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The Songs of Isaiah: The Exalted Servant Part 2

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This is the second of a six-part study on the deity of Yeshua, specifically through the lens of the Apostles’ reading of the book of Isaiah. In part one we introduced this study and why it is important. This post will look briefly at the structure of Isaiah and delve into the identity of the mysterious “Servant of the Lord.”

The Anatomy of Isaiah

Isaiah is a fascinating book. It is the largest book of the Bible besides the Psalms. It contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the entire Hebrew corpus. Its prophecies span events from the time of the Israelite monarchy to the end of the age. Isaiah’s message was powerful to his contemporaries, and is still powerful today.

The book of Isaiah can be divided into distinct sections: “First Isaiah” (chapters 1-39) and “Second Isaiah” (chapters 40 and following). [1]It is common to further divide by discerning a third section, “Trito-Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). The idea of three different books by three ...continue The first 39 chapters form a coherent unit that is structured similarly to other prophetic books,[2]Note for example the parallels in structure with the book of Jeremiah: Both contain a section addressed to Israel (Isa 1-12; Jer 1-33), a section of ...continue while the remaining chapters seem structurally independent: they contain no prose, narrative, or chronological indicators. This latter section I will refer to as “Second Isaiah,” and this is the section that will be our main focus in this study.[3]Of course, secular scholars contend that the book of Isaiah that we know today was composed by multiple authors from different time periods. They ...continue

Many believers have noticed the parallels between the structure of Isaiah and the structure of the Bible as a whole in its modern format. Just as the Bible has 66 books, so Isaiah has 66 chapters. Further, just as the Bible consists of both the Tanakh (“Old Testament”) with 39 books and the Apostolic Scriptures (“New Testament”) with 27 books, so Isaiah can be divided into two parts with 39 and 27 chapters respectively. Of course, these chapter and book divisions are a modern feature, but it is interesting nonetheless. The attention that Second Isaiah receives in the Apostolic Scriptures makes this parallelism that much more intriguing.

The Impact of Isaiah

Yeshua and the Apostles were constantly quoting the Tanakh. The vast number of quotations and allusions shows that they had high regard for the Hebrew Scriptures. Three books in particular were referenced most frequently: Isaiah, the Psalms, and Deuteronomy. Interestingly, this corresponds with the frequency of biblical manuscripts found at Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls.[4]There were 36 copies of the book of Psalms discovered at Qumran, 29 of Deuteronomy, and 21 of Isaiah. Cf. J.C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today ...continue Apparently those three books were favourites among other Jews in their day. The Apostles’ preoccupation with those books of the Tanakh was not out of character for first-century Judaism. Of those three books, Isaiah ranks highest. Second Isaiah alone is quoted or alluded to hundreds of times.[5]The United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (UBS4) lists 66 quotations from Isaiah in the New Testament (40 of which are from chapters 40-66) ...continue This section was foundational to the Apostles’ understanding of the Messianic events of their day.

Second Isaiah contains beautiful prophecies of the end of the exile and the eschatological return of God’s people. It is no coincidence that all of the seven “Haftarot of Consolation” traditionally read in synagogues between the 9th of Av and the Fall Festivals come from this section. The themes of redemption and restoration ring clear, with passages of comfort and hope intertwined with awe-inspiring declarations of God’s eschatological sovereignty and uniqueness. As Richard Bauckham states,

No part of the Old Testament was more important to them than the chapters we know as Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). … For the early Christians, these chapters of Isaiah, above all, were the God-given account of the significance of the events of eschatological salvation which they had witnessed and in which they were involved.[6]Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, ...continue

The Servant Songs

Second Isaiah is perhaps most well-known for what are called the Servant Songs. These five songs are found in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12; and 61:1-3.[7]The last section (Isa 61:1-3) is usually not included in conventional listings of the Servant Songs, as the term “servant” (eved) is not found ...continue Each of these songs depicts a mysterious character called “the Servant of the Lord.” Who is this person? Much discussion and debate has been raised over this question, and how these passages function within the larger context of Isaiah.

