Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
The Mystery of the Servant of the LORD
The prophet here is not speaking of the small remnant (less than 50,000 according to Ezra 2:64) who returned from Babylon to Canaan after the Babylonian captivity. Instead, he is identifying the "Servant" as the exiles of both houses of Israel who were scattered into foreign lands, ultimately migrating to "the isles" at "the end of the earth."
by Jory Steven Brooks
In the book of Isaiah, an individual or entity repeatedly appears who is called by God, "My Servant." Biblical commentaries disagree on the identification of this ideological figure, some convinced that it is a messianic term for Christ, while most others identify it as the twelve tribe nation of Israel. Jewish expositor, Dr. LW. Slotki, in his commentary on Isaiah (1949) said, "The Jewish commentators are divided between Israel, the King Messiah, and the prophet himself." (p.199) Christian commentaries are similarly divided.
The Servant of the LORD appears in chapters 41 through 53 in the prophecy of Isaiah. The famous Biblical expositor, Charles Cutler Torrey, professor of Semitic languages at Yale University in the first half of the twentieth century, called these chapters, "passages of central importance" to understanding Isaiah. (Isaiah: A New Interpretation, 1928, p.75). Yet scholars themselves cannot agree on how to interpret these very important prophecies!
There is a sympathetic urge for Christians to want to augment the Old Testament prophecies concerning Christ, and Isaiah chapter 53 has long provided ministers with a Scriptural mine of prophecies concerning Christ's suffering and death for sin. When we examine the specific wording used in chapter 53 concerning this Servant, we discover that a very distinct particular term is used only in that chapter: "My Righteous Servant." We read this in Isaiah 53:11, " 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."
Nowhere else is that phrase used, and it can only be a Messianic expression, for only the first-born Son of God has the ability and authority from God to justify and forgive sins. In addition, Israel certainly could not have been considered righteous during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. His ministry covered the last decades of the eighth century, B.C. (beginning about 740 B.C.) when the House of Israel was committing gross sins. "Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight" (2 Kings 17:18), and sinful Judah was soon to follow them into exile. (Also see Isaiah 48:1)
However, the entity called "My Servant" cannot be identified with the Messiah, the "Righteous Servant," due to his unMessianic character, as seen for example in Isaiah 42:19: "Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? who is blind as he that is perfect, and blind as the LORD'S servant?" Certainly, the Messiah would not be characterized as one who is blind! Yet the word, "perfect," in this verse has been a source of confusion. It is translated from the Hebrew "shalam, "related to "sholom," meaning peace. The Amplified Translation says, "Who is blind like the one who is at peace with Me, who has been admitted to covenant relationship with Me?" This rendering of shalam as "peace" is also followed by other English versions, such as the American Standard, Young's Literal, and The Scriptures translation. The Messiah was specially chosen and anointed by God, not merely someone in covenant relationship with God. It seems clear, therefore, that the messianic "Righteous Servant" of Isaiah 53 is not the same entity as "My Servant" of Isaiah chapters 41 through 52.
The Servant described in these several chapters of Isaiah is referred to in a number of descriptive ways. In Isaiah 42:19 he is called both "My Servant" and "the LORD's Servant." In Isaiah 41:8 we read, "But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend." Isaiah 45:4, "For Jacob my servant's sake..." Isa. 48:20, "the LORD hath redeemed his Servant Jacob." In Isaiah 49:3, "My Servant, O Israel." It is abundantly clear that this Servant is not the Messiah.
Yet the argument is often made that the Servant in verses such as Isaiah 49:6 could not be Israel, because the Jewish people have not fulfilled the prophecies of what the LORD's Servant was to do. This prophecy states, "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 [i.e. nations], that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." The Jewish people have not been a spiritual light to the nations, nor have they carried the Gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth. They have not been a missionary people, nor have they themselves seen the light of the Gospel. They have in fact done none of the things that "the LORD's Servant" was to accomplish in the prophecies of Isaiah. Nor can such prophecies be relegated to the Messianic Age, the Millennium, because the Servant prophecies of Isaiah 41 to 52 are not Messianic. They speak of a Servant of the LORD in this present age, a Servant who now serves as a light to the nations even in their own blindness. Certainly that blindness will be removed in the events prior to the Millennial Kingdom!
