Suffering Servant, Songs of the
SUFFERING SERVANT, SONGS OF THE
Title generally applied to certain prophecies in Deutero-Isaiah, that is, the second part of the Book of isaiah
(ch. 40–55). Each of these oracular poems concerns a mysterious figure called the Lord's "servant." The NT finds these songs fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Servant of the Lord par excellence.
Old Testament Concept
Very different interpretations of the mysterious figure of the Servant have been put forward; before discussing these, however, it is necessary to investigate the title itself and the extent and content of the songs of Deutero-Isaiah that are the subject of the present article.
Servant of the Lord as a Title. The expression Servant of Yahweh (Heb. 'ebed yhwh ) or Servant of the Lord is not peculiar to these Isaiahan songs; it is frequently found elsewhere in the OT as a title of honor given to those whom God has chosen to be His assistants in carrying out His plan for the chosen people and for mankind. The expression is applied to Abraham (Gn 26.24), to Isaac (Gn 24.14), to Jacob (Ez 37.25), to all three Patriarchs together (Ex 32.13; Dt 9.27), to Moses (Ex 14.31; Nm 12.7), to Joshua (Jos 24.29), to David (2 Sm 7.8; 1 Kgs 8.24–25), to the Prophets (1 Kgs 18.36; Am 3.7; Jer7.25), to the future shepherd-king of the line of David who shall rule when the Lord makes a new covenant with His people (Ez 34.23–24; 37.24–25), to Zerubbabel (Hg2.23; Zec 3.8), to Israel as a nation [Ps 104 (105).6; Jer 30.10; 46.27; Ez 28.25], and even to nebuchadnezzar, king of babylon (Jer 27.6; 43.10). In Deutero-Isaiah (ch. 40–55), apart from the Songs of the Suffering Servant, the title is frequently applied to Israel as a whole (Is 41.8–9; 42.19; 43.10; 44.1–2; 45.4; 48.20; 49.3) and occasionally to faithful Israelites (54.17). Deutero-Isaiah does not explicitly use the term for cyrus, King of Persia, liberator of the exiled Jews, though similar titles are given to him (44.28: "my shepherd"; 45.1: "his anointed").
Extent of the Songs. The difficulties connected with determining the extent of the Songs of the Suffering Servant arise from the nature of the composition of Isaiah ch. 40–55 in which they are found. Though the separate songs are discernible, there are problems in determining their exact extent.
Exegetes agree on distinguishing four Servant songs. There is no serious problem as to the beginning of these poems, but the exact ending of the first three is disputed. The first song certainly includes 42.1–4; many commentators extend it to include v. 5–7. The extent of the first song, then, is at least 42.1–4, at most 42.1–7. The second song certainly includes 49.1–6; v. 7 with its new introduction, "Thus says the Lord," probably does not belong to the original song. The third song poses less difficulty. It includes 50.4–9. The two following verses (v. 10–11) are probably an addition, a reflection on the preceding verses. The fourth song can easily be discerned, though it is related to its immediate context; it extends from 52.13 to 53.12.
Content of the Songs. Before endeavoring to interpret the Songs of the Suffering Servant and to evaluate their significance, an analysis of their content follows. First Song. In the first song (42.1–7) the Lord presents His Servant as "my chosen one with whom I am well pleased." The Lord has put His spirit upon him, as he gave His spirit to Moses (Nm 11.17–25), Joshua (Nm 27.18), and David (1 Sm 16.13), and especially as He gave it to Prophets who proclaimed His word (Zec 7.12; Neh 9.30; see Is 48.16). Endowed with the charism of God's spirit, the Servant teaches "justice" (religious principles, God's will and order) to the nations (Gentiles). He does so with gentleness, in contrast to the vehemence usually found in protesting Orientals, until justice is established throughout the world. In the following verses (5–7) Yahweh, as creator and ruler of all, who gives and sustains life, speaks to His Servant. This introduction prepares the reader for the greatness of the creative work that Yahweh will perform through His Servant. The Servant is told (v. 6) that through him the Lord intends to bring about justice and right order in the world. God has formed him and set him "as a covenant of the people." The "people" are either Israel alone or all mankind, including Israel. The meaning of setting the Servant "as a covenant" is uncertain; perhaps the notion that the Servant will unite God and man in the permanent relationship of covenant is implied. The Servant is to be a "light for the nations"; he will enlighten the blind (see 42.16, 18) and will liberate prisoners. Some maintain thatv. 6–7 refer to Cyrus, the Persian king who freed the exiled Jews, since the preceding chapter (41) concerns him.
