Advent – Isaiah and The Suffering Servant

Amid all the Advent celebrations, it can be easy for us to forget a major theme of the Advent season. Each Sunday during Advent, the first reading is drawn from the Book of Isaiah. And for good reason, since Matthew’s Gospel cites Isaiah perhaps a half-dozen times, and the prophet is referenced indirectly another six or seven times. When John  the Baptist says, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths, (Mt 3:3) he is quoting Isaiah the Prophet (Is 40:3).

Isaiah is known as a rather forward-looking prophet. He does not simply speak of the turmoil of his own time. Isaiah also makes reference to a person who will deliver Israel from its current predicament. But rather than make a concise case, we find instead that Isaiah intersperses his writings with occasionally vague and occasionally very direct references to this individual who will redeem Israel.

Because Isaiah does not refer explicitly to a future king or a messiah, it is possible to miss the parallel with the coming of the messiah or the life of Jesus Christ.   Rather than speak of a king or messiah, Isaiah refers repeatedly to a servant (“ebed,” Strong’s H5649, slave) who will do the Lord’s bidding.  Scholars have said there are four “servant songs” that refer directly to this individual, in chapters 42, 49, 50 and 53. However, it should be noted that references to this servant or proto-messiah are evident throughout the Book of Isaiah.

In Isaiah 42, the prophet says, behold my servant, the one I uphold, my chosen, in whom I delight. I have placed my spirit within him. Isaiah tells us that this servant possesses the favor of God. He is no random son of David, but rather someone chosen to do the Lord’s work. The prophet says that this servant will take on a role that goes far beyond what is asked of a slave. More than a slave, he will play the role of a king, and establish peace and justice on earth.  Thus Isaiah tells us that the servant is given authority by God to serve the nation of Israel.

In a Isaiah 49, the servant is mentioned again, and the servant is compared to a sharp two-edged sword.  Again, Isaiah writes that the servant’s mission goes far beyond that of a typical slave – he is God’s favored, and he will be a light to the nations (Is 49:6, 42:6).  The servant’s role as two-edged sword and light to the nations emerge in the New Testament.  In John 8:12, Christ says I am the light of the world. In the Johannine Gospel, not only is Jesus the light, but any disciple who proclaims the good news of Jesus is a source of light themselves.  In the Book of Revelation, a two-edged sword is possessed by the one speaking to John. In Revelation 1, it is typically understood that Christ himself, the Alpha and the Omega, the Living One (Rev 1:17-18) appears to John.  We might note with some irony that Isaiah foretells in chapter 49 that through the servant, my salvation shall reach to the end of the earth.  The direct translation for my salvation is yeshuati, (Strong’s 3444, יְשׁוּעָה “salvation”), from which the Hebrew or Aramaic name Yeshua – Jesus – is derived.

In chapter 53, the servant speaks in the first person. He describes a passion or suffering. The servant says, I gave my back to those who beat me. My face I did not hide from insults and spitting. He says, I have set my face like flint, to those who offer blows. However, the servant maintains his faith in God, stating, the Lord is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.  While some scholars have suggested that the servant in Isaiah may be the nation of Israel itself, Chapters 52 and 53 convey to us rather convincingly that the servant is a person… someone whose courage and fortitude surpasses anything the nation of Israel has ever seen before. In the following passage, from Isaiah 52, we are told that the servant shall be vindicated. At the same time, the superlatives used to describe the servant (beyond that of mortals his appearance; beyond that of human beings) suggest that the servant is neither slave nor the nation of Israel. Rather, the servant is the Chosen one of God, the messiah.

 

See, my servant shall prosper,

he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.

Even as many were amazed at him—

so marred were his features,

beyond that of mortals his appearance,

beyond that of human beings-

So shall he startle many nations,

kings shall stand speechless;

For those who have not been told shall see,

those who have not heard shall ponder it.

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