The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Heath Thomas's Old Testament II class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The Servant pictured in Isaiah is one of the most famous images in the Old Testament for Christians. The language applied to him in Isaiah 53 in particular has long been understood by Christians to point directly to Jesus as the atoning savior. The role of the Servant in the book is somewhat more complex than a simple prediction of Jesus as subtitutionary atonement however: it encompasses that idea, but does much more as well.
The label of Servant is applied to two (or possibly three) different roles in Isaiah: the nation of Israel, and one who suffers and works on behalf of Israel. This latter role certainly contains messianic overtures, but may also include poetic references to Isaiah’s own suffering on behalf Israel.
The theme of the Servant first appears in chapter 40, and is immediately and directly applied in reference to Israel/Jacob. The same is true of its appearance in chapters 41 and 43, though the language used of the servant in chapter 42 suggests an individual and not the nation, and should perhaps be taken as pointing to a king who represents the nation given the national context. Beginning in chapter 45 and moving forward, the Servant increasingly appears as the individual who acts for Israel on Yahweh’s behalf.
Whether the Servant-Israel or the Servant-for-Israel (as we might label them), the Servant exists to be God’s agent in bringing about the obedience of the nations. The Servant-Israel experiences cleansing and purification to that end, while the Servant-for-Israel experiences suffering in place of Israel, for her sins and to save her from her unrighteous ways.1 In both cases, the suffering is part of God’s plan to lead the nations out of their idolatry to participate in his covenant with Israel. The shape of the role taken by the Servant differs, though, and as the book progresses the need for the Servant-for-Israel becomes more and more clear, because the Servant-Israel is simply not up to the task (as was made clear by the first 39 chapters of the book!).
Thus, the Servant-for-Israel acts on behalf of Israel in the latter parts of chapters 40–55. He picks up kingly responsibilities of doing justice and righteousness in the earth (a theme Isaiah seems to take up from the Psalms and elaborate). He stands as Israel’s representative in dealing with her sin. He brings the nations in to participate in Israel’s covenant life with God. In some sense, the messianic king figure becomes True Israel on Israel’s behalf.
The transition between Servant-Israel and Servant-for-Israel not only picks up messianic overtones, but also hints at autobiographical elements for Isaiah himself. Lest Christian readers be skittish at this notion, wanting to preserve the text’s unique way of pointing to Jesus: it is hardly uncommon for figures in the Old Testament to prefigure the messiah in various ways. Here it is Jesus’ role as Prophet we see prefigured, just asthe entire Levitical system prefigured him as Priest and David prefigured him as King. Isaiah’s suffering on behalf of Israel is a clear parallel to Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus himself makes this clear in his teaching in the New Testament, where he emphasizes that he came in part to close eyes and ears as well as open them.
The result of the progression is that the reader moves from seeing Israel as God’s servant to recognizing the need for a servant who will work as God’s agent on Israel’s behalf, to seeing that even Isaiah was an incomplete picture of this servant. The one of whom Isaiah prophesied would be not only Prophet but also king and both priest and sacrifice on behalf of the people. He would not only speak of the nations coming to participate in fellowship with God in the Zion of Israel, he would bring it about himself.
Notably, the redemption pictured in Isaiah goes beyond subtitution for sins, and includes restoration to a holy nature—a theme that is picked up clearly in the New Testament but too often overlooked by modern readers.↩