It is definite that this "Servant of the LORD" is therefore neither the Messiah nor the Jewish people. Who then can they be? Here the mainstream commentaries are in a quandary, an ostensibly hopeless puzzle with seemingly no solution. Yet while popular mainstream theology may not have an answer, a look at a key aspect of Isaiah's prophecies will help to unravel the mystery.
Throughout the Servant prophecies, Isaiah makes a continual connection between three things: Israel, the Servant, and "the isles." For example, Isaiah 41:1, 8-9 says, "Keep silence before me, O islands; and let the people renew their strength...thou, Israel, art my servant ...Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth...Thou art my servant..." The prophet here is not speaking of the small remnant (less than 50,000 according to Ezra 2:64) who returned from Babylon to Canaan after the Babylonian captivity. Instead, he is identifying the "Servant" as the exiles of both houses of Israel who were scattered into foreign lands, ultimately migrating to "the isles" at "the end of the earth." We see this distinctive wording, for example, in the following chapter:
"Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth...the isles, and the inhabitants thereof...declare his praise in the islands." (Isa 42:10-11; cf. 43:6) It was the exiles who did not return to Canaan who would become "the Servant of the LORD," who would be his witnesses, his redeemed, declaring his praise in the isles.
Chapter 49 again connects the three: "Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far...Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified." (Isa 49:1, 3)
In Isaiah chapter 51 we are told yet again that the LORD's Servant would be found in the isles: "Hearken unto me, my people; and give ear unto me, O my nation... the isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust." (verses 4 and 5)
The word "isles" is a translation of the Hebrew word, "iy," meaning either an island or coastland. It is a manifest fact that neither Assyria nor Babylon could be described in any sense as an island or a coastland. Quite the opposite was true, for both countries were dry, arid, inland desert regions! Isaiah was prophesying that exiled, lost Israel would migrate to coastal and island areas where they would be redeemed, praise the LORD, and serve him faithfully. They would in actual fact become "the LORD's Servant!"
Not only that, but Isaiah declares that the Servant of the LORD would be "blind" in some special sense. It would not be a Spiritual blindness, for the Servant is repeatedly said to be redeemed and glorifying God. (see Isa. 44:22-23; 45:17, 25) Instead, it must be that these exiled lost tribes of Israel would be blind to their identity as God's own people. They would faithfully serve the LORD even in their blindness as to who they were and what they were called to do!
That these "blind" Servants would not return to old Canaan after their captivity ended is made clear in Isaiah 42:16, "And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known...Who is blind, but my servant?" Instead of the pathway they knew to Canaan, the exiles would make a long journey over rivers and seas, and be found to the east and the west at the ends of the earth: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee...I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west...bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 43:2, 5, 6)
Isaiah repeats over and over the fact that the lost exiled tribes of Israel would not return to Canaan, but travel over rivers and seas, through uninhabited wilderness regions, to new isles and coastlands where they would faithfully serve the LORD as His Servant. "Thus saith the LORD, which maketh a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters ...Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert...This people have I formed for myself; they shall shew forth my praise." (Isa 43:16,19, 21)
Frequent reference is made in these prophecies to the fact that the LORD's Servant, exiled lost Israel in the isles and coastlands, would be a redeemed people. This makes it manifest that they would become Christian nations (Gen. 35:11), "Christendom," who would show forth his praise through faith in Jesus Christ, "the Righteous Servant."
lsaiah's message to "the Servant of the LORD" is well summed up by his words in chapter 51 of the Servant prophecies: "Hearken unto me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the LORD: look unto the rock whence ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged. Look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you: for I called him alone, and blessed him, and increased him." (Isa 51:1-2) I pray we all do that!
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