There are four sections of poetry in Isaiah 40-55 which have been given the popular name ‘Servant Songs’. This poetry concerns an enigmatic figure whose name, family, and location are not described. God calls him ‘my Servant’, and calls for people to pay attention to him (42:1, 52:13). The poems tell us quite a lot about what he does, and the Servant himself speaks in two of them (49:1-4, 50:4-9). He is an immensely significant figure, both for Jews and Christians. The New Testament writers clearly write with a consciousness of the Servant figure (e.g. Mk 1:11, 9:35; Acts 3:13-15). Jesus used the Servant poetry to describe his own actions (e.g. Matt 20:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:37), Paul engaged it to talk about Jesus (e.g. Phil 2:3-8) and Paul’s own ministry (Acts 13:46, 47; Rom 10:16; 2 Cor 6:1-10), and Peter used it to address the churches (1 Peter 2:20-25).
This article will explore some aspects of what the Servant figure is doing in Isaiah by setting some sections of the Servant Songs against the relationship between God, humanity and the earth described in the early chapters of Genesis.
Ordering and Disordering
The Hebrew verb bara, used in Genesis and elsewhere, is traditionally translated ‘he created’ (e.g. Gen 1:1 ‘In the beginning God created…’; Gen 1:27, ‘So God created humankind in his own image”). However, it has been argued by a number of scholars that rather than describing creation from nothing, Genesis 1 instead describes God’s careful ordering of creation and all its different elements so that they work together to bring about the future God intends: the completion and rest with which the creation account culminates in Genesis 2:2. It seems that ordering rather than creating from nothing may be the ancient sense of bara.[i] God’s meticulous ordering of creation is reflected in the meticulous ordering of the literary text of Genesis 1, which has been noted and described since Philo. It is fascinating that the description of the sea monsters (Gen 1:21), which usually represent chaos in Ancient Near Eastern literature, specifically uses bara. God effortlessly incorporates apparently chaotic elements within his balanced, harmonious design. The word ‘good’ from the Genesis 1 refrain, ‘and God saw that it was good’ (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31), means that everything fulfills its intended purpose within God’s ordered system.
If God is establishing good order rather than only existence in Genesis 1, an important implication is that human existence is blessed and commissioned within God’s order (1:26-28). Humans will live best and be able to fulfil their purpose within God’s order.[ii] Additionally, if Genesis 1 is understood only as an explanation of physical origins, the process of creation is completed by Genesis 2. However, if it is understood as being about ordering, God’s ongoing activity of restoration and re-ordering of the world may be understood as an outworking of creation.[iii]
There is an old Ancient Near Eastern tradition where constructing a world and constructing a temple are linked. So central is the Hebrew Temple to biblical thought, claims Hebrew scholar Jon Levenson, that ‘the Temple… is the world in nuce, and the world is the temple in extenso’.[iv] Levenson suggests that the Hebrew phrase ‘heavens and earth’ (which essentially means ‘the world’) may indicate a temple text wherever it is used, including in Genesis 1 and Isaiah 1. This means that these chapters are not just about the creation and history of Israel, but about building a temple for Yahweh, and then about the destruction of that temple.
There are many verbal links between the story of creation and the descriptions of successive sanctuaries, including the tabernacle and the temple, and indeed Genesis describes Eden using the language of the sanctuary.[v] Adam’s tasks ‘in the garden of Eden, to serve it and to keep it’ (Gen 2:15, i.e. maintaining God’s order) are echoed in the tasks of the priests to ‘serve’ and to ‘keep’ the temple sanctuary (Num 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6), to preserve its order. Humanity was formed as God’s image and likeness and charged with keeping the good order of God’s creation. Eden, tabernacle and temple are miniatures of God’s order that enables blessing and prospering, which humanity is commissioned to maintain and to extend (Gen 1:28). William Dumbrell has described humanity’s task as to ‘Edenize’ the world, i.e. to extend God’s order from Eden out into the whole earth.[vi]
However—as we know— instead of serving and keeping God’s order, humanity pursued the knowledge of good and evil outside God’s order, and sought to have its source within themselves (see the act of ‘eating’ in Gen 3:6 ). This has been called a ‘deliberate human assault upon the established order of creation’.[vii] The link between human rule in God’s likeness and the earth’s well-being was disrupted, and the rest of creation suffered disorder as a result of human disobedience and the failure of their charge (Gen 3:14-19). Chaos increased drastically from Genesis 3–11 until the state of the earth could be summed up by the statement in Genesis 6:12: ‘all flesh had ruined its way upon the earth’.
