I don’t know if you have noticed, but the Bible is a complex book. It was written over several generations, in three different languages, and by multiple authors.
For this reason, it can be difficult to see how all the pieces fit together. If you have ever had a head-scratching experience when you read Scripture, you’re in good company.
The Book of Acts records how an Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip to explain the passage he was reading. “Who is Isaiah speaking of? Is it himself or someone else?” he queried (Acts 8:34).
The question the Ethiopian asks is natural, given that he was reading one of Isaiah’s four “Servant Songs.” These songs, found in Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12, describe both the identity and the ministry of the Lord’s servant.
These passages were a hope-filled proclamation spoken to Israel during a time of political and spiritual upheaval. Isaiah’s words brought comfort and hope to a people facing a deep spiritual crisis.
But who exactly was this servant of which Isaiah was speaking? Did Isaiah describe someone in his own day, or did he look forward to a future person?
As we try to answer this question, we need to balance historical context with the forward-looking nature of prophecy, all the while believing that the scriptures still have something to say to us today.
Thus, when it comes to the identity of the Lord’s Servant, there are three different answers to consider.
1. The Servant Is Israel
Before we start making connections to New Testament events, we must recognize that, in its original day, the Lord’s servant referred to Israel. When Isaiah spoke these words, the original hearers didn’t hear a prophetic utterance about a future Messiah.
Instead, the words affirmed their own identity as God’s chosen people. The Servant Songs described Israel’s own identity and the ministry to which they were called.
Isaiah 49:3, for example, declares, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’” Even in Babylon, Israel remained the people through whom God would bring redemption to the word.
Israel’s identity as the Lord’s servant, therefore, necessarily defined their mission. Israel was never meant to be a holy club. It is to the people of God that God declared, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, and a light to Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:8).
God’s plan for Israel was to be a community of ministry who would reach out beyond themselves and bring healing and justice to the world. Israel was to free captives, release prisoners, and help people see the reality of God in the world.
Eventually, the liberation Isaiah spoke of came about. In roughly 538 B.C., the Babylonian captivity formally ended, and the people marched back to the Promised Land.
As the people began to rebuild that which had been destroyed, they also began pondering Isaiah’s words; Did Isaiah’s prophecy have nothing more to say?
2. The Servant Is Jesus
As the generations passed, Israel began to see another truth within Isaiah’s words. While the Servant Songs spoke primarily of Israel, they also articulated the coming of the Messiah — the divine king who would bring healing and liberation to Israel.
The last servant song especially refers to the Lord’s Servant in the singular tense. Instead of language such as they and them, Isaiah spoke of “he.”
For example, Isaiah says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (53:5). Through these words, Israel began to recognize God’s promise of a Messiah.
From the Christian perspective, we can’t help but hear these words as a reference to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew particularly highlights how Jesus fulfilled the various promises and prophecies of the Old Testament.
A great example of this is Jesus’ own baptism. As Jesus comes up from the water, the Spirit of God is placed upon him, and a voice from above declares Jesus as the Son of God, the one in whom God the Father delights (Matthew 3:17).
This event is a visual representation of the prophetic utterance from Isaiah, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit upon him” (Isaiah 43:1).
When we look at Isaiah’s description of the identity and action of the Lord’s servant, it is abundantly clear that Isaiah was speaking about the coming of Christ.
Jesus uniquely fulfills Isaiah’s words. Jesus, for example, opens the eyes of the blind and sets free those in prison (43:7); Jesus was “led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (53:7).
Even his death and resurrection were spoken of! Isaiah declares, “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life” (53:11). In every way, Jesus fulfills the identity of the Lord’s Servant.
3. The Servant Is the Church
The fact that Jesus fulfills these passages in a unique and profound way does not discount that the people of God are described as the Servant of the Lord.
As members of the Church, the body of Christ, we belong to that company. Isaiah’s description of the Lord’s servant, therefore, must describe the identity and activity of the Church.
Teresa of Avila is attributed to saying, “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no fee on this earth but yours; Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hand with which he blesses all the world.”
As the people of God, who have received the Holy Spirit through Baptism, we are called forward in ministry. Like Israel, the Church is not to be a holy club, looking in upon ourselves for the sake of our own spiritual entertainment.
The Lord calls us into the world to live out the compassion of God and to shine with the reality of God’s love for all nations and all people. To those who belong in the church, Isaiah’s words ring true, “I have called you in righteousness” (Isaiah 42:6).
The good news in this is that like Israel before us, we are never called out in ministry alone. At times, we can get anxious and nervous about the high call of ministry, thinking God demands that which is beyond us.
Yet if we look at Isaiah’s prophecies, the Lord’s servants are empowered by the Spirit. Isaiah says, “For I am the Lord your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, do not fear; I will help you.”
Similarly, Isaiah 42:1 declares, “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight, I will place my Spirit on him.” God promises to empower us for the work that God calls us to.
What Does This Mean?
Isaiah’s words about the Servant of the Lord are filled with hope and encouragement. They are an invitation to enter the very work that God is doing in this world.
As the people of Christ, we are given the profound opportunity to share the love of Christ to others. As the Lord’s servants, let us take up our calling.
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The Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada. He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.com, ibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others. He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca. He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.