Second Song. In the second song (49.1–6) it is the Servant who speaks. He addresses all nations, telling them that he was claimed by the Lord from his mother's womb (cf. Jer 1.5). The Lord protected him and prepared him to be an effective weapon for the manifestation of His glory (v. 1–3). The Servant's mission has not yet been successful (v. 4). His task is now extended, beyond that of restoring Israel, to include being a light to the nations and a bearer of the Lord's salvation to the ends of the earth (v. 5–6). Verse 7 speaks of the restoration and exaltation of humiliated Israel, apparently distinct from the Servant.
Third Oracle. In the third song (50.4–9) the Servant speaks of the help he has received from the Lord; he has received a well-trained tongue to rouse the weary and is given inspiration day by day. He has not refused to cooperate with Yahweh in spite of the abuses he must endure (v. 4–6). The Servant goes on to state his assurance of divine assistance and his conviction that God will justify him in the face of his enemies (v. 7–9). An addition (v. 10–11) warns the people that, if they do not walk in the light that comes through the Servant, they will perish in the fire of their own light.
Fourth Oracle. This song (52.13–53.12), the most important of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, is unique in many ways: its vocabulary has a large number of words that are unusual in Deutero-Isaiah; the form of the song is difficult to determine, being neither clearly that of a thanksgiving hymn, nor a funeral song, nor a liturgical poem, though it has traces of all three. All this serves to make its extraordinary theme—the vicarious suffering of the Servant of the Lord—more striking. In the first lines (52.13–15) Yahweh speaks of the exaltation that follows the great humiliation of His Servant. The nations (including Israel, it seems) are startled at the wonder that has been worked through the Servant. In 53.1–10 this wonder is described by the "many nations" themselves: God made the Servant unattractive to men and afflicted him in such a way that men avoided him as they do a leper (v. 1–3). The poem goes on to speak of the suffering that the Servant endured "for many" ("for us," "for his people"). Without offering resistance, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter and "cut off from the land of the living" (v. 7–8), expressions that, to most Catholic exegetes, indicate the death of the Servant (cf. Jer 11.19). If these terms are taken literally, they do mean death; but they can also be taken metaphorically, as are similar expressions often used in the Psalms of supplication (see psalms, book of), to indicate the nearness of death. Whether the passage is taken literally or metaphorically, the Servant's willingness to die for others is clear. The Servant is innocent, he does not die for his own sins; it is for the guilt of others that he accepts his affliction (v. 9–10). Yahweh will reward him for his deed—He will give him life again, happiness, offspring, honor, and prosperity (v. 10–12).
Interpretation of the Songs. There is hardly another point of OT exegesis more difficult to solve than the interpretation of these songs and the identity of the Servant. A clear and definitive answer to all the problems posed by the songs is not possible; what follows is a summary of the more significant views taken by scholars.
A preliminary question should be answered: do all four songs refer to one and the same Servant of the Lord? Not all exegetes agree. E. Kissane, for example, holds that the figure of the first two songs is Israel; in the third, the Prophet-author himself; and in the fourth, the Messiah. The majority of commentators, however, maintain that one and the same figure is the subject of all four songs. That is the position adopted here. In what follows only those verses that are certainly part of the songs are taken into consideration.
Significance of the Servant. The Servant announces Yahweh's justice (religious principles, will, law) that the world awaits; gently, without violence, he must work until his mission is accomplished (42.1–4) in Israel and the whole world. In fulfilling his mission of bringing the Lord's salvation to the world he meets with opposition (49.1–6). This opposition turns into abuse, yet the Servant does not despair or cease his work; he trusts in the Lord's assistance (50.4–9). Salvation comes to the world through the suffering and death that the Servant undergoes for the sins of others. His willing sacrifice atones for the offenses of many; in reward, Yahweh greatly exalts him and gives him life. The vicarious suffering of the Servant, so vividly brought out in the fourth song, is a completely new concept at this point in the history of the Bible; new also in these four songs is the Servant's mission to the nations.
Interpretations. Three general categories of interpretation can be outlined, designated as collective, individual, and corporate personality.
