The Mystery of the Servant Songs (Refiner’s Fire, Part 20)

NOTE: This is part 20 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book here. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

More than thirty years after John’s conversation with Jesus—thirty years after John’s death, when the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were in the past and the “good news preached to the poor” had taken on contours previously unimaginable—a former Pharisee named Paul wrote to a fledgling community of believers in Jesus Christ. Or, as the name literally means, “Jesus the Messiah.”

God’s administration … was given to me for you, to make God’s message fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to His saints. God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25b–27, my emphasis)

To another such community, this one in the city of Ephesus, he wrote again about the mystery now revealed:

This grace was given to me—the least of all the saints—to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of the Messiah, and to shed light for all about the administration of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. (Ephesians 3:8–11)

And finally, to the church in Corinth:

We do speak a wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. On the contrary, we speak God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery, a wisdom God predestined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age knew this wisdom, for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear,
and what never entered the human mind—
God prepared this for those who love Him.

(1 Corinthians 2:6–9, my emphasis)

For Paul, whose life message was to spread the word of Christ and his kingdom, “God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery” was a favorite theme. This was because in his own day, he had seen the mystery revealed.

All along, there had been a plan and a story in the heart of God—a wisdom hidden in the Scriptures and in the actions of God throughout history. Yet it wasn’t until Jesus lived it out that anyone could see it for what it was.

Throughout the New Testament, Paul is a mirror image to John the Baptist—a reversed reflection. John was straining forward, trying to see the future in light of past revelation. Paul, on the other hand, stood in the light of new revelation and with it, understood the past for the first time.

One of the passages Paul may have been alluding to in 1 Corinthians 2 is this one, from Isaiah 64:

When You did awesome works
that we did not expect,
You came down,
and the mountains quaked at Your presence.
From ancient times no one has heard,
no one has listened,
no eye has seen any God except You,
who acts on behalf of the one who waits for Him. (Isaiah 64:3–4)

Despite all of their expectations, there was a side to the gospel of the kingdom that Israel had never seen. And yet, it had been there all along.

The Song of the Suffering Servant

Back in the book of Isaiah, four poetic passages have been identified by scholars as “the Servant Songs.” Each speaks of someone called “God’s Servant.” At times the Servant himself speaks; at other times, God speaks about him. Whoever or whatever the Servant is, he is clearly central to the plans of God in the future. We meet him first in Isaiah 42, which begins:

“This is My Servant; I strengthen Him,
this is My Chosen One; I delight in Him.
I have put My Spirit on Him;
He will bring justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or shout
or make His voice heard in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed,
and He will not put out a smoldering wick;
He will faithfully bring justice.
He will not grow weak or be discouraged
until He has established justice on earth.
The islands will wait for His instruction.”

This is what God, Yahweh, says—
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and life to those who walk on it—
“I, Yahweh, have called You
for a righteous purpose,
and I will hold You by Your hand.
I will keep You and appoint You
to be a covenant for the people
and a light to the nations,
in order to open blind eyes,
to bring out prisoners from the dungeon,
and those sitting in darkness from the prison house.
I am Yahweh, that is My name;
I will not give My glory to another
or My praise to idols. (Isaiah 42:1–8)

Much like Daniel 7 and 9, the Servant Songs are notoriously tricky. Found in Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1–12, Isaiah 50:4–9, and Isaiah 52:13–53:12, they seem at times to speak of Israel as a nation—a corporate entity personified, much like the Son of Man in Daniel 7 who represents all the “holy ones” of God.

At other times, they seem to speak of a single man. Perhaps, some speculated, the Servant was Isaiah—indeed, this was the question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, when Jesus’s follower Philip met him in his chariot reading from a scroll of Isaiah. “I ask you,” the eunuch asked, “who is the prophet saying this about—himself or another person?”

Of course, Philip explained that the passage was speaking about Jesus. But that’s getting way ahead of our story.

Or perhaps, some speculated, if the Servant is a representative of the nation, he is also a king.

N.T. Wright agrees that the set of songs “carries at the least overtones of the ‘royal’ passages in the first part of the book … There is a well-known fluidity between the nation and its royal representative: the king holds the key to the destiny of the people.” (N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began)

King or not, prophet or not, it would be tempting within the surrounding context of Isaiah to identify the Servant with the Messiah. This is true for exactly the same reason that it’s tempting to see the Son of Man not only as representing the people of God but also as being a Messianic figure: the Scriptures seem to indicate both.

