YOUR QUESTIONS

Sr. Louise Zdunich

April 18, 2011

Question

Tell me about the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

 

 


Answer

AThere are four Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah. Where these songs come from and who they speak about are two questions most discussed by scholars. First clearly delineated in 1892, they are in Isaiah 42.1-4 (and sometimes v 5-7); Isaiah 49.1-6; Isaiah 50.4-9 (and sometimes v 10-11) ; and Isaiah 52.13-53.12. Today, these songs are accepted by all as distinct literary units. Their tone is melancholy, terse and concentrated.

The title "servant" is common in the Old Testament and is not a demeaning one. It is similar to "slave" which was an honourific title of one with great responsibility and nearness to the king. Speaking to the king and using "your slave" expressed humility in the king's presence.

The same applies when addressing God as we see in Moses, David, etc. Because it is neutral, the title "servant" can designate both king and prophet. It permits the author to recall all those who were instruments in God's saving deeds. This title can also suggest a collective ideal figure combining all those leaders or an individual figure who possesses all the gifts of leadership.

In Isaiah 42.1-4, the first song, Yahweh describes the call and mission of one who is to bring judgment and righteousness to the earth. He is the chosen one like Moses, David and all Israel.

A TEACHER AND PROPHET

As God's servant, he fulfills the role of king since he is to bring forth justice, ratifying and executing the divine will, power reserved to kings, priests and magistrates. He imparts teaching, something never done by kings, so he is also a prophet.

The spirit of God, promised to the messianic king, rests on the servant who will make God's words reverberate far and wide to all nations, something necessary for extraordinary redemptive work. The servant accomplishes his task quietly by transforming people interiorly, not whipping them into conformity.

The speaker in the second song (Isaiah 49.1-6) is the servant. He describes his election, his role as speaker, his mission to gather Israel and to be a light and mediator of salvation to all the earth. He has been called from his mother's womb in a way similar to others God chose and set on their path even before birth, like Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul.

COLLECTIVE ISRAEL

He brings a message of both happiness and doom, of suffering and persecution. Sounding like Jeremiah with a personal lament of a sorrowing man of faith, he feels his ministry is wasted. But he realizes his reward is with God alone, a useful lesson, lest he seek glory for himself. In these verses, the servant is depicted as collective Israel.

The third servant song (Isaiah 50.4-9) opens with a statement that God's word is the source of salvation. The servant must be a disciple, prayerfully receiving God's word before he can teach.

The servant describes his mission as a teacher. He encounters opposition, is ignored and terribly maltreated, perhaps because of his willingness to open the kingdom to the Gentiles. The assurance of his success is with God's assistance.

The fourth song (Isaiah 52.13-53.12) is the most powerful one with the Lord and other unidentified persons as speakers.

The servant is one with the people in sorrow but distinct from them in his innocence of life and total service to God.

The servant's cruel death is mysterious because of his innocence but is revealed in its vicarious atoning merit, vindicated by his resurrection. The doctrine of expiatory suffering finds its highest expression in these lines with style matching the thought.

These verses are an extraordinary expression of the servant's suffering and submission and require much reflection.

Who is this suffering servant? Jewish tradition seems to have interpreted the servant as the Messiah until early Christians began identifying Jesus with him.

HEALING POWER

The work of the servant is like that of no other charismatic leader: he makes of himself an offering, heals others through his innocent suffering and brings victory and justification through his death rather than through conquests.

In numerous texts throughout the New Testament, the title servant is applied to Jesus whose sufferings seem to have been predicted by Isaiah.

Listening to and reflecting on the Church's readings of Isaiah and Christ's passion during Holy Week, pay particular attention to how the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah vividly predict Jesus' horrendous passion and death, as well as his glorious resurrection. Clearly food for much thought during these holy days.

(Other questions? Email: zdunich@telus.net)