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SIDIC Periodical XIX - 1986/1
The Last Servant Song of Isaiah (Pages 10 - 14)

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The Servant of the Lord
Rosaio Pius Merendino


It has been held commonly for some time that what are known as the Servant Songs (Is 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) may not have been the work of the anonymous exilic prophet, later called DeuteroIsaiah, but that they were composed in stages at a later date by some of his disciples and then included in the collection of the prophet's writings (Is 40-53). Recent analysis has confirmed this thesis.

It can be said in brief that the four songs bear the mark of the complex handing on of tradition. The community in which the prophet lived and proclaimed his original message reflected upon this life and message and handed it on to the next generation in order to clarify it and give it the imprint of its own individuality. These reflections betray also at different times that specific literary form that denotes a collaboration of different persons or groups. More precisely, these reflections were interpretations intended to demonstrate to the Israelite community the continual validity of the prophet's message, notwithstanding the present difficulties this community faced while trying to reconstitute itself as a united and relatively autonomous group in its ancient promised land.

Prophet of the Return

In the victory of Cyrus, King of the Medes over the immense Babylonian empire, the great prophet of the return saw a sign of divine condescension towards the exiled Israelites and had wished, indeed promised their immanent liberation and reconstitution as a nation. The return to the land became a reality, but many hopes were quickly dashed because of the numerous difficulties that stood in the way of the realization of all those religious, socio-political and economic expectations that had sustained most of them on the way home. The prophet had taught the community to see what had been happening as works of the Lord on behalf of his people, thus giving them a sacred -rather than a profane character, but he now ran the risk, when confronted with the hard facts, of seeming to be a false prophet of an impotent God unable to do new things, or of a God who, having punished his people, no longer intended to renew his ancient covenant with them.

The songs of the Lord's Servant answer these objections in successive stages: they insist on the divine origin of the prophet's mission and they define him as "Servant', that is, as God's minister and spokesperson who reveals the divine plan to extend the covenant to all nations, thus underlining the universal character of this mission. They interpret also his martyrdom not as a failure, a sign of having been abandoned by God, or of God's incapacity to oppose his enemies, but as a testimony to the mission's divine origin and to the sustaining presence of God in the •rophet's troubled life. The very death of the Servant is interpreted lastly as an event foretold by this same plan of salvation expressing God's omnipotence and his fidelity to the covenant and to all its implications. The death inflicted on God's prophet and inflicted repeatedly on his own people in the course of history, does not prevent God from fulfilling his purpose nor does it diminish his loving condescension towards every nation and every person.

One can understand thus how the followers of Jesus reflected upon the message of these songs and how, through this meditation, the first Christian community understood the meaning of the mission and of the death of Jesus.

These songs must be read one by one in order to grasp the details of their valuable teaching. In this article we arc not able to go into any great depth for lack of space, but we shall endeavour at least to stimulate those interested to go further into the matter with the aid of the numerous commentaries and monographs dedicated to the Deutero-lsaian texts.

The First Servant Song

The first Servant song (Is 42:1-4), written in the first person, is in the style of a divine discourse. God presents the Servant as one whom he has chosen, to whom he has given his spirit .and whom he has destined to bring the nations to the knowledge of his divine decree,. namely, his solemn decision to propose and ratify with Israel and with them an eternal covenant. He emphasizes moreover that the mission of the Servant will be one of salvation and that it will be accomplished. The original text was shorter, consisting of verses 1 and 3.4a. Verse 2 was included at a later stage and probably in concurrence with the third and fourth songs which speak of the persecution and the sufferings of the Servant. The tenor of verse 2 makes one realize that the Servant's mission will not he to pronounce punishment and condemnation, but rather that he will endure with an inner strength and without complaint the abuses he undoubtedly will encounter. The parenthesis of v. 4b, finally, presents the Servant as the new and universal Moses, mediator of the covenant between God and all peoples.

