The Suffering Servant in Isaiah’s Servant Songs
by Nick Katrichis
This past week we heard Pastor Paul preach from Isaiah 53, which is also referred to as the fourth servant song of Isaiah (the servant songs coming in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12). The passages reveal the character of God and further reveal God’s redemptive plan for his people: how his promised Servant would come and deliver his people as their righteous substitute.
To better understand these servant passages, we need to understand the context of Isaiah’s prophecy. When these later chapters of Isaiah were written, the people of Israel were living in exile, in captivity to the Babylonians and Assyrians. While in exile, the Israelites strayed from their faith. Isaiah 1-39 focuses on this disobedience and the judgment Israel deserved.
Despite their disobedience, God’s people longed for deliverance and yearned to be set free to return to their home. In chapters 40–66, we see Isaiah shift to a theme of hope for the Israelites. The servant songs in this latter section emphasize the deliverance and restoration of the people of Israel through God’s promised Servant.
The theme of servant is prominent in Isaiah and is used to refer to Israel, the prophets, and as a specific servant of Yahweh on a divine mission to Israel and the gentiles where he will innocently suffer on their behalf. Essential to understanding the context of these later chapters is that these servant passages in Isaiah reveal one whose unique character and works set him apart from other servants in Isaiah, revealing the true Suffering Servant in Jesus Christ.
The first servant song (42:1-4) begins by giving a brief description of the servant and his mission. The servant is revealed as one who is chosen, anointed, and equipped by Yahweh. Verse 1 describes how the servant is chosen by Yahweh and how the Father delights in his soul and loves and is pleased with His Son — words echoed at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:17. Verses 2&3 reveal the servant carrying out his mission humbly and gently, serving quietly, defending the weak. The servant will bring justice to the nations and he will do so without being broken or weakened.
The second servant song (49:1-6) expands on the character and mission of the servant. We see the unique relationship between Yahweh and his servant: how the servant was “called from the womb” and “formed” to be a servant of the Lord. The servant is fully aware and confident in his calling. Further, there is a progression of the mission of the servant: we see that the servant’s mission is not just to redeem Israel, but to redeem all humankind. In this passage we also see the servant confessing his frustration and suffering at the lack of response from Israel in his mission (v.4). However, Yahweh’s servant does not turn from God, as Israel had done, he finds his strength in God and accepts his suffering.
The third Servant Song (50:4-9) again reveals a unique relationship between Yahweh and the servant. This passage reveals that Yahweh’s servant will suffer to benefit others. We see progression in the servant’s mission as he teaches the word to sustain the weary. The servant’s desire is to do the will of God and in suffering will be drawn closer to him. We also again see that the servant will be rejected by the people he is serving (v.6). He suffers and is rejected, not because of his disobedience, but because of the disobedience of others. As in the previous song, the servant finds strength in Yahweh who vindicates him and declares him righteous.
The fourth and final Servant Song (52:13-53:12) completes the revelation of the Suffering Servant. In this beautiful climax it is revealed that the servant will be exalted, but will also suffer and be rejected as a “man of sorrows.” (52:13-53:3) In the following verses it is revealed that the suffering of the servant was the punishment that the people deserved. The servant was our substitute for God’s judgment — he was “pierced for our transgression” (v.5). As in the previous songs, we once again read that the servant is obedient in his mission. The servant does the will of God and does not falter in his obedience to that will.
As chapter 53 closes, we see the victory of the servant. Yahweh’s true Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, has triumphed where the Israelites and all of humanity has failed. We read that through the righteous servant, many will be made righteous (v.11). This final servant song reveals the true Suffering Servant — Jesus Christ — fulfilling the promises of God to judge, redeem, and restore his people through his Servant.
How can we think of these servant songs in our present context? First, as God’s servants, we are to be humble and gentle as we carry out his mission. Too often, we watch the news and see people in authority exercising abuse, destruction, and hatred. This is not God’s intention for his servants. God’s servants serve from a position of weakness, not strength. Philippians 2:7-8 describes Jesus, “He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross.” (NLT)
Second, as God’s servants, there should be no doubt that we have been called to serve his mission. We can find strength in our calling as God’s servants. Like the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, we too have been called from the womb to serve the Lord. The mission of epikos Church is to “make more and better disciples” (Matt. 28:16-20). As Jesus gave the Great Commission he said all authority had been given to Him, and “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” We are called to be bold in proclaiming the gospel. When we face failure, find strength in our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. As Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Third, as God’s servants, our mission is founded in God’s Word. In the third servant song, Yahweh’s servant is a teacher of God’s Word. As teacher’s of the Word we must be responsive to His Word. In Acts 8 we read of Philip who was called by God to share God’s Word with an Ethiopian eunuch. As Phillip read Isaiah 53 to the man, the man responds asking who is the servant that the prophet speaks of? Then it says that Philip shared the good news about Jesus with him and that the Ethiopian was baptized.
As we reflect on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant — fully innocent yet suffering for the guilty, suffering rejection by the very people he is saving, and suffering death so that we may live — let us consider how we might respond: Let us respond to God’s Word, confidently accepting God’s mission, and serving others gently and humbly. As we do so, let us embrace the character of the suffering servant, Jesus Christ, as our model.