Within the Book of the Prophet Isaiah we encounter four poetic sections known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. The specific identity of this Servant of the Lord remains the topic of scholarly debate. Perhaps it refers to the prophet Isaiah himself, perhaps the entire nation of Israel, or possibly the promised Messiah. Christian faith sees these prophetic utterances fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Lord.
- The first song introduces God’s Servant who will establish justice upon the earth
- The second song, spoken in the Servant’s own voice, tells of being selected from the womb to become God’s mouthpiece and help renew the nation
- In the third song, we learn of the abuse and derision the Servant endured at the hands of his enemies
- The fourth song proclaims the salvific value of the Servant’s innocent suffering that will justify many and blot out their offenses.
Because of the Christian identification of the Suffering Servant with Jesus, the four Servant Songs become a way of encountering the Lord during this Lenten Season. Not only do they give us a sense of the commitment and endurance that characterized his messianic ministry, but they become a way of touching the bruised face of the Messiah, of hearing the resolute determination that sustained him in the midst of trial, and of rejoicing with him in God’s ultimate vindication of his calling and service.
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out, nor shout,
nor make his voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow dim or be bruised
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
It is the voice of God we hear proudly introducing “my servant… with whom I am well pleased.” The painful destiny of this Servant isn’t mentioned in this brief song. Instead, like a soldier outfitted for battle or an explorer prepared for the mission, the Servant is extolled for who he is and for the courage, patience, gentleness, and fidelity that will distinguish his service. Often, brave individuals volunteer for difficult missions, but God’s Servant was chosen. The hand of God is upon him and God’s own Spirit hovers over him. This Servant will not be an individualistic maverick getting the job done “his way.” He will be a gentle agent of God’s will, not shouting in the streets as was typical of prophets, but moving quietly and humbly among the people, distinguishing the weak from the strong, never breaking even a “bruised reed” because God’s Spirit sent him to heal and strengthen the weak, to mend and restore the hearts of all who are losing hope or have been cast aside by the rich and the mighty.
The text offers even an image of those who are too weak to raise their heads and burn with the light of faith. Because they cling too close to the wax, dimly burning wicks offer little light and the slightest breeze will extinguish them. Yet even these the Servant will not quench. He comes not to condemn the weak of heart and slow of faith but to invite them into the kingdom of God’s justice. Through the Servant’s ministry, the “bruised reed” will be strengthened and the “dimly burning wick” will be enflamed. The Servant himself will never wane or weaken; he will faithfully accomplish the will of the Lord and establish justice in the land.
Lent comes around each year to invite those of us who have grown weak or dim to hear afresh God’s promise and receive anew the Servant’s healing touch. The ends of the earth await his teaching and they will not be disappointed. And neither will the recesses of our hearts that await the warmth of his healing and reconciling love.
Questions for Reflection
In what ways have you experienced in your life the gentle, patient love of God?
What parts of you are “bruised” or “dimly burning?” Do these areas distance you from God or do they open you all the more to his merciful grace?
In what ways do you see the justice of God enfleshed on the earth? Where is it sorely lacking—both in your life and within society?
How might you share in the ministry of God’s Servant of healing and strengthening the weak and oppressed?
Hear me, coastlands,
listen, distant peoples.
Before birth the LORD called me,
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp-edged sword,
concealed me, shielded by his hand.
He made me a sharpened arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
He said to me, You are my servant,
in you, Israel, I show my glory.
Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
for nothing and for naught spent my strength,
Yet my right is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
That Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
Thus says the LORD,
the redeemer, the Holy One of Israel,
To the one despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers:
When kings see you, they shall stand up,
and princes shall bow down
Because of the LORD who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel who has chosen you.
The best armor one can give anyone sent on a mission is a clear sense of identity. The road is always difficult and times of discouragement and self-doubt lurk around every corner. What sustains under such circumstances is a clear knowledge of who sent us and what we were sent to do. Lacking that, one easily slips into confusion, maybe even into listlessness and fear. We might not be sure of the Servant’s identity, but the Servant himself is quite clear about who he is: He is God’s chosen instrument, called from the womb to serve in good times and in bad. And the times have not been all good. The Servant is now God’s prophet with a tongue as sharp as well-honed steel. God has been his helper and protector during his service, but there is little to show for all his toil. However, the Servant is not demoralized by his outward failure. He still knows whose he is and in whose name he serves.