Regaining Wisdom, Regaining God’s Order
It may be argued that over the course of the Old Testament the activity of re-ordering humanity in relation to Yahweh emerges as the key agenda of wisdom instruction. Three examples will highlight some of the ways in which Yahweh’s order is restored through the getting of wisdom:
- The Torah is a means of regulating human knowledge of good and evil, enabling humanity (following the fall) to live in God’s likeness within God’s order and so to regain a measure of wisdom. The Torah has been called the ‘essence of wisdom’ in Judaism,[viii] and wisdom is directly identified with the Torah in Sirach 24:23.[ix]
- Walter Brueggemann has argued that the Psalter (whose five books echo the Torah’s five books) is intended to take its worshippers from obedience-to-Torah (Psalm 1) to ‘unencumbered doxology’ (Psalm 150).[x] The Psalter opens with an invitation to happiness (1:1, ‘happy is the one who…’) and explores the heights and depths of human lives in the very process of being ordered under Yahweh’s lordship, bringing worshippers at last to the pure praise of the Psalter’s final psalms.
- The first word of the heading of the book we know as Proverbs (mashal, Prov 1:1) is a homonym of two other verbs, ‘to be like’ and ‘to rule’.[xi] This may even be a wordplay suggesting that the book is about ‘knowing wisdom and discipline’ (1:2) in order to rule in Yahweh’s likeness, i.e. that it instructs humanity how to live best within God’s good order and to rule as charged in Genesis 1.
By its reference to the tree of life in Genesis 2–3, Proverbs 3:18 indicates that the kind of life enabled and blessed in God’s creation ordering (Gen 1) may be restored by ‘holding fast’ to wisdom:
Wisdom is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her,
and the one who grasps her is happy.
This is not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6, but— humanity having taken for themselves the knowledge of good and evil—wisdom is offered as a tree of life (to which the direct way is barred) by which they may regain to some extent the fullness of life impaired in the fall (see Gen 3:22-24 and Prov 8:35 ‘for the one who finds me [wisdom] finds life’).
Ordering in Isaiah
The book of Isaiah opens with Yahweh’s lament over the history of his people. It recounts how Yahweh ‘raised up’ sons who have rebelled, become estranged, and are like a foreign nation to Yahweh. They ‘know not’ the basics of their relationship to Yahweh (Isa1:1-4). Isaiah’s language echoes Genesis’ description of the forming and desecration of the human image, and tells Israel’s history as an echo of humanity’s creation and fall. Heavens and earth, Yahweh’s word, Yahweh’s sons (a figure for ‘image and likeness’[xii]) and their rebellion, the significance of their not knowing,[xiii] the disordering of the earth that Yahweh’s lament links to this,[xiv] together with attention to ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, chaos, and creation suggest that Isaiah’s story of Israel and Judah is written as an echo of humanity’s story.
Humanity in Israel and Judah has followed the same path as humanity did in Eden. People and earth increasingly ‘filled’ with pagan practices in Isaiah 2:6, 7, and 8 are a parody of the fullness and fruitfulness intended in Gen 1:28, and are the direct result of Yahweh’s sons’ unlikeness to Yahweh. His sons have become a false image, and so Yahweh’s ‘abandons’ them (2:6) in the exile. The heavens and earth—the creation which humanity was to rule and subdue, serve and keep; the sacred space later represented by tabernacle and temple in which humanity was to be Yahweh’s image and likeness—are called to bear witness to the sons’ rebellion (1:2).
