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The Two
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The Leader
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in Stone:
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Did Matthew
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The Mystic
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Who is the servant of Isaiah 53 -- the one who was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities”? Christians say Jesus. Jews have a variety of interpretations. Rabbi Singer says he is both the nation of Israel and the righteous remnant of Israel.

The second part of the book of Isaiah contains passages which describe the servant Israel. Sometimes he is righteous and sometimes sinful, sometimes singular and sometimes collective.

To interpret the servant passages correctly, it is helpful to make a careful study of the servant’s characteristics. There is strong evidence that there are two contrasting servants called “Israel.” In chapters 42 and 49 the two servants are set side by side. Chapter 42 describes a righteous servant who establishes justice, who opens blind eyes and releases the captives (vv. 1-7). Verses 18-25 speak of a deaf, blind, disobedient servant. The implication is that the good servant of the early verses has a mission to the rebellious servant -- his work is to heal the bruised reed and nurture the smoldering flame, to open the blind eyes and rescue the imprisoned people. Chapter 49 also describes a servant called “Israel” who was commissioned by the LORD to bring Jacob (the sinful servant) back to Him. This servant will not only gather Israel, but will be a light to the Gentiles and bring salvation to the ends of the earth (vv. 5-6). He is despised by the nation, a servant of rulers, but will be honored by kings and princes (v. 7). Chapter 50:4-9 further describes this servant who is attentive to the Lord’s voice, who is beaten and mocked, but depends upon God to vindicate him.

The unrighteous servant (Jacob, Israel) is described frequently in the second part of Isaiah. The characteristic sin is idolatry. (Though Israel/Jacob is not always called “servant,” he is identical with the servant.) Isaiah pictures Israel uniformly as sinful. There is a potentially righteous remnant always referred to in the future tense -- the ones God will heal (57:19), who will repent (59:20), who will be righteous and inherit the land (60:21; 62:1-7), who confess their sinfulness and plead for deliverance (63:16-19; 64:6-8; 65:9-10, 13-15), and who will inherit the new earth (65:17-24). Israel is sinful, but God holds out hope of a righteous remnant in the future.

Since Israel is a sinful servant, it appears that the righteous servant must be someone else -- someone who works to save sinful Israel.

The Two Servants of Isaiah

Note: All passages quoted refer specifically to a servant except those enclosed in parentheses, which refer to Israel.

The Righteous (Ideal) Servant

The Sinful Servant

What They Have in Common

He is called “Israel” 49:3

He is Israel, Jacob 41:8-9; 44:1

He is God’s chosen 42:1
“The Holy One of Israel has chosen you” 49:7

“You, O Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen ... I said ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and have not rejected you.’” 41:8-9.
“Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.” 44:2

The Spirit is on him 42:1

God will pour out His Spirit on his offspring 44:3

Contrasts Between Them

He is the “righteous servant” 53:11

He is not righteous 48:1, 4, (servant, v. 20)
Invokes God of Israel but not in truth or righteousness v. 1
Stubborn -- neck iron, forehead bronze 48:4
Jacob doesn’t call on God 43:22
they don’t honor Him with sacrifices, but weary Him with their sins vv. 23, 24
but God blots out their sins v. 25
God forgives his servant Israel and redeems them 44:21-22
(“Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness” 46:12)

God delights in Him 42:1

God is angry with him but loves him still 42:24-25; 43:1-3

He will bring forth justice 42:3, 4

(There is no justice 59:4, 9, 14, 15)

“He wakens my ear to listen; the Lord has opened my ears” 50:4

They have ears but are deaf 43:8
He is deaf 42:18-19
He neither hears nor understands, he pays no attention 42:20
“From of old your ear has not been open” 48:8

I have not been rebellious or drawn back 50:5 (servant v. 10)

“from birth you have been a rebel” 48:8 (servant: v. 20)

He opens blind eyes. 42:7

He is blind 42:19 (servant--10)
They have eyes but are blind 43:8

He liberates from prison.
He says to the prisoners, “Come forth.” 49:9
He brings Jacob back to God 49:5

He is in prison.
Jacob has become loot for plunderers 42:24
hidden away in prisons 42:22 (servant: v. 19)
Captives will be taken from warriors, plunder retrieved from the fierce; “I will save your children” 49:25

He is a covenant for the people 42:6; 49:8
(He keeps the covenant?)

“If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea” 48:18 (servant: v. 20)

Lord gives him an instructed tongue 50:4

(“Your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wicked things” 59:3)

He is an individual. Isa. 42:1-4, 6-7
“I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked out my beard” 50:6-7.

He is a people (collective noun).
“You are my witnesses ... my servant whom I have chosen.” 43:10

The contrasts above are so vivid that one must conclude that there are two servants, sinful Israel and righteous Israel.

In summary, Isa. 42 states the mission of the servant, the ideal servant. He was to have the Spirit, bring forth justice to the nations, be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, and bring prisoners from the dungeon (vv. 1-7). But then the prophet laments that the servant who is to open blind eyes is himself blind (v. 19); the one who should bring the prisoners from the dungeon is himself in prison (v. 22); the one whom God calls (6) is deaf and does not hear (19-20); he who should establish justice in the earth will not walk in God’s ways or obey His law (24). In spite of Yahweh’s unfailing love for Israel (chap. 43:1-21), he remains faithless (22-28). Since Israel fails to be the ideal servant, a new individual is introduced, the anointed one (Messiah), who perfectly fulfills the mission. He becomes the second Israel who carries out the mission the first Israel failed to accomplish. “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (49:3). He has a mission to Israel, “to bring Jacob back to him” (v. 5). His ears are open to hear the will of God (50:4); his mission is not only to restore Israel, but to be a light to the Gentiles -- he is God’s salvation to the whole world (49:6)! He is a covenant to the people (49:8) who releases the captives (v. 9; 61:1). How is he salvation itself? A major part of his role is to take upon himself the sins of his people, die for them, and account many as righteous (53:6, 11, 12). As the second Israel he has to make up for the failures of the first Israel.

To summarize, I see Ideal Israel in 42:1-7 (God’s mission for Israel); Real Israel in 42:18-25; and Mr. Perfect Israel (Jesus) in the remaining righteous-servant passages. Mr. Perfect Israel makes up for the deficiencies of Mr. Real Israel.

Copyright © 2003-2013 Beatrice S. Neall, Ph.D.

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