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The Servant songs (also called the Servant poems or the Songs of the Suffering Servant) are songs in the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. They were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. The songs are four poems written about a certain "servant of YHWH." God calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly abused among them. In the end, he is rewarded.
Some scholars regard Isaiah 61:1-3 as a fifth servant song, although the word "servant" is not mentioned in the passage.
The modern Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 52:13 through Isaiah 53:12 describes the servant of the Lord as the Nation of Israel itself: "My Servant..." (Isaiah 53:11), "... a man of pains and accustomed to illness ... " (Isaiah 53:3). "The theme of Isaiah is jubilation, a song of celebration at the imminent end of the Babylonian Captivity". Judaism sees this passage, especially "God's Suffering Servant", being written over 2500 years before nowadays, without a reference to the king Mashiach. Jewish teaching also does take note of the historical context in which God's Suffering Servant appears, particularly because it speaks in the past tense. The Jewish nation has borne unspeakable injustices, under Assyria, Babylonia, Ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Nazi Germany, which are all gone, and bears persecution and targeted mission to this day. Jewish scripture in Isaiah speaks in the light, when it says:
- "Israel is my Servant ..." (41:8)
- "You are My witnesses says the Lord, and My Servant whom I have chosen ..." (43:10)
- "For he was cut off from the land of the living; because of the transgression of My people, He was stricken..." (53:8)
- "My servant would vindicate the just for many, and their iniquities he would bear ..."(53:11)
However, several rabbinic sources understood Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah. Here are quotations from some of them: Babylonian Talmud: "The Messiah --what is his name?...The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted...'" (Sanhedrin 98b) Midrash Ruth Rabbah: "Another explanation (of Ruth ii.14): -- He is speaking of king Messiah; `Come hither,' draw near to the throne; `and eat of the bread,' that is, the bread of the kingdom; `and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,' this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, `But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities'".
Christians traditionally see the servant as Jesus Christ. Another Christian interpretation combines aspects of the traditional Christian and the Jewish interpretation. This position sees the servant as an example of 'corporate personality', where an individual can represent a group, and vice versa. Thus, in this case, the servant corresponds to Israel, yet at the same time corresponds to an individual (that is, the Messiah) who represents Israel.
The first song
The first poem has God speaking of His selection of the Servant who will bring justice to earth. Here the Servant is described as God's agent of justice, a king who brings justice in both royal and prophetic roles, yet justice is established neither by proclamation nor by force. He does not ecstatically announce salvation in the marketplace as prophets were bound to do, but instead moves quietly and confidently to establish right religion (Isaiah 42:1-4).
The first four verses are quoted in Matthew's gospel, where it is said that the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus' withdrawal from the cities of Galilee and his request that the crowds do not make him known.
The second song
The second poem, written from the Servant's point of view, is an account of his pre-natal calling by God to lead both Israel and the nations. The Servant is now portrayed as the prophet of the Lord equipped and called to restore the nation to God. Yet, anticipating the fourth song, he is without success. Taken with the picture of the Servant in the first song, his success will come not by political or military action, but by becoming a light to the Gentiles. Ultimately his victory is in God's hands. Isaiah 49:1-6.
The third song
The third poem has a darker yet more confident tone than the others. Although the song gives a first-person description of how the Servant was beaten and abused, here the Servant is described both as teacher and learner who follows the path God places him on without pulling back. Echoing the first song's "a bruised reed he will not break," he sustains the weary with a word. His vindication is left in God's hands. Isaiah 50:4-9
The fourth song
The fourth of the "servant songs" begins at Isaiah 52:13, continuing through 53:12 where it continues the discussion of the suffering servant.
There is no clear identification for the "servant" within this song, but if the reader pays close attention to the author's word choice, one can deduce that the song could refer to either an individual or a group. According to theologian Michael Coogan, those who argue the "servant" to be an individual have "proposed many candidates from Israel's past". The song declares that the "servant" intercedes for others, bearing their punishments and afflictions. In the end, he/they are rewarded.
It can be argued that the "servant" represents a group of people, more specifically the nation of Israel, and they feel that they have paid their dues and continue to suffer because of the sins of others (Isaiah 53:7,11-12). Also, through the author's choice of words, we, our, and they, one could also argue that the "servant" was a group.
Early in the passage, the evaluation of the Servant by the "we" is negative: "we" esteemed him not, many were appalled by him, nothing in him was attractive to "us". But at the Servant's death the attitude of the "we" changes after Isaiah 53:4, where the servant suffers because of "our" iniquities, "our" sickness, but by the servant's wounds "we" consequently are healed. Posthumously, then, the Servant is vindicated by God.
- Barry G. Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004, series "The Bible Speaks Today", page 42.
- Blumenthal, Yisroel C. "Isaiah 53, Micah 7 and Isaiah 62". 1000 Verses. yourphariseefriend.wordpress.com. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
- "Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) is the nation of Israel itself, not The Messiah = Jewish viewpoint #1". Jews for Judaism. Archived from the original on 2007-12-12. Retrieved 2006-07-05.
- Singer, Rabbi Tovia. "Let's Get Biblical! Why Doesn't Judaism Accept the Christian Messiah?". outreachjudaism.org and Tovia Singer. Retrieved 2 July 2012.
- "Isaiah 53 ... in 53 Seconds". Jewish Isaiah 53. jewsforjudaism.org. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
- Isaiah 53:8
- Isaiah 53:11—Judaica Press Complete Tanach
- "Servant Songs." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- "Servant of The Lord" in Wood, D. R. W., and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
- Matthew 12:16-21
- NRSV text
- Coogan, Michael D.Return from Exile: A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament the Hebrew Bible in its Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 334.
- Wesley's Notes on the Bible on Isaiah 52], accessed 11 March 2017