This week in my Intro to Old Testament course, I was given the assignment to write a letter to tell you a bit about “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.” I’ve always been drawn to the beautiful poetry of Second Isaiah (Is 40-55) and intrigued with the Christian interpretation of these ancient Hebrew writings. And now, as life has been turned upside down over the past few weeks, I’m searching for comfort and hope in the experience of YHWH’s Suffering Servant.
Second Isaiah was most likely not written by the prophet Isaiah, but by a representative of the “school of Isaiah,” during the exilic period. (Stanley, p. 461) This assumption can be made because the words spoken by this prophet supports the notion that the Israelites are already living in exile in Babylonia. The people of YHWH had been warned by earlier prophets that because of their disobedience, God’s judgment would bring the destruction of life as they knew it. The deportation of Israelites and cruel oppression experienced at the hand of the Babylonians, were the fulfillment of God’s wrath and punishment to a people who had been defiant.
Exile was a confusing and hopeless time for God’s people, even though earlier prophets had forewarned them that they were headed in this direction. YHWH, who had protected them in the past and who had not abandoned them before, seemed distant – literally. Could YHWH even hear their cries and laments?
In exile, Second Isaiah brings a message of hope and “debt paid to YHWH.” In fact, he assures them that YHWH hasn’t forgotten them and, although YHWH was very angry with them, they would soon be blessed and would return to their homeland. “24 Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey? 25 So he poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart.” (Isaiah 43:24-25) This reminder of the punishment they brought on themselves, was followed by God’s enduring promise, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 44:1-3). The people of Judah in Babylon had paid their debt, and in Second Isaiah’s opinion, “over paid.” (Lester, Responses to Exile Part B on YouTube) The prophet (Second Isaiah) delivered this message to YHWH’s people as one who was specifically called by YHWH. (Bandstra) This authority must have given the people confidence and hope for a new direction.
But resolution and freedom does not come quickly to the Israelites. In fact, they continued to experience oppression and suffering during the exile. They searched for understanding in suffering of a community of people that considered themselves to have paid their debt to YHWH in full. It is in this identity of “Suffering Servant,” that God’s people find a deeper and redemptive meaning to their experience.
The “Servant Poems,” found within the writings of Second Isaiah, lend explanation and purpose for the continued suffering. It is through the suffering of YHWH’s people that the world will learn about the nature of YHWH and YHWH’s redemptive nature. The Israelites will be finally vindicated after their suffering and exile, and will bear witness to those who oppressed them as well as other nations who do not yet worship YHWH. (Singer)
The figure of the Suffering Servant has often been confusing to me. In the Christian tradition, the Suffering Servant connects Jesus’ role with the prophet’s words from Isaiah, lending truth and purpose to the crucifixion. But I now understand this text as it brought hope and purpose to a people who had been brutally and systematically oppressed. At a time when it appeared all hope was lost, a voice calling out reminded the Israelites that God would bring them through their suffering. And through their suffering and redemption, nations would be changed.
I don’t believe for a minute, that the loss and disorientation I’ve felt these past weeks is the result of disobedience or angering God. I do believe that God shows us a way through our suffering, and into comfort and reorientation. And maybe if we allow the truth of our trust in a loving, healing God, others, who do not know the nature of God, will be changed.
With much, much love, and until I see you again,
Stanley, Christopher, “The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach,” (Fort Press: MN, 2010)
“Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isaiah 53,” by Tovia Singer, https://outreachjudaism.org/gods-suffering-servant-isaiah-53/
Bandstra, Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration, Chapter 12