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The Servant songs (also called the Servant poems or the Songs of the Suffering Servant) are songs in the Book of Isaiah. They were first identified by Bernhard Duhm in his 1892 commentary on Isaiah. The songs are four poems written about a certain "servant of YHWH." God calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly abused. The servant sacrifices himself, accepting the punishment due others. In the end, he is rewarded.
Some scholars regard Isaiah 61:1-3 as a fifth servant song, although the word "servant" is not mentioned in the passage.
The traditional Jewish interpretation is that the Servant is a metaphor for the Jewish people, an opinion shared by many contemporary scholars. According to Duhm, the servant was some otherwise unknown individual, and the songs' author was a disciple. Various interpretations have followed: Zerubbabel, Jehoiachin, Moses, Cyrus the Great. Duhm proposed in his commentary that the songs were added by a poet with leprosy. Sigmund Mowinckel suggested that the songs referred to Isaiah himself but later abandoned that interpretation.
However, several ancient rabbinic sources understood Isaiah 53 as referring to the Messiah. Here are quotations from some of them: Babylonian Talmud: "The Messiah --what is his name?...The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, `surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted...'" (Sanhedrin 98b) Midrash Ruth Rabbah: "Another explanation (of Ruth ii.14): -- He is speaking of king Messiah; `Come hither,' draw near to the throne; `and eat of the bread,' that is, the bread of the kingdom; `and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,' this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, `But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities'" Targum Jonathan: "Behold my servant Messiah shall prosper; he shall be high and increase and be exceedingly strong..." Zohar: "`He was wounded for our transgressions,' etc....There is in the Garden of Eden a palace called the Palace of the Sons of Sickness; this palace the Messiah then enters, and summons every sickness, every pain, and every chastisement of Israel; they all come and rest upon him. And were it not that he had thus lightened them off Israel and taken them upon himself, there had been no man able to bear Israel's chastisements for the transgression of the law: and this is that which is written, `Surely our sicknesses he hath carried.'" Rabbi Moses Maimonides: "What is the manner of Messiah's advent....there shall rise up one of whom none have known before, and signs and wonders which they shall see performed by him will be the proofs of his true origin; for the Almighty, where he declares to us his mind upon this matter, says, `Behold a man whose name is the Branch, and he shall branch forth out of his place' (Zech. 6:12). And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he shall appear, without father or mother or family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of dry earth, etc....in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which kings will harken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived." (From the Letter to the South (Yemen), quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 374-5) Rabbi Mosheh Kohen Ibn Crispin: This rabbi described those who interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to Israel as those: "having forsaken the knowledge of our Teachers, and inclined after the `stubbornness of their own hearts,' and of their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret it, in accordance with the teaching of our Rabbis, of the King Messiah....This prophecy was delivered by Isaiah at the divine command for the purpose of making known to us something about the nature of the future Messiah, who is to come and deliver Israel, and his life from the day when he arrives at discretion until his advent as a redeemer, in order that if anyone should arise claiming to be himself the Messiah, we may reflect, and look to see whether we can observe in him any resemblance to the traits described here; if there is any such resemblance, then we may believe that he is the Messiah our righteousness; but if not, we cannot do so." (From his commentary on Isaiah, quoted in The Fifty-third Chapter of Isaiah According to the Jewish Interpreters, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, Volume 2, pages 99-114.)
Christians traditionally see the servant as Jesus Christ. Another Christian interpretation combines aspects of the traditional Christian and the Jewish interpretation. This position sees the servant as an example of 'corporate personality', where an individual can represent a group, and vice-versa. Thus, in this case, the servant corresponds to Israel, yet at the same time corresponds to an individual (that is, the Messiah) who represents Israel.
The first poem has God speaking of His selection of the Servant who will bring justice to earth. Here the Servant is described as God's agent of justice, a king* that brings justice in both royal and prophetic roles, yet justice is established neither by proclamation nor by force. He does not ecstatically announce salvation in the marketplace as prophets were bound to do but instead moves quietly and confidently to establish right religion. Isaiah 42:1-4
The second poem, written from the Servant's point of view, is an account of his pre-natal calling by God to lead both Israel and the nations. The Servant is now portrayed as the prophet of the Lord equipped and called to restore the nation to God. Yet, anticipating the fourth song, he is without success. Taken with the picture of the Servant in the first song, his success will come not by political or military action, but by becoming a light to the Gentiles. Ultimately his victory is in God's hands. Isaiah 49:1-6.
The third poem has a darker yet more confident tone than the others. Although the song gives a first-person description of how the Servant was beaten and abused, here the Servant is described both as teacher and learner who follows the path God places him on without pulling back. Echoing the first song's "a bruised reed he will not break," he sustains the weary with a word. His vindication is left in God's hands. Isaiah 50:4-9
The fourth of the "servant songs" begins at Isaiah 52:13, continuing through 53:12 where it continues the discussion of the suffering servant. There is no clear identification for the "servant" within this song, but if the reader pays close attention to the author's word choice, one can deduce that the song could refer to either an individual or a group. Those that argue the "servant" to be an individual, have "proposed many candidates from Israel's past." The song declares that the "servant" intercedes for others, bearing their punishments and afflictions. In the end, he is rewarded with an exalted position.
On the other hand it is argued that the "servant" represents a group of people, more specifically the nation of Israel, and they feel that they have paid their dues and continue to suffer on behalf of others (Isaiah 53:7,11-12). Also, through the author's choice of words, we, our, and they, one could also argue that the "servant" was a group*. Isaiah 53:1-11
Early on the evaluation of the Servant by the "we" is negative: "we" esteemed him not, many were appalled by him, nothing in him was attractive to "us". But at the Servant's death the attitude of the "we" changes after verse 4 where the servant bears "our" iniquities, "our" sickness, by the servant's wounds "we" consequently are healed. Posthumously, then, the Servant is vindicated by God. Because of its references to the vicarious sufferings of the servant, many Christians believe this song to be among the Messianic prophecies of Jesus. Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and within the "Jewish tradition the servant was sometimes identified as a messianic figure of the future."