A Study on the Servant Songs Session One November 25, 2014

A Study on the Servant Songs          Session One   November 25, 2014

Parish of St. Matthias, Victoria BC       Diocese of British Columbia, Anglican Church of Canada

This session is about setting the context for looking at the Servant Songs. The Servant Songs are: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13—53:12. These notes reflect what was discussed and presented on November 25.

What do we already know about Isaiah? He is a prophet, one who speaks on behalf of God to the people, and one who may speak on the people’s behalf to God (Moses being the model). The image of the Servant is one that influenced the Christian understanding of who Jesus is, and may well go back to Jesus himself. The image of a servant is also critical for any Christian’s self-understanding.

Isaiah is the source of much of The Messiah (1741) by Georg Händel (and from the Servant Songs: 21. Aria He Was Despised (Isa. 53:3; Isa. 50:6); 22. Chorus Surely He Has Borne Our Grief (Isa. 53:4-5); 23. Chorus And with His Stripes (Isa. 53:5); 24. Chorus All We Like Sheep (Isa. 53:6); 29. Recitative He Was Cut Off (Isa. 53:8)).

As Christians we need to remember that we tend to read a text like this in a way that is different from Judaism, and perhaps different from the original author. On the first day of classes a professor in an Introductory Course to the Hebrew Bible asked: “What is the Hebrew Bible about?” The students replied variously, “Torah!” “The Covenant” “Exodus and the People of Israel”, all of which the professor nodded at and affirmed. “What is the New Testament about?” he asked. “Jesus!” they answered. “Excellent. Now, what is the Old Testament about?” This puzzled the students, as they thought that they had already answered that. “Torah?” said one. “No!” said the professor. “The Covenant?” said another. “No!” he said again. Then one particularly bright student said, “Jesus?” to which the professor said, “Yes, exactly, Jesus. For Christians the Old Testament, as well as the New, testifies to Jesus. But the Hebrew Bible, with a different arrangement from the Old Testament, with a separate history of interpretation for over two-thousand years, is not the same. Further, modern historico-critical methods of scholarship (i.e. most scholarship of the past two hundred years) will not assume a context of faith, but treat biblical texts as historical documents; the assumptions and interpretation will then be somewhat different from either Judaism or traditional Christianity. Part of the task of our reading is to note the different interpretive contexts and to hold them in creative tension.

The Hebrew Bible is known in Judaism as the Tanakh, an acronym taken from the first letters of the three major divisions: Torah (Law, or Instruction), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Kethuvi’im (Writings). Some of the contents of these divisions are counterintuitive to Christians – historical books such as Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings are part of the Nevi’im, and Daniel is in Kethuvi’im. Part of this is a function of the development of the Hebrew canon – the Torah was completed and stabilized first, followed by the Nevi’im, and the Kethuvi’im was still somewhat open in Jesus’ time. This disconcerting lack of a stable canon can be demonstrated in two ways. First, when Jews in Egypt translated the Hebrew sacred scriptures into the Greek version we know as the Septuagint, it included many books which ultimately were not included in the Tanakh: Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), 1 & 2 Maccabbees, Wisdo, and Tobit, for example. The texts were part of Christian scriptures, both Greek and Latin, until the Reformation in the 16th century when their status was questioned; Catholics continue to regard them as part of the canon, but acknowledge them as the “deutero-canon”, whereas Reformation Christians consider them exra-canonical or apocryphal. The Hebrew originals were lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946-1956, among which were portions of some of the deutero-canonical texts. Second, amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls were many biblical texts that have always been part of the canon – the psalms, Jeremiah – but their arrangement and specific wording was often different from what was in the Hebrew canon. Thus, as we approach these texts, we must acknowledge that not only are there a variety of ways to read them (Jewish, Christian, historico-critical), but that the texts themselves may vary.

Interestingly, this is not so much of an issue with the text of Isaiah. The oldest manuscript of the Tanakh is Codex Leningradensis (1008 CE/AD), and the standard critical edition of the Hebrew Bible (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia 1977) is based on it. Interestingly, the Dead Sea Scrolls versions of Isaiah (http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/isaiah there were some twenty scrolls, including one virtually complete dating from about 150 BC/BCE, as well as several commentaries) are in substantial agreement with Leningradensis. Thus, the text of Isaiah was well stabilized by the middle of the 2nd Century BC/BCE.

