By Christina M Wilson. Previously published at https://justonesmallvoice.com/my-servant-passages-in-isaiah-isaiah-devotional-2-45/.
The previous post explored why “my Servant” in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song cannot be either Isaiah or Israel the people (Devotional 2.44). This post will present a more detailed look at all the “my servant” passages in Isaiah. It will consider them one by one.
Other “My Servant” Passages in Isaiah
Several “my servant” passages occur before the one in the First Servant Song of Isaiah 42. No confusion exists for Isaiah 20:3; 22:20; and 37:35. The text identifies these three servants as Isaiah, Eliakim, and David respectively. The question posing the most difficulty is whether or not the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is Israel God’s people or an individual. Based only upon the precedents established by previous uses of the phrase in Isaiah, the answer could fall either way. Therefore, the most important consideration for any given passage is its content and context. Because of this, we will consider in detail each of the passages in Isaiah which use the phrase “my servant” (other than the first three mentioned at the outset of this paragraph).
The next “my servant” passage begins in Isaiah 41:8. In this verse, God identifies his servant as Isaiah and Jacob. He addresses them as singular. Could this be the same servant as in Isaiah 52:13? Such a case might be made, until the reader arrives at Isaiah 41:14. There readers discover that in translations from the Hebrew, God addresses Israel and Jacob as a “worm” (Isaiah 41:14 ESV, NASB). But God in later chapters never addresses his special Servant as anything other than wonderful and glorious. The Septuagint does not use the word “worm” but writes, “Israel few in number.” Notice that, unlike in verse 8, God in verse 14 addresses Israel and Jacob as plural. Combining these items, readers can reasonably conclude that this passage does not refer to the “my Servant” of Isaiah 52.
Continuing in sequence, the next “my servant” passage begins in Isaiah 42:1. The passage Isaiah 42:1-4 is popularly known as the First Servant Song. Here the vocabulary changes significantly. “Jacob is my servant, I will help him: Israel is my chosen, my soul has accepted him; I have put my Spirit upon him; he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles” (LXE). Even though the Septuagint uses the same proper names as the previous passage, the tone and content are different. Note that the Hebrew text does not use the names Israel or Jacob in referencing the servant in this verse (Isaiah 42:1 ESV). An important result of the Greek verse, then, is to identify God’s Servant as a child of Israel and Jacob. He is of their seed.
Isaiah 42:4 LXE is part of the same passage. It states, “In his name shall the Gentiles trust.” The Greek word “trust” which God, as speaker, uses is “hope.” This hope is religious, as in the hope one displays while waiting for salvation. English versions of Romans 15:12, while quoting this verse, translate the Isaiah verse with the word “hope.” We know that Gentiles never trusted, or hoped, in the name of Israel for their salvation. Therefore, even though the Septuagint labels the Servant in this First Servant Song with the words, “Jacob is my servant, I will help him: Israel is my chosen, my soul has accepted him” (verse 1), the servant is not the nation or people of Israel. Matthew 12:18f. identifies the servant as Jesus Christ.
The next mention of “my servant” occurs in Isaiah 43:10 LXE. There are three witnesses named in the Septuagint translation of this verse. The first is “you” plural and would reasonably refer to God’s people. Second, God names himself as his own witness. Third, God names “my servant whom I have chosen.” The Masoretic Hebrew text reads quite differently. The two versions follow.
Septuagint: Be you [plural command] my witnesses, and I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know, and believe, and understand that I am he: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none. (Isaiah 43:10 LXE)
Masoretic: “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. (Isaiah 43:10 ESV)
In the Masoretic translation above, there is but one witness. This witness is God’s people as a collective group. Unlike the Septuagint, God does not name himself as witness. But most important for our purpose, the Masoretic states that “you” plural as a group are also God’s servant (“my servant”) whom he has chosen.
The Greek text, on the other hand, presents three witnesses, as already mentioned: God’s people, God himself, and “my servant.” The word order of the Greek places the phrase “my servant” at a far distance from “you” plural. This makes it difficult to read “my servant” as being identical to “you.” Also, the three witnesses are distinguished by the word “and” as connectors. The sentence structure reads witness one, and God as witness two, and my servant as witness three.
Conclusion: The Masoretic indicates “my servant” to be Israel collectively, but the Septuagint does not. The Septuagint names “my servant” as a witness. For purposes of this investigation, I think it fair to simply eliminate this verse as ambiguous (2).
