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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Servant of the Lord

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SERVANT OF THE LORD . In this phrase, as repeatedly in the EV [Note: English Version.] of the OT, ‘Lord’ is substituted for ‘Jahweh,’ the proper name of the God of Israel, which stands in the Hebrew text.

1 . Originally the term ‘ servant ’ in this phrase is simply correlative to such terms as ‘lord,’ ‘master,’ which the ancient Hebrews, in common with their Semitic kinsmen, applied to their god. In the first instance, the phrase ‘the servant of Jahweh’ merely defines a man as one who acknowledges Jahweh as his god; it corresponds closely to what we might rather call a worshipper of Jahweh. Naturally, therefore, it may stand in antithesis to a similar phrase in which the name of another deity takes the place of that of Jahweh. Thus the ‘servants of Jahweh’ and ‘the servants of the (Tyrian) Baal’ are contrasted in 2 Kings 10:23 , though the fact that the same word is used in both phrases is obscured by the RV [Note: Revised Version.] , which exaggerates a distinction capriciously introduced by the punctuators into the Hebrew text.

2 . Thus it will be readily understood that any Israelite might be called ‘the servant of Jahweh,’ and as a matter of fact a large number of individuals received this phrase as their name; it is familiar to English readers in the form Obadiah , which was originally pronounced, as the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] indicates, Abdiyah (cf. the parallel name Abdiel ‘servant of God’). Adherents of other gods received similar proper names, such as Ebed-melech (wh. see) = ‘servant of the god Melech,’ or Abd-Melkarth , Abd-Eshmun , and Abd-Manât , typical Phœnician and Nabatæan names meaning respectively servant of the gods Melkarth, Eshmun, and Manât.

3 . But just as modern terms denoting religions attachment, like ‘Christian’ or ‘believer,’ may, according to the connexion in which they occur, differ greatly in the fulness of their meaning, so ‘the servant of Jahweh’ might imply a higher degree, or more special form, of service than is necessarily involved in the proper name Obadiah, or in the distinction between ‘servants of Jahweh’ and ‘servants of Baal.’ Such fuller significance attaches to the phrase when prophets ( Amos 3:7 , 2 Kings 9:7 , Jeremiah 7:25 , and often) or priests and Levites ( Psalms 134:1 ) are specified as ‘the servant of Jahweh’; so also when particular individuals are thus described. Among the individuals specifically termed ‘the servant of Jahweh’ (which in speeches of Jahweh of course becomes ‘my servant’) are Abraham ( Genesis 26:24 ), Moses ( Exodus 14:31 , Numbers 12:7 f., and often), Joshua ( Joshua 24:29 ), Caleb ( Numbers 14:24 ), Job ( Job 1:8 ), David ( 2 Samuel 3:18 and often), Eliakim ( Isaiah 22:20 ), Zerubbabel ( Haggai 2:23 ), and the person who is termed ‘the Shoot’ (EV [Note: English Version.] text ‘the Branch,’ Zechariah 3:8 ).

4 . The use of the term in Deutero-Isaiah ( Isaiah 40:1-31 ; Isaiah 41:1-29 ; Isaiah 42:1-25 ; Isaiah 43:1-28 ; Isaiah 44:1-28 ; Isaiah 45:1-25 ; Isaiah 46:1-13 ; Isaiah 47:1-15 ; Isaiah 48:1-22 ; Isaiah 49:1-26 ; Isaiah 50:1-11 ; Isaiah 51:1-23 ; Isaiah 52:1-15 ; Isaiah 53:1-12 ; Isaiah 54:1-17 ; Isaiah 55:1-13 ) is peculiar. In certain passages this writer clearly uses the term to describe the nation: the entire people is personified, spoken of as an individual, and called by Jahweh ‘my servant,’ or, by the prophet speaking in his own name, ‘the servant of Jahweh.’ These passages are Isaiah 41:8 f., Isaiah 44:21 , Isaiah 49:3 , Isaiah 44:1 f., Isaiah 45:4 . The same use of the term is found in Psalms 136:22 , which was written much later; but it does not occur in any extant literature that is unquestionably earlier than the Deutero-Isaiah, for Jeremiah 30:10 (not found in the Greek text) = Jeremiah 46:27 f. is probably not a saying of the prophet Jeremiah’s, and in Ezekiel 37:25 ; Ezekiel 28:25 , sometimes cited as parallel, the phrase is used of an individual of the past, the patriarch Jacob, not of the nation of the present.

5 . But though the particular character of ‘the servant of Jahweh’ in which the nation is personified may be peculiar to the Deutero-Isaiah, and one or two writers influenced by him, similar personifications are common enough with Hebrew writers, and are sometimes so remote from our habits of thought and expression that the RV [Note: Revised Version.] has sacrificed the figure to gain intelligibility, as, e.g. , in Joshua 9:7 , which, literally rendered, runs, ‘and the man of Israel said unto the Hivite, perhaps thou art dwelling in my midst’ (for further examples see G. B. Gray, Divine Discipline of Israel , 79 f., or ‘Numbers,’ in ICC [Note: CC International Critical Commentary.] p. 265 f.). Other notable instances of personification retained even in RV [Note: Revised Version.] are Hosea 11:1 ‘When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt’ (where son = the Hebrew nation), and Psalms 129:1 ff., where Israel is to say, ‘Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth up, yet have they not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows.’