Conventional Judaism today understands the Servant of the Lord in those passages to be a reference to the nation of Israel. This is likely in reaction to Christian usage of these texts. But there is a valid basis for this understanding: no less than 12 times in Second Isaiah we see the term “servant” used in a corporate, national sense.[8]Isaiah 41:8, 9; 42:19 (twice); 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21 (twice); 45:4; 48:20; 49:3. A good example of this is Isaiah 49:3: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’” Here the “servant” is clearly a reference to Israel.

However, just a few verses later, the identity of this servant apparently changes: “And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him…” (Isaiah 49:5) Here the term is obviously referring to an individual, one who would restore the nation. Here it must refer to Messiah. We see “servant” used similarly a total of seven times in Second Isaiah. These seven instances correspond with the first four Servant Songs.[9]Isaiah 42:1; 49:5, 6, 7; 50:10; 52:13; 53:11. The only other instance of eved in the singular in Second Isaiah is in 44:26, in reference to the ...continue As we will see, these songs have been interpreted Messianically not only by Christianity, but also by Judaism particularly before modern times.

How do we reconcile these two claims? Is the “Servant of the Lord” Israel, or is it Messiah? I believe the answer is both. It should not be seen as incongruous that the title of servant is applied to both Israel as a corporate entity and a singular Messiah figure, one who will save Israel. Understanding the Servant as Messiah (an individual) doesn’t negate the corporate aspect (Israel) as though the two are mutually exclusive.[10]Peter Stuhlmacher, “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts” in Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, eds., The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in ...continue What we have here is an example of the concept of corporate solidarity: Messiah is the quintessential Israelite, and as such He represents her and stands for the nation as a whole. Just as Israel was called to be a light to the nations, so Messiah is a light to the nations. Even further, Messiah is the means by which Israel will fulfill her calling to be that light.

References   [ + ]

1. It is common to further divide by discerning a third section, “Trito-Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). The idea of three different books by three different authors in three different time periods appears to have been first put forward by Bernard Duhm in 1895. See John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 3. For the purpose of this study, we will assume “Second Isaiah” includes chapters 40-66.
2. Note for example the parallels in structure with the book of Jeremiah: Both contain a section addressed to Israel (Isa 1-12; Jer 1-33), a section of prophecies addressed to surrounding nations (Isa 13-24; Jer 46-51), and a concluding narrative section that parallels sections from the historical books (Isa 36-39; Jer 52; cf. Jer 39-44).
3. Of course, secular scholars contend that the book of Isaiah that we know today was composed by multiple authors from different time periods. They base this further on the accurate predictions of the return of the Babylonian exile contained in Second Isaiah, including references to King Cyrus by name (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). They deny the possibility of prophecy, and so conclude that these words must have been written after the events they predict. But while distinct sections in the book of Isaiah are discernible, it is important to note that there is a clear coherency and thematic unity within the book as a whole. The traditional view, that both sections are the work of the prophet Isaiah himself, is still the most plausible in my opinion. So when I use the term “Second Isaiah,” I am in not denying Isaiah as the author.
4. There were 36 copies of the book of Psalms discovered at Qumran, 29 of Deuteronomy, and 21 of Isaiah. Cf. J.C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 30-32.
5. The United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament (UBS4) lists 66 quotations from Isaiah in the New Testament (40 of which are from chapters 40-66) and 348 allusions and verbal parallels (221 of which are from ch. 40-66).
6. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 33.
7. The last section (Isa 61:1-3) is usually not included in conventional listings of the Servant Songs, as the term “servant” (eved) is not found there. But the underlying theme of the Servant is there, nonetheless.
8. Isaiah 41:8, 9; 42:19 (twice); 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21 (twice); 45:4; 48:20; 49:3.
9. Isaiah 42:1; 49:5, 6, 7; 50:10; 52:13; 53:11. The only other instance of eved in the singular in Second Isaiah is in 44:26, in reference to the prophets.
10. Peter Stuhlmacher, “Isaiah 53 in the Gospels and Acts” in Bernd Janowski and Peter Stuhlmacher, eds., The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK. 2004), pp. 161-162.


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