When translated,' the original text reads thus:
v. 1 This is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him,
he will bring forth (to knowledge) (my) decree of salvation unto the nations...

v. 3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth (my) decree.

v. 4a He will rot fail or be discouraged
till he has confirmed (my) decree on the earth...

As can be seen, the central part of the text is enclosed and centralized by a repeated reference to my decree (mispat). In its more immediate context this term refers to the juridical sentence passed by a tribunal. Here, however, it has been given a theological meaning, coinciding with the author's intention to give the divine will, as expressed to the prophet and announced solemnly by him in turn, a definite and irrevocable character.

This song was inserted between Is 41:25-29 and 42:5-8 precisely in order to offer an interpretation of these texts and to extol both the victorious King Cyrus, that physical executor of divine justice, and the Servant, messenger of the Lord and sacred interpreter of these events as willed and guided by the Lord.

In the original text of Deutero-Isaiah in fact, the figure of Cyrus is predominant. The Lord has raised him up as liberator of the oppressed and revealer of divine glory so as to smooth the way for the renewal of the covenant between the Lord and Israel (Is 42:68). Only in passing is there mention of the messenger to Jerusalem (Is 41:27) with whom the prophet identifies himself.

With the insertion of Is 42:1,3-4a the passage is given a new meaning. The mission of the prophet-servant becomes increasingly central and essential because it will never reach accomplishment in the course of history as long as the divine decree has not come to the knowledge of all the nations. The victory of Cyrus can be understood only as a contingent and sporadic event. After liberation there will always remain the possibility of a new deportation or an even more cruel oppression. The prophetic word, however, will never fail; it will propose to Israel and through Israel to all the nations, a continually renewed covenant with God. The true and lasting instrument of salvation, then, will not come from the victory of armies but through the divine word given to Israel and the whole world, either by the whole of Israel itself or by a prophet-servant whom God will choose either from time to time or else once for all, as his ally and spokesperson.

Even if our passage is speaking of precise individuals (the victorious Cyrus, the messenger of Jerusalem, the Servant and the liberator from slavery), its universalizing aspect suggests something much more: a movement within history guaranteed by the historical presence of the people of Israel. Ile who wrote the song Is 42:1, 3-4a had a much wider horizon than Dcutero-Isaiah had of his time, as well as a sense of history that was no longer restricted within a particular moment but open to the dialectical movement of far-reaching and enduring events.

The Second Song

In the composition of the second song (Is 49:1-6), an unknown author used a text, again of anonymous origin but inspired by Deutero-Isaiah, singing also the praises of King Cyrus and exalting his universal mission as the bearer of salvation.

Contrary to the style of the prophet, who usually forms his texts as divine discourses, the author of this text has Cyrus speaking in the first person. Thus we have:

v. 1 Listen to me, 0 coastlands,
and hearken, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named
my name.

v. 2b He made me a polished arrow
in his quiver he hid me away.

v. 3 And he said tome, "You are my servant,
in you I will be glorified."

v. 5a And now the Lord says:

v. 6a "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel:

v. 6b I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

The post-exilic community no longer wanted to see in the figure of King Cyrus, now of bygone days, the universal bearer of salvation because, among other things, they were afraid of identifying a religious mission with a political one, especially after having experienced the catastrophe which the Davidic monarchy had brought to the nation. The designation: a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth was borrowed instead to indicate the prophet who but recently had reaffirmed the Lord's salvific will and the renewal of the covenant with Israel by interpreting the events as a manifestation of divine glory to all peoples. Once again we find that the community gave priority to the prophetic word as an instrument in God's hand to bring about his plan of universal salvation. Completed by vv. 2a 4a 5ab:

"He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
But I said, 7 have laboured in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity: (And now the Lord says,)
who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him."