In truth, not much else matters. When we experience worldly failure, we can wallow in depression and allow the world’s judgment to define us, or we can remember whose opinion really counts. The Servant knows: “I am honored in the sight of the Lord, / and my God is now my strength.” It is so easy to lose heart when it’s the world’s opinion that we value, so easy to surrender when others mock or shun us. If only the Servant’s vision could be ours: God called me from the womb, he says, and my recompense is from him!
With the balance such vision provides, the Servant is able to hear a further, greater call from God that will send him down a road as difficult as the one he trod before. It is not enough for you to bring my word to Jacob and Israel, God tells him, “I will make you a light to the nations.” That the entire world would know the salvation of God was a startling truth that Israel was unprepared to hear. But despite scorn and abuse, the Servant will bring God’s message to kings of all the nations and they will hear and heed his word. Through the centuries, that word has reached our day and touched our hearts. And through us it will continue to spread “to the ends of the earth.”
Questions for Reflection
Have you ever let the awareness that God has known you from your mother’s womb penetrate your heart? Does the realization bolster your confidence or does something in you deflect it?
God’s Servant is a “suffering” Servant. Why do you think suffering is so often a reality in the lives of God’s chosen ones?
When you think of the suffering you have endured, do you perceive a salvific component in it?
When dealing with struggle and failure, what helps you to remember that God’s opinion of us is far more important than the world’s?
The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
That I might know how to answer the weary
a word that will waken them.
Morning after morning
he wakens my ear to hear as disciples do;
The Lord GOD opened my ear;
I did not refuse,
did not turn away.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who tore out my beard;
My face I did not hide
from insults and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
Therefore I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He who declares my innocence is near.
Who will oppose me?
Let us appear together.
Who will dispute my right?
Let them confront me.
See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will declare me guilty?
See, they will all wear out like a garment,
consumed by moths.
Who among you fears the LORD,
heeds his servant’s voice?
Whoever walk in darkness,
without any light,
Yet trust in the name of the LORD
and rely upon their God!
All you who kindle flames
and set flares alight,
Walk by the light of your own fire
and by the flares you have burnt!
This is your fate from my hand:
you shall lie down in a place of torment.
Paul echoed the words of God’s Suffering Servant when he boldly asked, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31) The Servant’s declaration, spoken in the first person singular, is just as bold and even more personal than Paul’s. Why is the Servant so bold? Because he’s been through it all: scourging, insults, and spitting, even the grave indignity of having his beard torn out by his enemies. But rather than lose faith, he finds a school for discipleship in these painful circumstances. The Lord has used this suffering to train the Servant’s tongue so he can address the weary and downtrodden with rousing words of hope and vindication.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “Whom the Lord loves he chastises” (12:6). Centuries before, Isaiah extolled the Lord’s Servant for enduring hardship without complaining. By embracing sorrow without losing heart and by accepting discipline as instruction, the Servant gains a share of the holiness of God.
As a result, the student becomes a teacher. Having learned at the feet of the loving and merciful Lord, the Servant now instructs the nations in the ways of obedience and discipleship. But most of all, he models fidelity and long suffering. Remarkably, the Servant’s sufferings have not led him to turn away from God; he neither feels abandoned nor betrayed. Confidently, he stands before those who mock him, knowing their power will wear away like an overworn garment, while God’s help lasts forever. The proof of discipleship, he says, is walking in darkness without any light, save that of faith in the Lord! Woe to those who walk by their own light, trusting neither the Lord nor his Servant. They do so at great peril, he says, risking utter destruction.
Today, the virtue of obedience that God’s Servant models so strikingly is sadly countercultural. The rebel, the maverick entrepreneur, the iconoclast who makes his or her own way, these are the role models of modern culture. But if we look at Jesus, whom the Servant so obviously prefigures, we see obedience and hear that word quite often on his lips. “If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Obedience, it turns out, is not robotic compliance, but the surest way to demonstrate our love.
Questions for Reflection
The confidence with which the Servant speaks of God’s vindication challenges our faith. Exodus 14:14 says, “The Lord will fight for you; you have only to keep still.” Could you do what the Servant does, silently trusting in God to bring you justice and vindication?
