Who is Isaiah’s “Servant”?

In Matt. 12, we read that Isaiah 42 was a prophecy that foretold Jesus (see Matt. 12:15-21).  So Jesus is God’s “servant” foretold in Isaiah 42:1.  However, when you flip your Bibles to Isaiah, and read chapters 41 and 42, and interesting thing emerges.  In Isaiah 41:8, we read, “But you, Israel, MY SERVANT…” and in Is. 41:9, God says again (to Israel), “You are MY SERVANT.”  So Israel, the nation, is clearly called “God’s servant”.  And the next time after these verses that a “servant’ is mentioned is Isaiah 42, where it begins: “Behold MY SERVANT…” (v. 1).  It would be quite natural to read these chapters and conclude that the “servant” of Isaiah 42 is Israel, and not Jesus the Messiah (this would be even more obvious were you to read it in the original scrolls, where no chapter breaks exist).  Even more, further in Isaiah 42 it describes “God’s servant” as the nation of Israel who is “blind” and “deaf” (see Is. 42:18-25).  So it begs the question…is Isaiah 42 talking about Israel as a nation (as the context clearly implies) or Jesus the Messiah (as Matt. 12 seems to indicate)?

Well, let’s look at some other Bible passages before we answer:

  • In Matthew 2, when Jesus was taken to Egypt, we read, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'” (v. 15).  Here, Matthew is quoting Hosea 11:1 and applying it to Jesus.  All seems well, until you flip to Hosea 11:1 and read the whole verse: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  The whole context of Hosea 11 makes it very clear that the writer is writing about Israel the nation, yet Matthew, again, applies it to Jesus.
  • When Jesus began His ministry, He “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days,” (Luke 4:1-2).  Similarly, in the O.T. we read of the nation of Israel being led by God in the wilderness for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2, for instance).
  • Later in Jesus’ life we read of Him choosing 12 men as apostles (Luke 6:13).  While, turning to the Old Testament, we read that Israel began with 1 man (Jacob, see Gen. 32:28) having 12 sons (Gen. 35:22).
  •  In Exod. 4:22, we read, “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son.”  But in Romans 8:29 (and elsewhere) we read, that Jesus is God’s “firstborn” son, “among many brothers [i.e. Christians]”
  • In Jeremiah 2:3, we read, “Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest,” while 1 Cor. 15:20 says, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

More Scriptures could be used (and books have been written) to show that Israel is a foreshadowing of Jesus.  Or, said in another way, Jesus is the “New Israel” of God.  As a result, “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s [the father of the Israelites nation] offspring, heirs according to promise,” (Gal. 3:27), so that the church is now called, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).  Thus, it is no longer one’s national ancestry that qualifies them as an Israelite, but it is solely your repenting and believing the gospel of Jesus.  For, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” (Rom. 9:6).

The implications of this are huge on many levels, but let’s bring it back to the original question: Does the servant of Isaiah 42 speak of Israel the nation, or Jesus?  Hopefully you see that the answer is, “Yes.”  The context clearly refers to Israel as a nation, but the N.T. makes it clear that Jesus is “Israel,” in the sense that He fulfills what was written of Israel, and is the beginning of a new nation/kingdom for all who believe in Him.

Now, reading further in Isaiah, we can see something else emerging…

Isaiah 49 begins talking, again, of Israel as God’s “servant”: “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Is. 49:3).  However, not long after this, we read:

“And NOW the Lord says,
    he who formed me from the womb to be HIS SERVANT,
to bring Jacob back to him;
    and that Israel might be gathered to him…
he says:
It is too light a thing that you should be MY SERVANT
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make YOU as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49:5-6).

From the words, “And now” (49:5), we see that a change has taken place.  It now talks about God’s “servant” in a way that cannot be Israel the nation.  This new “servant” will bring Israel back to God (49:5), and be a light the nations beyond Israel (49:6).  It clearly could not be Israel who brings Israel back to God, but must be someone separate than Israel.

Going further down the chapter, we see that this servant would also:

  • be “deeply despised,” and, “abhorred” by Israel (49:7)
  • be “chosen” by God (49:7)
  • be given “as a covenant to the people” (49:8)
  • releasing prisoners and bringing people out of darkness (49:9)

But this is only the beginning.  In subsequent chapters, the servant is said to:

  • Have words from God to speak to weary people at the right time (50:4)
  • Get his back struck, his cheeks struck, and be spit upon because of His stubborn obedience to God (50:5-7)
  • Speak authoritatively and bring light to darkness (50:10-11)
  • Be exalted, after He is “marred more than any man” (52:13-14)

AND THEN, the climax of the servant’s activities are seen in Isaiah 53 (which is the last place time Isaiah writes about him).  In this chapter, the servant:

  • Grew up without much notice (53:2)
  • Was despised and rejected by men (53:3)
  • was thought by Israel to be cursed by God, though, in actuality, he suffered for Israel (53:4)
  • was pierced and crushed for people’s sins and healing (53:5-6, 8)
  • didn’t speak back when he was suffering (53:7)
  • acted purely, but was killed/buried among the wicked and rich (53:9)
  • suffered because God desired it (53:10)
  • will have God’s pleasure and see many become righteous and receive his rewards, because of being offered for sin and sinners (53:10-12)

The very last mention of the “servant” of Isaiah is in Isaiah 53:11, where God declares that the death that comes to the one righteous servant (singular) will make many (plural) to become righteous.

And then a significant thing happens in Isaiah.  The singular servant is never mentioned again.  However, the plural “servants” of God are mentioned for the first time.  This begins in the next chapter of Isaiah (54).

In Isaiah 54, we read of many children being produced within Israel, presumably because the one “servant” was faithful to suffer and die.  And Isaiah 54:17 gives the first mention of plural servants of the Lord:

no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed,
    and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the SERVANTS of the Lord
    and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.” (54:17)

So we have servants of the Lord who are vindicated by God and will rise above judgment cast on them.

The conclusion is amazing…

Initially in Isaiah, the “servant” of God was the nation of Israel (beginning in Isaiah 41:8).  But then the servant becomes someone separate from Israel as nation (in Isaiah 49).  The events of this individual person/servant climax in his suffering and death (Isaiah 53), and he is no longer mentioned.  But the last verse that mentions him tells us that the 1 righteous servant’s act of obedience will make many to become righteous.  And sure enough, after this servant dies in Isaiah 53, there emerges many servants of God (starting in Isaiah 54).

As stated at the beginning, Jesus is seen as the “new Israel” of God in the gospels.  But His ministry climaxes when He suffers and dies.  As Paul writes, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. ” (Romans 5:19).  So Jesus, I propose, by His death and resurrection, has created a new Israel that pleases God fully: i.e. all who repent and trust Him.  Just as He is called “the 2nd man” (1 Cor. 15:47), because He brings a new beginning to humanity, so He can rightfully be seen as “the 2nd Israel”.  He came from natural Israel, but established a new Israel.  Just as Israel began with one man (Jacob), and then went to 12, and then proceeded to become a nation, so Jesus spread His life through 12, and then through a whole nation of people (his church).  And the death of one brought life and righteousness to many.

Amen!

Brian

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