In what has been called Isaiah’s ‘temple vision’ in Isaiah 6, temple and earth merge, and the see-er of the vision—along with those who read or who hear his first-person account, and so who ‘see’ through his eyes (as it were)—is given a seraphim’s eye view of Yahweh in relation to Yahweh’s creation.
6:3 Holy, Holy, Holy, Yahweh of Hosts
The fullness of the whole earth [is] his glory
This poetic couplet draws holy Yahweh into parallel with the earth’s fullness and Yahweh’s glory.[xv] The juxtaposition of this with the earth’s unholy fullness in the preceding chapter is striking. The seraphim in 6:3 call out about the earth in relation to Yahweh as Yahweh intends it to be, and as it surely will be. What the seraphim describe is the basis of the new creation envisaged in Isaiah’s final chapters (60:1-3, 65:17-25). The earth will be ‘filled’ as humanity was first charged to fill it in Genesis 1:28, with humanity in God’s image and likeness ruling over, serving and keeping the earth and all its parts within God’s good order.
How will the vision be achieved? How does the book of Isaiah move from ‘here’ (lost sonship, wrong fullness), to ‘there’ seen in the vision (the fullness of the whole earth as Yahweh’s glory)?
Isaiah’s Servant and Yahweh’s Order in the Earth
The First Servant Song:
The enigmatic figure of the Servant emerges in Isaiah 40-55 in a series of poems traditionally called the ‘Servant Songs’ as the key for the restoration of Israel, humanity, and the earth.[xvi] Yahweh calls this figure ‘my Servant’, and he is explored and developed in the poetry as the model and the means for the formation of Yahweh’s likeness again in Israel, and through Israel in humanity and the earth.
Yahweh first presents his Servant in Isaiah 42:1-4,[xvii] in contrast to the false images, in response to ongoing questions about Yahweh’s likeness (40:19, 25-26), and in answer to Yahweh’s call (41:28). The Servant is Yahweh’s true image, who is “like Yahweh’ by virtue of his complete obedience to Yahweh.
Isa 42:1 (3, 4) ‘Look, my Servant! He will bring out justice (mishpat) to the nations’.
Theologian Hans Schmid has argued that justice in the Ancient Near East (Hebrew mishpat) was mainly about the restoration of the order established in creation.[xviii] I propose that in Isaiah 40-55, the Servant’s task of ‘bringing out mishpat’ is the human parallel to God’s ordering activity in Genesis 1 and elsewhere that is expressed through the divine verb bara.[xix] It is the human imaging response to Yahweh’s activity of ordering. The Servant’s obedience in ‘bringing out mishpat’ to the nations of the earth is the mark of Yahweh’s true image and likeness, of the one who truly represents Yahweh and who ‘rules’ obediently within Yahweh’s good order (cf. Gen 1:28).
In Genesis, God has sovereignly ordered the heavens and earth, and has commissioned humanity to maintain God’s order and to fill the earth with it.[xx] In Isaiah, the Servant is characterized as the one who establishes mishpat (Yahweh’s good order). Although the Servant in Isaiah 42 is not explicitly described as Yahweh’s image, the first Song plainly contrasts him with the false images[xxi] and he answers the question of Yahweh’s likeness from ch.40. The poetry presents the Servant as Yahweh’s true image, the means through which Yahweh’s order will be re-established in the earth.
The Fourth Servant Song:
The longest of the four servant poems, the fourth Servant Song, 52:13-53:12, has a cluster of features that suggest that what the Servant is doing concerns re-creation in Yahweh’s likeness, not only for individuals and for Israel, but for humanity more generally. I hope to show that the fourth Servant Song intentionally echoes the story of humanity’s fall, and suggests that the Servant’s task of establishing mishpat is fundamentally about the reversal of the fall and the re-formation of humanity as Yahweh’s true likeness.
