Thursday, March 28, 2019

Jesus' Fulfillment Of The Other Servant Songs

Isaiah has been called the fifth gospel for good reason. We've written a lot about the evidence for Jesus' fulfillment of passages like Isaiah 9 and 52-53, such as here and here. But I want to say more about a few passages in Isaiah that Jesus has fulfilled that don't get discussed as often. The fourth of the passages commonly referred to as Servant Songs, 52:13-53:12, gets a lot of attention. The three Servant Songs that come before it, in chapters 42, 49, and 50, are discussed much less. They're the subject of this post.

At the outset, I want to repeat something I've noted before about prophecy fulfillment. Jesus' alignment with Isaiah 42, 49, and 50 would be highly evidential for Christianity even if we were to conclude that he only fulfilled the passages in a secondary, typological way. Even if we thought the passages originally or primarily referred to Israel, a remnant within the nation, Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, or Cyrus, for example, it's tremendously unlikely that Jesus' life would just happen to align with the passages as much as it does. So, it's not enough for critics to argue that the passages are about some entity other than the Messiah, Jesus in particular, or whatever. They have to also go on to address how closely the passages line up with Jesus. A Christian could, for the sake of argument, grant a non-Christian understanding of the primary meaning of the passages, yet argue that Jesus wouldn't have naturalistically lined up with the passages as well as he has. Something supernatural seems to be going on.

I also should note that my material on Isaiah 9 and 52-53 linked above discusses some of the connections between the first three Servant Songs and other passages in Isaiah. When those other passages refer to a king or the Messiah, for example, those passages give us information about the identity of the figure in the three Servant Songs under consideration here. The connections with other passages are important and should be kept in mind. I'll be mentioning some of them below, but I won't be repeating everything I said in my earlier articles. You may want to read or reread the material on Isaiah 9 and 52-53 to get a better idea of the connections involved.

We need to keep in mind that whether there are multiple servants in Isaiah shouldn't be under dispute. Isaiah is called a servant of God (20:3), as is Israel (41:8), and sometimes the plural is used to refer to more than one servant (54:17), for example. In a liberal commentary on Isaiah that often disagrees with traditional Christian views of the book, John Goldingay and David Payne propose a few different entities just to explain the three Servant Songs under consideration in this post. They apply the passage in chapter 42 to the nation of Israel, and they apply the chapter 49 passage to Deutero-Isaiah, but they also apply the latter partly to Isaiah ben Amoz (Isaiah 40-55, vol. 1 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 212; Isaiah 40-55, vol. 2 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 160-61). It's not as though proponents of a traditional Christian view of the book of Isaiah are the only ones who appeal to different servant figures in different passages.

I also want to discuss a couple of translational and interpretive issues before I go further. The translations I've seen of these Servant Songs are the same for the most part, but with some notable exceptions. I'll cite a couple of Jewish translations that differ from Christian ones. The Jewish Study Bible (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) uses the phrase "a covenant people" rather than "a covenant to the people" or "a covenant of the people" in 42:6 and 49:8 (849, 865). It also translates 49:5-6 in such a way that God, instead of the Servant, is the one who restores Israel (865). Shalom Paul translates these passages similarly (Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2012], approximate Kindle locations 2491, 4770, 4828).

However, the Jewish Study Bible mentions in a note that the phrase in 42:6 and 49:8 is literally "covenants of a people" and comments "meaning of Heb. uncertain" (n. b-b on 849). John Oswalt explains that "covenant people" would normally involve a different Hebrew term than the one we find in the passages in question (The Book Of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998], n. 30 on 117). John Goldingay and David Payne make the same point Oswalt did, and they render the phrase in question as "a covenant with people" (Isaiah 40-55, vol. 1 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 227-28) and "a covenant for people" (Isaiah 40-55, vol. 2 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 173). Similarly, the New Revised Standard translation, which departs from traditional Christianity in using "young woman" rather than "virgin" in 7:14, for example, has "a covenant to the people" in 42:6 and 49:8. The large majority of translations I've seen, Christian and non-Christian, conservative and non-conservative, have a rendering of the phrase under consideration that's consistent with a traditional Christian view of the passages.

