God's servants were those who worshiped him and carried out his will, often in important leadership roles. Individuals such as Abraham ( Gen 26:24 ), Moses ( Exod 14:31 ; Deut 34:5 ), David ( 2 Samuel 7:5 2 Samuel 7:8 ), and Isaiah (20:3) were called God's "servants" as they obediently walked with the Lord. There are several references to "my servants the prophets" ( 2 Kings 17:13 ; Jer 7:25 ; 26:5 ), sent by God to call Israel to repentance and renewal of the covenant. Sadly, the prophets were often rejected and sometimes killed ( Luke 11:47-51 ), in spite of the divine word they delivered. In the last half of Isaiah, scholars have identified four servant songs that describe the accomplishments and suffering of one called the servant of the Lord ( 42:1-7 ; 49:1-6 ; 50:4-11 ; 52:13-53:12). Possibly Isaiah 61:1-3 contains yet another servant song. Although Isaiah sometimes refers to the servant as "Israel, " New Testament quotations and allusions clearly relate the ministry of the servant to the first coming of Christ and his atoning death.
The Identity of the Servant. At times it seems quite clear that the servant refers collectively to the nation of Israel. In 41:8-9 the servant is called "Israel" or "Jacob, " the "descendants of Abraham my friend." Since the nation often proved to be unresponsive to the word of the Lord, the servant is called "blind" and "deaf" in 42:19. The suffering and affliction caused by Israel's sin ( 1:5-6 ) is similar to the experience of the servant in 53:4-5. Sometimes the concept of the "servant" seems to refer to those in Israel who were spiritual, the righteous remnant who remained faithful to the Lord. In 42:5 and 49:8 the servant functions as "a covenant for the people" and is involved in the restoration of the land after the Babylonian exile. Even though the servant is called "Israel" in 49:3, he is distinguished from Israel in verse 5, where the servant brings Israel back to the Lord. Starting with 54:17 and ending with 66:14 there are several references to "the servants" of the Lord, and the plural may be another term for the righteous remnant.
A careful reading of the four servant songs has nonetheless led many scholars to argue that the servant refers to an individual who fulfills in himself all that Israel was meant to be. This individual was the ideal Israel, a righteous and faithful servant who suffered unjustly and died to atone for the sins of humankind. H. H. Rowley has said that by chapter 53 the personification has become a person. The one who "was led like a lamb to the slaughter" died to bear "the sins of many" (vv. 6, 12) and "was assigned a grave with the wicked" (v. 9). This description does not apply very well to a nation or even a part of the nation, but it certainly can apply to an individual. In some respects the servant can be compared with the Davidic messianic king. Both were chosen by God and characterized by righteousness and justice (cf. 9:7 ; Isaiah 42:1 Isaiah 42:6 ). The Spirit of God would empower both the king and the servant ( 11:1-4 ; 42:1 ), and ultimately the suffering servant would be highly exalted (cf. 52:13 ; 53:12 ) and given the status of a king. The "shoot" or "branch" from the family of Jesse ( 11:1 ) is linked with the description of the servant as "a tender shoot" ( 53:2 ).
The Work of the Servant. Unlike the nation Israel, the servant of the Lord listened to God's word and spoke words of comfort and healing ( 42:2-3 ; 50:4-5 ). Yet his words were powerful and authoritative, and like a judge he was concerned about establishing justice and righteousness ( Isaiah 42:1 Isaiah 42:4 ; 49:2 ). Twice the servant is called "a light to the Gentiles" ( 42:6 ; 49:6 ), and "light" is clearly paralleled to "salvation." Similarly, the servant is involved in the restoration of the nation Israel ( 49:5 ). He is "a covenant for the people" ( 42:6 ; 49:8 ) as the ruler who was promised in the Davidic covenant ( 2 Sam 7:16 ) and the One who would initiate the new covenant. The servant opens the eyes of the blind and frees captives from prison ( 42:7 ; cf. 61:1 ).