The opening verb of the fourth Servant Song (shakal) is commonly translated ‘will act wisely’[xxii] or ‘will prosper’.[xxiii] This causative form is used consistently in the Old Testament for those who prosper because of their obedience to Yahweh, especially through keeping the Torah.[xxiv] They become like Yahweh through obedience, which results in true prospering. The Israelites (Deut 29:9), Joshua (Jos 1:7, 8), Solomon (1 Kgs 2:3, 1 Chron 22:12), Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:7), the kings and rulers of the earth (Ps 2:10) are all pictured as prospering, or are exhorted to prosper by keeping Yahweh’s Torah. This causative verb characterises David’s success in 1 Sam 18 (vv.5, 14, 15). David not only prospered but caused others to prosper, and Yahweh was recognised as being ‘with him’. This verb is associated with human wisdom and alignment with Yahweh through obedience, and with Yahweh’s presence which results from it. It is also used negatively about Israel’s ancestors’ lack of wisdom (Ps 106:7), and for human lack of wisdom in general (Job 34:27).
The Bible’s first use of shakal in the causative form is in Genesis 3, and there is a sense in which every subsequent occasion where it& is associated with obedience or disobedience to Yahweh may be thought of as in conversation with that first use.[xxv] As C.S. Lewis observed ‘in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backwards’.[xxvi] True prospering as God intended it comes from a particular relation to God where human actions are aligned with God’s actions, and where God is made present in human action. The first humans chose a forbidden means of gaining a false prosperity outside Yahweh’s good order and were sent from Yahweh’s presence (Gen 3:23); whenever humanity keeps Torah, chooses obedience to Yahweh, or pursues Yahweh’s wisdom, they act against the fundamental human choice to disregard Yahweh’s order, and they increasingly fit themselves for Yahweh’s presence.
The causative meaning of shakal (‘to bring about prospering’) is demonstrated in Genesis by the activation of an alternative means of prospering than that experienced under Yahweh’s lordship. This caused humanity’s fall and exclusion from the sacred space of the garden sanctuary. In Isaiah, the causative meaning is demonstrated by the Servant who justifies many, and bears their sin (53:11-12), causing the ‘re-Edening’ of the earth which follows Israel’s active obedience in Isaiah 55:12-13. The three verbs used about the Servant in the fourth Song’s opening verse (‘made high… lifted up… exalted’, 52:13) have been jealously associated with Yahweh throughout the book of Isaiah (see 2:9-18), and their remarkable use for the Servant at the outset of the fourth Song demonstrates Yahweh’s recognition of the Servant’s alignment with himself. The Servant is like Yahweh by his actions, and so is Yahweh’s true image.
However, the language used to describe the Servant in Isaiah 53 characterises him as a kind of anti-hero, the opposite of the celebrated King David, negating every convention about one whom Yahweh prospers. How then is he aligned with Yahweh, and how does he cause prospering? The Servant had no beauty or majesty; there was nothing desirable in his appearance; he was despised, rejected by people, suffering, familiar with pain, excruciating to look upon (53:2-3). This contrasts absolutely with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6 which was ‘good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one prosper’. The tree has every appearance of beauty but is deceptive: the Servant has no appearance but is truly aligned with Yahweh.