6 . But while the personification of the nation as the ‘servant of Jahweh’ is certain in the passages cited in § 4 , there are other passages in which most scholars in the past, and many of the present, have concluded that the title has another application that it refers prophetically to Jesus Christ, or to some individual known historically to the writer, such as Jeremiah, Jehoiachin, Zerubbabel, or the Eleazar of 2Ma 6:18-31 , or to the pious section of Israel. In so far as this conclusion rests on the individualizing traits in the description of the servant in such passages as Isaiah 50:4-9 ; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 , it is unconvincing; for the facts can be equally well, and, so far as the death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Ezekiel 37:1-28 ) of the servant are concerned, far better, explained by the analogy of the personifications referred to in the last paragraph, as figuralive descriptions of the history of the nation in the past, and of the prophet’s hopes for it in the future.

7 . In one passage ( Isaiah 50:10 f.), indeed, ‘the servant of Jahweh’ is probably not the nation Israel; for the audience addressed appears to consist of Jews; if so, the servant here is either an individual or a comparatively small class not the whole of the pious Israelites, for he is distinguished from ‘those that fear Jahweh.’ This passage is commonly considered to be the work of a later writer than the Deutero-Isaiah.

8 . The most important differences of interpretation are concerned with four passages, Isaiah 42:1-4 ; Isaiah 49:1-8 ; Isaiah 50:4-9 ; Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 . These are commonly, though not unanimously, held to be the work of one writer, but several scholars hold that this writer was not the Deutero-Isaiah. The critical question is largely an exegetical one; if there really is the wide difference, which some claim to discover, between the use of the term ‘servant of Jahweh’ in, and the religious standpoints of, these passages and the Deutero-Isaiah, differences of authorship may not unnaturally be inferred; otherwise the grounds for disintegration are slight. Unfortunately the interpretation of the passages is rendered difficult and ambiguous by the state of the text; that the text is to some extent corrupt, especially in Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 , is now generally admitted; but as to the exact extent, and the nature of the corruption, differences of judgment prevail. No consistent interpretation of ‘the servant of Jahweh’ given in these four passages is possible on the basis of the present text; for in Isaiah 49:3 the servant is identified with the nation, but in Isaiah 53:8 he is distinguished from the nation, for ‘my people’ (if the text be sound) cannot be made to mean anything but Israel except by very forced exegesis. Consequently, in the interests of consistency some scholars have struck out the word ‘Israel’ in Isaiah 49:3 , others have corrected ‘the transgression of my people’ in Isaiah 53:8 to ‘our transgressions,’ or ‘their transgression,’ or ‘the transgression of peoples’ (all comparatively slight changes in the Hebrew text). It may be observed that Isaiah 53:8 is in other respects admittedly obscure, if not also corrupt.

It must suffice to refer briefly here to one or two of the chief points for or against the two main alternatives that in these passages, as elsewhere in Deutero-Isaiah, the servant is Israel, or something less than Israel (whether a section of the nation or an individual). We shall consider the latter alternative first.

(1) Two passages have been considered to demand a distinction between the servant and Israel. One of these, Isaiah 53:8 , as already stated, certainly does demand it, if the text be sound; but this is doubtful. The other passage is Isaiah 49:5-6 , which follows the statement in the present text that the servant is Israel ( Isaiah 49:3 ). These verses as translated in RV [Note: Revised Version.] imply that the servant and Israel are distinct. But though the translation of RV [Note: Revised Version.] in Isaiah 49:5 is grammatically correct, it is not necessary; other grammatically correct translations are: ‘and now Jahweh that formed me to be his servant hath determined to bring back Jacob again to himself, and that Israel should be gathered to him,’ or ‘and now saith Jahweh that formed me from the womb to be his servant in that he brought Jacob again to him, and drew Israel unto him.’ Either of these translations allows of the identity of Israel and the servant. In Isaiah 49:5 RV [Note: Revised Version.] is incorrect. The Hebrew is extremely awkward and questionable, but literally translated Isaiah 49:6 runs: ‘(a) lighter (thing) than thy being my servant is the raising up of the tribes of Jacob and the restoring of the preserved of Israel, and I will give thee for a light of the nations,’ etc. The ‘also’ in ‘I will also give’ of RV [Note: Revised Version.] , which suggests that the illumination of the nations is a second function of the servant, in addition to one already described, is absolutely unrepresented in and unsuggested by the Hebrew text. Thus Isaiah 49:8 is ambiguous as to the point at issue; it may mean (if it means anything) either , You do not exhaust your service by restoring Israel, you have also to illumine the nations; or , The fact that you are my servant means more than that I shall rescue you, it means that I shall make use of you for carrying out my purpose of illumining the nations.