Twice in two consecutive verses the phrase “my servant” appears again in Isaiah 44:1 and 44:2 LXE. The context begins, however, in chapter 43 and stretches down at least through 44:8. In this entire passage, God addresses his people. The “my servant” in verses one and two, therefore, refers to his people Israel and Jacob.
Isaiah 44:21 LXE contains the next occurrence of the label “my servant.” In fact this term occurs twice in the one verse. Once again, however, the content of these verses and those which immediately follow indicate clearly that God addresses his sinful people Israel.
In Isaiah 45:4 LXE, God speaks directly to Cyrus the Persian. Although the verse contains the phrases, “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my elect,” the immediate context does not indicate whether “my servant” points to God’s people or to his singular Servant. The near context of Israel’s return from exile, however, would indicate that God refers to his people in this verse.
PASSAGES SEVEN AND EIGHT
Popular commentary labels Isaiah 49:1-6 LXE as the Second Servant Song. Verse 3 contains the statement, “You are my servant, O Israel, and in you I will be glorified.” What in this passages serves to distinguish that this occurrence of “my servant, O Israel” differs from the previous three? In those verses, the same phrase “my servant” and two specific identifiers “Israel” and “Jacob” refer to the people of God. How can readers know that this passage, which uses nearly the same words, refers to a different, singular Servant of God?
A single word reveals the answer: context. First, verse 5 is extremely interesting.
And now, thus says the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his own servant, to gather Jacob to him and Israel. I shall be gathered and glorified before the Lord, and my God shall be my strength. (Isaiah 49:5 LXE)
As a first consideration, the Lord possibly may have formed his people from a metaphorical womb to be his servant. However, if “his own servant” refers to his people Israel, then the people would be gathering the people (“formed… to gather Jacob to him and Israel”). On the face of it, that doesn’t seem possible. But (in the Septuagint), the next clause states that very thing, “I shall be gathered and glorified.” Note that the text does not say, “We shall be gathered…” But okay… let’s put this verse on hold and read the next verse.
And he said to me, It is a great thing for you to be called my servant, to establish the tribes of Jacob, and to recover the dispersion of Israel: behold, I have given you for the covenant of a race, for a light of the Gentiles, that you should be for salvation to the end of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6 LXE)
Verse 6 forms the near context of verse 5 and the previous verses. There are two points to consider here in verse 6.
1. First, in consideration of plain, ordinary speech, God in verse 6 appears to address someone (“me”) who is not also Jacob and Israel. He addresses someone other than these entities. Let’s expand this conclusion. If the servant Israel is identical with the people Israel, then Israel would “recover the dispersion of Israel.” Israel would recover its own dispersion. A much simpler explanation is that in different contexts there are two, distinct servants, both known as Israel. One is plural and refers to the people. The other is singular and refers to a specific individual. But if verse 6 names an individual, then verse 5, whose wording is very similar, would also concern the same individual. We will return to the “hold” placed on verse 5 shortly.
2. Before that however, verse 6 presents further considerations. Verse six uses salvation language with regard to the Servant and the Gentiles.
- First, Isaiah writes, “I have given you for the covenant of a race” (1) (See Isaiah 42:6). Nowhere in Scripture or history does God give Israel the people or nation to be the “covenant of a race.”
- Second, God states that the Servant is “to be for salvation to the end of the earth.”
2 Samuel 7:18 NETS presents a similar Greek grammatical construction as the second phrase above, “to be for salvation…”
And now this is what you shall say to my slave Dauid [David]: This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the sheepfold for you to be leader for my people, for Israel 2 Samuel 7:18 NETS [emphasis added]
Even if one cannot read Greek, the eyes can determine the similarities in the following texts.
1) τοῦ εἶναί 2) σε 3) εἰς 4) ἡγούμενον ἐπὶ τὸν λαόν μου ἐπὶ τὸν Ισραηλ (2Sa 7:8 LXX)
to be you for leader for the people my for the Israel
1) τοῦ εἶναί 2) σε 3)εἰς 4) σωτηρίαν ἕως ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς (Isaiah 49:6 LXX)
….to be you for salvation to end of the earth
Here is the point. The Samuel passage states clearly that David will be leader of God’s people Israel. Likewise, the Isaiah passage clearly states that the Servant will be salvation to the end of the earth, i.e., everywhere and for everyone. Again, God’s purpose for David is to make him leader. God’s purpose for his Servant is to make him salvation.
But can a person be salvation? My faith tells me “yes,” in the same sense that a person can be a covenant. Also, Luke in Acts 4:12 places salvation in Christ. Consider the following verses: Luke 2:30; 3:6; Acts 4:12; 13:47; Hebrews 2:10; 5:9; and Revelation 7:10.