Similarly, the understanding of 49:5-6 advocated by the Jewish sources cited above seems unlikely to be correct. Apparently, it's grammatically problematic. Brevard Childs, who wasn't a conservative, referred to it as "strained" (Isaiah [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001], approximate Kindle location 9968). Oswalt wrote:

"Those who cannot believe that the Servant can be anything other than collective Israel are forced to admit that Israel is said to restore itself to God (North), or granting that to be impossible, must make Yahweh the subject of the verb (J. Brewer, The Literature of the Old Testament [New York: Columbia University, 1922], p. 210), something Whybray (who favors 'Deutero-Isaiah' as the Servant) says is 'syntactically clumsy, if not impossible.'" (The Book Of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998], n. 27 on 293)

Goldingay and Payne also reject the notion that God is the one being described as doing the restoring (Isaiah 40-55, vol. 2 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 161-62).

And there are contextual reasons for rejecting the Jewish view in question. Even those Jewish renderings have the Servant being distinct from the Gentile nations and bringing about their conversion by being a light to them in 49:6. It would make more sense for the first half of verse 6 to parallel the second half, meaning that the Servant is also distinct from Israel and instrumental in bringing about the restoration of Israel. Continuity between the two halves of the verse makes more sense than the Jewish view under discussion here, which involves having the Servant mentioned in each part of the verse for such different reasons. Under the Jewish view, the comment about the Servant in the first half of the verse is incidental to the point of being awkward. Furthermore, as I'll argue in more depth below, the larger context gives us additional evidence that the Servant is distinct from Israel and any group remnant within Israel. That sort of distinction is made repeatedly elsewhere (e.g., 50:10, 52:14, 53:8). So, the grammar, immediate context, and larger context of the passage make the Jewish position under consideration here unlikely.

Having said all of that, I want to quote a few Old Testament scholars regarding these three Servant Songs, then conclude with some further comments of my own:

Such strong words of personal approval and divine satisfaction with the servant presuppose a godly character, his willingness to fulfill God's commission, and a close walk with God. This presents a dramatic contrast with God's displeasure or lack of delight with his "blind servant" Israel (42:18-22)….

God's Spirit will empower this servant to proclaim and cause God's rule to extend to all the earth…The universal role of the servant's task indicates that this prophecy is speaking of a future fulfillment, not the temporal authority of an Israelite or foreign king (i.e., Cyrus, Josiah, or Jehoiakim). Universal justice for the nations is characteristic of earlier descriptions of the eschatological establishment of God's kingdom in 2:2-4 or the messianic promises in Ps 2:8-9; Isa 9:1-7….

Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah and Servant in the Book of Isaiah, 133-34, notes that the terminology of "choosing" was not used of prophets (thus eliminating that option) but was commonly used of God's election of kings (1 Sam 10:24; 16:1-13; 2 Sam 6:21; 1 Kgs 8:16; 11:34)….

In earlier messages Isaiah announced that God (35:5) or a righteous king (the Messiah) would accomplish the task of removing the blindness from the eyes of people so that they can see ([32:3]). Then they will see the light in all of its many meanings. It is not insignificant that the servant functions in this same role (suggesting a common identification), and it is not insignificant that this is a role that could not possibly be fulfilled by many of the candidates that commentators have identified as this servant (i.e., Moses, Isaiah, Cyrus, or the whole nation of Israel)….Jeremiah's letter to the exiles [in Babylon] (29:1-20), Ezekiel, Daniel, and Ezra do not portray the people in exile living in dungeons. In addition, these promises of freedom and the opening of eyes do not apply just to Israel; they apply to all the nations and most of them were not in Babylonian exile. Therefore, the best approach is to interpret these phrases as metaphors of God's deliverance of people from the prison of spiritual darkness (blindness) and ignorance (9:2; 42:19-20; 43:8; 44:18-19) through the work of the servant….

The idea of "springing up" (smh) is used of plants growing (55:10), of people springing up like grass (44:4), the sudden appearance of righteousness/salvation in God's people (45:8; 58:8), and the surprising springing up of the praise from the nations (61:11). In each case the idea is associated with the sudden introduction of something new (43:19) that is connected to God's eschatological work of transforming humanity and nature. The use of "spring forth" in association with this servant's role suggests that his work is connected with these future events. It may not be accidental that the noun form derived from this root (smh) refers to the "Branch" of the Lord (4:2; Jer 23:5; 33:15; Zech 3:8), a messianic term for the Davidic Messiah….