(2) Apart from the passages just discussed, which are either textually open to suspicion or ambiguous in meaning, there is nothing that directly forbids identifying the servant with Israel in Isaiah 42:1-4 , Isaiah 49:1-6 , Isaiah 50:4-9 , Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12 , as he is unmistakably identified with Israel by the Deutero-Isaiah in many passages (see § 4 ). In the present text of Isaiah 49:3 the identification is actually made. But the strongest argument for the correctness of this identification is to be found in the fact that it does fuller justice to the general tenor of the passages: this is perfectly clear in Isaiah 42:1-4 ; here the Divine speech and the writer’s mind are alike filled with two subjects the Servant and the Nations of the world; the servant is to instruct the nations in the religion of Jahweh: granted that the servant is Israel, we have here a constantly recurring contrast, Israel and the nations; otherwise Israel is totally disregarded. In Isaiah 49:1-6 the servant addresses the nations of the world, and the function of the servant, which on some interpretations (see above) alone is mentioned, and on any interpretation alone receives prominence , is that of spiritually illumining the nations; in Isaiah 52:13-15 Jahweh states that, as the past humiliation of the servant by its very extent attracted far-spread attention, so his coming exaltation will impress nations and kings. Here again, nothing is said of Israel, unless the servant is Israel. In Isaiah 53:1 ff. certain speakers make a confession that they had misjudged the servant of Jahweh, terming him not the righteous one but a sinner, and regarding the unparalleled sufferings which they now perceive had been horne for them, as due to the fact that he was abandoned by Jahweh. Again, the least difficult view as to the speakers who make this confession is that they are the nations referred to in Isaiah 52:15 , and that the servant is the Hebrew nation. That Israel suffered for the nations is certainly a remarkable idea, but that all the sufferings of Israel were not due to its own sins appears to be the thought of Deutero-Isaiah in Isaiah 40:2 . Again, the relative righteousness of Israel, which is all that need be implied if we see in ch. 53 a confession of the nations, is implied elsewhere, e.g. in Isaiah 40:27 .

It is impossible even to indicate here all the difficulties that beset, or the points that favour, the several theories of interpretation. The case for identifying the servant with Israel throughout Is 40 55 has been ably presented in English by K. Budde in AJTh [Note: JTh American Journal of Theology.] , iii. pp. 499 ff., and by A. S. Peake in the Problem of Suffering in the OT , pp. 34 72 and 180 193, who gives on pp. 44 59 a valuable critical translation of the chief passages. With equal ability the identification of the servant with the ideal Israel is maintained by J. Skinner in the Cambridge Bible for Schools , ‘ Isaiah 40:1-31 ; Isaiah 41:1-29 ; Isaiah 42:1-25 ; Isaiah 43:1-28 ; Isaiah 44:1-28 ; Isaiah 45:1-25 ; Isaiah 46:1-13 ; Isaiah 47:1-15 ; Isaiah 48:1-22 ; Isaiah 49:1-26 ; Isaiah 50:1-11 ; Isaiah 51:1-23 ; Isaiah 52:1-15 ; Isaiah 53:1-12 ; Isaiah 54:1-17 ; Isaiah 55:1-13 ; Isaiah 56:1-12 ; Isaiah 57:1-21 ; Isaiah 58:1-14 ; Isaiah 59:1-21 ; Isaiah 60:1-22 ; Isaiah 61:1-11 ; Isaiah 62:1-12 ; Isaiah 63:1-19 ; Isaiah 64:1-12 ; Isaiah 65:1-25 ; Isaiah 66:1-24 ,’ pp. 30 37 and 233 238, together with the notes on the relevant passages. The case for interpreting the servant in some passages as an individual has not been fully re-stated in English over against the recent thorough arguments for other interpretations; the student may best turn to Delitzsch’s Com . (Eng. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] 1890), or G. A. Smith’s ‘Isaiah,’ vol. ii. ( Expositor’s Bible ). T. K. Cheyne, in EBi [Note: Encyclopædia Biblica.] 4398 4410, offers a very valuable and penetrating criticism of all these theories, as a prelude to his own Jerahmeelite theory, for which he has hitherto found no supporters.

9 . In NT some of the passages in the Deutero-Isaiah are frequently cited or referred to: and in most cases, though not in all (see Acts 13:47 , cf. 2 Timothy 2:24 ), the servant is identified with Jesus ( e.g. Matthew 8:17 ; Matthew 12:18-21 , Luke 22:37 , Acts 8:32 f.). This, of course, proves nothing with regard to the original meaning; for Christian, like Jewish, exegesis was capable of individualizing terms that originally had a wider application; for an instance of this, see Hebrews 2:6-8 , where what is stated in Psalms 8:1-9 of man in general is referred specifically to our Lord.

G. B. Gray.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Servant of the Lord'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/s/servant-of-the-lord.html. 1909.

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Monday, October 14th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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