The correspondence of the subjects of the verb shakal in Genesis 3 and Isaiah 52:13—i.e. the correspondence between the tree which appears to offer prosperity in Genesis 3:6 and the Servant who actually causes prosperity in Isaiah 52:13—might be overlooked were it not that both tree and Servant are also described using the verb ‘to desire’ [khamad, Gen 3:6; Isa 53:2). The tree was wholly desirable; the Servant was wholly undesirable. The tree language used to describe the Servant in 53:2a affirms and extends the parallel between tree and Servant: the Servant is a ‘sapling’ that ‘goes up’ (a verb particularly connected with plant growth[xxvii]) before Yahweh. He is a new plant, springing up ‘before [Yahweh]’, re-configuring what it means to prosper truly within Yahweh’s good order.[xxviii]
Thus the Isaian poet draws the Servant of Isaiah 53 into parallel with the tree of knowledge in Genesis 3. The fourth Song offers the Servant’s obedient life in contrasting parallel with the archetypal human act of disobedience in Genesis 3. It offers the life of conscious likeness to Yahweh in contrast with the first conscious act of unlikeness to Yahweh. The Servant rightly attains and makes available for ‘the many’ (53:11-12) the prosperity wrongfully sought in Eden. True prospering under Yahweh’s lordship is offered in contrast to a form of prospering that sets aside Yahweh’s lordship. The Song shows that the alignment of the Servant with Yahweh by obedience is what it really means to be ‘like Yahweh’, and so enables prospering within God’s good order, as intended in Genesis 1, and as seen by the seraphim in Isaiah 6. The fourth Song deconstructs and re-orders human notions of prospering which stem from the tree of knowledge.
As noted, in Israel’s wisdom traditions ‘[Wisdom] is a tree of life for those who hold fast to her’ (Prov 3:18). The servant life is lived by obedience, and those who hold it fast find the path of wisdom which will restore them in Yahweh’s likeness, and which restores Yahweh to them as Lord, re-ordering them within Yahweh’s good order. The Servant offers this realignment and re-formation in Yahweh’s image firstly to Israel whose outward ‘image’ is unrecognisable, desecrated by the loss in the exile of all they have valued. That it is offered beyond Israel (indeed a restored Israel will participate in its offering) is suggested in 52:15,[xxix] and in subsequent chapters (see eunuchs and foreigners in 56:3-8).
It has emerged from this reading of Isaiah and Genesis that obedience to Yahweh—the way back to being the image and likeness of God for those who have eaten from the tree of knowledge—is a form of wise knowing which redresses not only Israel’s unknowing (Isa 1:3) but the foundational human acquiring of knowledge of good and evil from a source other than God. The truly prospering life may be regained through wisdom, by the alignment of human action with God through obedience, restoring the fundamental relational principle of God’s good order, and so enabling the earth’s restoration within that order.
The reordering of Israel in relation to Yahweh as Yahweh’s likeness is the beginning of a reordering between humanity and Yahweh which is to be extended into all the earth; a relational sacred space parallel with the physical sacred space of the sanctuaries, and likewise to be broadened to include outsiders (cf. Isa 54:2-3;[xxx] 56:3-8); it is also the physically enacted image restored to its place in the temple of the world where all space will surely be sacred space (Isa 6:3).
The fractured relationships with Yahweh, one another, and the earth in Genesis 3 are restored in the chapters immediately following the fourth Song. The barren woman becomes mother of many (ch.54), Yahweh’s servants receive their true heritage (54:17), and the earth itself is restored (55:12-13). The Servant as Yahweh’s re-formed image who brings out Yahweh’s good order is shown to be the key to the renewal of humanity and Israel in Yahweh’s image, the re-Edening of the earth and the final obedience of the nations in the book of Isaiah. The wise Servant is the hinge on which the book of Isaiah moves, and by which the Isaiah’s vision is accomplished.
About the Author: Caroline Batchelder is a lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Alphacrucis College, and the Program Director for the Bachelor of Theology. She recently completed her ThD on the subject of the figure of the Servant in the Servant poetry of Isaiah, and is a member of the housechurch movement, Ruach Church.
[i] E.g. [i] W.J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order: Biblical Eschatology in Focus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1994) , G.J. Wenham, Genesis 1‒15, ed. D.A. Hubbard, et al., WBC (Waco, Texas: Word, 1987), 10, J.D. Levenson, “The Temple and the World”, JR 64, no. 3 (1984), J.D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988) ; J. Barr, “Was Everything that God Created Really Good? A Question in the First Verse of the Bible”, in God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, ed. T. Linafelt, et al. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), T.E. Fretheim, God and World in the OT: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 5; J.H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2009) , J.H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015)
Note that this does not mean that creation was not from nothing. We know that from elsewhere, e.g. Hebrews 11:3.
