Last week, we featured a handful of very popular logos and asked you to find their “hidden” messages. Here’s a logo. It may not have great brand recognition to you; but once you see it, it jumps off the page. Take a look. What do you see? (It’s protected with a trademark, so look, but don’t steal.)
If you see three letters, good for you! If you see a person with waving arms, even better! If you see a conductor for the LSO—the London Symphony Orchestra—you win! Seeing what the designer intended you to see, even though it may not be perfectly clear, is what the art of interpretation is all about. Case in point, the identity of the servant in Isaiah 53.
Last week, we listened as Levine and Brettler wrestled to identify the Servant in Isaiah 53. I found it interesting that they never tried to put Isaiah 53 into its broader context. It seemed to me that they were so committed to showing that Jesus wasn’t the Servant, that they never asked Isaiah who he thought the Servant was. Now, don’t get me wrong. Levine and Brettler have written a very engaging and helpful book (The Bible With and Without Jesus), and they are really trying to give solid answers to some very difficult questions. And solving the question, “who is the servant in Isaiah 53?” is a difficult question. But maybe looking more deeply at Isaiah’s context will help.
Perhaps surprisingly, Isaiah 53 is not the only passage about the servant. In total there are six servant songs; and each one, I believe, contributes to our understanding of who the servant is. Now, I am making a presumption that all six songs are related, but Isaiah is fond of developing a theme over several chapters, so I feel like I am on solid ground here. And what do we find when we ask each song who the servant is? We find three different answers. Take a look (if you would like extra credit, you can read each passage for yourself before reading my comments):
- Isaiah 41:8-16 – Here the servant is clearly is the nation of Israel. She is called God’s servant because she has a particular role to play in the world. Note, especially, verse 14: “Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you.” Israel is God’s servant; and even though they face all sorts of trials, God reminds them of his love and promises to uphold them in their time of need. In short, Israel here is God’s servant in whom he delights.
- Isaiah 42:1-9 – The servant here is also chosen by God; but instead of speaking to the nation, the focus is on an individual. Note the repeated use of the pronoun “he” and “him.” God will put his Spirit on him. He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out. And much like the servant in Isaiah 41, this servant is given a mission. Note verses 6-7 where God says: “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” But Isaiah adds another detail here. The Servant will be Look at verses 3-4: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.”
- Isaiah 42:18-25 – Here the servant changes personality. The servant is clearly Israel, but this time, he is disobedient Israel. Note the opening verses (18-19): “Hear, you deaf; look, you blind, and see! Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?” Verse 24 makes the identification certain: “Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned?”
- Isaiah 49:1-7 – In this song we have two candidates. Verse 3 refers to Israel, but in verse 5 the servant is distinguished from Israel. He is to “bring Jacob back to him,” and he is “to gather Israel to himself.” And this individual is given a special calling. Note verse 6: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” It seems Isaiah 49 is intentionally contrasting two different servants here.
- Isaiah 50:4-11 – This song is almost a challenge, asking the readers if they will trust in God’s servant or in their own strength. Here, we see the servant as one who is obedient to God’s will, but who will suffer unjustly. And here, we also see the nation in their rebellion, refusing to put their trust in God’s servant. And yet, the song clearly states that the servant, despite all this, will be successful. Note verses 5-7: “The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced.”
- Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 – The servant is an individual who suffers and dies; but in his death, he bears the sins of others. In spite of this, somehow there is a strong statement that this suffering one will see success.
Now, you can see why identifying the servant is so difficult. In some cases, the servant is clearly faithful Israel. In other cases, the servant is clearly unfaithful Israel (“Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?”). And yet, in other cases, the servant is clearly an individual who is sent to redeem Israel from all her sins. It may be that Isaiah is picturing a narrowing of the focus, from unfaithful Israel, to the faithful remnant within Israel, to an individual who represents and recapitulates Israel. The problem with this idea is that I would think he would have started with the largest picture first (unfaithful Israel) and then work his way down, but he starts with the remnant instead. These songs also hide a question behind them, namely, how is God’s mission given to Israel, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth, ever going to be accomplished? Israel is faithless. The remnant is too small. But the servant will do what Israel failed to do. So, perhaps the whole purpose here is missional. In short, these passages are complicated and confusing.
You can almost make a flow chart of these songs. Isaiah 41 starts with the faithful remnant in Israel going into exile. They ask, “the world is a mess; who will fix it? How can God’s promise ever be fulfilled?” God answers in Isaiah 42: “I will send my servant, and he will bring justice to the world and will also be a light to the Gentiles.” The second half of Isaiah 42 counters: “But your servant, the nation, is a mess and will never accomplish its calling.” Isaiah 49 responds, “True, the nation is rebellious, but I will draw out of the nation, one person, a representative, who will be my true servant; and he will accomplish all that I have called Israel to do. He will be a light to the Gentiles and will draw Israel back to me so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the world.” “Yeah, but you may not know the depth of rebellion in Israel. They won’t follow any servant of your choosing.” And God says in Isaiah 53: “True. They will kill my servant; but in his death, he will bring healing and restoration to the nation.”
But note what having multiple songs accomplishes. Each song contributes a part of the picture. And when we read all the individual songs together, we end up with a more complete picture of the servant than we could if we just read one of the songs. In other words, the description of the servant in Isaiah 53 has just grown rather significantly. And it is in this expanded view of the servant, that we see even more points of connection with Jesus. Jesus proclaimed justice. Jesus was a light to the Gentiles. Jesus sought to bring back Jacob to the father. Jesus was a covenant for the people. Jesus suffered, but did not cry out. Jesus set the prisoners free. Jesus died for the transgressions of others.
One point of correspondence might be a coincidence. Two might be even a fluke. Three may be interesting, but four, five, six and seven—well, that seems staggering and intentional. Isaiah is clearly saying that the servant in chapter 53 is Jesus.
Now, Levine and Brettler will object and object strongly, but it seems to me that the evidence clearly points in this direction. Granted, you either see it or you don’t. For those who do see it, it is unmistakable. For those who can’t see it, nothing will convince them that it’s true. But as in our example of the logos, the message is right there (not really hidden at all); but it takes the right eyes to see it. For example, here’s the brilliant logo for the Bronx Zoo. Do you have the right eyes to see the city?