Isaiah Week 10

The Servant of the LORD: Isaiah 49:1–52:12

By Bo Lim

Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 49:1–52:12


Week 10
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Unfortunately for some, the term “missionary” suggests not an agent of liberation but an agent of oppression. Some view Christian missionaries as knowing and unknowing perpetrators of colonialism, racism, and imperialism. For example, in the 19th century, both trading and missionary activity operated under the name of the East India Trading Company, which, with the help of the British military, poisoned the people of China with opium for the sake of profit.

Sadly, similar incidents of oppression continue today. In 2003, a popular TV evangelist publicly defended Liberian president Charles Taylor, who, nine years later, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for committing war crimes. It appears this Christian leader had financial motives for keeping this dictator in power, since he had personally invested millions of dollars into a Liberian gold-mining venture under an agreement he had made with the Liberian government.

Mission can be both salvific and destructive. Christian mission must be the former and not the latter. How then are we to discern what constitutes Christian mission? The text that gave the early church its missionary cue, more than any other text, was Isaiah. To justify the first intentional mission to reach Gentiles in the book of Acts, Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6:

I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (Acts 13:47)

Isaiah provides the warrant and motivation for Paul to venture beyond Jewish communities and preach the gospel to Gentiles. Regarding the question, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14), Paul responds by quoting Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” If the church is to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic — that is, a sent people — then we ought to follow the pattern of the apostles and learn from Isaiah how to be a missionary people.

Is it coincidence that Isaiah 40–55, the greatest text on mission in the Old Testament and perhaps in the whole Bible, also possesses the “servant of the LORD” as one of its main themes? I don’t think so. The manner of Christian mission must be one of service. It must be one in which Christians are servants of others, not lords over them. Only when mission is done from a posture of servanthood can it be authentically Christian. The question that we will address this week is, “What does it mean to be the servant of the LORD?”

Is the Servant Cyrus?

Last week we learned that, according to Isaiah 40–55, Israel doesn’t need a messiah. God is king, and he can choose whomever he pleases — even a pagan king — to work out his salvation. So we find that in Isaiah 40–55, the primary agent of God’s salvation is not the Messiah, but rather the servant of the LORD. The next question then is, “Who is the servant of the LORD?”

In Isaiah 41, we are introduced to the servant of the LORD, who is identified as Israel (Isaiah 41:8), and this figure bears great resemblance to Cyrus. Yahweh holds both the servant and Cyrus by their right hands (42:6; 45:1), calls upon them by name (43:1; 45:3-4), and calls them in righteousness (42:6; 45:13). Cyrus, like the servant of Yahweh, will bring forth justice (42:1, 3–4) and liberate prisoners (42:7).

Could Cyrus, a pagan king, be the servant of Yahweh? In one sense, the answer is yes, as argued above; however, a reading of Chapters 40–55 will result in a no. Cyrus is characterized as an efficient conqueror who mightily wields the sword and the bow as he tramples on his enemies (41:2, 25). Whereas the servant in Chapters 40–48 will “not cry or lift up his voice” (42:2), and in Chapters 49–53 he will face fierce persecution and suffering.

Isaiah 42:2 is to be interpreted in light of Isaiah 53:7:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

The servant of Yahweh will indeed experience persecution, but he will endure it in silence. Isaiah 42:2 describes how “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks signify people who may seem strong but are actually weak (compare Isaiah 36:6). In contrast to the might of Cyrus, this servant of the LORD is gentle. It is clear that Yahweh is concerned not merely about what is accomplished in ministry, but about the manner in which ministry is conducted. Justice is to be accomplished not through force but through gentleness.

It also seems at this point in the book of Isaiah that Yahweh is interested more in what is accomplished than in who accomplishes it. Yahweh’s main concern is for his just and righteous purposes for the nations to be established. Earlier, Israel questioned the justice of God (40:27) as they lingered in exile. Yahweh’s response to his people comes in the form of a pagan king who does not know Yahweh (45:4). The people of God do not hold a monopoly on justice. In fact, they are at times in need of the nations to bring justice to them.

Israel was called to be the primary agent of God’s justice and righteousness in the earth (Isaiah 2:1–4), yet Israel abdicated this responsibility (1:16–17, 21–23) and itself needed to be redeemed by justice (1:27). Isaiah 42:1–4 reminds the people of God to be humble, since they are not God’s sole agents of justice and righteousness. In some cases, God may be accomplishing his plans for his people through the Gentile nations (see Isaiah 44:28). God is so committed to justice and righteousness that he at times will establish them without the cooperation of his servant Israel.

If Not Cyrus, Then Israel?

Isaiah 49:1–6 is the second of the so-called “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12) [Author’s Note 1]. As Chapter 48 draws to a close, the identity of the servant remains open. Cyrus is no longer a possible candidate, so the role of servant defaults to Israel. At the end of Chapter 48, the voice of an individual prophet emerges for the first time in Isaiah 48:16b, “And now the Lord GOD has sent me and his spirit.” The spirit that earlier anointed the servant of Isaiah 42:1 now commissions an individual prophet to fulfill the role of the servant. It will be this individual who will speak as the servant of Yahweh throughout Chapters 49–53, and who will fulfill the role of the servant spoken of earlier in Chapters 40–48.