J.A. Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: IVP, 1993), 398, makes the following contrasts: (a) No one in Israel listens and responds in Israel (50:2) but the servant of God listens (50:4). (b) Zion questions God's love, power, and help (49:14,22) while the servant is very confident in the Lord's help and nearness (50:7-9). (c) Zion suffers for its sins ([50]:1), but the servant suffers because he is obedient and innocent (50:5,8-9)….

The reaction of the Servant [in Isaiah 50] is amazing, for he voluntarily allowed himself (lit. "I gave" natatti) to suffer this degrading abuse….

The most important connection [with the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52-53] is that the earlier songs indicate that the Servant would have trouble with his ministry to Israel (49:4), would be abhorred and despised (49:7), and would even be beaten and mocked (50:6-7). Nevertheless, this Servant will not be discouraged or give up (42:4) but will bring forth justice and salvation to Israel and the nations by being a light and a covenant to them (42:4,6; 49:5-6,8). In the end God will vindicate and exalt the Servant (49:7; 50:8).

(Gary Smith, Isaiah 40-66 [Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2009], 161, n. 265 on 161, 168-70, n. 124 on 379, 382, 431)

In Jeremiah 1:4-5 we learn the prehistory of every prophet. Had Jeremiah ever turned this into a testimony it would have had significant points of contact with verses 1-2, 5 [of Isaiah 49]. But he never did, nor did any other prophet, and there are grave psychological difficulties in imagining Isaiah (not to mention the secretive Deutero-Isaiah) publicizing verses 1-6. Furthermore, the prophets are extremely sparing in world-wide address (41:1; Je. 31:10), and neither Jeremiah (Je. 1:5), though called to be a prophet to the nations, nor any prophet, ever said 'Listen to me' in this personal way….Certainly the Servant is a prophetic, covenant figure, but he is also much, much more than any prophet ever was or claimed to be….

To me [in "Listen to me" in 49:1] is not used by any prophet other than Isaiah, and in Isaiah it is used only of the Lord (46:3, 12; 48:12; 51:1, 7; 55:2). How can the Servant address the world as only the Lord would address them (cf. 41:1)?...

The thought [in 49:6] is not that the Servant is the agent in communicating salvation but that he is in his own person the salvation the world needs, and, in the same way, the world's light. However such a vocation is to be filled, it runs beyond that of a (mere) prophet - indeed it runs beyond that of a mere human….

To say of a human being 'you are my salvation' is unexemplified [in the Old Testament]….

Prophets preached the covenant and pointed away from themselves to the Lord; the Servant will actualize the blessings and point to himself….

As to the Servant's identity, he cannot himself be a personification of the believing, trusting remnant, for he is offered here [in 50:10] objectively to them as their teacher and the one through whom they learn what it is to fear the Lord.

(J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy Of Isaiah [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993], 384-85, 388-89, n. 3 on 389, 391, 401)

That is significant to this passage [42:1-4] because of the common understanding in the ancient Near East that kings were particularly commissioned to establish judicial order (mispat) in their realms, as this Servant is expected to do in the whole world (v. 4). When these understandings are coupled with the similarities of this passage to 11:1-9, which describes the Messiah, it seems likely that the Servant here is a messianic figure (cf. 16:5)….

In himself the Servant of the Lord would establish justice in the earth. Because this is so, the nations await his tora, his instruction, his law [in 42:4]. There is an astonishing presumption in these unassuming words. Whose tora is it? The Servant's. By what right does this Servant usurp the place of Moses and even of God? On what grounds should the Gentiles wait for a law from him? The reminiscence of 2:3 [which refers to God ruling the world and providing instruction from Israel] is unmistakable….

It is even more difficult [in Isaiah 50:4-9] than elsewhere, however, to equate this Servant with Israel. Only a few verses before God has told Israel in no uncertain terms that she has deserved every punishment that has come to her. Can it now be Israel, or even a righteous remnant of Israel, that says she has never disobeyed God?

Some, like Whybray, believe that it is "Deutero-Isaiah" himself speaking. Apart from the fact that we lack any evidence that this person even existed, we have no reason to believe that the person who spoke the promises contained here would have suffered at the hands of his people the kinds of things mentioned here. Whybray's hypothesis that the unknown prophet suffered at the hands of the Babylonians is completely groundless. Furthermore, the insistence of this person that he was absolutely blameless before God and harmless before humans is not something any human prophet could or did say….