The text was then included in the collection of the sayings of Deutero-Isaiah, or more precisely, at the end, since Is 49:743 most probebly had not yet been added. Also this time, as previously, the inserted texts served to widen and complete the meaning of the final part of the Deutero-Isaian 'collection. Once again having affirmed the vocation and successful mission of Cyrus as having been the work of the Lord (Is 48:14-16z), the prophet, almost as if to authenticate his own message and the writings that transmit it, refers his own mission hack to the Lord with one simple statement: the Lord called me. Then straight away stepping back into the shadow, he exhorted the Israelites to proclaim redemption to the whole world: the Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob (Is 48:206) and has come forth from Babylon.

Revised by means of the appropriate additions inserted at this point, our song again draws attention away from Cyrus to the Lord's messenger, turning him into a prophet of judgment against the enemies of God (cf Is 49:2a) and a prophet of salvation to Israel and the nations (cf Is 49:5ab,6b). At the same time the text hints at the sufferings to which the prophet is subjected during his mission (Is 49:4a), sufferings which, however, are compensated for by the salutary effects of that same mission to he the light to the nations and salvation for everyone. In the light that shines upon the world through the announcement of the covenant given to all humankind, then in the acceptance by the nations of this divine saving gift, the Lord himself reveals his glory and is glorified. The instrument of salvation and the sign of divine condescension arc not. as in the past, the victory of armies and of political power, but have been substituted by the prophetic words entrusted to a chosen individual and finally, as the last revisions of the text testify (Is 49i4b,5b and Israel in 49:3), to the people of Israel in their totality. The historical greatness of this people will never again be due to their military, political and cultural superiority, but simply to their presence and universal mission as bearers of the divine word and the witness to the covenant given to the whole world.

The Third Song

The third song (Is 50:4-9), like the second, is written in the first person as a discourse delivered by the Servant. It surely is not a coincidence that the two central songs arc discourses of the Servant while the first and last are delivered by God. What we seem to have is not only a style which has a contextual meaning but a structural importance as well. It is as if the Deutero-Isaian collection was outlined, at its beginning and its end, by the solemn proclamation with which the Lord presents his Servant, affirming the salvific function of his mission. By the same token, it is centralized by the testimony of the Servant who, even through his suffering and the apparent failure of his mission, faithfully proclaims the one who sent him.

The evangelist Mark seems to have realized the theological importance of this structure because he also frames the first part of his gospel with the testimony of God regarding Jesus, taking almost literally the words of Is 42:1 (cf Mk 1:11, 9:7). In similar vein, Mk 9:7 introduces the second part of the gospel which recounts the martyrdom and death of Jesus. His silence under the High Priest's and Pilare's interrogations is an indirect reference to the silence of the Servant during his passion (cf Is 53:7). Finally, still in reference to the Isaian framework, we have in the gospel the testimony of Jesus who, in perfect obedience to the divine will, remains faithful to his mission of announcing the kingdom of God.

In harmony with the aim of the previous songs, the third also exults the figure of the Deutero-Isaian prophet. servant, affirming again that the persecution he under-)vent did not mean failure, but rather the revelation of the divine will and power over against his enemies. Before the song was added to the Deutero-Isaian corpus (together with Is 49:14-55:13?) the text was emended. The original text would have read as follows:
v. 4a The Lord has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,

v. 5th and I was not rebellious,
I turned nor backward.

v. 7ab therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint
v. 8 He who vindicates MC is near. Who will contend with me? Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.

v. 9a Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?

