What is the meaning behind the servant “songs” of Isaiah?
There are FOUR “Servant Songs” of Isaiah that describe the service, suffering, and exaltation of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah. All four songs show the Messiah to be God’s meek and gentle Servant. He is a royal figure, representing Israel in its ideal form; He is the high priest, atoning for the sins of the world. Isaiah predicts that this Servant of the Lord would deliver the world from the prison of sin. In the royal terminology of the ancient Near East, a servant was a “trusted envoy,” a “confidential representative,” or “one who is chosen.” The Servant Songs are found in Isaiah 42:1–9; Isaiah 49:1–13; Isaiah 50:4–11; and Isaiah 52:13–53:12.
Isaiah initially identifies God’s servant as Israel (Isaiah 41:8; 44:1–2), who serves as God’s witness (Isaiah 43:10) and as a light to the Gentiles. Yet Israel could not fulfill this mission: Israel was deaf, blind (Isaiah 42:19), and in need of God’s forgiveness (Isaiah 44:21–22). Israel failed again and again. By contrast, God’s Servant, the Messiah, faithfully completes all the work He is given to do (cf. Luke 13:32; John 17:4). The Servant of the Lord is God’s faithful and true witness to humanity.
In Acts 3, Peter calls Jesus the “servant” of God. That verse says, in part, “The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go..” Acts 3:13. Peter’s description of Jesus as a “servant” is accurate for at least four reasons:
1) Jesus always did the will of the Father (John 4:34; 6:38).
2) Jesus never sought to please Himself but always to please the Father (“I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” John 5:30).
3) Jesus finished the work that God had sent Him to do (“I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.”John 17:4).
4) Jesus came to glorify the Father (John 13:31).
Additionally, Peter’s reference to Jesus as the “servant of God” would have brought to the minds of his Jewish hearers the passages in Isaiah that describe the Messiah as the “Servant of the Lord.”
Isaiah 42:1–9. This first of the four Servant Songs introduces us to the Servant of the LORD:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.”Isaiah 42:1–4
According to this song, the Servant of the Lord is chosen by God, and God delights in Him. The Servant has the Spirit of God abiding on Him. The first three verses of this passage are specifically applied to Jesus in Matthew 12:18–20.
When Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the Spirit of God descended upon Him, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” This was a divine allusion to Isaiah 42. The clear teaching of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the Servant in the Servant Song prophecies.
Isaiah 49:1–13. This second of the four Servant Songs speaks of the Messiah’s work in the world and His success.
The Servant’s statement that “before I was born the Lord called me” (Isiah 49:1) uses language similar to the call of the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). The reference in Isaiah 49:2 to the mouth of the Servant of the LORD being “like a sharpened sword” is a prophetic image that crops up several times in the New Testament (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; Revelation 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15).
In the second Servant Song, the Messiah displays God’s splendor (Isaiah 49:3), restores God’s people (verse 6), and is honored in God’s eyes (verse 5). Significantly, the Messiah feels a great loss: “I have labored in vain; / I have spent my strength for nothing at all” (verse 4), yet He receives worldwide acclaim in the end:
“Thus saith the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the Lord that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.” Isaiah 49:7
The Servant of the Lord will oversee the restoration of the land and the establishing of a peaceful kingdom (verses 8–13). The Messiah will be the agent of the Lord’s comfort to His people (verse 13).
In addition to being the One to restore the land of Israel (verse 8), the Messiah is chosen to redeem the Gentiles:
“And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6
In this way, God’s salvation is brought to all people. Christ Jesus is “the light of the world” (Luke 2:30–32; John 8:12; 9:5) and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas bring the gospel to the Gentiles in Antioch, and they quote Isaiah 49:6. The response of the Gentiles in Antioch is pure joy: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48. In Christ both Jews and Gentiles are made one (Ephesians 2:11–18).
Isaiah 50:4–11. This third Servant Song contrasts Israel’s sin with the Servant’s obedience.
We also see that the Messiah will be persecuted yet vindicated. The verses preceding this song (Isaiah 50:1–3) liken Israel to an immoral wife; only God has the power to ransom her back. Starting in verse 4, the Servant responds to the instruction of God. He is not rebellious (verse 5), even when His obedience to God results in suffering:
“I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Isaiah 50:6
The Servant of the Lord expresses His confidence that God will help Him and that He will be found innocent (verses 7–9). In this confidence, the Messiah resolves to see His task to completion, no matter how difficult the road becomes (cf. Luke 9:51).
Some 700 years later, Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. Abuse and insults were heaped upon Him as He was thrown to the Roman soldiers. His back was beaten, His face was hit, and He was spit upon (John 19:1–3; Matthew 27:30). The Lord Jesus was obedient unto death (Philippians 2:8), and the Father vindicated His Suffering Servant by resurrecting Him.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” Isaiah 52:7
Isaiah 52:13–53:12. This fourth Servant Song is climactic, it describes the suffering and triumph of the Servant of the LORD.
It is also one of the most detailed passages in the Old Testament concerning the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
The song begins with a promise that the Servant will be exalted (Isaiah 52:13), but then immediately turns to a description of extreme violence:
“As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:” Isaiah 52:14
The Messiah will be “despised and rejected by mankind” (Isaiah 53:3). When He is brutally punished, people will assume that He is being afflicted by God (Isaiah 53:4). But the fourth Servant Song makes it clear why He endures such persecution:
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
It is our iniquity being placed on Him that explains His suffering (verse 6). Verse 7 predicts that the Messiah will be silent before His accusers (cf. Matthew 27:14). Verse 9 says that, although the Servant of the Lord is innocent, He will die with the wicked and be “with the rich in his death.”
Isaiah 53 tells us why the Servant dies:
“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Isaiah 53:10
This is the substitutionary atonement. His life for ours. The death of the Messiah accomplished the will of God concerning our salvation. Immediately following the prophecy of the Servant’s death, Isaiah makes a prophecy of the Servant’s victory:
“He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Isaiah 53:11–12
In the fourth Servant Song, death is not the end for the Servant. After He suffers, He will “see the light of life.” He will “divide the spoils.” His days will be prolonged. This is a prophecy of the resurrection of Christ.
The whole of Isaiah 53 is a poignant and prophetic picture of the gospel. Jesus was despised and rejected by men (Luke 13:34; John 1:10–11); He was stricken by God (Matthew 27:46) and pierced for our transgressions (John 19:34; 1 Peter 2:24). By His suffering, Jesus received the punishment we deserved and became for us the ultimate and perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10). Although His Son was sinless, God laid on Him mans sin, and we became God’s righteousness in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus was silent in front of His accusers (Matthew 27:12, 14; 1 Peter 2:23). Jesus was crucified between two thieves yet buried in a rich man’s tomb (Matthew 27:38, 57–60). In the Suffering Servant’s humiliation and final exaltation, He reconciles humanity with God (Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:30–35; Romans 10:15–17; 15:21; 1 Peter 2:24–25).
As the Ethiopian eunuch is traveling home in his chariot, he is reading from one of the Servant Songs (Acts 8:32–33). The eunuch was unsure of whom Isaiah was speaking — was it the prophet himself, or another man? Philip the evangelist had the privilege of using Isaiah 53 to point the Ethiopian to Christ: “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). The four Servant Songs in Isaiah are about Jesus. The Lord of Host, The Redeemer, The Lamb of God, the Suffering Servant, The King of Kings, The Only Begotten Son of the Most High, The First and the Last is the theme of Scripture.