The Suffering Servant of Isaiah by Walter Brueggemann

November 2, 2010

Michelangelo Isaiah, 1509

We may notice in particular one element of this poetry upon which many interpreters comment. There is no doubt that in this poetry “Israel” as the addressee is named and regarded as YHWH’s “servant,” as the one in covenant with YHWH and so bound in obedience to YHWH. Scholars have, however, identified four poems dubbed “Servant Songs” that came to be regarded as distinct from the usage of the term “servant” in the rest of the poetry (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12).

Because these four poems have been singled out by scholars, it has been thought that the person designated as “servant” in these poems (and only in these poems) is a special figure with a special relationship to YHWH and a special vocation from YHWH, quite different from Israel as “servant.” Scholars have used much energy to offer various hypotheses concerning this “special agent,” and, of course, Christians have found it convenient to suggest that the character in the poetry is Jesus in anticipation.
(North 1956; see Childs 2001, 422-23)

More recent scholarship, however, has moved to a consensus that these four poems are not to be separated from the rest of the poetry, and are to be taken in context along with the rest of the poetry. The important implication of this critical judgment is the conclusion that the “servant” in these four poems, like the “servant” elsewhere in the poetry of Second Isaiah, is none other than Israel (Mettinger 1983). It is to be recognized, moreover, that Israel with its special relationship to YHWH is also given a special assignment:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
(Isaiah 42:6-7)

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
(Isaiah 49:6b)

That mandate, however, is not in fact a novum in Israel’s self-understanding, but is fully congruent with the mandate already given to Father Abraham to be “a blessing” to the nations. (See Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 51:1-3.)

Given that emerging interpretive consensus, it is nonetheless important to recognize that Isaiah 49:6 constitutes something of a problem for that interpretation

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel.
(Isaiah 49:6a)

The verse is a problem because if “Israel” is servant, it as servant has a mandate to “raise up, restore” Israel. Thus a commission for Israel to serve Israel. it is possible, while keeping this identity of the servant, to imagine a “pure, obedient, faithful Israel” with a mandate to a more inclusive Israel that needs rescue and restoration, While the point is awkward and leaves a hit of an enigma, this problematic is not an obstruction to the identity of the servant in these four songs as Israel. Childs has recently rearticulated the connection made in the tradition between this text and the church’s claim for Jesus.
(Childs 2001, 420-23).

It is sufficient in general to know that Israel now displaced and soon to be restored is the primal subject of Second Isaiah. The hints of a larger mandate to Israel in 42:6 and 49:6 situate Israel as a vehicle and agent in the service of YHWH’s larger governance of all peoples. Thus the anticipated restoration of Israel is for the well-being of Israel, but an Israel always related to the larger intentions of YHWH for the world.

It is clear, according to critical judgment, that Isaiah 40-55 constitutes a quite distinct literature. It is equally clear, however, that this distinct corpus is to be related, in the final form of the text, to Isaiah 1-39. That relationship is clearly a literary achievement. That artistic achievement of the final form of the text is not only literary, however, for the twinning of chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-55 constitutes a core Isaianic assertion concerning inescapable judgment reliably followed by generous restoration. Thus the two themes together constitute both Israel’s lived memory and Israel’s defining theological conviction. The shape of the book of Isaiah, as Clements and Childs have shown so clearly, is a theological shaping (Clements 1982; 1985; Childs 1979, 325-38). It is nonetheless a theological shaping that is completely resonant with Israel’s lived memory.

The third section of the book of Isaiah is chapters 56-66, which for reasons now obvious are termed by scholars “Third Isaiah.” It is the judgment of most scholars that this material reflects a community occupied with issues very different from those in chapters 40—55, and so it is judged to be a later literature. The apparent context of this literature is after the return and restoration anticipated in Second Isaiah, in a context where the community had to work out disputed internal questions of social life and religious practice It is common to locate this literature somewhere between the building of the Second Temple (520-516), on which see Haggai and Zechariah, and the restoration of Ezra and Nehemiah after 450 B.C.E. Commonly scholars prefer a date earlier rather than later, thus soon after 520. That date is not very long after the hypothetical date of Second Isaiah, but places the literature in a very different social-historical circumstance

Whereas Second Isaiah is preoccupied with emancipation from Babylon, Third Isaiah is concerned with internal communal life and the tensions that must have arisen among the parties that we might label “liberal and conservative “In chapter 56, for example, there is a dispute about inclusion and exclusion in the community and in chapter 58 there is a debate about what constitutes a proper practice of religious “fasting.” The chapters apparently reflect disputed negotiation in the community that became the earliest form of Judaism after the great restoration from exile had been accomplished.