I sincerely believe that God’s intention for Israel the people had always been for them to lead Gentiles to the light of God and to salvation in him. The historical record and prophecies of Isaiah indicate that Israel failed in this mission. However, the Servant verses establish that God’s singular, special Servant was born of Israel. He himself was one of the people, part of Israel. Isaiah places the Servant as a “stand-in,” the representative for all Israel. He represents all the people of Israel as he leads the Gentile nations to God’s covenant, light, and salvation. Through and in him, all of God’s intention and promises to the people are fulfilled.
The very structure of Isaiah indicates this truth. Some of the servant passages apply to the people Israel as a whole. Some apply only to God’s singular, special Servant. Yet Isaiah weaves these passages in and out among themselves throughout the second portion of his book, which begins in chapter 40.
Back to Verse 5
Verse 6 forms part of the context for verse 5. Verse 6 clearly points to a singular person as God’s Servant. Therefore, the Servant in verse 5 is this same person, singular. The text states that God formed him “to gather Jacob to him and Israel.” In the very next sentence the Servant states, “I shall be gathered and glorified before the Lord.” The Greek verb is first person singular, “I shall be gathered…” The verb “gather” contains a prefix that means “with” or “together.” The word synagogue begins with the same prefix. In fact, synagogue means “a gathering together” or “a bringing together” (Thayer). In plain, ordinary speech, then, it sounds as though the Servant states that in him many people shall be gathered. Or, in other words, he himself comprises a gathering of many people. Such a statement has no concrete-literal reality. A single individual cannot be a composite of thousands or millions. One must turn to a spiritual fulfillment for a statement like this.
Yet, isn’t a composite body exactly what the New Testament teaches about the ascended Christ? The New Testament often uses the phrase “in him.” (See Acts 17: 28; 1 Corinthians 1:5; Ephesians 1:4; 1:10; 2:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; and 1 John 2:6, to name a few.) Christ himself prayed, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21 ESV). New Testament Scripture also teaches that the church is “one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5). 1 Corinthians 12 teaches the same concept (see especially 1 Corinthians 12:27).
The final passage in Isaiah that uses the phrase “my Servant” begins in Isaiah 52:13. This is the verse that begins the Fourth Servant Song about God’s suffering Servant. The passage extends as a unified whole from 52:13 through 53:12. All these verses form one context. This verse offers several evidences that the Servant is a single, concrete-physical individual, not a collective gathering of people known as Israel and Jacob. What are these evidences?
1. Bearing in mind that the singular tense and third person “he” could conceivably apply to a collective group of people, Israel, verse 53:6 offers the first definitive statement that such is not the case.
All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins. (Isaiah 53:6 LXE)
This verse presents a plural subject “we” and a singular object “him.” The sentence, “And the Lord gave him up for our sins,” clearly distinguishes two sets of people. One belongs to the group of plural people characterized by “our sins.” The other is a singular person, “him,” whom the Lord gave up. Verses 7 and 8 continue speaking of a singular individual, “he.”
2. Isaiah 53:8 LXE also distinguishes two separate characters. One group, introduced by a first person narrator, Isaiah calls “my people,” clearly plural. The other is a singular person “he” who “was led to death,” a singular verb, on behalf of “my people,” plural.
3. Verse 9 speaks of this individual occupying a particular grave. Such a statement could not apply even metaphorically to a group.
4. Isaiah 53:12 LXE also names two distinct sets of people. One is the individual “he,” or “my Servant,” from Isaiah 52:13. The other is a group of “many,” whose sins the individual “he” bore.
5. Other readers who may look for further evidence will most likely find it.
Because the passage stands as a unified whole, the individual known as “he” in the latter verses of chapter 53 is the same person whom God calls “my Servant” in the first verse of the passage, that is, Isaiah 52:13 LXE.
Who Then Is the Suffering Servant?
The suffering Servant is the same singular Servant, God’s own special Servant, whom Isaiah presents in various passages throughout the book. This blog has explored these passages (2).
1 The Alexandrine text of the Septuagint does not contain the phrase “covenant of a race.” It does, however, include the phrase in Isaiah 42:6.
2 A personal note: When I first began reading Scripture in the interlinear Septuagint, I noticed that this version brings forth Christ clearly and regularly, more so than many English translations of the Masoretic text. The revelation of Christ in its pages became one of the main reasons why I began to study Greek. Isaiah 43:10 LXE provides a good example of the presence of Christ in the Septuagint.