A cursory overview of Isaiah reveals a varied text. Some of it is poetry, some is prose. There is no real sense of narrative – no beginning, middle, or end. Some sections have titles. Here is a summary:

Chapter, Verse and Description Title in text [or description]
“First Isaiah” 1.1       [Introduction] The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
2.1         [The “Core” of Isaiah’s Prophecy] The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.      
[Oracles Against the Nations]   13.1 The oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw.
14.24 [Oracle concerning Assyria]
14.28 [Oracle concerning Philistia]
15.1 An oracle concerning Moab.
17.1 An oracle concerning Damascus.
18.1 [Oracle concerning Ethiopia]
19.1 An oracle concerning Egypt.
19.8 [An oracle concerning Egypt, Assyria, and Israel
21.1 The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea. [Babylon, Edom, and Arabia]
22.1 The oracle concerning the valley of vision
23.1 The oracle concerning Tyre.
24 – 35              [Varied Judgment & Hope] Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate
36 – 39     [Passage from II Kings 18-20]  
“Second Isaiah” 40 – 54 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
55 – 66

“Third Isaiah”

Soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed

While the text of Isaiah was stable by the middle of the 2nd Century BC/BCE, a review of its contents suggests that it is a collection of prophecies. Chapters 36-39 are mostly prose, and appear to be taken from II Kings. The interpolation of this text forms a bridge between 1-35 and 40-66. Whereas the first section is filled with warnings and judgments, with a small amount of comfort, 40-66 is mostly comfort with a minority of warnings and judgments.

It is not clear who wrote down the visions. Isaiah is sometimes in the first person (Chapter 6), at other times he is referred to in the third. Most of the time it is God who is speaking, not Isaiah.

Chapter 40-66 refers to a situation that assumes the deportation of the Judean ruling class and much of the population to Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BC/BCE (as does Psalm 136: “By the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept.”). Cyrus II, the Persian king who conquered Babylon in 540 BC/BCE and issued an edict in 536 BC/BCE allowing the Judeans to return and rebuild the Temple; Cyrus is mentioned by name in 45.1: Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus . . . This suggests that these passages were indeed written during the Exile or soon after. The highway in the desert described in Isaiah 40 is a means for the Judeans to return to Judea from Babylon, not by the long route up the Euphrates and Tigris to northern Syria and then south to Jerusalem, but miraculously through the uninhabited desert of what is now western Iraq and eastern Jordan.

Thus, to put things in a chronology:

1000 BC/BCE United Kingdom of Judea and Israel

David 1000-960

Solomon 960-920

Breakup of kingdom into two in 920

Kingdom of Judea   (Jerusalem)

Kings are all from the House of David

Kingdom of Israel


Kings are a series of dynasties, repeatedly usurped

800 Uzziah 783-742

Jotham 742-735

Ahaz 735-715

Hezekiah 715-687


722 Fall of Samaria

End of the Kingdom of Israel

722 Assyria conquers Israel, 701 invades Judea

700 Manasseh 687-642

Amon 642-640

Josiah 640-609

Book of the law “discovered” in the Temple – 1st version of Torah?

Jehoahaz 609

Jehoiakim 609-598


605 Subjugation of Jerusalem by Babylon

612 Babylon conquers Assyria

600 Jehoiachin 598


596 First Deportation

586 Judean Revolt. Destruction of Jerusalem & the Temple. Second Deportation. End of the Kingdom of Judea


520 (?) Rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Second Temple

III Isaiah ?

Haggai   Zechariah

596/586 Exile in Babylon

II Isaiah


Psalm 136

539 Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylon

536 Edict of Cyrus. Exile over. Many Jews return, many stay in Mesopotamia.























Traditions behind the Babylonian Talmud are developed.








500 Nehemiah Ezra
400 Final redaction of the Nevi’im (Prophets)

325 Alexander the Great conquers Persians. Hellenistic Empires of the Ptolomies rule Judea from Egypt.

200 200 Hellenistic Empire of the Seleucids rule Judea from Antioch

168 Maccabean Revolt, Judea achieves autonomy

150 BC/BCE Earliest known copy of Isaiah

100 63 Pompey the Great conquers Judea for the Roman Empire
1 AD/CE 4 BC/BCE (?) Jesus born

30 (?) Jesus is crucified. Resurrection.

33 (?) Calling of Paul. The Letters of Paul

60 (?) Paulis executed.

65 (?) Gospel of Mark

66 Judea revolts.

70 Jerusalem destroyed. Second Temple destroyed. Dead Sea Scrolls hidden.

75 (?) Gospel of Luke, Matthew, Acts

90 (?) Gospel of John, Revelation

BC/BCE: “Before Christ”/”Before Common Era”

AD/CE:     “Anno Domini Year of our Lord”/”Common Era”

Many scholars, then, believe that Isaiah 1-35 was written by the historical Isaiah and/or his immediate disciples who lived towards the end of the 8th Century BC/BCE; this is commonly known as First Isaiah. 40-66 is the result of a later author or authors, from the time of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BC/BCE or later. Chapters 55-66 is thought by some scholars to reflect the disappointment of some of the returned exiles, and reflects a more apocalyptic perspective that earlier chapters; this is commonly known as Third Isaiah. It is notable that the Hebrew is not as good in 55-66 as in the earlier chapters.

These, of course, are scholarly conjectures. Conservative evangelicals will argue for the modern idea that there must be one single author named Isaiah, and that in the 8th century the historical Isaiah was divinely inspired to name the Persian King who would conquer the Babylonians in 520 and end the exile. Scholars arguing for multiple authors note that ideas of “the author” were different in ancient times than today.

Having set up some contexts for interpretation, next week we will get into the text of the first two Servant Songs.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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