The servant songs (also called the servant poems or the Songs of the Suffering Servant) are four songs in the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, which include Isaiah 42:1–4; Isaiah 49:1–6; Isaiah 50:4–7; and Isaiah 52:13–53:12. The songs are four poems written about a certain "servant of YHWH" (Hebrew: עבד יהוה, ‘eḇeḏ Yahweh). God calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly abused by them. In the end, he is rewarded.
Some scholars regard Isaiah 61:1–3 as a fifth servant song, although the word "servant" (Hebrew: עבד, ‘eḇeḏ) is not mentioned in the passage. This fifth song is largely disregarded by modern scholars; without it, all four fall within Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40-55). The five songs were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah.
The Self-Glorification Hymn from Dead Sea Scrolls asserts, from the first-person narrative, a messianic human who has been exalted into heaven with a status above the angels. This figure rhetorically asks "Who bears all griefs as I do? And who suffers evil like me? Who has been despised on my account?" to imply that he has been despised unlike anyone before, modelling himself on the suffering servant from Isaiah's servant songs.
Rabbinic Judaism sees this passage, especially "God's Suffering Servant" as a reference to the Jewish nation, not to the king Mashiach. Jewish teaching also takes note of the historical context in which God's Suffering Servant appears, particularly because it speaks in the past tense. The Jewish nation has borne unspeakable injustices, under Assyria, Babylonia, Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, which are all gone, and bears persecution and targeted mission to this day.
Jewish scripture in Isaiah speaks in the light,[clarification needed] when it says:
- "But thou, Israel, My servant..." (Isaiah 41:8)
- "Ye are My witnesses, saith the LORD, and My servant whom I have chosen..." (Isaiah 43:10)
- "By oppression and judgment he was taken away, and with his generation who did reason? for he was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due..." (Isaiah 53:8)
- "Of the travail of his soul he shall see to the full, even My servant..." (Isaiah 53:11)
- "The Messiah --what is his name?...The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted...'"–Babylonian Talmud: (Sanhedrin 98b)
- "Another explanation (of Ruth ii.14): -- He is speaking of king Messiah; `Come hither,' draw near to the throne; `and eat of the bread,' that is, the bread of the kingdom; `and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,' this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, `But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities'".–Midrash Ruth Rabbah
The modern Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12 describes the servant of the LORD as the Nation of Israel itself: "My servant..." (Isaiah 53:11), "... a man of pains and accustomed to illness ... " (Isaiah 53:3). "The theme of Isaiah is jubilation, a song of celebration at the imminent end of the Babylonian Captivity".
Christians traditionally see the servant as Jesus Christ. The songs are quoted to and applied to Jesus multiple times in the New Testament, as described in following sections. Another Christian interpretation combines aspects of the traditional Christian and the Jewish interpretation. This position sees the servant as an example of 'corporate personality', where an individual can represent a group, and vice versa. Thus, in this case, the servant corresponds to Israel, yet at the same time corresponds to an individual (that is, the Messiah) who represents Israel.
The first songEdit
The first poem has God speaking of his selection of the servant who will bring justice to earth. Here the servant is described as God's agent of justice, a king who brings justice in both royal and prophetic roles, yet justice is established neither by proclamation nor by force. He does not ecstatically announce salvation in the marketplace as prophets were bound to do, but instead moves quietly and confidently to establish right religion (Isaiah 42:1-4).
The first four verses are quoted in Matthew's gospel, where it is said that the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus' withdrawal from the cities of Galilee and his request that the crowds do not make him known.
The second songEdit
The second poem, written from the servant's point of view, is an account of his prenatal calling by God to lead both Israel and the nations. The servant is now portrayed as the prophet of the Lord equipped and called to restore the nation to God. Yet, anticipating the fourth song, he is without success. Taken with the picture of the servant in the first song, his success will come not by political or military action, but by becoming a light to the gentiles. Ultimately his victory is in God's hands. Isaiah 49:1-6. Isaiah 49:6 is quoted by Simeon in Luke 2:32 concerning the infant Jesus Christ during the time of His mother Mary's purification.
The third songEdit
The third poem has a darker yet more confident tone than the others. Although the song gives a first-person description of how the servant was beaten and abused, here the servant is described both as teacher and learner who follows the path God places him on without pulling back. Echoing the first song's "a bruised reed he will not break," he sustains the weary with a word. His vindication is left in God's hands. Isaiah 50:4-9 Isaiah 50:4–7 is seen by New Testament commentators to be a Messianic prophecy of Jesus Christ. 50:6 is quoted in Handel's "Messiah" of Jesus. There is an allusion in Luke 9:51 to Isaiah 50:7 ("Therefore I have set my face like a flint"), as Jesus "set His face steadfastly" to go to Jerusalem.
The fourth songEdit
The fourth of the servant songs begins at Isaiah 52:13, continuing through 53:12 where it continues the discussion of the suffering servant.
There is no clear identification for the servant within this song, but if the reader pays close attention to the author's word choice, one can deduce that the song could refer to either an individual or a group. According to theologian Michael Coogan, those who argue the servant to be an individual have "proposed many candidates from Israel's past". The song declares that the "servant" intercedes for others, bearing their punishments and afflictions. In the end, he/they are rewarded.
It can be argued that the servant represents a group of people, more specifically the nation of Israel, and they feel that they have paid their dues and continue to suffer because of the sins of others (Isaiah 53:7,11-12). Also, through the author's choice of words, we, our, and they, one could also argue that the "servant" was a group.
Early in the passage, the evaluation of the servant by the "we" is negative: "we" esteemed him not, many were appalled by him, nothing in him was attractive to "us". But at the servant's death the attitude of the "we" changes after Isaiah 53:4, where the servant suffers because of "our" iniquities, "our" sickness, but by the servant's wounds "we" consequently are healed. Posthumously, then, the Servant is vindicated by God.
Many Christians believe this song to be among the messianic prophecies of Jesus. Methodist founder John Wesley suggested that it is "so evident" that "it is Christ who is here spoken of". Jesus quoted one sentence in Isaiah 53:12 of this 4th servant song as referring to himself in Luke 22:37, and the New Testament cites it as referring to Jesus Christ in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, John 12:38, Acts 8:32–33, Romans 10:16, 15:21 and 1 Peter 2:22.
- Barry G. Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004, series "The Bible Speaks Today", page 42.
- Bernhard Duhm, Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892).
- Schäfer, Peter. Two Gods in Heaven: Jewish Concepts of God in Antiquity. Princeton University Press, 2020, 33-37.
- Singer, Rabbi Tovia. "Let's Get Biblical! Why Doesn't Judaism Accept the Christian Messiah?". outreachjudaism.org and Tovia Singer. Retrieved 2 July 2012.
- "Isaiah-53-and-the-suffering-servant". Jewish Isaiah 53. jewsforjudaism.org. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
- Blumenthal, Yisroel C. "Isaiah 53, Micah 7 and Isaiah 62". 1000 Verses. yourphariseefriend.wordpress.com. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
- "Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) is the nation of Israel itself, not The Messiah = Jewish viewpoint #1". Jews for Judaism. Archived from the original on 2007-12-12. Retrieved 2006-07-05.
- "Servant Songs." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- "Servant of The Lord" in Wood, D. R. W., and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
- Matthew 12:16–21
- NRSV text
- Coogan, Michael D.Return from Exile: A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament the Hebrew Bible in its Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 334.
- Wesley's Notes on the Bible on Isaiah 52], accessed 11 March 2017
- "The Use of Quotations From Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in the New Testament" by Kenneth Litwak, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 26/4 (December 1983), p.388