The Servant(s) of God in Isaiah
The biblical concept of fulfillment is richer than we sometimes imagine.
The New Testament quotes three Old Testament books more than any others: Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah.
The latter is quoted, in particular, because it contains messianic prophecies that point to Jesus, and the New Testament authors record how he fulfilled them.
As Christians, we are so familiar with these passages and how the New Testament uses them that we assume they are only about Jesus:
- “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Isa. 7:14)? That’s Jesus.
- “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’” (Isa. 9:6)? Definitely Jesus.
- “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus again.
All of these are messianic prophecies, and Jesus did fulfill them.
But the biblical concept of fulfillment is richer than we sometimes imagine.
Prophecy in the Bible
The biblical authors recognized Scripture as operating on multiple levels. For example, Matthew interprets the Holy Family’s flight to and return from Egypt as a fulfillment of the prophetic statement, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
But in its original context, it is obvious the “son” of God being discussed is Israel, for the full verse reads: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son” (Hos. 11:1).
Matthew understood this. He had read the first half of the verse and knew that, on the primary, literal level, the statement applied to the nation of Israel. But he recognized that on another level it applied to Christ as the divine Son who recapitulates and fulfills the aspirations of Israel.
In the same way, it is obvious in Isaiah that on the primary, literal level the prophecy of Immanuel applied to the time of King Ahaz (732-716 B.C.). At this point, Syria had forged a military alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel that threatened to conquer Jerusalem (Isa. 7:1-2). God sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz the alliance would not succeed (Isa. 7:3-9) and told him to name a sign that God would give him as proof (Isa. 7:10-11).
Ahaz refused to name a sign (Isa. 7:12), so God declared one: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted” (Isa. 7:14-16).
For this sign to be meaningful to Ahaz, it would have to be fulfilled in his own day—indeed, very quickly. It therefore points, on the primary, literal level, to a child conceived at that time (perhaps Ahaz’s son, the future King Hezekiah).
Like the other New Testament authors, Matthew recognized the biblical text as having multiple dimensions, so the prophecy was not only fulfilled in Ahaz’s day but also pointed to Christ as “Immanuel” (Hebrew, “God with us”).
The Literal and Spiritual Senses of the Text
In the Christian age, a way of classifying the different levels on which Scripture works was developed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church (CCC 115).
It goes on to explain the literal sense:
The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:1:10 ad 1) (CCC 116).
Because the literal sense is the foundation of all the other senses, we need to establish it before looking at additional meanings found within the spiritual sense of the text.
The rules of exegesis (interpretation) require us to establish the literal sense by asking what a text meant in its original context—what the biblical author was trying to communicate to his audience.
Thus we discover that, in Hosea 11:1, the son of God in the literal sense of the passage was Israel, but the spiritual sense of the text includes Jesus as the ultimate Son of God.
Similarly, we discover that in Isaiah 7:14, the son to be named Immanuel was, in the literal sense of the text, a child born in Ahaz’s day, but the spiritual sense includes a reference to Jesus as the greater Immanuel or “God with us.”
A number of New Testament passages focus on Isaiah 53, which describes a figure known as the Servant of the Lord (or, in some scholarly publications, the Servant of Yahweh).
The identity of this figure is not immediately obvious from reading the text of Isaiah 53, as the encounter that Philip had with the Ethiopian eunuch makes clear:
Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this:
“As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth.
“In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth” [cf. Isa. 53:7-8].
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus (Acts 8:29-35).
Philip thus correctly identified this text points to Jesus, at least in its spiritual sense. But for a complete understanding of it, we still need to ask what its literal sense was and whether it may have pointed to someone or something in addition to Jesus.
Servants in Isaiah
The Hebrew word for “servant” used in the key passages of Isaiah is ‘ebed. This word appears 40 times in the book, in 36 verses.
In some cases, it refers to the servants of human beings:
- Isa. 14:2 refers to unnamed foreigners who will become the servants of Israel.
- Isa. 24:2 refers to the slaves of human masters.
- Isa. 36:9 and 37:24 refer to servants/subjects of the king of Assyria
- Isa. 36:11 has several figures referring to themselves politely as “your servants” when talking with an Assyrian official
- Isa. 37:5 refers to the servants/subjects of King Hezekiah of Judah
- Isa. 49:7 refers to an unnamed, despised figure who is “the servant of rulers”—i.e., a subject of foreign leaders
This last servant is also likely one of the figures described as a “servant” of the Lord, which brings us to the category we are primarily interested in: those who serve God.