If you have not experienced suffering like that of the Lord’s Servant, surely you don’t have to look far to learn of others who experience it everyday. What modern-day individuals have inspired you by enduring suffering in this heroic and godly manner?
Pain, whether physical or psychological, is never far off. But if we are Christ’s body, then Christ suffers with us, uniting our pain to the suffering he offered to God on the Cross. Pope John Paul II wrote that because it was through suffering that Christ saved us, suffering was itself redeemed and “raised to the level of redemption.” Now, anyone who suffers can become “a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” (Salvifici Dolores) Do you see your suffering as untied to Christ’s? Do you believe it can participate in his act of redemption?
See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his features,
beyond that of mortals
his appearance, beyond that of human beings—
So shall he startle many nations,
kings shall stand speechless;
For those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.
Who would believe what we have heard?
To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
all following our own way;
But the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.
Though harshly treated, he submitted
and did not open his mouth;
Like a lamb led to slaughter
or a sheep silent before shearers,
he did not open his mouth.
Seized and condemned, he was taken away.
Who would have thought any more of his destiny?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
struck for the sins of his people.
He was given a grave among the wicked,
a burial place with evildoers,
Though he had done no wrong,
nor was deceit found in his mouth.
But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain.
By making his life as a reparation offering,
he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days,
and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.
Because of his anguish he shall see the light;
because of his knowledge he shall be content;
My servant, the just one, shall justify the many,
their iniquity he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the many,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death,
was counted among the transgressors,
Bore the sins of many,
and interceded for the transgressors.
This fourth Song of the Suffering Servant is likely one of the best-known texts of the entire Old Testament. It is a plaintive dirge that declares God’s innocent Servant was punished for our sins and crushed for our iniquities. Like a “lamb led to the slaughter,” he went silently to his death, a death that bore away our offenses and made us whole. Though the “suffering” of the Suffering Servant is more evident in this text than in the other “songs,” this passage begins with a trumpet blast declaration of the Servant’s future glory. His exaltation, however, won’t spring from victory but from a well of deep sorrow. Though cast in the past tense, the Servant’s suffering is palpable.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the Servant is how unremarkable he is: “no majestic bearing” to attract, “no beauty” to please the eye. He was shunned and avoided the way one might recoil from a leper. And yet, says the prophet, it was for us that he suffered, for us that he endured shame. Foolishly, we assumed he was reaping the fruit of his own failures, but now we see the truth: it was ours ins brought him low. In street parlance, we might say, “We did the crime, but he did the time.” If at least he would complain, express anger, go resentfully to his death. Maybe that would assuage our guilt. But he accepts his fate in silent dignity. No finger-pointing; no “woe is me.” Mercifully, he bore the wounds but we were healed. He did no wrong, Isaiah tells us, yet somehow it suits the will of God to make him a “reparation offering” and let him be cast aside “among the wicked.”
Such willing self-sacrifice is as surprising as the spin Isaiah gives it. Any religious person of his day would have viewed the Servant’s suffering as rightful punishment for sin. But the prophet sees through a different lens. With beautiful imagery, Isaiah announces ultimate vindication for the Servant whose vicarious suffering will “justify the many.” God greatly rewards the selfless Servant and turns his suffering into the ointment that heals the world.
This vision must have shocked Isaiah’s audience. A Messiah who would suffer and die instead of riding in with brandished sword to drive out their foreign dominators was plain preposterous. So was the notion that he would “justify the many.” The Messiah’s light was to shine on Israel, not upon the nations. It would be difficult, indeed, to long for such a universal Messiah.
Yet who could fail to recognize the suffering Christ within the contours of the Servant’s face? No one paints a better portrait than Isaiah of the Christ who suffered silently for our sins. But let’s not forget how this song begins: “My servant shall be raised high and greatly exalted.” Because he “surrendered himself to death,” the suffering, mocked Messiah is now the Lord who reigns and reconciles.
Questions for Reflection
Does the assertion that “it was the Lord’s will to crush him with pain” raise any difficult questions for you?
Why do you think it would have been difficult for the people of ancient Israel to believe salvation would be extended not just to Israel, but to the whole world? Do you see a connection with Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard who were all paid the same amount for their various hours of labor (Matthew 20:1-16)?
What stirs within you when you observe innocent suffering?
What about your own pain? Do you feel you suffer alone, or do you sense Christ suffering with you?