The book of Isaiah is one of the most complex books of the Old Testament. Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah contains material covering different historical periods in the history of Israel. Isaiah 1-39 contains oracles that reflect the time of the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied in Judah in the eighth century B.C. Isaiah 40-55 contains oracles which reflect the work of a prophet who lived in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. Because this material presupposes the Babylonian exile, scholars believe that its author was probably a disciple of Isaiah. It is for this reason that he is called Deutero-Isaiah. Isaiah 56-66 contains several oracles that reflect a situation that presupposes the post-exilic conditions of Judah.
The emphasis of the message of Deutero-Isaiah is the restoration of Israel and the end of the exile. The prophet began his ministry by proclaiming a message of hope: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of servitude is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:1-2).
The expression “time of servitude” is a reference to the time Israel spent in forced exile in Babylon. Now, however, this time of hardship has come to an end and this good news is the focus of the message that Deutero-Isaiah preached to Israel. This good news, that Israel was returning home, was made possible because “her iniquity has been pardoned.” The restoration of Israel was made possible because of divine grace and divine forgiveness.
Although Israel had gone into exile because of its violation of the demands of the covenant, Yahweh had forgiven the nation’s sins and was ready to liberate his people and return them to their land.
A unique feature of the message of Deutero-Isaiah is found in the four texts commonly known as the “Servant Songs.” These four texts are: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9, and 52:13-53:12. When studying these texts, two main issues arise. The first issue of debate is the identification of the Servant: Who is the Servant. The other issue is about the role of the Servant within the historical context of Deutero-Isaiah.
The Hebrew word for servant is ‘ebed, a word that appears often throughout the Hebrew Bible. The word is applied to many individuals, including the patriarchs, prophets, kings, and even slaves. The way Deutero-Isaiah uses the word “Servant” in these four songs, implies that the prophet uses the Servant Songs to describe the mission of Israel in the world.
Over the years, scholars have presented four main interpretations concerning the identification of the servant. One of these ways used to identify the Servant is the collective interpretation. Many scholars believe that the Servant is Israel or a pious remnant within the nation. This identification is supported by Yahweh’s words to the Servant: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:3).
The second way of identifying the Servant is the individual interpretation. When the four songs are evaluated in context, the language used to describe the Servant and his mission is strongly individual. The songs speak about the call, the education, the suffering, the death, and the eventual triumph of an individual who accomplishes his work by the power of Yahweh. As an individual, the Servant has been identified with Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Josiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Jehoiachin. Most Christians believe the Servant to be an individual and interpret the songs from a messianic perspective and apply them to Jesus and his ministry.
The mythological interpretation identifies the Servant with Baal or Tammuz, but this view has been rejected by most scholars.
The fourth way of understanding the songs is by using the concept of corporate personality. This view says that the Servant represents both the nation and an individual. Thus, the individual, maybe Deutero-Isaiah himself, represents the whole nation. In this view, Israel, represented by an individual, would have a mission to Israel. His mission was to call Israel to its vocation as the people of God with a message to the nations: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
Most Christians interpret the Servant Songs from a messianic perspective. They believe that the songs find fulfillment in Christ. However, there are several steps that one must take before applying the songs to Christ.
First, the image of the Servant was shaped by actual experience. This means that someone who lived during the days of the prophet served as a model for the Servant as an individual. In a previous post, I wrote that this individual was king Jehoiachin.
Second, the Servant image reflects the mission of Israel: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isa 49:3). Out of her political failure comes the spiritual triumph: Israel is to be a teacher to the nations.
Third, because Jesus relived the life of Israel, Jesus fulfilled the Servant prophecies. During his brief ministry on earth, Jesus made the Servant ideal the ideal of his own ministry. He took upon himself the mission, the purpose, and the method of the Servant’s work.
The four Servant Songs say that the Servant had a mission to Israel and to the world. Thus, what the Servant accomplished on a small scale, Jesus accomplished on a universal scale.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary