Isaiah’s Servant and “Israel”

The book of Isaiah is in many ways a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.  In it, we find a seemingly bipolar God concerning His chosen but about-to-be-exiled Israel.  One moment He chastises their behavior while the next He promises future redemption and blessing.  And in it, we find the enigma of His servant – sometimes His beloved Israel, and sometimes…well, someone else, unnamed. 

The identity of Isaiah’s “servant” in the latter chapters of his book is one of the most hotly contested controversies in all of scripture (we’ll look at a few of the opposing positions).

How do we sort this out?  And can it be sorted out, or do we simply respond to it as so many have done by simply reading our own dogma and presuppositions into it?


A good part of the problem we face in trying to interpret Isaiah is that its context – its historical range – is so broad.  It begins with the pre-Assyrian exile of the northern tribes of Israel (approximately 740 BCE) and extends to the advent of the exile of the Judahites to Babylon (586 BCE) following the destruction of Jerusalem, and even into the exilic period itself.  That’s a span of some 200 years.  “Israel” was a wholly different entity pre-Assyrian exile from the “Israel” pre- and post-Babylonian exile.

The principal problem we’ll deal with is the prophet’s ambiguous references to God’s “servant” throughout the later (i.e. “Deutero-Isaiah” – chapters 40-55[i]) portion of his book.

Part and parcel with these challenges are the prophet’s fairly ambivalent, if not outright contradictory, references to “Israel” (or it’s parallel terms – “Jerusalem”, “Judah”, “Zion”), both concerning its role as God’s servant and in its other contexts, such as His promises of redemption and blessing.  Not to spoil it for you, but we’re going to find God addressing at least two distinctly separate “Israels”.  While I’ve provided ample links to the text, as you read through this it might be a good idea to have your own copy of Isaiah open for reference.

The Strategy of This Biblical Analysis

To succeed at clearing up the mystery and ambiguity of Isaiah’s prophecies, we’re going to need a consistent strategy.  The basis of my strategy is to keep in view God’s intention for “Israel” from their beginning – why they were chosen — and the terms of the covenants He established with them, starting with Abraham, up to the point of their return from Babylon, and then onto “the day of the LORD”.  The key to keep in mind is that God had (and has) a consistent plan.

Overarching God’s plan for Israel is God’s ultimate plan for all humanity and His Creation.  God seeks through His creation (and us in it) to be glorified (Is 43:7).  For His chosen Israel, specifically, He sought “a nation of priests, a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).  When they ignored or acted contrary to His will, even though they were His chosen, there were severe consequences.

One of the things we find from the Old Testament as a whole is that God has many servants and many Messiahs (“anointed ones”).  (Of the 409 mentions of the word “servant” in the ESV’s OT, 175 are used of one called or self-identifying as a servant of the LORD[ii], and there are 9 occurrences of God referring to “my servants, the prophets”.) 

God’s servants[iii] are those that are faithful to Him, whether voluntarily (e.g. David) or at God’s direction (e.g. Nebuchadnezzar), and whether an individual or a group.  And, like His Messiahs, they serve a crucial role in achieving His will for His chosen Israel.

Isaiah’s Composition

Most scholars agree that more than one author contributed to the book of Isaiah, and at seemingly widely different times.  (An overall outline can be found here, for reference.)  The first portion of the book, no doubt authored by Isaiah son of Amoz (chapters 1-39), encompasses Israel’s pre-Assyrian period and the invasion and exile of the northern tribes (“Israel”) by their Assyrian captors.  This period spans from approximately 740 BC through the end of the 8th century. The second part of the book (chapters 40-55 (some scholars extend this range to the end of the book: chapter 66) spans the period of the Babylonian exile up to the point of the return of the faithful remnant to Judah and Jerusalem, 150 years after Isaiah died.

Biblical purists see the entire corpus of the book of Isaiah as written by Isaiah – the latter sections as a divinely inspired prophecy of the Babylonian exile and future return.  Others see the later chapters as later additions by hands other than Isaiah’s.  The authorship of the book isn’t particularly relevant to our inquiry here.  Here, we are interested in who Isaiah’s servants were, and who the writer/God was talking to/about when referencing “Israel”, Judah, and Jerusalem (as the two subjects are inextricably linked).

One could spend a career studying this book, its connections to the rest of the Tanakh and, of course, to the New Testament that quotes it liberally (thus the appellation “The Fifth Gospel”).  However, for our current purpose, we will concentrate only on its prophecies regarding God’s “servant” figure and “Israel”, “Jerusalem”, “Judah”, and “Zion” by briefly surveying the chapters that comprise this “Second Isaiah”.

A Review of Israel’s Destiny and Purpose

Our strategy for understanding Isaiah’s references to “Israel” is founded on understanding God’s purposes for that nation.  So at this point, if you need a refresher, now would be a good time to pause and review the story, beginning with Abraham.

It’s at the Exodus event that we need to drill down a bit and examine the words God uses to describe this collection of people – the Hebrews, descendants of Jacob/Israel.  Speaking to Moses God says (Exodus 4:22-23):

[22] Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, [23] and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”

These verses set the identity and meaning of Israel, initially, from God’s point of view.  God sees them as His son.  He intends that they be released from serving Pharaoh so that they can serve Him.

We see this same language “that they may serve me” throughout the plague narratives of Exodus: Ex 7:16, Ex 8:1, Ex 8:20, Ex 9:1, Ex 9:13, Ex 10:3.  We’re left with no doubt about God’s intention for Israel.

The word translated “serve” (and its noun form “servant”[iv]) carries with it both the connotation of physical service but also of worship when its object is God.