[ii] Cf. G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (London: SCM, 1972), 80.
[iii] J.H. Walton, “Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the ANE: Order out of Disorder after Chaoskampf”, CTJ 43, no. 1 (2008): 63.
[iv] ‘in a nutshell… in full’; Levenson, “Temple” 285. Cf. details in Levenson, Creation, 86-87, J.D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, ed. A.Y. Collins, et al., NVBS (Minneapolis: Winston, 1985), 142-145and G.J. Wenham, “Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story”, in I Studied Inscriptions before the Flood, ed. R. Hess, et al., SBTS (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1994).
[v] E.g. Fretheim, Pentateuch, 119-120, Levenson, “Temple” 282-289, Beale, Temple, 108.
[vi] Dumbrell, Search, 11.
[vii] Dumbrell, Search, 27.
[viii] J. Levine, “Judaism: The Written Law: Torah,” in Jewish Virtual Library (American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2016).
[ix] von Rad, Wisdom, 160.
[x] W. Brueggemann, “Bounded by Obedience and Praise: The Psalms as Canon”, JSOT, no. 50 (1991).
[xi] See ‘comparison’ and ‘mastery’ in R.C. Van Leeuwen, “The Book of Proverbs: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections”, in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, ed. L.E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2015); R.E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996), 7.
Interestingly, Ezekiel uses the same wordplay in Ezek 17:2 (cf. 18:2).
[xii] Cf. Gen 5:3.
[xiii] Cf. Gen 3:5, 7, 22.
[xiv] Isa 1:7-8; Gen 3:17-19.
[xv] Levenson, “Temple” 289.
[xvi] The Servant Songs are (arguably) 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:3-11; 52:13-53:12.
[xvii] Arguably, the first Servant Song extends to 42:9. The phrase ‘my servant’ has been used to address Israel in 41:8 and 9, but 42:1 seems to be different; the Servant is mark by a unique relation to Yahweh. On this see P. Wilcox and D. Paton-Williams, “The Servant Songs in Deutero-Isaiah”, JSOT, no. 42 (1988): 83-85.
[xviii] H.H. Schmid, “Creation, Righteousness and Salvation: “Creation Theology” as the Broad Horizon of Biblical Theology”, in Creation in the OT, ed. B.W. Anderson (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 102-117.
[xix] In Isaiah, 4:5; 40:26, 28; 41:20; 42:5; 43:1, 7, 15; 45:7, 8, 12, 18;48:7, 54:16; 57:19; 65:17, 18.
[xx] See Beale and Kim, Expanding Eden, 37-38.
[xxi] See 41:29 immediately preceding, and the language of construction used both for the false images and for the Servant image.
[xxii] NIV; cf. ‘deal prudently’ (KJV);
[xxiii] NIV margin; also NAS, NJB, NLT.
Koehler et al., “HALOT” 1329-1330.
[xxiv] also other kinds of alignment with Yahweh, e.g., 1 Sam 18:5,14,15; Neh 9:20; Ps 41:2 (Eng.1), Isa 41:20. See also lack of alignment, e.g., Ps 94:8, 106:7; Job 34:27,35; Isa 44:18.
[xxv] E.g. Prov 1:3 states the goal of the book of Proverbs, ‘to lay hold of the discipline of prospering: righteousness and mishpat and uprightness’.
[xxvi] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Fontana, 1940), 56.
[xxvii] J. Goldingay and D. Payne, Isaiah 40‒55, Volume II, Commentary on Isaiah 44:24-55:13, ed. G.I. Davies, et al., ICC (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 298-299.
[xxviii] Cf. the ‘branch’ in Isa 11:1.
[xxix] ‘Many nations… kings… will see’.
[xxx] Beale and Kim, Expanding Eden, 68-70.