There [in 50:5] the openness of the ear has to do with complete obedience. This becomes especially clear when it is remembered that "to hear" in the OT is virtually synonymous with "to obey."…

the Servant declares that he has always obeyed whatever God has spoken….The Servant claims to have been perfectly responsive to God's activity. Even allowing for poetic hyperbole, this is not Israel, nor, as Alexander points out, is it any merely human prophet….

The Servant is confident [in 50:8-9] that, with the help of his defense attorney, no prosecuting attorney would even have a case. It would never be presented, let alone come to trial.

(John Oswalt, The Book Of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998], 109-10, 112, 322-26)

This [the reference to the Servant handing down a decision in 42:1] gives Yhwh's servant a (quasi-messianic?) position of authority…

The reference to torah [in 42:4] is not an indication that the servant has a prophetic role except in the sense that the servant fulfils the role that emerges from Isaiah 2. It is also a motif that underlines the question whether Israel can fulfil the servant role, for all the other references to torah so far in the book (1.10; 5.24; 8.16, 20; 24.5; 30.9) have problematized Israel's relationship with it.

(John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40-55, vol. 1 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 214, 222)

A particularly striking passage about the sinfulness of Israel that ought to be highlighted is 48:8, where Israel is referred to as a "rebel from birth". Contrast that to the emphasis on the Servant's righteousness "from the womb" in Isaiah 50 (verses 1 and 5). Chapter 50 makes high claims about the Servant's righteousness, including in the past, as discussed above. Similarly, chapter 53 has the Servant so righteous that no violence or deceit was found in him, he could take on the sins of others without any mention of sin of his own, etc. The Servant Songs speak highly of the Servant's righteousness, without the sort of qualifiers we see elsewhere when other individuals are referred to as righteous in a lesser sense. The righteous who are referred to as seeking God at the opening of chapter 51 are faulted for various sins before the chapter ends (verses 12-22). Though Isaiah was relatively righteous and is referred to as a servant of the Lord (20:3), he's also referred to as "a man of unclean lips" who characterizes his whole nation the same way (6:5-7). The Servant under consideration in this post can't be the nation of Israel in a later, more righteous state, since the Servant's righteousness extends into the past, not just the future.

A related point that ought to be made here is that scholars like Goldingay and Payne can't connect Deutero-Isaiah to Isaiah ben Amoz without applying the latter's confession of sinfulness to the former. If they're going to appeal to "the work of Isaiah ben Amoz, which Second Isaiah carries on" (Isaiah 40-55, vol. 2 [New York, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014], 161), then why think Deutero-Isaiah departed substantially from Isaiah ben Amoz's view of his own sinfulness? And if Deutero-Isaiah viewed his own sinfulness along the lines of Isaiah 6:5-7, then he surely wouldn't have spoken of himself in the highly righteous terms we see in the Servant Songs.

Something else should be said about the notion of a Deutero-Isaiah. Why is the author of the section of Isaiah under consideration given that name by some scholars? Because they don't know his actual name. They can't cite any explicit evidence that he even existed. Yet, the Servant of the Servant Songs is referred to as a major public figure, including prior to his death. That's why he's assaulted in chapter 50, chapter 53 refers to how the nation as a whole viewed him, etc. When people like Goldingay and Payne have to be so speculative about a figure they can't even name, that's a poor candidate for a Servant who would be so opposed so widely and publicly and would be God's light and salvation to the ends of the earth.

Some of the details of the opposition the Servant faces should be considered in more depth. Verse 6 of chapter 50 describes some forms of suffering that are attributed to Jesus in the early sources we have about his life. The verse also mentions how the Servant undertook his suffering voluntarily and didn't turn away from it. That's reminiscent of the references to the Servant giving his life as an atonement for the sin of others in chapter 53. Even without the details provided by the New Testament documents, the common Roman practice of scourging crucifixion victims, with a focus on scourging them on the back, would give us reason to conclude that it's probable that Jesus at least fulfilled that aspect of Isaiah 50:6. When the kind of suffering referred to in Isaiah 50 is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament, none of the authors cite that passage, and different aspects of the suffering mentioned in 50:6 are referred to in different places. Matthew's gospel, for example, mentions scourging in 27:26 and spitting in 27:30. The pulling out of Jesus' beard isn't narrated by any of the gospel authors or referred to directly by any New Testament author. The probable allusion to Isaiah 50:6 in Mark 10:34 implies that Jesus suffered all that the Isaiah passage refers to. But that sort of subtle allusion to Isaiah 50 doesn't make it likely that Mark or his source was fabricating the relevant details, much less that all of the sources in question were. If Jesus' alignment with Isaiah 50 was being fabricated, how likely is it that the sources would be so subtle, fragmented, and incomplete in the fabrication?