Both Isaiah 42:1–6 and Isaiah 49:1–6 describe the servant as ministering to the nations (42:1; 49:6), teaching the coastlands (42:4; 49:1), caring for justice (42:3–4; 49:4), and serving as a light to the nations and a covenant to the people (42:6; 49:6, 8). The one key development in Chapter 49 is that the servant, who is clearly identified as Israel (49:3), will now have a ministry to its own kin. The servant is commissioned to “bring Jacob back to him” (49:5) and “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel” (49:6). His ministry is not merely to liberate the nations, but to revive and restore his own people. The servant is an individual Israelite, who possesses a ministry to redeem the people Israel. In this case the minister [Israel] needs to first be ministered to.

Recall that Israel, as a people, was called to be God’s witness to all nations. When God first chose Abraham, he did so for the purpose that in Israel “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s election of a particular people is not favoritism of one at the expense of others, but rather the choice of one to serve the common good. Election ought not to be associated solely with privilege; rather, election involves responsibility.

Unfortunately, Israel has not been faithful in its role as God’s servant (Isaiah 48:1–2). Israel as God’s servant is called to open the eyes of the blind (42:7), but is itself plagued with the same malady: “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf like my messenger whom I send? Who is blind like my dedicated one, or blind like the servant of the LORD?” (42:19). God’s solution to an unfaithful Israel is not to choose a different people. No matter how many times I’ve asked God, “Make Koreans your chosen people!” (), God has not budged from his election of Israel. God’s solution is to fix his broken people, not choose another people.

The prophet commissioned in Chapter 49 is not a replacement of Israel as God’s servant; rather, he is sent to call Israel back to its vocation as a light to the nations. God says,

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).

God’s servant is to be concerned for the local (in this case Jacob/Israel) as well as the global (the end of the earth). As important as it is to reach the nations, it is oftentimes the case that it is easier to reach out to strangers halfway across the globe than to reach out to one’s own family or neighbors. The people of God are never to neglect their own kin, as exemplified by Jesus’ own willingness to go to Nazareth and Jerusalem.

If you were ever puzzled by Jesus’ seeming ethnocentrism, you can understand the logic of his messianic vocation. On one occasion Jesus rebuffs the request of a Canaanite woman for healing and declares, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). By loving Israel, Jesus was not forsaking the world. Instead, the redemption of Israel was the means by which God was loving the world.

Mission Involves Words and Deeds

The prophet-servant of Isaiah 49–53 is charged with the difficult task of persuading a reluctant and obstinate people to embrace a dangerous mission. Isaiah 49–53 captures the progression of resistance the prophet-servant experiences. He first encounters an unresponsive audience (49:4), then experiences confrontations and insults (50:6), and eventually endures rejection, violence, and death (53:3–9). In 50:4–11, God’s servant is struck, harassed, insulted, and spit upon.

Isaiah 49–52 makes it clear that servanthood involves prophetic ministry in the tradition of Jeremiah, a.k.a. “the weeping prophet.” Like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), the servant is called to prophetic ministry while in his mother’s womb (Isaiah 49:1). Unlike Cyrus, who wields a literal sword and bow, the “weapon” a prophet employs is his preaching (Isaiah 49:2; compare Hosea 6:5; Jeremiah 23:29).

In Isaiah 50:4, the servant acknowledges his vocation as a teacher. The word for “teacher” (NRSV) literally means “one who is taught.” By the means of his education and the spoken word, the servant is able to sustain the weary. In 51:4 and 7, we once again hear of the teaching ministry of the servant. In 51:4–5, God’s instruction goes forth as far as to the coastlands, and serves as means by which God brings justice as a light to the nations.

We have already seen that the role of the servant is to bring about justice and righteousness. Now we see that the servant is to be a preacher as well. Mission involves both proclamation and deeds. Conservative Christians have tended to prioritize evangelism and minimize social action; liberal Christians have tended to do the reverse. According to Scripture, Christian mission requires both.

As in the case of Jeremiah, faithfulness to one’s prophetic vocation may provoke rejection and opposition, resulting in the prophet’s questioning his call to ministry (compare Jeremiah 20:7–18). In that text, Israel accuses Yahweh of disregarding the “right” or justice (mišpāṭ, 40:27) of Israel, and for this reason Israel has grown faint and lost strength (kōaḥ, 40:29, 31). In Isaiah 49:4, the prophet-servant complains to Yahweh,

I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength (kōaḥ) for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause (mišpāṭ) is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.

In contrast to this self-evaluation, Yahweh is much more positive in his assessment of his servant. In Isaiah 49:3, Yahweh states that he will be glorified in his servant, and in 49:5 the prophet can claim, “I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength.” Humans do not possess the means to properly assess their own ministries and achievements; only God does.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Why is Isaiah so ambiguous regarding the identity of the Servant of the LORD?  Why not be more explicit as to who he is?
  2. What strikes you most about the character or actions of the Servant of the LORD?
  3. Spend a few minutes reflecting on the mission of the church. If you were to write a job description for the church, what would be included?  What should be excluded?
  4. Can you think of ways in which the church has departed from its mission?  What is to keep the church on track?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Bernhard Duhm was the first to refer to these passages as the “Servant Songs.” Some interpreters believe these texts to be prophecies of Christ, and other mentions of the servant to be references to Israel. This designation of these passages should be abandoned, since it disregards the larger context of Isaiah 40–55. The theme of the servant appears throughout Chapters 40–53, and there is no indication in the text to suggest that these four passages were uniquely messianic. For further explanation, see the video “What Does Isaiah Say About the Messiah? Part 2: Who Is the Suffering Servant?”


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Discussion and Comments

One Comment to “The Servant of the LORD: Isaiah 49:1–52:12”

  1. Sandra Wojahn says:

    Are you saying that the references in Isaiah are not about Jesus? Preachers always refer to these references as a foretelling of the Messiah. And who is the prophet? Is it Isaiah?