It turned out that the “facts on the ground” in restored Jerusalem were modest and shabby when contrasted with the lyrical anticipations of Second Isaiah. The community reflected in Third Isaiah had to deal with the frustrations and disappointments that so sharply contrasted with the earlier lyrical expectations. In the midst of’ Third Isaiah, special attention might especially be given to chapters 60-62, which voice a lyrical power that compares favorably with that of Second Isaiah. These chapters in grand lyrical fashion anticipate future well-being for Israel. These chapters include familiar formulations, most especially 61:1-4, which is reiterated in Luke 4:18-19:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
     because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
     to bind lip the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
     and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
     and the day of vengeance of our God;
     to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
     to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
     the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will he called oaks of righteousness,
     the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
     they shall raise up th.e former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
     the devastations of many generations.
(Isaiah 61:1-4)

Beyond these expectations, the lyrical promise of 65:17—25 voices the most sweeping anticipation of the “new age” when YHWH’s rule is fully established, a promise that is the basis for the immense and final promise of the NT in Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelations 2 1:1-2)

While the cosmic scope of “new heaven and new earth” is the furthest reach of biblical hope, along with them is the promise of a “new Jerusalem” that will be ordered by YHWH’s presence in terms of justice, compassion, and neighborliness. The culmination of the book of Isaiah with “new Jerusalem” (65:17-25; see 66:10-13 as well) brings closure to the Jerusalem theme that dominates the entire book of Isaiah. Thus First Isaiah, in sum, bespeaks the destruction of Jerusalem as the judgment of YHWH; Second Isaiah anticipates restoration of Jerusalem, and Third Isaiah struggles with the shaping of the Jerusalem to come.

The sequence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah attracts the interpreted memory of Jerusalem as destroyed, expected, and reorganized. The traditioning process thus has ordered material into a coherent interpretive pattern that has risen out of and with respect to many different circumstances. Having noted the sequence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah, however, it is equally important to notice that in the final form of the book an overture articulates all of these themes at the very outset:

How the faithful city
     has become a whore!
     She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her –
     but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
     your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
     and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
     and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you;
     I will smelt away your dross as with lye
     and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
     and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
     the faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
(Isaiah 1:21-27)

This brief précis traces the entire history of Jerusalem as it is to be lined out in what follows in the book. The entire book of Isaiah concerns YHWH’s “love-hate” relationship with Jerusalem, a city punished by YHWH in anger and then (but not until then) loved to newness by this same YHWH.

Critical study of the book of Isaiah characteristically attends to the details of specific texts that have arisen from many hands in many circumstances. Such critical study, however, offers an understanding of the book of Isaiah that is fragmented and piecemeal. As a consequence, the major and demanding interpretive issue of the book of Isaiah concerns the relationship of the parts to the intent of the whole. The parts show the community of Israel in a series of crises. The whole brings all of those parts into coherence in terms of YHWH’s governance. When taken all together, it is clear that the gap between 39:5-8 and 40:1-11 is the pivot point between YHWH’s judgment and YHWH’s generous mercy. When taken in this way, we are able to see that the book of Isaiah is an unmistakable embodiment of Clements’s thesis concerning the thematic shaping of prophetic books:

In such fashion we can at least come to understand the value and meaning of the way in which distinctive patterns have been imposed upon the prophetic collections of the canon so that warnings of doom and disaster are always followed by promises of hope and restoration…

We must see that prophecy is a collection of collections, and that ultimately the final result in the prophetic corpus of the canon formed a recognizable unity not entirely dissimilar from that of the Pentateuch. As this was made up from various sources and collections, so also the Former and Latter Prophets, comprising the various preserved prophecies of a whole series of inspired individuals, acquired an overarching thematic unity. This centered on the death and rebirth of Israel, interpreted theologically as acts of divine judgment and salvation.
(Clements 1977, 49, 53)

The relationship between critical attentiveness to the parts and canonical attentiveness to the whole constitutes a major interpretive opportunity. Having said that, I conclude by commenting on three texts that have exercised important influence on Christian interpretation of Jesus. As Sawyer has made clear, the book of Isaiah has been an important biblical textual source for Christian interpretation (Sawyer 1996). It is for that reason important to notice the particular reinterpretive moves characteristically made in Christian interpretation:

  1. The text of Isaiah 7:14 has been an indispensable basis for the NT assertion of the “virgin birth” of Jesus that has loomed so large in Christian tradition. The text, of Isaiah 7:14 itself concerns Isaiah’s word to King Ahaz in a particular political-military crisis. The prophet wants to communicate to the king that within two years (the time when the baby born to the “young woman” can tell right from wrong) the threat to Jerusalem from the north will pass. In context, the prophetic word has no particular interest in the young woman or in the mode of the birth of the child, but only in the age of the baby in order to indicate the passage of time.As is often noticed, the Hebrew term for “young woman” in the verse does not of itself indicate “virgin” so that the text itself is not germane to the later theological claim of “virgin birth.”
    It is the case, however, that the Hebrew term ‘almah (“young woman”) was rendered in the Greek translation (in a translation well before the Christian era) as parthénos, that is, “virgin.” From that rendering it was an easy step for the Gospel of Matthew to take up the Greek version and reread the text with reverence to Jesus and his birth from a “virgin.”The move from the OT to the NT via a Greek translation means that the text has taken on new, Christological meanings that are nowhere present in the intent or on the horizon of the eighth century prophet. As a consequence, the text has taken on a quite different “second meaning” that has served the church in powerful ways, but that stands at a distance from the Hebrew of the book of Isaiah.