When we meet the Servant for the second time, in Isaiah 49, he is clearly identified as Israel:

The LORD called me before I was born.
He named me while I was in my mother’s womb.
He made my words like a sharp sword;
He hid me in the shadow of His hand.
He made me like a sharpened arrow;
He hid me in His quiver.
He said to me, “You are My Servant, Israel;
I will be glorified in him.” (Isaiah 49:1b–3, my emphasis)

But only one verse later, he is not Israel but rather an individual whose task is to bring Israel back to God and indeed, even reach out to the nations with Yahweh’s glorious light:

And now, says the LORD,
who formed me from the womb to be His Servant,
to bring Jacob back to Him
so that Israel might be gathered to Him;
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is my strength—
He says,
“It is not enough for you to be My Servant
raising up the tribes of Jacob
and restoring the protected ones of Israel.
I will also make you a light for the nations,
to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:5–6)

So far, so good—from these beautiful passages, we would be forgiven for assuming the Servant was one and the same with the Anointed One, the prophesied Messiah who would come and rule as king, ushering in the Messianic Age and the kingdom of God on earth.

But this poem, the second Servant Song, isn’t over. Immediately after this promise of salvation and light comes a surprising passage, one that begins to build a case against this figure as being the Messiah after all.

It says:

This is what the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, says
to one who is despised,
to one abhorred by people,
to a servant of rulers:
“Kings will see and stand up,
and princes will bow down,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel—and He has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:7)

This new theme, of the Servant as someone who is despised and abhorred—some translations say “despised and rejected”—is new. And it’s decidedly non-Messianic. Remember how Isaiah has described the Messianic King before now! Remember the psalms of David and the triumphant victories of Zephaniah and Micah.

Whoever this Servant was—prophet, king, or simply prophetic representation of Israel—he could not be the same as the one destined to rule an eternal kingdom, subjecting all the nations to his power and authority.

If you think I’m making too much out of one little phrase about abhorrence and rejection, that would probably be a fair point—if Isaiah 49 were all we had to go on. But two more Servant Songs remain, and in them, things get worse. Much worse. Isaiah 50 begins with a typical description of the Servant as faithfully receiving the word of God and serving others with it, but then comes this note of suffering again:

The Lord GOD has opened My ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I did not turn back.
I gave My back to those who beat Me,
and My cheeks to those who tore out My beard.
I did not hide My face from scorn and spitting. (Isaiah 50:5–6)

And finally we reach the climactic Servant Song, starting in Isaiah 52:13 and carrying through to the end of Isaiah 53. This time the horror bears down relentlessly:

See, My Servant will act wisely;
He will be raised and lifted up and greatly exalted.
Just as many were appalled at You—
His appearance was so disfigured
that He did not look like a man,
and His form did not resemble a human being—
so He will sprinkle many nations.
Kings will shut their mouths because of Him,
For they will see what had not been told them,
and they will understand what they had not heard. (Isaiah 52:13–15)

Isaiah 53 goes on to describe someone who suffers terribly, silently undergoing oppression and affliction “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” In some way, the chapter indicates, this suffering would be vicarious, endured on behalf of the nation of Israel and because of Israel’s sins. And it would be final. The Servant would not just suffer—he would die.

He was taken away because of oppression and judgment;
and who considered His fate?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
He was struck because of my people’s rebellion.
They made His grave with the wicked
and with a rich man at His death,
although He had done no violence
and had not spoken deceitfully. (Isaiah 53:8–9)

And yet somehow, even through his death, the Servant would be vindicated and would help to bring about the redemption of the people. “By His hand,” Isaiah wrote in verse 10, “the LORD’s pleasure will be accomplished.”

The songs are a mystery. Like the Servant himself, their true meaning was “hidden in the shadow of the LORD’s hand.” And so they engendered debate for centuries.

One thing did seem clear, however: the Servant was Israel, as Isaiah 49:7 clearly says. Israel, after all, had been chosen and called by God for a purpose. They were supposed to be the nation among whom Yahweh dwelled on earth. Their promised land was intended to be the place where his kingdom was manifest and the nations came to be blessed. The Servant Songs indicate God had not forgotten his plan for them.

Of course, in their rebellion against God, they had temporarily faltered and failed in their mission. Another passage in Isaiah laments the downfall of those who worship deaf and dumb idols and like them, lose their spiritual senses:

“Listen, you deaf!
Look, you blind, so that you may see.
Who is blind but My servant,
or deaf like My messenger I am sending?
Who is blind like My dedicated one,
or blind like the servant of the LORD?
Though seeing many things, you do not obey.
Though his ears are open, he does not listen.” (Isaiah 42:18–20)

But even in their blind-and-deaf disobedience and apostasy, God would not relinquish his claim on Israel or revoke his calling on them as a nation. They would still be the Servant of the Lord. And because of their sins, which gave death and destruction power over them just as sin always does, they would suffer immensely—just as the curse had promised; just as the prophets foretold; just as Daniel saw in his apocalyptic visions.

Despite their failures, the Servant of Isaiah’s four mysterious songs was clearly Israel. A second popular interpretation, however, held that it was not all Israel who were called the Lord’s Servant in these passages, but only a faithful and devout remnant—a small group of righteous worshipers who would suffer, yet ultimately be vindicated. In the end, after and somehow through their suffering, redemption would come.

To be continued …


This is Part 178 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash




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