Monday, December 02, 2019

Jesus' Childhood In Isaiah's Servant Songs

This past Easter season, I posted an article about Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah's first three Servant Songs. And I've often written about his fulfillment of the fourth one. It's worth noting how much relevance the passages have to Christmas issues.

Isaiah 49 opens with a reference to how the Servant had been called and named by God from the womb (verse 1; see, also, verse 5). Isaiah 42:6 uses the imagery of being held by the hand, which pictures the Servant as a child, but somewhat older than an infant. He's initially lowly and even despised (49:7), including in his origins (53:2-3). As I discuss in my posts linked above, the Servant is referred to as God, and he's referred to (especially in the Isaiah 50 passage) as unusually righteous, probably sinless, throughout his life. That includes his childhood. The plant imagery in 53:2 probably alludes to the common prophetic theme of the Messiah as a root of Jesse, a branch, etc. (e.g., 11:1, 11:10). That has implications for the Servant's (Davidic) ancestry, birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and other issues.

The Servant Songs also expand upon what Luke tells us in his gospel about Jesus' growth as a child. Luke tells us that Jesus "continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him….And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men." (2:40, 2:52) When he was twelve years old, people were "amazed at his understanding and his answers" (2:47), including "teachers" (2:46). While Jesus did learn from people like his parents and those teachers, as 2:46 indicates, he had a level of knowledge and wisdom that went beyond that sort of education. How did he acquire those attributes as a child and become the sort of teacher he was as an adult? Isaiah gives us a window into how that occurred. "The Lord God has given me the tongue of disciples, that I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word. He awakens me morning by morning, he awakens my ear to listen as a disciple. The Lord God has opened my ear; and I was not disobedient nor did I turn back." (50:4-5) When the Father refers to holding his hand and watching over him (42:6), and we're told that the Servant grew up before him "like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground" (53:2), we're getting a glimpse of how Jesus was loved, sustained, and taught by the Father when none of the relatives, teachers, and other people around him knew much about him or why he had come into the world.

In a post on Isaiah 9 last year, I discussed some connections between that passage and the Servant Songs. So, the implications of those connections should be considered here as well.

We need to be careful to not underestimate the significance of these issues. For example, not all ancient Jews expected the Messiah to have a childhood like the one Jesus had. As Raymond Brown wrote, "I mentioned in the previous Appendix (footnote 6) the expectation of a hidden Messiah who would appear suddenly, without people knowing where he came from. (This expectation is described in John 7:27, in contrast to 7:42 which involves the expectation of the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem.)" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 514) Think of the theophanies and angelophanies we see in the Old Testament. The Messiah could have arrived on earth as an adult. And if the Messiah was to be born into the world like other humans, wouldn't it be appropriate for him to have grown up in a royal setting, like Moses, or a sanctuary setting, like Samuel? So, when the Servant Songs refer to the Servant as arriving on earth in the womb of a mother and growing up in a humble setting and even being despised, that's significant. The Messiah didn't have to arrive that way, and many people expected otherwise and considered Jesus' origins inappropriate. When Isaiah 49:1 refers to the Servant as named by God while in the womb, something that occurred with Jesus (Matthew 1:21), we should keep in mind that naming typically didn't occur that way. In the Old Testament, the parents or other people frequently chose the child's name, including in cases that involved a pregnancy that was supernatural in some manner (Genesis 5:28-9, 25:25-6, 30:6-24, Exodus 2:10, 2:22, Judges 13:24, Ruth 4:17, 1 Samuel 1:20).

We usually think of the Servant Songs in the context of Easter. But they illustrate the strong connection that exists between Easter and Christmas. I hope this post will motivate you to remember the Servant Songs at Christmastime and to incorporate them into your celebration of the season.


  1. Thanks Jason! I always appreciate your work on both Christmas and Easter data. It's a great resource to have it gathered all together in one spot.