Many of the uses of ‘ebed in Isaiah are in the plural and refer to God’s servants collectively. This theme emerges in chapter 54 and is especially prominent in the final four chapters of the book:
- In such passages, the servants of God seem to refer to the righteous of Israel (Isa. 54:17, 65:8, 13-15, 66:14).
- They are expressly identified with “the tribes of your heritage” in Isa. 63:17, and with descendants of Jacob and Judah inIsa. 65:9.
- However, Isa. 56:6 makes it clear that they also can include foreigners who come to worship God and thus become “his servants.”
We thus see that in Isaiah God actually has many servants.
Not all uses of ‘ebed are in the plural, and there remain 22 uses which speak of individual servants of the Lord. Four of them are named:
- The first to be named is Isaiah himself. Isa. 20:3 refers to “my servant Isaiah.”
- The second is Eliakim son of Hilkiah (Isa. 22:20), who was a man that God called to be the chief steward of the house of David.
- The third is David himself (Isa. 37:35).
- And the fourth is the corporate figure of the nation of Israel/Jacob, who is named as God’s servant in multiple passages. A typical example is Isa. 41:8, which speaks of “you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen” (cf. Isa. 41:9, 44:1-2, 21 [2 references], 45:4, 48:20, and 49:3).
That leaves us still to explain 10 uses of ‘ebed. We won’t here propose definitite identifications for these passages, but we can say something about how their literal sense can be plausibly understood.
The Priority of Israel
Jewish interpreters tend to see the Servant of the Lord as Israel, and there are two reasons that suggest this should be our starting point in seeking to establish the literal sense of the text:
- Three of the four named servants are only given a single, explicit mention each, whereas Israel is named as servant multiple times.
- The three named servants other than Israel are all mentioned in the first part of the book, while Israel’s mentions are in the latter part, which is the location of the passages that remain to be explained (Isa. 42:1, 19 [2 references], 43:10, 44:26, 49:5-6, 50:10, 52:13, 53:11).
The logical procedure is thus to examine the remaining uses to see whether they could plausibly describe Israel or whether they more likely refer to something or someone else.
Servants Beside Israel?
It appears that at least some of the passages refer to a servant other than Israel. With one exception, all of the Hebrew manuscripts of Isaiah 49:3 identify Israel as the servant of that verse, but just a few verses later we seem to be reading about a different servant:
And now the Lord says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—
he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:5-6).
If the identification of Israel as the servant of verse 3 was in the original Hebrew text (something some scholars have disputed), then it seems that we are reading about a different servant in verses 5 and 6, since this servant has a mission to Jacob/Israel.
Who might this be? A plausible answer is Isaiah himself. He has already been named as a servant of the Lord in 20:3, and he has the prophet’s mission of calling God’s people “back to him” that they may be “gathered to him” so that God might “raise up” his people and “restore the preserved of Israel.”
If this understanding is correct, then the Ethiopian eunuch’s guess that the prophet was speaking of himself in Isaiah 53 might be correct—in the literal sense of the text, though a reference to Jesus is clearly to be found in its spiritual sense.
Isaiah, however, is not the only other possibility for an individual servant in the remaining passages. One that is sometimes proposed is Cyrus the Persian, who is described in Isa. 45:1 not with the term “servant” (‘ebed) but using the parallel term “anointed” (mashiakhor “messiah”).
Anyone anointed by the Lord is functioning as his servant toward the purpose for which he was anointed, and Cyrus was given a mission of restoring Israel and bringing them back both to their land and their God by allowing them to return and rebuild the Jerusalem temple.
God also describes Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28 as “my shepherd,” again indicating he is serving God.
Other figures—such as Cyrus’s successor Darius or the returning Jewish governor Zerubbabel—have also been proposed as God’s servant in various passages. However, these rest on more speculative reconstructions of historical circumstances, since these figures are not named in the book.
From what we have seen, there are multiple servants of the Lord described in the literal sense of the book of Isaiah—some of whom are identified by name.
In light of this, we need to approach the servant texts and ask the standard question for determining the literal sense of a passage: What would this have meant in its original context? How would the author and his audience have understood it?
After determining this to the best of our ability, we will be in a better position to explore the spiritual sense of the text, including the applications it may have to Jesus.