5647 עָבַד `āḇaḏ: A verb meaning to work, to serve. This labor may be focused on things, other people, or God. When it is used about things, that item is usually expressed: to till the ground (Ge 2:5;3:23;4:2); to work in a garden (Ge 2:15) or to dress a vineyard (Dt 28:39). Similarly, this term is also applied to artisans and craftsmen, like workers in fine flax (Isa 19:9); and laborers of the city (Eze 48:19). When the focus of the labor is another person, that person is usually expressed: Jacob’s service to Laban (Ge 29:15); the Israelites’ service for the Egyptians (Ex 1:14); and a people’s service to the king (Jdg 9:28;1Sa 11:1). When the focus of the labor is the Lord, it is a religious service to worship Him. Moreover, in these cases, the word does not have connotations of toilsome labor but instead of a joyful experience of liberation (Ex 3:12;4:23;7:16; Jos 24:15,18). Unfortunately, this worship service was often given to false gods (Dt 7:16;2Ki 10:18,19,21-23).

From this, we’re to understand that God sought and intended “joyful” worship from Israel.

What did God expect this chosen people  to become?  God, through Moses, tells them at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-6):

[5] Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; [6] and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

God wanted Israel to be His priests – those who would mediate between all humanity (“the nations”) and Himself.  He wanted them to be holy – set apart for and to Him – apart from the unrighteousness in the people all around them.

When Israel as a whole doesn’t live up to this commission, we see the beginning of God’s displeasure with the people leading first to their banishment to the wilderness for forty years (Num 14:11-20) after their rescue from Egypt, and eventually to increasing degrees of God’s judgment brought about by their idolatry and apostasy (Isaiah 1:1-15).

This commission and it’s abdication is the foundation of the nation of Israel’s relationship with their God, and the background for Isaiah’s treatment of the term “Israel” in his prophecy.

“Israel” in Isaiah

Chapters 1-4 of Isaiah are a diatribe against the nation of Israel.  God, through Isaiah, is telling the nation that He’s had enough of their faithless behavior, and the time has now come for Him to judge them.  He says He’s no longer going to listen to Israel’s prayers for help (Is 1:15); that He hates their sacrifices to Him (Is 1:11).

It is interesting, though, that throughout this declaration of judgment, the LORD doesn’t totally rule out the possibility that He will relent and preserve at least a fragment of the nation (e.g. Is 1:16-27, Is 2:4-5, Is 4:2-5, Is 25:7-8).  Also clear is that from God’s point of view, there are two “Israels”: those that are faithless, on whom God’s judgment will fall most heavily, and those who have remained faithful. (The impression we’re left with is that this latter group is a tiny minority.) 

Isaiah wastes no time in exposing these two Israels, beginning with his first chapter.

Isaiah 1:1-15 opens the book with a scathing condemnation of faithless Israel.  The speaker is the LORD.  He says: “they (faithless Israel) have revolted against me”; He calls them “People weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly” and that they have “abandoned the LORD” and have “despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him.” In verses 9  & 10 he characterizes Judah and Jerusalem as like “Sodom and Gomorrah”, and that if “the LORD had not left us a few survivors” their end would have been a just extinction, like those decadent cities of the past.

Isaiah is talking about the result of the Assyrian invasion of Israel in 722 BC and the fact that the Assyrian commander Sargon II conquered and deported 28,000 Israelites from the northern tribal areas and northern Judah.  In a later Assyrian invasion (701 BC) of Hezekiah’s Judah, God destroys the invading army outside of Jerusalem, leaving many alive in Jerusalem.

It’s reasonable to ask “Why did God show mercy on these ‘survivors’?”  It seems it is an identical moral situation to Sodom’s that we read of in Gen 18:23-32.  Apparently, there was a faithful remnant in the city for whom God had affection.  We’ll see more of this shortly.

We also see this Israel dichotomy quite clearly in the following: Isaiah 3:8-11

and Judah has fallen,

because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD,

defying his glorious presence.

[9] For the look on their faces bears witness against them;

they proclaim their sin like Sodom;

they do not hide it.

Woe to them!

For they have brought evil on themselves.

[10] Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,

for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.

[11] Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him,

God is not judging His righteous but will see to their preservation.  This small fragment of Israel, known in Biblical exposition as the “faithful remnant”, will play an increasingly important role in Isaiah’s narrative, and will cause us to be on our toes when encountering God’s pronouncements whether for or against “Israel”, “Judah” or “Jerusalem”.

Finally, in Isaiah’s second-to-last chapter we see this stark dichotomy very clearly.  The entire chapter is worth study and meditation, but I just want us to concentrate on the dichotomy, and the language God uses in addressing both groups – faithful and unfaithful.  In the following verses, I’ve changed the font style depending on whether the faithful (italics) or the unfaithful are being addressed: Isaiah 65:1-15

[65:1] I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here I am, here I am,”

to a nation that was not called by my name.

[2] I spread out my hands all the day

to a rebellious people,

who walk in a way that is not good,

following their own devices;

[3] a people who provoke me

to my face continually,

sacrificing in gardens

and making offerings on bricks;

[4] who sit in tombs,

and spend the night in secret places;

who eat pig’s flesh,

and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;

[5] who say, “Keep to yourself,

do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”

These are a smoke in my nostrils,

a fire that burns all the day.

[6] Behold, it is written before me:

“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;

I will indeed repay into their lap

[7] both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,

says the LORD;

because they made offerings on the mountains

and insulted me on the hills,

I will measure into their lap

payment for their former deeds.”

[8] Thus says the LORD:

“As the new wine is found in the cluster,

and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,

for there is a blessing in it,’

so I will do for my servants’ sake,

and not destroy them all.

[9] I will bring forth offspring from Jacob,

and from Judah possessors of my mountains;

my chosen shall possess it,

and my servants shall dwell there.

[10] Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks,

and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down,

for my people who have sought me.

[11] But you who forsake the LORD,

ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;

who forget my holy mountain,

who set a table for Fortune

and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,

[12] I will destine you to the sword,

and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,

because, when I called, you did not answer;

when I spoke, you did not listen,

but you did what was evil in my eyes

and chose what I did not delight in.”

[13] Therefore thus says the Lord GOD:

“Behold, my servants shall eat,

but you shall be hungry;

behold, my servants shall drink,

but you shall be thirsty;

behold, my servants shall rejoice,

but you shall be put to shame;

[14] behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,

but you shall cry out for pain of heart

and shall wail for breaking of spirit.

[15] You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,

and the Lord GOD will put you to death,

but his servants he will call by another name, (see Is 62:4)

[16] So that he who blesses himself in the land

shall bless himself by the God of truth,

and he who takes an oath in the land

shall swear by the God of truth;

because the former troubles are forgotten

and are hidden from my eyes.

God is not bipolar here.  He’s not schizophrenic between saving Israel and judging it to endure the armies of Assyria and Babylon.  God’s servants are those that actually serve Him.  He knows exactly what He’s doing, why, and to/for whom.  Those faithful to Him God designates “my servants”, so giving us a crucial key to use in unlocking the ambiguity of the second portion of Isaiah’s book.

This understanding lifts a disorienting fog from both Isaiah and prophecies in the Hebrew Bible in general concerning “Israel”, “Judah” and “Jerusalem”.  Having said that, we should not lose sight of the fact that God loved all the people (and their descendants) that He chose out of Egypt, “Israel”.  He yearned for them to turn from their faithlessness and return to Him (though not necessarily to the Land).  Those that remain in or return to Him He calls “my people”, “my chosen”, “my servants”.  But, for those who refused Him, He committed to dealing with them with justice.

The Servants of God

Now let’s take a look at how Isaiah defines God’s servants.

The first mention of God’s servant in Isaiah 40-66 is in Isaiah 41:8-9, and is identified as “Israel”.  Is this the faithful within Israel, or the whole chosen nation?  If we rely on the “servant” phrase to point to His faithful, the first section of this chapter (v1-20) makes sense, as God is prophesying to them their release from Babylon by Cyrus to be set free to return to the land.

The balance of this section (v 9-20) speaks of their ultimate vindication over their enemies and God’s provision for them in order “that they may know, and may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel” (one of Isaiah’s favorite phrases) “has created it”.  The historical context is that Israel is now exiled in Nebuchadnezzar’s (“one from the North”) Babylon[v].   But God is announcing better things to come for them.

After addressing His “servant”, God addresses the character of those He’s speaking to, saying (Isaiah 41:14): “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel!”  This characterization of them as a “worm” is a metaphorical way of emphasizing their humility, their lack of self-importance, as one would expect of servants of God.  Isaiah 41:15-20 speaks to them of God’s provision for them, turning the trials of the “wilderness” they’re now experiencing into “pools of water”(v18).

However, v21 begins a new message.  Here God is criticizing those who look to their idols to protect and direct them, belittling the soothsayers who peddle their misinformation (v24 “Behold you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.”)

He wraps up His criticism of the apostate nation as a whole, redoubling His disdain for Israel’s leaders and diviners who have no answers for His people: Isaiah 41:28-29

[28] But when I look, there is no one;

among these there is no counselor

who, when I ask, gives an answer.

[29] Behold, they are all a delusion;

their works are nothing;

their metal images are empty wind.

Chapter 42 opens with the first of four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah:

[42:1] Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

[2] He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

[3] a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

[4] He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

[5] Thus says God, the LORD,

who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

who gives breath to the people on it

and spirit to those who walk in it:

[6] “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;

I will take you by the hand and keep you;

I will give you as a covenant for the people,

a light for the nations,

[7] to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness.

[8] I am the LORD; that is my name;

my glory I give to no other,

nor my praise to carved idols.

[9] Behold, the former things have come to pass,

and new things I now declare;

before they spring forth

I tell you of them.”

In Chapter 42 we see what is apparently a changing of the guard.  The Song (v1-9) introduces a servant.  Then at v5 God is speaking first person saying (v6 – speaking to the newly-introduced servant) that He will “give you” (the servant) “as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” who sit in darkness.  This is the commission of this servant.

From  v10-14 the voice switches from God’s to the prophet’s. Here he exhorts all people (e.g. “the coastlands”) to shout with joy because God is getting ready to do something new and big.  Then at v15, the voice changes again.  To whom it changes is indicated by (v16):

[16] And I will lead the blind

in a way that they do not know,

in paths that they have not known

I will guide them.

I will turn the darkness before them into light,

the rough places into level ground.

These are the things I do,

and I do not forsake them.

So this is our new servant speaking, in effect repeating his orders from God as to his mission.

This passage bares a significant resonance with Isaiah 49:5-7.  Both portray this servant as ministering to the “nations”; “a light for the nations” and “I will give you as a light to the gentiles”.  It also bears a resemblance to Isaiah 52:15 “so shall he sprinkle many nations” (where “sprinkle” has the sense of a priest sprinkling sacrificial blood on the altar to cleanse it).  This servant has a charter to redeem nations, not just Israelites.  The author of these verses apparently has the same servant in view.

In the poem of the following verses (Isaiah 42:18-26) God addresses the nation (“you blind”, “in prisons”).  In v19 He kind of mocks them using their old titles of “My servant” and “My messenger”. But, He says He will remain faithful to them, seeking to guide them out of their unknowning of Him, despite having shown them His anger.  Clearly, His new servant is not Israel.

In Isaiah 43 God articulates His commitment to His faithful servants and to their redemption to Himself. He calls on them (v8) to “bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, are deaf yet have ears”, challenging them to step into the “priest” role He sought originally for the nation.  He wants His nation led back to Himself from wherever they have been dispersed physically and spiritually.  In verse 10 God calls them “my servant that I have chosen”, so we’re not left wondering to whom God is committing.

In verses 11-18 God restates His credentials as “the Holy One of Israel” and prophesies the destruction of Babylon.   In verses 19-21 He announces He’s doing “a new thing” speaking of Babylon’s destruction and Cyrus’ release of the exiles to return to their homeland in a kind of new Exodus.  But, as with so much of Isaiah, God’s heartbreak at the nation’s refusal to follow Him acts to break our own hearts: Isaiah 43:20-28

[20] The wild beasts will honor me,

the jackals and the ostriches,

for I give water in the wilderness,

rivers in the desert,

to give drink to my chosen people,

[21] the people whom I formed for myself

that they might declare my praise.

[22] “Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob;

but you have been weary of me, O Israel!

[23] You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings,

or honored me with your sacrifices.

I have not burdened you with offerings,

or wearied you with frankincense.

[24] You have not bought me sweet cane with money,

or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices.

But you have burdened me with your sins;

you have wearied me with your iniquities.

[25] “I, I am he

who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,

and I will not remember your sins.

[26] Put me in remembrance; let us argue together;

set forth your case, that you may be proved right.

[27] Your first father sinned,

and your mediators transgressed against me.

[28] Therefore I will profane the princes of the sanctuary,

and deliver Jacob to utter destruction

and Israel to reviling.

The use of the names “Israel” and “Jacob” are clear: God is going to deliver them to “utter destruction and…to reviling”.  Here we start to get God’s message that He is going to bless His faithful – His servants, as in v21.  But that for the vast majority of the nation, their condition and fate will not significantly improve (see v22, 24 and 27-28).

The nation of priests that God sought from Israel hasn’t materialized, except for a tiny minority.  Observing this reality, there seems to be a certain melancholy and wistfulness here in God’s words that He culminates with His judgment.  (This is a passage that you simply can’t make sense of unless you read it as addressed to two distinctly different groups of Israelites.)

Isaiah 44 opens with God addressing His “servant Jacob”, a title repeated in v2.  So according to our formula, God is addressing His faithful. Verses 3-5 seem particularly clear on this:

[3] For I will pour water on the thirsty land,

and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,

and my blessing on your descendants.

[4] They shall spring up among the grass

like willows by flowing streams.

[5] This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’

another will call on the name of Jacob,

and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’

and name himself by the name of Israel.”

Notice verse 5.  Here God is prophesying that these descendants of the faithful will go by the name “Israel”, seemingly putting more distance between the original nation of that name and the current ones.  This seems consistent with Isaiah 65:15 where God indicts faithless Israel claiming He will give their name for a curse to His faithful.

But, typical of Isaiah, the mood completely changes in verses 9-19 in another digression against idols and idol worship, and against those who falsely prophesied (“Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame”.  Throughout the books of the prophets, God has a real problem with false prophets and “diviners” who lead His people astray[vi]).

 Verse 18 is interesting here because the implication is that God Himself has played a role in the nation’s blindness to Himself: “They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand.”  The speaker, we have to assume, is Isaiah and the “he” mentioned is God, the One shutting their eyes and hearts.

Immediately following (verses 21-28) we’re back to addressing Jacob and Israel as “my servant” – the faithful.  These verses are a reprise of His prophecy that the exiles will be released and return, and of Himself (v26): “who confirms the word of his servant[vii] and fulfills the counsel of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built, and I will raise up their ruins’”.  The chapter wraps up naming Cyrus as “my shepherd”; the one chosen to lead His sheep.

Isaiah 45 is an homage to Cyrus who (v4) “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen” God is calling into His service to release His people – both faithful and unfaithful.

In verses 9-12, the way I read them, God is challenging the nation of Israel to not dispute that He is granting favor to His faithful, culminating with using the gentile Cyrus (v13) to open the doors to His restoration of Israel to the land.

In the remaining verses (13-25), the LORD defends Himself and His actions of the salvation of “Israel” (v17), and appeals to the unfaithful to be saved (vs 22).

Isaiah 46 is a focused condemnation on the idol worshippers of Israel, and Isaiah 47 is a prophecy of the end of Babylon.

It is perfectly clear that Isaiah 48 is addressed to the nation Israel at large.  We see this very clearly in v8 where God says to them:

[8] You have never heard, you have never known,

from of old your ear has not been opened.

For I knew that you would surely deal treacherously,

and that from before birth you were called a rebel.

God tells them “You never listened to Me.  You have never known Me.  And you know what?  I knew you were going to behave like this from before your birth.”  Quite devastating.  But despite this, as we’ve seen, God has an affection for these rebels based on His love for their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In verse 20 God repeats His earlier sentiment that His act of releasing Israel from exile is on behalf of the faithful among them:

[20] Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea,

declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it,

send it out to the end of the earth;

say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!”

But, perhaps to not lose sight of the fate of the unfaithful, he closes the chapter with a reprise of the statement that closed chapter 3: “’There is no peace”, says the LORD, ‘for the wicked.’” (Without this discernment between the two groups comprising Israel, how would we understand these verses?)

With Isaiah 49, one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite and most cited chapters, things change. (Verses 1-19 comprise the second “Servant Song”.)  Suddenly we have one God identifies as “my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” speaking.  Now, this quite possibly could be simply a personification of the faithful – having God name and call him “from the womb” (v1); having him (v4) “labor in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”, etc.  Certainly, their continued faithfulness had not had a noticeable positive influence on the nation as a whole.

It is equally possible that this is the Deutero-Isaiah prophet speaking in the first person.  The only thing a bit odd about this scenario is that it would be strange for someone with such an enormous task given him by God (v6) to remain anonymous under Isaiah’s byline, as it were.  Certainly, Deutero-Isaiah at least could claim the same ineffectiveness as the faithful in bringing the people back to their LORD.  Whoever this servant is, God seems to equate him with “Israel”.  This is, perhaps, a watershed shift in identity, from the mass of unfaithful, to the one, or few, faithful inheriting the title “Israel” from God.

In verse 5 we see the mission of this servant:

[5] 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

for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,

and my God has become my strength—

To this servant God has given the job of restoring the faithfulness of Jacob to their God.  Now importantly in verse 6 we see that God has his sights set not just on Israel:

[6] 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.”

This sounds an awfully lot like the mission given to the new servant in Isaiah 42.  You can see that God is still working under His original plan regarding Abraham that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you”, that through his “seed” “all the nations of the earth would be blessed”, and that from Israel would come “a priestly nation”, those who would mediate with humanity on God’s behalf.  This is what God wanted from “Israel” from the beginning.  His purpose remains unchanged.

Verse 7 continues, identifying this servant as “despised, abhorred by the nation” (Israel), a lowly “servant of rulers”:

[7] Thus says the LORD,

the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,

to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,

the servant of rulers:

“Kings shall see and arise;

princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;

because of the LORD, who is faithful,

the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Is this His faithful?  This is certainly possible.  But it would seem unusual for God to assign them this enlarged role when they hadn’t yet been successful in reforming their fellow Israelites.  Could it be Isaiah himself (or whoever the author of Deutero-Isaiah was)?  Maybe it was Jeremiah, a servant who was contemporary with the Babylonian Exile?  Or possibly Ezekiel?  We do know that Luke (2:32) has the priest at the dedication of Jesus quote v6 (as well as Paul quoting it in Acts 13:47, speaking of his mission to the Gentiles).

The balance of Isaiah 49 (verses 8-26) is a brilliant piece of literature in which God underscores the fact that He will have compassion on and achieve the restoration of “Israel”, that the people will be fed and grow in number, and that rulers of all the nations will take notice and pay homage to Israel’s God.  But there is nothing more about a servant.

In Isaiah 50 we hear again from this servant (v4-11 which comprise the third Servant Song) after an introductory statement by God (v1-3).  Here the servant says he is like one who “has been taught” (v4-5), by which he means taught knowledge of God.  He says that with God’s help he takes abuse (v6-9), but his abusers will “wear out like a garment”. 

Then in verses 9-10 he implores his hearers who walk in darkness to “trust in the name of the LORD”.  It’s unclear who the speaker is here.  Possibly it is the servant (speaking of himself in 3rd person); possibly it’s God, and possibly it’s the prophet-author. Whoever the author was of this chapter, it is highly likely that he was persecuted for chastising unfaithful Israel for their unfaithfulness, and so records his thoughts here.

And to those who instead create their own light, God promises: “This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.”  The message, once again, is “trust the LORD”.

Isaiah 51 seems to be a letter from God to His faithful servants, identified as those who “pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD;” (v1) and “you who know what is right” (v7). In it He speaks of His coming salvation, not just for His people in exile but “to the nations” (v5). (This chapter features one of Isaiah’s favorite symbols of God’s redemption: “the arm of the LORD”.)

In verse 4 it could be argued that He refocuses on the full nation, addressing them as “My people”.  On the other hand, this may simply be a term of endearment He now applies to the faithful[viii] as we saw (above) in Isaiah 65:10.  He seems to once again, perhaps, be making the point made previously that His redemption/salvation is offered to all Israel, but is “for the sake of” His faithful servants within Israel (Isaiah 45:4).

In verses 9-11 the speaker changes from God to the prophet.  And just as abruptly, in verse 12 the voice switches back to God.  Verses 12-16 may be addressed by Him to the greater nation, but this is unlikely.  In v16 He says: “I have put my words in your mouth”, meaning the people in question spoke God’s words on behalf of God.  This behavior had certainly never been alleged of the nation as a whole and wasn’t the kind of behavior that would have resulted in the current generation finding themselves in exile in Babylon.  Perhaps it is simply a nostalgic reminder of their calling.

The Suffering Servant

With Isaiah 52 we have come to the verses about God’s suffering servant. Verses 1-12 announce Israel’s liberation from Babylon – their redemption or “salvation” from exile.  This event is momentous to the point of being a type and image of the Exodus liberation.

In verse 13, we get another abrupt change in style and voice, God now speaking of His servant.  This servant, just as in Chapter 49, is described using personification – speaking of one, singular person, irrespective of whether or not the underlying character might be a group. 

These verses (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) constitute the fourth of the so-called “servant songs” within Isaiah, and it can be divided into 5 stanzas,

Stanza 1: Isaiah 52:13-15  The Servant exalted by God; horrifying men; honored by Kings

Verse 14 bears mention here.  What it’s saying is that ‘just as men were appalled at you, My people (Israel — apparently at the shame of their banishment from their land), they will be appalled by his disfigured (“marred”) appearance’.  Here the concept of the servant and the concept of Israel are clearly compared, and so separated.  We can visualize a person whose face is so severely injured, say as a result of a brutal beating, stoning, or perhaps a bad car accident, that we have to turn away from viewing it.  The appearance is horrifying or revolting or sickening to us.  This is the picture painted by this verse. 

Of whom could this be said?  There doesn’t seem to be any historical data for concluding that the servant we have been looking at – the faithful of Israel, could lay claim to this characterization.  They certainly may have exhorted their brethren to repent and return to the Holy One of Israel.  But we’re not told they were disfigured or died for it.

We are told (tradition) that several of the prophets were stoned/killed by the people, among them Zechariah and Jeremiah.  (Legend has it that Isaiah himself was sawn in two!)  So it is certainly plausible that these verses are talking about one of these martyred prophets. 

And, it has been suggested by Ross Nichols[ix] that this servant is a reference to the entire group of prophets who, it is argued, share in the servant’s suffering and history outlined in this Song.  This despite, as Nichols himself points out, that the Servant is referred to with a masculine, singular pronoun 53 times in Chapter 53.  More on this in a moment.

But finally, Christians around the world fairly unanimously identify Jesus of Nazareth as this Servant.  Paul in Romans 15:21 refers explicitly to v15.  And Christians don’t stand just on their own understanding or exegetical skill.  They note that the Apostles Matthew (8:14-17), John (12:37-41), Luke (22:35-38) and Acts 8:26-35, and Paul (Romans 10:11-21) as well as Jesus Himself (Luke 22:37) all, and, it should not be discounted, under inspiration, quote from this Song as describing the Lord Jesus.

Stanza 2: Isaiah 53:1-3 The Servant Despised and Rejected

Verse 1 asks the question “Who has believed what he has heard from us and to who has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”  We don’t know who the “us” are that are posing this question: possibly the faithful since they would have been the ones in whose mouths God had “put my words”.  Possibly the author of Deutero-Isaiah speaking on behalf of all prophets who for centuries had called the people to repent and return to their LORD.  But the point of the question seems to be to point to a singular Servant as the one to whom the LORD had revealed His “arm”, His plan to redeem His people.

Verse 2 characterizes the servant as unremarkable, virtually unnoticeable.  But then we have verse 3:

[3] He was despised and rejected by men,

a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Nichols has made the point in arguing his “group of Prophets-as-Servant” thesis that (a cognate of) this term “despised” is only mentioned one other time[x] in Isaiah in 49:7, and there he interprets that the text is describing the Deutero-Isaiah prophet (“one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation”).

Certainly, the prophets were despised and esteemed not.  As was Jesus.  And, it is entirely possible that Isaiah 49:7’s reference to one despised is also to Jesus as the Servant.

Stanza 3: Isaiah 53:4-6 The Servant’s Atonement for Our Sins

He has “borne our griefs, carried our sorrows”. He was “pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

It’s hard to miss the propitiation involved in the death of this servant on behalf of “us all”.  There is no scripture that claims that the death of any prophet, to the extent any is recorded, was on behalf of, or for the atonement of, the people.

Further, for those that cling to the theory that this servant is a representation of Israel as a whole, how is it, exactly, that Israel was or will be “pierced for (Israel’s) transgressions”?  If “all of us” (Israel) have “gone astray”, how is it that the LORD fixes something by causing all of Israel’s iniquities to fall on …”us” (Israel)?

This servant is stunningly different.  He is far more than just a sin offering, whose purpose was to cleanse God’s “home”, the Tabernacle, from the impurity of the sins of the people (Lev 16:16) in which it existed.  He is the one who, like the scapegoat, is going to remove them (Lev 16:20-22), but permanently.  It seems he is cleansing God’s future home – His people – by removing their sins.

Stanza 4: Isaiah 53:7-9  The Innocent, Sinless, Silent Sufferer

Here, in my judgment, is where the prophet-as-servant theory runs into some tough sledding.  The operative verse in this stanza is v8:

[8] By oppression and judgment he was taken away;

and as for his generation, who considered

that he was cut off out of the land of the living,

stricken for the transgression of my people?

Why was he stricken?  He was stricken “for” the transgression of my people, not by the transgression of my people.  In other words, this servant was a sacrifice for the people, not just their victim.  This, to me, rules out the idea of one or a group of prophets in this role.  Perhaps the most perplexing conclusion for those that see Israel as this servant is that somehow Israel was “cut off from the land of the living” for “the transgression of My people”.  Assumedly “My people is Israel, at least its faithful.  Did Israel sometime die for Israel?  Not that we know of.

[9] And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death(s),

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

However, we have to deal with the issue of the translation of the word rendered “death” in English bibles in v9.  In Hebrew, the word is plural – multiple deaths.  If there is a single servant in view here, how does he experience multiple deaths?  Here’s the verse:

[9] And they made his grave with the wicked

and with a rich man in his death(s),

although he had done no violence,

and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Clearly, we’re talking about the death of the servant (“his deaths”), not his and others’ deaths. (There is some ambiguity with the referent of “his”.  It’s possible that it refers to the “rich man” rather than the servant. But in either reading, we have a singular man experience multiple deaths.) I see only two possibilities if the servant is singular: 1) That multiple deaths were symbolically incurred, one for each of those for whom he died (drawing on the atoning nature of this death), as a means of securing their ability to live with/in the LORD, or; 2) the servant died in multiple contexts – i.e. both physically and spiritually, via temporary separation from the LORD.  Either of these explanations is, I believe, adequate to answer this issue.

But there’s another possible interpretation.  The Hebrew word (4194. מָוֶת māweṯ:) can have the connotation of a pestilence/epidemic/plague carrying with it death.  It is widespread death inflicted by disease or calamity (e.g. Jeremiah 18:21, 43:11). Pharaoh pleaded with Moses and Aaron to ask the LORD to end the plague of the locusts and “remove this māweṯ from me” (Exodus 10:17).  Perhaps the widespread death in view is that resulting from man’s sin?  In all of the OT occurrences of the word I’ve examined, the death spoken of is a God-ordained verdict.  Or, perhaps a better way to say it: it is a case of God withdrawing life from its victims — a judgment.  Certainly, that is our case in this verse.