The collective interpretation considers the Servant to be either historical Israel or ideal Israel. In Deutero-Isaiah, Israel is repeatedly designated as the Lord's servant. It would be faulty exegesis to rule out that identification in the four Songs of the Suffering Servant. Moreover, the Servant bears undeniable resemblances to Israel as a whole: he is despised, rejected, and humiliated as Israel was by its enemies; he is later exalted and given the respect of the nations, as Israel was to be raised up and honored by them; the mission of the Servant is to announce God's rule to the world, a mission similar to that of Sion (Is 2.2–4). This interpretation, however, does not give enough importance to the distinction that the author makes between the Servant and Israel as a whole. The Servant is docile, guiltless, humble, and a light to the nations; he atones for the sins of others. But Israel is described in Deutero-Isaiah, even in these four songs, as stubborn, sinful, haughty, and blind, and it is punished for its own offenses. Moreover, the Servant performs his great deed for Israel as well as for the nations (see 49.6;53.8). Though it cannot be denied that the role and experience of the Servant is similar to and related to Israel's, they are nevertheless distinct. Some scholars maintain that the Servant should not be understood in terms of historical Israel, but in terms of faithful Israel, the ideal Israel. This position is supported especially by the identification of Israel and the Servant in 49.3 (a reading that cannot be rejected on the grounds that it is omitted in one Hebrew MS). In Is 54.17 the faithful Israelites of the restoration are called the "servants [plural] of the Lord." This qualitative Israel, however, is more ideal than real; it existed more in theory than in fact. It cannot be denied that both these collective interpretations have a basis in the songs, but they do not seem to consider all the data.
The individual interpretation finds its support in that the Servant, throughout the four songs, is presented in terms that suggest an individual person rather than a group. The arguments of the so-called collective interpretation, as presented above, show the weakness of this position; yet it cannot be denied some validity.
The collective interpretation is held by exegetes who recognize the so-called collective or corporate character of the Servant as well as his individuality. These commentators (especially H. W. Robinson) base their thesis on the Biblical notion, which they refer to as corporate personality, according to which a given individual can stand for a group (e.g., a father for his family and descendants, a king for his people), and the group is in some way identified with the individual. These exegetes claim that the individual-vs.-collectivity debate over the Servant is resolved if the Servant is seen as an individual who sums up Israel (the collectivity) in himself. Israel manifests itself in the mission and person of the Servant, and the Servant always remains the representative of Israel. Although some critics feel that this view is too sophisticated to be attributed to Israelite authors, it continues to be popular. In spite of its complexities, the corporate-personality theory has thrown a good deal of light on some of the problems in other parts of the Bible, e.g., the fluctuating singulars and plurals in the Psalms.
Identification of the Servant. Attempts to identify the Servant of the Lord with an individual abound. He is related to persons of the past, present, or future. Various individuals of the past are suggested: Moses, the giver of the Law and intercessor for his people (or a future "second Moses" whose mission is extended to the whole world); a Prophet, such as Jeremiah with whom the Servant has much in common (cf. his call, mission to the nations, suffering: Jer 1.4–5; 11.19; 18. 19–20; his intercession: 7.16; 11.14; 14.11; 15.1, 11). However, the work of Jeremiah could never be equated (even in poetry) with that of the Servant. Jeremiah's mission ended in failure; his preaching was never actually to the nations; the popularity of the Prophet's message among the Jews after his death can hardly be called a great exaltation by the Lord. Some consider the Servant to be the Prophet himself who uttered these songs (e.g., S. Mowinckel and S. Smith). Others, mainly Scandinavian scholars, hold that the Servant is presented as a king. This position is rejected by most scholars, even though the Servant of the first song could be construed as a royal figure. Still others identify the Servant with Cyrus. Cyrus, however, hardly fits the dimensions of the Servant, especially in the fourth song. Catholic exegetes, for the most part, see the Servant of the Lord as God's instrument in establishing His justice and His rule (kingdom) in the world, much as the messiah is sometimes given this role as God's viceroy on earth. The Servant, however, does not clearly show forth the kingship that is usually associated with the Messiah in earlier texts. Understood in a messianic sense, the Servant is seen by Christians as foreshadowing Jesus Christ.
In all this there is an element of mystery, a quality of the Songs of the Suffering Servant that the author may well have intended. There is at least some truth in all the positions taken about the Servant; yet no one of them taken in isolation seems completely satisfactory. If the author saw the Servant as Israel's Messiah, he was giving to the Messiah a dimension hitherto unknown in the Bible. As Servant, the Messiah becomes an unattractive victim for the sins of the world before he is exalted or obtains a distinction that could be called kingly. The Messiah-King is freed of all nationalistic and mundane traits; his work becomes universal and spiritual—preaching justice and suffering for the sins of the world. There is some evidence, even in pre-Christian times, of an old Jewish interpretation of the Servant that saw in him something of both Israel and the Messiah.
To many Christians of all ages the solution to the problem of identifying the Servant has been clear: He foreshadows Jesus of Nazareth, who is at once the Messiah, a Prophet greater than all other prophets, the new Israel, the Lamb who died for the sins of man, and whom God raised up and made exalted, Lord and King.
New Testament Application
The NT sees in the mystery of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus the fulfillment of the Songs of the Suffering Servant.