The Suffering of the Servant. In order to bring salvation to Israel and the nations, the servant had to die to pay for sin, and this theme of suffering and death becomes increasingly clear as the servant songs unfold. At first we are told only that "he was not falter or be discouraged" ( 42:4 ), but then the servant faces strong opposition and appears to have failed ( 49:4 ). He was despised and mocked to the point of being spit on, beaten, and otherwise humiliated ( 49:7 ; 50:6-7 ). In the final servant song (52:13-53:12) we learn that the servant was disfigured "beyond human likeness" ( 52:14 ) and "poured out his life unto death" as a guilt offering to make atonement for sin ( Isaiah 53:10 Isaiah 53:12 ). His vicarious death brought peace and healing to humankind and justification for many ( Isaiah 53:5 Isaiah 53:11 ). As the perfect sacrifice for sin, the death of the servant was in accord with God's will and resulted ultimately in victory and exaltation. The one who died now lives to intercede on behalf of believers ( Isaiah 53:10 Isaiah 53:12 ).
New Testament Quotations. Although the number of quotations from the servant songs are surprisingly limited in the New Testament, there are several important references to Christ as God's servant (pais theous). The longest quotation is found in Matthew 12:18-21, which cites almost all of Isaiah 42:1-4 in connection with Christ's healing of the sick. Matthew 8:17 also refers to Christ's ability to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits as a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases." Paul quotes Isaiah 52:15 in connection with his mission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles ( Rom 15:21 ), and both Paul and John cite 53:1 with reference to Jewish unbelief ( Rom 10:16 ; John 12:38 ). Paul also utilized Isaiah 49:6 as his preaching became "a light for the Gentiles" ( Acts 13:47 ). Of the Gospel writers only Luke uses Isaiah 53 in speaking of Christ's suffering and death: "And he was numbered with the transgressors" ( 53:12 ; Luke 22:37 ). It was also Luke who related Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading Isaiah 53:6-7 ( Acts 8:32-33 ). Answering the eunuch's question, Philip preached "the good news about Jesus" from this passage about the lamb who was sacrificed ( Acts 8:34-35 ).
While encouraging believers who were suffering, Peter cites several verses from Isaiah 53. Christ's submission in the midst of unjust threats is linked to verse 9 ( 1 Peter 2:22 ), and the substitutionary nature of Christ's death is derived from verses 4 and 11 ( 1 Peter 2:24 ). We have been healed by the wounds Christ suffered on our behalf as the good Shepherd gave his life to rescue the straying sheep ( Isa 53:5-6 ; 1 Peter 2:25 ).
New Testament Allusions. The portrayal of Christ as the suffering servant stands behind many other passages. Four times in Acts the word "servant" (pais) is applied to Christ in connection with his death ( Acts 3:13 Acts 3:26 ; Acts 4:27 Acts 4:30 ). Twice Christ is called the "Righteous One, " perhaps an allusion to the "righteous servant" of Isaiah 53:11 ( Acts 3:14 ; 7:52 ). John the Baptist called Jesus "the Lamb of God" ( John 1:29 John 1:36 ), while on the day of Pentecost Peter spoke of "God's set purpose and foreknowledge" that lay behind Calvary ( Acts 2:23 ). Paul's reference to Christ's being raised for our justification reflects the Greek translation of Isaiah 53:11 ( Rom 4:25 ), and the same verse may have affected the wording of "the many will be made righteous" ( Rom 5:19 ). Mark's key reference to the Son of Man as a servant who gave his life "as a ransom for many" ( 10:45 ) may also stem from Isaiah 53.
Herbert M. Wolf
See also Jesus Christ, Names and Titles of
Bibliography. R. T. France, Tyn Bul 19 (1968); M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant; F. D. Lindsey, The Servant Songs; C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah; H. M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah; W. Zimmerli and J. Jeremias, The Servant of God.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Servant of the Lord'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".