Stanza 5: Isaiah 53:10-12 The Servant’s Final Exultation

[10] Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;

he has put him to grief;

when his soul makes an offering for guilt,

he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;

the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

[11] Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

[12] Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and makes intercession for the transgressors.

No prophet we know of fulfills this description.  They didn’t “make many to be accounted righteous”, at least that we’re told.  Nor did the faithful of Israel (another servant).  Did Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses do this?  David?  Not that we’ve been told. 

One of the candidates often mentioned for this servant is Jeremiah.  The fit, however, is not good.  First of all, Jeremiah doesn’t take his abuse from the people quietly.  In Jeremiah 15:18 he complains to God: “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?  Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?”  To which God responds (v20-21):  “And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD.  I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”  That’s not our servant.  Ours was murdered.

It’s not the nation Israel for two reasons: 1) They, as we have shown, were not faithful to the LORD and so did not inherit that title beyond their initial commission out of Egypt, 2) They’re the ones for whose transgressions our servant is to suffer (v5).  This is not to diminish in any way the suffering that Israelites then, and those following the rabbinic Jewish faith since, have experienced.  It’s just that lexically and logically putting them in this particular role makes absolutely no sense.  Nor did it to historical rabbinical Judaism.[xi],,[xii]

Could it be the faithful servants of the LORD preserved as a remnant?  That’s a possibility.  But we just don’t have the historical data to support that case.

No, this servant is unique.  He seems to be uniquely the Messiah-Servant.  And, if you’re Christian, He would show up in a scant 500 years following the recording of these words.

Isaiah 54, 55

Here we have the promises of God to His people, assumedly following their release from captivity in Babylon. But interestingly we have its final verse:

[17] 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.”

Here He is ushering in a period of peace for His people.  And He’s referring to His faithful in the plural as His servants.  Here he begins to speak to those who will answer His call to return to Him, who will be His new servants.  This prophecy of happiness and prosperity for the faithful continues in Chapters 55 and 56.

Isaiah 56-66

In the interest of brevity we’ll just summarize some key points from the final 10 chapters of Isaiah’s book.

First, we find several references to “servants of the LORD” (plural), ranging from foreigners aligned to the LORD (56:6) to (nostalgically) the quite whiny Israelites (63:17) complaining of God abandoning them. The reference in Isaiah 56 to “foreigners” is important because it implicitly expands the work of His servant.  Isaiah 66:14 refers to the residents of a future Jerusalem as “his servants”.

Thirteen times in the book of Isaiah he uses the word “Redeemer” twelve of which are indisputably references (usually self-references) to the LORD.  But oddly, in Isaiah 59:20 we have a third-person reference:

[20] “And a Redeemer will come to Zion,

to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD.

Is this just the prophet’s indirect reference to the LORD?  Possibly.  But if that were the prophet’s intention, why wouldn’t he say “And your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel”, or “the LORD” will come to Zion?  (Possibly because the Redeemer he’s speaking of did actually come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression?)

Isaiah 61 is interesting because it opens with these famous verses:

[61:1] The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,

because the LORD has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor;

he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

[2] to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God;

to comfort all who mourn;

The one who was “anointed” by the LORD for a purpose of the LORD is what the people commonly understood to be a “Masiyah” – a Messiah.  Jesus reads this passage in Luke 4:18-19 and says it is fulfilled in his audience’s hearing, claiming, in effect, to be God’s Messiah and so fulfilling it.  The speaker in Isaiah, however, is (Deutero-)Isaiah.  He too was appointed by God to bring “good news to the poor”, “bandage the brokenhearted”, “proclaim liberty to the captives” (from Assyria & Babylon), etc.

With “dual-fulfillment” verses like this, the question always arises:  “are both interpretations valid?”  This one is perhaps a bit easier than most to conclude that they’re both valid since Jesus is the Man who claimed and is believed to be God incarnate by several hundred million believers.  But that claim doesn’t diminish Isaiah’s claim in any way.  After all, he was chosen by God to be the speaker of these words originally and to carry them out in his time in concert with the LORD’s direction.

Isaiah 62 seems to be the prophet/God prophesying that ultimately those faithful to God will find safety and sustenance in Jerusalem, and that these people will be renamed, from “forsaken” and “desolate” to “My delight is in her” and “Married”.  About these faithful, the prophet concludes the chapter (v12): “And they will be called the Holy People, the redeemed of the LORD, and you will be called Sought Out, a City not forsaken.”

Isaiah 63 is strange. It appears to be both God recalling His discipline of exile on the nation, restating His commitment to the faithful (“They are surely My people, sons who will not be disloyal”), followed by the nation at large complaining to God that He’s turned His back on them.

Isaiah 64 continues this latter theme as we find unfaithful Israel complaining to God that He hasn’t redeemed them yet; questioning why He hasn’t used His “strong arm” to pull them into righteousness.  God hasn’t “cleaned them up”, and so they complain.  Perhaps the authors of Deutero-Isaiah had a sense of humor.  (For a similar plaint, see Jeremiah 14:7-10)

Isaiah 65 we featured earlier in which God parses His judgments on both His faithful and His unfaithful Israelies.  There is no more clear-eyed portrayal of the distinct differences in standing with God of these two starkly different groups of people, and of their futures, than this chapter.


The book of Isaiah is a dense thicket of symbols, concepts, actors and the acted-upon.  Different interpreters have historically seen these quite differently.  To the novice, this can be baffling.  In particular, his use of indistinct terms and phrases in his poetry about the various servants of the LORD can completely frustrate the inquiry of even the serious reader and has led to centuries of debate.