This text has undergone several additions, the last of which is contained in vv. 6, 7a, 7h. Again, it underlines the steadfastness of the Servant in the face of torture, finding refuge in his unlimited fidelity to God and to his mission. In this way the song conforms with greater clarity to the others and in particular to the second and fourth. Previously the original text had been incorporated into a divine discourse concerning judgment, in which the Lord affirmed his supremacy over those who hindered the realization of his salvific plan (cf Is 50: /a,2-3,96,11). The post-exilic Israelite community expressed in this text and in others similar the hope that God would not abandon his people to the enemy. It is really because of this theme of divine judgment in Israel's favour against her enemies and their cosmic divinities that our song finds its place here in this context. One is able to note, moreover, its thematic correspondence with the judgmental discourses of Is 49:24-26 and 51:21-23 in general, and the correspondence between Is 50: 2b-3ah and 51:6,8,1.0 in particular. Within this framework, the theme of the sufferings and martyrdom of the Servant who is the bearer of God's word, invests itself with luminous significance: no persecution nor martyrdom of Israel will ever annul the gift of the divine word to the world and the fulfilment of salvation through the covenant. The prophetic word once given by God is never lost and no amount of human power will surpass it. With these reflections the people of Israel expressed their own transformation from a political, triumphalistic vision of history to a vision both spiritual and religious, a vision in which the salvific power of God no longer coincides with human power; in which the divine presence and condescension is no longer guaranteed by any human institution.

The Fourth Song

Thus we arrive at the last Servant song, the longest and still most discussed because of the uncertainty surrounding the model to which its anonymous author refers. Because of limited space we are unable to give a complete translation, but this should present no problem to the understanding of its fundamental message.

In its format the song seems to alternate between several voices: that of God who promises and confirms (Is 52:13-15; 53:11b-12), the choir of the nations, at first oppressive and hostile, then recognizing in the mission and destiny of the Servant the manifestation of divine power (Is 53:1-5) and finally, the voice of the people of Israel who acknowledge themselves guilty of the death of the Servant caused by their many sins of infidelity. Testimony is then rendered to his righteousness and Israel confesses that because of the Servant they were saved from total destruction, as if his chastisement were enough to satisfy the oppressors and had indeed been recognized by the Lord himself as a vicarious punishment on behalf of all humankind (Is 53:6-11a). Here as in other texts, Israel saw itself and its destiny in the figure of the prophet-martyr.

This is not all, however. There is expressed also in this vision the firm faith and hope that Israel's own mission as the bearer of God's message will never be abrogated and that God will gather to himself its sacrifices for the salvation of all peoples. It is no arbitrary matter to realize that this song not only flowed from the community's reflection on the Deutero-Isaian prophet and his death, hut also from a long experience of pain and martyrdom to which the people of Israel had been subjected almost without ceasing. In this song Israel has transmitted in an emblematic form the most anguished yet most authentic image of itself. It has written out its own identity card which will mark it out distinctively and assign it a unique and well-defined place within the religious history of humanity, that is to say, as the mediator and witness of God's divine love for all peoples always and everywhere.

Not many words are required to illustrate the importance that the primitive Christian community gave to this song. It became the hermeneutic key which allowed an understanding to be reached of the sense of the mission and death of Jesus. That is not to say, however, that the mediation of Jesus substitutes for that of Israel, but is part of it. In Jesus it is still Israel that accomplishes its mission. By the same token, the primitive Christian catechesis was careful to define Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mtt 1:1; cf Lk 3:31,34) and saw in him the Savior, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel (Lk 2:32). The evangelist John does not hesitate also to affirm that salvation is from the Jews (Jn 4:22). Human blindness and weakness have contributed unfortunately to the creation of divisions, separating that which, in God's plan, was one. As a consequence, Jesus and his community have been separated from Israel which was and still remains the womb and the place where God's covenant is at work and where salvation is accomplished. Would it be possible to rebuild the unity of the chosen people of whom Christians are a part in virtue of their belonging to the son of David and Abraham, and from whom they are inseparable? It is the challenge which Christians and Jews today can no longer avoid if they wish to remain faithful to the one covenant to which God has called them.

* Professor Rosario Pius Merendino is a biblical scholar who has specialized in the Old Testament, notably in the books of Deuteronomy and DeuteroIsaiah. He lives in Rome and is at present preparing a historico-critical commentary on Deutero-Isaiah.

1. Author's translation throughout this article.


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