    It is important to appreciate that the text is capable of a “second meaning,” but especially important to distinguish that “second meaning” from what is appropriately a “first meaning” in the crisis of King Ahaz. It is not necessary to deny the force of such a “second meaning,” but great confusion and mischief has been wrought by an uninformed propensity to merge these two quite different meanings into one, whereby “doctrinal” needs have blatantly overridden “historical” readings. By honoring such “double meanings” it becomes unnecessary (a) to have “doctrinal” readings that override “historical” meanings or, conversely, (b) to have “historical” readings that deny “doctrinal” meanings. The text is deep enough to carry both options, provided we are thoughtful and critical enough to host them both.

  2. Isaiah 40:3-5 stands at the very beginning of Second Isaiah with its promise of return and restoration, just after the gap of destruction following 39:5-8. These verses in 40:3-5 are a part of the initial act of poetic imagination whereby it is declared that Jerusalem has “served her term” of punishment (40:2). In order to move the imagination of Israel beyond exile in Babylon, the poet imagines a great triumphal procession home on a newly constructed road (already anticipated in Isa 35:8-10).The procession led by the victorious YHWH who has just defeated the gods of Babylon is a procession out of exile and into well-being. The metaphor of procession bespeaks a complete reversal from suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, a turn in historical circumstance effected by the powerful reality and intentionality of YHWH.It is remarkable that this vision of homecoming is taken up as an introductory formula for all four Gospels in the NT (Matthew3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23). In each case the quotation is used to situate John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus. By placing this text at the beginning of the Gospel narrative, it is clear that the tradition interprets the coming of John and then of Jesus as a mighty reassertion of the rule of God (= Kingdom of God) who will lead God’s people out of exile into well-being. There is, of course, no question that Isaiah 40:3-5 had the NT figures in purview. In the reuse of the text in the NT nonetheless, the church’s testimony to Jesus attests Jesus as the one who will lead God’s people safely to well-being In that movement, moreover, all flesh will see the glory of YHWH disclosed in the person of Jesus
  3. The so-called “Servant Song” in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, as argued above, features Israel as the one who suffers and who saves through suffering. The identity of the servant, however, is covert and enigmatic enough to allow for another reading. This emancipated possibility of alternative interpretation was, not surprisingly, taken up by the early church which found in the text an anticipation of Jesus (Acts 8:32-33):The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
     (Acts 8:34-35)The faith of the early church, here voiced through Philip, found the Servant Song to be an acceptable characterization of the person and vocation of Jesus. The early church exercised immense interpretive imagination and was able to make connections between the compelling reality of Jesus and the poetic openness of the Isaiah text. The resultant interpretive use of Isaiah 53 went well beyond what might have been intended in the “historical” articulation of the text.

    All three of these texts, 7:14; 40:3—5; and 52:13-53:12, have particular meanings in “historical” context that are reasonably clear. In canonical usage, nonetheless, the text moves readily beyond such “historical” intentionality to make illumination of Jesus that the early church found credible in terms of Jesus and available in terms of the book of Isaiah. Thus it is clear that in the canonical shape of the book of Isaiah itself, and in subsequent appropriation by the early church in the NT, the book of Isaiah is particularly generative of new waves of interpretation, each of which has been received in the interpretive community as a legitimate future from the text. It is clear that the text itself provides some of the impetus for such generativity, an impetus readily seized upon by the community of the continuing interpretive process.

    Even though the text itself is boldly venturesome in new meanings and even though the subsequent Christian community moved even further in new meanings, it is clear that on the whole the interpretive tradition has not moved far from the initial intentionality of the Isaiah tradition itself. That tradition is focused on YHWH’s judgment against Jerusalem and against the people of Israel and then is focused on the restoration of Jerusalem and the reconstitution of the people of Israel as the people of covenant. This twofold tradition of judgment and promise appears in many modes in subsequent interpretation but continues with the fundamental conviction that the judgment and rescue of YHWH continually impinge upon the historical reality that is lived in the world over which YHWH the Creator presides.

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One comment

  1. To a degree I wish had read this when I took an exegetical class in Isaiah in eminary yers ago…


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