In this note, I hope we’ve shown that Isaiah understood and relayed God’s conclusions with respect to two classes of Israelites: those who had remained faithful to the LORD and His will, and those who had not.

The former of these he referred to as “My servants”.  They, therefore, constitute one major category of “servant” in Deutero-Isaiah.

Another to claim the title “servant” in these chapters is the servant-author himself.  We saw this clearly in Isaiah 61 (though it has significance in Jesus, as well).

And finally, one of Isaiah’s servants had a grander mission; a mission to call “the nations” to the LORD, recalling God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses.  We saw references to him in Isaiah 42, 49, possibly 50, and 52-53.  (Some see him elsewhere throughout Isaiah as well.)  This is the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 52-53.

One of the things we should keep in mind in examining the question of the identity of this servant is that these chapters, under the most optimistic of assumptions, were written more than 500 years before Jesus of Nazareth appeared.  So if they are a reference to this future Christ, what’s it doing in Isaiah?

Not to be flippant, but prophets didn’t pick and choose the material they prophesied.  The LORD provided the information and inspiration and the prophet proclaimed it.  So if the LORD wanted to reveal His larger, future intentions for His people, He did.  We can see that in much of the Prophetic apocalyptic writings — Deuteronomy 30:6 , Daniel 9:20-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Isiah 59:20, among others.  When God is going to do something, He tells His prophets (Amos 3:7), and they tell the people.

To me, the characterization of this servant by Isaiah is remarkable.  It’s ironic that for one of the most clearly described people in the Bible, many are left questioning who He was.  After all, it’s not as if we have a wide range of humble, silent, disfigured, martyrs who were claimed to be sacrificed for the transgressions of the people appearing in the Old or New Testament to choose from.  The choices are indeed quite limited.

If God saw fit to inform the author(s) of Deutero-Isaiah of this future life, doesn’t this surely imply that He ordained that life?  I don’t see how it can be seen any other way.

[i] Some scholars see Isaiah 56-66 as yet a separate book altogether which they’ve given the name “Trito-Isaiah”, or 3rd Isaiah.


OT Servant of the LORD References


Self identification

By the LORD

By the text














Jacob (the man)











































































































(4 of which are likely references to Cyrus)

the Branch






Suffering Servant





















“my servants the prophets”










[iii] These faithful were also referred to as “the righteous”, particularly in the Psalms and Proverbs, but throughout the Old Testament.

[iv] 5650. עֶבֶד `eḇeḏ: A masculine noun meaning a servant, a slave. Although the most basic concept of this term is that of a slave, slavery in the Bible was not the same as the slavery of modern times. The period of slavery was limited to six years (Ex 21:2). Slaves had rights and protection under the Law (Ex 21:20). It was also possible for slaves to attain positions of power and honor (Ge 24:2;41:12). In addition, the people under the king were called his servants (Ge 21:25); as well as his officers (1Sa 19:1); officials (2Ki 22:12); ambassadors (Nu 22:18); vassal kings (2Sa 10:19); tributary nations (1Ch 18:2,6,13). This word is also a humble way of referring to one’s self when speaking with another of equal or superior rank (Ge 33:5). The term is also applied to those who worship God (Ne 1:10); and to those who minister or serve Him (Isa 49:5,6). The phrase, the servant of the Lord, is the most outstanding reference to the Messiah in the Old Testament, and its teachings are concentrated at the end of Isaiah (Isa 42:1,19;43:10;49:3,5-7;52:13;53:11).

[v] Some see this reference as to Cyrus rather than Nebuchadnezzar.  But God’s point in the whole exchange is that those in Israel who sought knowledge from their gods/idols – the soothsayers, as it were, were clueless.  They hadn’t told the people of either one of these momentous figures in their history as the LORD had consistently.

[vi] Have a read through Ezekiel 13 to see just how detestable these false voices were to the LORD.

[vii] The “word of his servant” here is likely a self-reference by Isaiah.

[viii] This one has a great deal of ambiguity.  In earlier chapters of Isaiah God uses the term “my people” in a critical sense, speaking of the greater nation (e.g. Isaiah 1:3, 3:12, 5:13, 32:13).  He famously uses it in the opening to Chapter 40:

[40:1] Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

[2] Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and cry to her

that her warfare is ended,

that her iniquity is pardoned,

that she has received from the LORD’s hand

double for all her sins.

He even uses it to refer to Egypt and equivalently Assyria (19:25). It is probably safe to assume that to Isaiah “My people” nominally refers to the greater nation (as it certainly did when God commanded Pharaoh to let them go), those for whom despite their unfaithfulness, God still held in great affection.  God doesn’t back off of His assumed responsibility for them as their husband (Isaiah 54:5).

[ix] Ross K Nichols, United Israel World Union, April 24,2021

[x] Actually the word itself, “bazah”, is also used in Isaiah 37:22 describing Jerusalem’s hatred for Sennacherib, but admittedly this has nothing to do with “servants”.

[xi]All of the ancient Jewish writings—the Mishnah, the Gemara, (the Talmud), the Midrashim, and many others—all regard this portion of Scripture as relating to the Messianic Person.”

[xii] Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: Before and After Christianity, Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 2019, Vol. 73(2) 158 –173, M. Brettler & A-J. Levine

“Targum Jonathan, the Aramaic translation of the prophets, underwent several editions in the second and the fourth centuries CE,50 though it preserves earlier traditions. Its translation of Isa 52:13–53:12, likely composed some point before the Bar-Kochba revolt (132–135), reads the Hebrew of 52:13, “Behold, my servant,” as “Behold, my servant, the Messiah.”51 This figure then serves as an intercessor for Israel.52”

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