Thomas W. Hudgins: The First “Servant Song” in Isaiah

by Dr. Thomas W. Hudgins, professor, author and translator of Dr. David Alan Black’s book, Aprenda a Leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.

Isaiah 42:1-9

You might never have heard the expression “Servant Songs” before. But I’m sure you have heard of Isaiah the prophet and the book in the Old Testament that was written by him. And I’m also sure that you have read Isaiah 53 before. You know, that’s the place in the Old Testament with verses like “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). This is no doubt the portion of Isaiah that Peter is pointing his audience to when he writes that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the cross . . . for by his wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). But one thing you might not know is there are four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, and the one we are most familiar with is actually the fourth—and longest. What are the “Servant Songs,” where are they, and what do they tell us about the identity of the Messiah? That’s our focus here, though we’re only going to focus on the first one.

There are four “Servant Songs” in Isaiah: (1) 42:1–9 (though some restrict it to vv. 1–4), (2) 49:1–6, (3) 50:4–9, and (4) 52:13–53:12. Each refers to an individual by the expression “my Servant.” These passages are unique in Isaiah, who uses the word “servant” elsewhere in reference to Israel, in that they discuss specific activities that are attributed to the Messiah. John Oswalt writes this:

“In all the other occurrences of ‘servant’ in chapters 40–48 a fearful servant, clearly identified as the nation, is assured of God’s continuing love and care . . . . No function other than ‘witness’ is mentioned. But in these ‘Servant Song’ references, while there are assurances of help, the emphasis is on the Servant’s activities for the world” (The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66, NICOT [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998], 109).

Calling them “songs” comes from form critical studies in the previous century. Were they actually songs? –No, at least they weren’t originally intended to be sung like the psalms per se. With that said, though, scholars began referring to them as songs because they saw in them parallels with Ancient Near Eastern liturgy. Has someone ever put these words to music? Sure. But I’m not inclined to think they were written after any Ancient Near Eastern pattern. These are the words given to Isaiah for him to proclaim to the generation who has stiffened their necks to their Master and become more disobedient than Israel’s livestock to their masters. In any event, the name “Servant Songs” stuck and it’s the default way people refer to these four discourse units in Isaiah.

The first Servant Song is found in Isaiah 42:1–9. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of this passage. There’s lots here, so we can’t park and take the tour. Verse 1b reads, “I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” Notice that Isaiah uses the word “nations,” not Israel. That’s very, very, very interesting. I’m a Gentile. And unless you are Jewish, you are too. And I sure love seeing how the Gentiles were on God’s radar from the very beginning, even after he formed a special covenant relationship with Israel. The Gentiles play a huge role in Isaiah’s prophecy. One of the most familiar verses is found in Isaiah 9: “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times he treated the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on he shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them” (vv. 1–2). And just a little further into Isaiah we find, “Then in that day, the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and his resting place will be glory” (Isaiah 11:10). The Gentiles are on God’s mind and of significant importance in his redemptive plan. Jesus spent time with Gentiles. Remember the woman at the well in John 4; John made a point to say Jesus absolutely had to travel through Samaria. Why? There was one person he had to talk to, and he waited for her by Jacob’s well. And don’t forget the demoniac on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5). That individual ended up being the only person impacted by Jesus and his message during that trip. Jesus definitely focused on the Jewish people during his ministry. After all, to them belonged the covenants and they were his people, both as their God and as a descendant, having taken on human flesh. But his mission was a mission to the world, and he modeled for his own disciples how globally focused they had to be if they were going to represent him well later in their endeavors to the ends of the world.

The first Servant Song has a lot in it. One of my favorite verses about Jesus is also found in this first one, though most people might not be as familiar with it. Here’s what Isaiah tells us: “He will not cry out or raise his voice, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish. He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:2–3). It’s verse three that I really love so much. But there’s an issue in verse two that we need to deal with: What does it mean that “he will not cry out or raise his voice, nor make his voice heard in the street”? Didn’t Jesus teach? Didn’t people hear him? And didn’t he cry out, such as the “Woes” found in Matthew 23? Of course. Verse two doesn’t say that Jesus will be utterly silent. It’s not even a reference to what we find later in 1 Peter: “and while being reviled, he did not revile in return; while suffering he uttered no threats . . .” (1 Peter 2:23). Isaiah is pointing out just how gentle the Messiah is overall and how gentle he would be when he took on human flesh and ministered in Galilee, its environs, and ultimately Jerusalem, where he offered his life as a guilt offering. Isaiah is pointing to how the Messiah would understand the importance of biding his time, withdrawing when need be, so that he could offer hope to those who otherwise had no hope and for whom leaders were confident no hope would come.

And that’s the verse that really jumps out at me—verse 3—which explicitly refers to this gentleness, offering two beautiful descriptions of just how gentle he will be. First, he says the Messiah will not break a bruised reed. A bruised reed was useless. You could do anything really with a reed. It was like an all-purpose ingredient. But if it was bruised, a person would break it and discard it. Why break it? So you wouldn’t pick it up again and think you could do something with it. What’s Isaiah say? The Messiah won’t break it. He won’t discard it. Second, Isaiah says the Messiah is so gentle that he could walk by a candle that was just about to go out, and sure enough, it wouldn’t extinguish. Now for us, this imagery is probably closer to our world. You’ve used a candle haven’t you? Seen one that was just at the wick’s end? When a candle burns way down to the end of a wick, it doesn’t have much life left. In fact, you can put it out pretty easy. Just the slightest movement of air can strangle the life out of a dimly burning wick. But the Messiah would be so gentle that he could walk past the most faint of dim flames and somehow it wouldn’t go out. He’s that gentle.

You’ll find the first half of the first Servant Song quoted in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew records it in his account right before the religious leaders of Jesus’ day reject him as the Messiah and heir to David’s throne. When we think about the Messiah, specifically when we think about the Messiah in Isaiah, our minds immediately turn to Isaiah 7:14, 9:1–6, and, most definitely, the fourth and final Servant Song, Isaiah 52:13–53:12. We need to know those passages, and know them well. But if you’ve never turned your attention to the first three Servant Songs, take my advice and dig in today. We sometimes think the Gospels are the only place to go if we want to see Jesus. My friends, the whole of the Old Testament tells his story. It is the story of Jesus. And Isaiah contains four specific prophecies concerning the Messiah that share the phrase “my Servant.” It’s remarkable what Isaiah tells us about the one who would come and give his life on that cross. Amazing.

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Joshua Sim
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I thought the explanation you provided for the bruised reed was very funny. When I think about it though, it makes sense. The burning wick on the other hand surprised me. I never would’ve imagined that it was the act of passing that would put out the weak flame; I always pictured someone quickly squeezing their fingers over the flame to extinguish it. Recalling how I just finished reading through Isaiah a week ago, and how I can only vaguely remember reading about a servant that I assumed was Jesus (but wasn’t entirely sure because at one point there’s something… Read more »
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