The Servant of God in Isaiah

Day Seventeen of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

Bernard Duhm (1847-1928) wasn’t a liturgist, but his work has influenced the lectionary used in the Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches. In Holy Week the readings from the Hebrew Bible, traditionally called the Old Testament, are what he identified as the four “Servant Songs“.

Monday in Holy Week Isaiah 42:1–4 Quoted in Matthew 12:16-21.
Tuesday in Holy Week Isaiah 49:1–6 49:6 is quoted by Simeon in Luke 2:32.
Wednesday in Holy Week Isaiah 50:4–7 An allusion in Luke 9:51 to Isaiah 50:7.
Good Friday Isaiah 52:13–53:12 Jesus quoted this as referring to himself in Luke 22:37; also used in Matthew 8:17, Mark 15:28, John 12:38, Acts 8:32–33, Romans 10:16, 15:21 and 1 Peter 2:22.

For good measure, the first reading for the Sunday of the Passion, after the Liturgy of the Palms, is the third Servant Song, Isaiah 50.4-9a. As Christians we read these passages in the context of Jesus’s suffering and death, as testimony to him. Based on their use in the Greek New Testament we see them as prophecies about him. But what did Isaiah — or rather, the author of II Isaiah — think he was doing here? Who is the servant for him?


Servant in Hebrew, pronounced “Evedh” or “Ebed”.

Duhm was a German Lutheran biblical scholar who used historical-critical methods and ended up teaching in Basel, Switzerland. His 1892 commentary Das Buch Jesaia (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1892) was the first to suggest that Isaiah had three divisions and was written over several centuries. He identified the four servant songs, and noted a common theme of suffering that was developed within them. The Wikipedia article on Duhm has a useful summary by Joseph Blenkinsopp (who used to teach at Notre Dame):

[Duhm’s] conclusions may be summarized as follows:

  • the “Servant songs” were composed by a member of a Jewish community, but not of the diaspora, during the first half of the fifth century, between the composition of Job and Malachi;
  • the author drew on Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Job and in his turn influenced Trito-Isaiah and Malachi;
  • the protagonist of the “songs” was a historical figure, a teacher of the law who suffered abuse, first of all from his own people;
  • the “songs” are distinguished from their Deutero-Isaian context by a more deliberate and sober style, more regular prosody, and especially by the contrast with Deutero-Isaiah’s description of Israel as ebed they originally formed one composition, together with editorial additions (42:5-7; 50:10-11);
  • they were inserted into Deutero-Isaiah by a later hand wherever there was space on the papyrus copy.

It would be safe to say that none of these conclusions would pass unchallenged today.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “Isaiah 40–55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 19A.” (2000): pp. 76-77.

So far, then, we have two candidates for the servant of God – the traditional understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant, and Duhm’s teacher of the law in the post-exilic Judea. But there are other candidates.

The most obvious one, and the one usually identified by the Jewish tradition, is that it is the whole of Israel. Chapter 41.8 explicitly identifies Israel as the servant of God:

8 But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off ’;
10 do not fear, for I am with you,
do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.   – Isaiah 41.8-10

The only way to deny this would be to suggest, as Duhm does, that the four servant songs were not written by the same person who wrote the rest of II Isaiah. He reads the following as having a different subject:

1 Here is 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 or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.  — Isaiah 42.1-4

This doesn’t sound too different from the passage quoted above, although Duhm argues from the original Hebrew that there are stylistic differences. The Catholic writer Jimmy Akin notes in a great summary that “servant” has many uses in the book of Isaiah as a whole:

The Hebrew word for “servant” used in the key passages of Isaiah is ‘ebed. This word appears 40 times in the book, in 36 verses.

In some cases, it refers to the servants of human beings:

  • Isa. 14:2 refers to unnamed foreigners who will become the servants of Israel.
  • Isa. 24:2 refers to the slaves of human masters.
  • Isa. 36:9 and 37:24 refer to servants/subjects of the king of Assyria
  • Isa. 36:11 has several figures referring to themselves politely as “your servants” when talking with an Assyrian official
  • Isa. 37:5 refers to the servants/subjects of King Hezekiah of Judah
  • Isa. 49:7 refers to an unnamed, despised figure who is “the servant of rulers”—i.e., a subject of foreign leaders. . . .

Many of the uses of ‘ebed in Isaiah are in the plural and refer to God’s servants collectively. This theme emerges in chapter 54 and is especially prominent in the final four chapters of the book:

  • In such passages, the servants of God seem to refer to the righteous of Israel (Isa. 54:17, 65:8, 13-15, 66:14).
  • They are expressly identified with “the tribes of your heritage” in Isa. 63:17, and with descendants of Jacob and Judah inIsa. 65:9.
  • However, Isa. 56:6 makes it clear that they also can include foreigners who come to worship God and thus become “his servants.”

We thus see that in Isaiah God actually has many servants.

Akin also notes that:

Not all uses of ‘ebed are in the plural, and there remain 22 uses which speak of individual servants of the Lord. Four of them are named:

    • The first to be named is Isaiah himself. Isa. 20:3 refers to “my servant Isaiah.”
    • The second is Eliakim son of Hilkiah (Isa. 22:20), who was a man that God called to be the chief steward of the house of David.
    • The third is David himself (Isa. 37:35).
    • And the fourth is the corporate figure of the nation of Israel/Jacob, who is named as God’s servant in multiple passages. A typical example is Isa. 41:8, which speaks of “you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen” (cf. Isa. 41:9, 44:1-2, 21 [2 references], 45:4, 48:20, and 49:3).

Akin then deals with ten passages that use “servant” that are not immediately clear.

It appears that at least some of the passages refer to a servant other than Israel. With one exception, all of the Hebrew manuscripts of Isaiah 49:3 identify Israel as the servant of that verse, but just a few verses later we seem to be reading about a different servant:

And now the Lord says, 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—

he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:5-6).

If the identification of Israel as the servant of verse 3 was in the original Hebrew text (something some scholars have disputed), then it seems that we are reading about a different servant in verses 5 and 6, since this servant has a mission to Jacob/Israel.

Summarising the scholarship on who this might be, he notes three possibilities:

  • The prophet Isaiah himself (as the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 guesses)Cyrus the Great
  • Darius (550 BCE – 486 BCE) the successor to Cyrus, conqueror of Egypt, and the first Persian invader of Greece, defeated at Marathon.
  • Jewish governor Zerubbabel, who appears as an adult who led the exiles from Babylon to Judea in 538 BCE and is last heard of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem in 520 BCE.

I am inclined to read the servant songs not as interpolations in the text of some early version of II Isaiah, nor strictly as a reference to either Jesus, as tradition would have it, or the whole of Israel. Rather, the ambiguity is inherent in the text. It is ALL of these. Not all attributions fit as well as some, but I think we miss the way prophecy functions if we try and reduce it to a single solution.

We’ll have another go at this tomorrow.

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
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