Sometimes Nehemiah 13:25 is cited as an alleged parallel to the passage in Isaiah. But the Nehemiah passage doesn't specify the beating of a back, doesn't specify the pulling out of a beard, says nothing of spitting, and involves involuntary rather than voluntary suffering. So, the passage only offers a minor partial parallel, which is insignificant. It supports a traditional Christian view of Isaiah 50:6 rather than undermining it. Nehemiah 13:25 illustrates how easily the suffering of an individual (in the form of legal punishment, a non-legal beating, or whatever) could differ from what Jesus experienced.

Shalom Paul cites not only Nehemiah 13:25, but also Psalms 22, 31, and 35 and Lamentations 3:30, and he goes on to refer to how "the first two items on this list of travails [in Isaiah 50:6] - flogging and tearing of the hair - appear in the same order in the Assyrian Law Code" (Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2012], approximate Kindle location 5196). But none of the sources he cites are close enough to Isaiah 50:6 to be significant. Even the Assyrian Law Code, the best parallel he cites, only includes two of the forms of suffering in question, doesn't have the same details with regard to those two forms (as far as Paul describes the details, at least), and doesn't involve the sort of voluntary suffering referred to in Isaiah 50. Paul also cites sources discussing individual types of suffering without the other types accompanying it (e.g., having somebody spit in your face in Job 30:10). But the fact that he cites such a large number and variety of sources that differ so much from Isaiah 50:6 underscores the fact that the combination referred to in that passage is significantly unusual.

Only a small minority of people at most go through that sort of narrowly-defined suffering, and even fewer experience it in the larger context defined by the Servant Songs. The specificity of the suffering substantially narrows the range of figures who are significant candidates for fulfilling the passage.

What does all of this leave us with? I want to summarize what I've argued for, though the summary won't be exhaustive in the sense of summarizing every point. Rather, I'll summarize a large enough number of points to illustrate the fact that a lot is involved in fulfilling these passages. In the paragraph following this one, I'll use curly brackets {like this} to number the points I'm making.

The Servant is born into the world like other humans (49:1) rather than appearing on earth as an adult along the lines of an angelophany {1}. He's at least highly righteous, more righteous even than somebody like Isaiah, and he's probably sinless {2}. He seems to be a king {3} and Divine {4}. Yet, his work is largely characterized by meekness {5} and concern for the lowly (e.g., 42:2-3) {6}. He voluntarily {7} undergoes suffering that includes the beating of his back {8}, the pulling out of his beard {9}, and being spit upon {10}, and he doesn't turn away from it {11}. He brings a new covenant {12} and salvation {13} to the world {14}. His work starts among the Jewish people {15}, who initially reject him {16}, but he becomes highly influential among the Gentiles {17}, including Gentile rulers {18}.

Maybe you disagree with some of my numbering. Perhaps you would come up with a lower or higher number for the paragraph above. However, I think at least most people would end up with a double-digit number, especially after adding the points I haven't included in my summary. I think it should be widely agreed that the number is somewhere in the double digits, even if you think it should be lower or higher than my number. And a fulfillment involving a double-digit number of details, including some that are so highly unusual, is significant.

My focus here has been on the first three Servant Songs. When you add the fourth one and other prophecies for which we have good evidence that Jesus has been fulfilling them, like Psalm 22, the range of potential candidates for fulfillment is even more clearly narrowed to Jesus alone.

"Name for me one other human being (let alone one other Jew) who has come anywhere near fulfilling these verses. There is none….Just consider how utterly absurd it would have seemed if as you stood at the foot of the cross as Yeshua suffered a torturous, ignominious, shameful death, someone told you, 'Two thousand years from now, this man will be the world's most famous Jew and world history will be divided into the years before his birth and the years after his birth. Hundreds of millions of people from all world religions will forsake their idols and their dead traditions and will instead become followers of the God of Israel through him.' Yet this is literal truth, without a hint of exaggeration. We dare not downplay the significance of this." (Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections To Jesus, vol. 3 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2003], 160)

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