In the Early Kerygma. Among the earliest texts of the NT are found several references to Jesus Christ as the Servant of the Lord. In Acts 3.12–18 Peter speaks to the Jews of God's "servant" (τὸν πα[symbol omitted]δα α[symbol omitted]το[symbol omitted]) Jesus, the "Just One" (cf. Hebrew text of Is 53.11), whom they "delivered up" (cf. Greek text of Is 53.6, 12). Peter presents the work of Jesus as the accomplishment of what the Prophets had foretold about the sufferings that the Christ should endure. The prayer of the community after the release of Peter and John from their arrest by the Sanhedrin gives Jesus the title of God's "holy servant" (Acts 4.27). The most explicit application of the fourth Servant song to Jesus is found in the explanation that the Deacon Philip gives to the Ethiopian who asks concerning Is 53.7–8: "I pray thee, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?" (Acts 8.34). Philip "beginning from this scripture" preached Jesus to him.
In the Gospels. The Evangelists refer to the Servant songs at the most important points in the life of Jesus. At the baptism of the lord in the Synoptics (Mk 1.9–11; Mt 3.13–17; Lk 3.21–22), the voice from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased," echoes Ps 2.7 and the first Servant Song (Is 42.1). The variations in the words from heaven as they are found in Matthew only serve to make the reference to Is 42.1 clearer. The Fourth Gospel reports the Baptism indirectly; yet the words of the Baptist allude to the fourth song: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (Jn 1.29, 36, compared with Is 53.7, "like a lamb led to the slaughter" and Is 53.12, "he shall take away the sins of many"). Though this allusion is not accepted by all scholars, it finds added strength in a possible Aramaic form behind the Greek "Lamb of God": the Aramaic expression ṭalyā' dē'lāhā' could be translated "Servant of God" as well as "Lamb of God." In all four Gospels the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at the Baptism recalls Is 42.1. The same text is alluded to in the account of the transfiguration of Jesus in Mt 17.5. The three predictions of the Passion (Mk 8.31–33; 9.29–31; 10.32–34, and parallels) describe the coming suffering of Jesus in terms that reflect Is 53.1–9. The words of Jesus at the Last Supper, "This is my blood of the new covenant, which is being shed for many," are given with variants (Mk 14.22–25, and parallels; 1 Cor 11.23–27); but present in each account are influences from the fourth song: the notion of vicarious suffering ("for many," "for you," "for many unto the forgiveness of sins"), and possibly (as O. Cullmann suggests) the idea of reestablishing the covenant with God, implied in the Servant's role as reconciliator (Is 49.5), mentioned explicitly in Is 42.6 and possibly referred to in Is 49.8. In Luke, Jesus ends His words after the Last Supper with an explicit quotation from Is 53.12: "And he was reckoned among the wicked." The Gospel according to St. John sees the fulfillment of the Servant of the Lord prophecies in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. These three form a mysterious unity in which John sees the glorification of Jesus accomplished. In a passage that links the life and ministry of Jesus with His death and Resurrection (Jn 12.37–41), John refers to Is 53.1 and states that Isaiah had seen the glory of Jesus (i.e., the suffering and exaltation of Jesus as the Servant of the fourth song).
In the Epistles. Several passages that reflect understanding of the mystery of Jesus in the light of the Servant of the Lord are found in the NT Epistles. Though Paul's Christology does not center on the Servant theme, and though he has given this theme a new use (see Stanley), he clearly knows and hands on the primitive Servant theology (1 Cor 15.1–3; Rom 4.25). Writing to the Philippians (Phil 2.5–11), he describes the Incarnation as a "taking the nature of a slave [servant]." In 1 Pt 2.18–25, the author admonishes servants to be subject even to severe masters and gives them the example of Christ who suffered for them unjustly. In his admonition he quotes from Is 53.9 and alludes to Is 53.4–4. The Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 9.28) explains that Christ offered Himself "to take away the sins of many."
Place of Servant Theology in Teaching of Jesus. The theology based on the Servant theme is certainly one of the oldest Christologies of the NT. Its presence in the NT cannot be adequately explained unless one realizes that it was first applied by Jesus to Himself and taught by Him to His disciples: "Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all; for the Son of Man also has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10.44–45). From the earliest to some of the latest texts in the NT, Jesus is understood in terms of the Servant of the Lord. The most obvious application is that of the fourth song to His death and Resurrection, since it perfectly foreshadowed the vicarious suffering and exaltation of the Lord Jesus. But even the cures and good works of Jesus in His public life are seen in the light of the songs; cf. Mt 8.16–17 with Is 53.4, and Mt 12.15–21 with Is 42.1–4. The consistency with which the NT understands Jesus as the fulfillment of the Servant-of-the-Lord prophecies is difficult to explain unless it is admitted that Jesus Himself understood His mission as that of the Servant of the Lord.
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[m. a. gervais/eds.]