetic than royal. However, in one regard the servant moves completely beyond the prophetic realm. He does not merely mediate the divine word; he actually mediates divine atonement through vicarious suffering.

The Fluid Approach

A third major approach to the identity of the servant is a fluid one. A number of interpreters have suggested that the servant’s identity shifts within the four songs. While many versions of the fluid approach have appeared, that which is most viable is the view that the servant in the songs is sometimes Israel and at other times a futuristic individual.[81]For an overview of the varieties of the fluid approach see Rowley, 30-35, 44-48, 51-59. In a classical expression of this approach Franz Delitzsch employed the figure of a pyramid to depict the identity of the servant. In the first song the servant concept is at its broadest: the servant is the whole nation of Israel. In the second song the identity narrows to the degree that a righteous remnant is in view. Finally, the last song, the apex of the pyramid, depicts an individual who mediates salvation.[82]Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, trans, J. S. Banks and James Kennedy (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1890), 2:165. Rowley, another advocate of the fluid approach, suggested that the songs indicate that the prophet’s own conception of the servant grew in a process whereby he thought at first that Israel as a whole could be a light to the nations, then that only a purified remnant could fulfill the task, and finally that Yahweh’s ultimate plan could be accomplished only by an individual.[83]Rowley, 53-54. North advocated a similar fluid approach, 215-16.

A fluid approach to the identity of the servant is appealing for the reason that it retains the strengths of both the collective and individual views, while at the same time avoiding their critical flaws. The fluid view accounts for the identity of the servant as Israel in the context of the songs and in 49:3; it explains how Israel can have a mission to Israel in the second song; and it accommodates the individualism and substitutionary concept of the last song.

In spite of these advantages the fluid approach has its own difficulty. It arises from the recognition that no single solution to the question of the servant’s identity is wholly satisfying; there­ fore, it tries to be several solutions at once. However, by combining several solutions in one, the fluid view is more a testimony to the difficulty of the identity issue than an adequate solution to the problem. The broadness of the fluid approach tends to undermine the whole theory of the existence of four unique servant songs. If the identity of the servant shifts from song to song, then one wonders what link holds the songs together as a unique strain within Isaiah 40-66. To be more specific, if Israel is the servant in the first song and also in the context of that song, then in what sense is 42:1-4 a unique servant pericope which is distinguishable from its context? The flexibility of the fluid approach is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.



For millennia readers of Isaiah have pondered the question of the identity of the suffering servant. The book of Acts gives the account of an Ethiopian whose reading of the fourth song led him to ask “of whom does the prophet speak?” (8:34). The question is a natural one, for the prophet does not explicitly identify the servant. The prophet does call him Israel in the second song; however, even that identification is made vague by the last verse of the song. In the final analysis the servant of the songs is anonymous, and the reader is left to speculate concerning the prophet’s intention.[84]Westermann, 93, has suggested that “the cryptic, veiled lan­guage used [in the songs] is deliberate . . .and to our knowledge much in them was meant to remain hidden even from their original hearers.” See also the discussion of the Old Testament theme of intentional ambiguity in W. M. W. Roth, “The Anonymity of the Suffering Servant,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (June 1964): 171-79; and Clines, 25. A few scholars have reacted to the difficulty of determining a single identity for the servant by offering a con­ceptual approach. That approach suggests that one should not search for a permanent embodiment of the servant in a person but see the servant as a concept or an office that anyone can fill. In such a view the songs are a call for all people to become the servant. See Ward, 441-42; and Prescott H. Williams, “The Poems about Incomparable Yahweh’s Servant in Isaiah 40-55,” Southwestern Journal of The­ology 11 (Fall 1968): 78, 83. While there is value in calling individuals to embody the servant concept of   the songs, one cannot overlook the clear implication in the songs that the prophet had a specific identity in mind in his poems about the servant, even if that identity is veiled. Since any solution to the question of the servant’s identity involves speculation, then no solution can claim to be definitive.

In this author’s view four tentative conclusions can be drawn regarding the suffering servant. First, the songs should be viewed as a unique strand within Isaiah 40-55, so that the identity of the servant within the songs is not necessarily the same as the identity of the servant in the context of the songs. The distinctiveness of the songs from their context is progressively obvious. The first song is closely knit to its context; the last song stands distinctly apart from the material surrounding it. Moreover, the songs have direct links with one another which mark their content as a special theme in Isaiah 40-55. The most prominent links are the servant’s gentle humility, his suffering, and his active mission on behalf of the nations.

Second, the servant songs depict one whose work is too remarkable and unique to have been accomplished by any historical individual, the nation of Israel, or even a righteous remnant of Israel. The depiction of a servant who gives justice, truth, and light to the nations, who restores the tribes of Israel to Yahweh, and whose vicarious suffering atones for the sins of others is a figure who is larger than the bounds of the human dimension.

Third, the servant is more of a prophetic figure than a royal figure. While the songs may attach some political function to the servant, they do not specifically link the servant with the Old Testament concept of the Davidic messiah. The songs do depict the servant with a number of prophetic characteristics.

Fourth, the most viable option regarding the identification of the servant from the prophet’s perspective is that the songs describe a futuristic individual who is unique in the Old Testament. While he is closely connected to the prophetic tradition, he is more than a prophet. Although his work touches the realm of political affairs, he is more than a Davidic ruler. He can only be called “the Servant,” a unique agent of Yahweh’s redemptive activity and a distinct eschatological figure in the Old Testament.

The approach suggested here is not without difficulties; however, in this author’s opinion it best accords with the portrait of the servant in the songs. His identity as a futuristic redemptive figure gradually unfolds as one reads Isaiah 40-55. In the first song he is a gentle and deter­ mined mediator of Yahweh’s justice and truth to the nations. In the second song he is the personification of Israel who restores the nation to Yahweh and carries salvation throughout the earth. The third song depicts him as the disciple of Yahweh who speaks words which sustain the weak and who is obedient even in the face of persecution. The last song describes the full extent of his humiliation and reveals the astonishing truth that his suffering is the means of atoning for the sins of the nations.

What the prophet was not able to foresee is that the individual who finally fulfilled the role of the servant was also the Davidic messiah, as well as the ultimate prophet and the great high priest.[85]The record of Jesus’ life and the portrait of the servant in the songs are not entirely congruent. So far as the gospels reveal, Jesus’ appearance was not permanently disfigured nor did he suffer grave physical illness. However, the parallels between the prophet’s depiction of the servant and the life of Jesus are amazing, the most significant of which is vicarious suffering for the redemption of all people. See North, 208; and Rowley, 54-55. All the Old Testament offices of Yahweh’s redemptive activity are united in Jesus Christ. While many descendants of Abraham have served in the roles of king, prophet, and priest, Jesus alone has fulfilled the portrait of the remarkable suffering servant of Isaiah 40-55.


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