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Posts Tagged ‘Servant of YHWH’

The opening lines of the first of four ‘servant songs’ in the book of Isaiah establish with their bare descriptiveness a range of qualities about this figure that will be sustained and developed in the ensuing chapters. It is indeed an introduction in every respect, just as הן עבדי (‘Behold, my servant’ or [NRSV] Here is my servant…’]) would lead us to expect.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it 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 faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)

Notwithstanding the neatly aligned, almost prosaic, sentences that profile this newly introduced figure, the vocabulary is so rich that it renders the interpreter reluctant to offer the kind of abbreviation that follows. Nevertheless, there is value in doing so.

First, the servant’s relationship with YHWH is both substantive and deeply felt in a way that captures the formidable turn from justice to mercy and from enmity to collaboration that surges forth from chapter 40 onward. YHWH upholds and chooses the servant. Yet there is sentiment in the arrangement, for the servant is the one ‘in whom my should delights.’ The subsequent expression—‘I have put my spirit on him’—likely envelopes both the substance and the feeling that have been expressed just before it.

A rupture has been repaired, giving way to a remarkable functional intimacy between YHWH and his enigmatic servant.

Second, there is a preoccupation with the servant’s role vis-à-vis the world beyond Judah’s borders. We read that the servant ‘will bring forth justice to the nations’. Later, the servant will prove resilient until ‘he has established justice in the earth’. Indeed, a kind of reciprocity is hinted at, for on their side of things ‘the coastlands wait for his teaching’. The combination of these elements seems to suggest something other than a mere judgement upon the nations. In any case, that point could have been made more simply, and in combination the elements suggest that populations remote from Judah will welcome the servant’s justice when it arrives and perhaps even cooperate in seeing it established.

This is all the more so if the תורה for which the coastlands wait in 42.4 is understood principally as instruction rather than an imposed regimen, as seems likely to be the case. If this is the correct reading, then one discerns an allusion to the nations’ eager receptivity in the Vision of Visions at 2.3, taking into account that the learning of YHWH’s תורה back on that exalted mountain leads directly into some kind of imposed—even if welcomed!—rearrangement of relationships among the nations.

Third, the modus operandi of the servant is firmly established as a quiet and persistent one. Even if the servant is destined to achieve great and international things, the quiet and persistent gentleness of his manner will be sustained to the end. An excerpt establishes the point:

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it 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.

Isaiah 42:2-3 (NRSV)

There is more to be said, even in this first of four servant songs, about the conduct and the anticipated accomplishment of YHWH’s servant. Yet these three observations will be sustained even in those moments when the more glorious aspects of the servant’s commission are commended. It begins to seem that his identity as YHWH’s עבד—his servant—is multivalent. Quite obviously, this figure is a servant in a way that faces YHWH himself, who here presents and upholds him. That is to say, he is an agent of YHWH’s purpose. Yet his manner also suggests a servant’s posture with regard to those entities whom he faces in the course of fulfilling his commission. ‘A dimly burning wick he will not clench’ stands here as an early declaration of this latter point.

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The stirring presentation of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) in the famous Fourth Servant Song (52.13-53.12) comprises the most intense and personified individualization of the Servant motif that is to be encountered in this long book. It is not difficult to see why messianic interpretation of the passage has been considered such a natural interpretation and has persisted among Christian readings of the book of Isaiah since earliest times.

What is less obvious in the book’s stewardship of the servant motif is the immediate pluralization of the metaphor that ensues. Already, 54.17 can claim the following on behalf of plural servants of YHWH (עבדי יהוה), naming it ‘their vindication from me (YHWH)’ in a manner that may well link the passage to the famous Servant’s experience in the Fourth Song:

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, says the LORD.

Isaiah 54:17 (NRSV)

Isaiah 56:6 offers a passing glance, though no less poignant for its brevity, at ‘foreigners’ whose love for YHWH’s name makes them welcomed servants of his alongside ‘eunuchs’ who in return for similar fealty will be granted ‘a monument and a name better than sons and daughters’ (56:5). In 63.17, a plea that the heat of divine judgment might soon cool begs YHWH to ‘(t)urn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage’.

Each of these pluralizes the servant in a manner that hearkens back to the collective singular represented by ‘my servant Jacob’ prior to the Fourth Song’s intense individualization of the servant metaphor.

Now, in chapter 65, we encounter a new development. In the face of persistent idolatry on the part of practitioners of aberrant cult who appear to be members of the Community of the Return, YHWH laments the agile love that he has extended to them, unrequited. The result is a division of YHWH’s erstwhile people into a population whose unrelenting provocation of him will finally exhaust his patience, on the one hand, and a population of ‘servants’ who now become the recipients of his restorative mercies, on the other.

The chapter’s first seven verses profile the first of these two increasingly differentiated populations:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.

I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks; who sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels; who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’ These are a smoke in my nostrils, a fire that burns all day long.

 See, it is written before me: I will not keep silent, but I will repay; I will indeed repay into their laps their iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together, says the LORD; because they offered incense on the mountains and reviled me on the hills, I will measure into their laps full payment for their actions.

Isaiah 65:1-7 (NRSV)

It is important to observe that such a denunciation might well lead into the narrative of a failed restoration project and a severe judgement of the people in toto. Yet this is manifestly not what follows. Instead the passage pivots resolutely towards the existence of an obedient population of ‘servants’ in a fashion that binds the servant motif to the erstwhile theme of a remnant.

A subsequent oracle beginning at verse 8 drives the contrast between this freshly recruited band of ‘my servants’ and the doomed population from which they have been brought forth (‘from Jacob … from Judah’, v. 9) as deeply as can be imagined.

Thus says the LORD: As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all. I will bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains; my chosen shall inherit it, and my servants shall settle there.

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.

But you who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny;

 I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter; because, when I called, you did not answer, when I spoke, you did not listen, but you did what was evil in my sight, and chose what I did not delight in.

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit.

You shall leave your name to my chosen to use as a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death; but to his servants he will give a different name.

Then whoever invokes a blessing in the land shall bless by the God of faithfulness, and whoever takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of faithfulness; because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my sight.

Isaiah 65:8-16 (NRSV)

It is rather arbitrary to pause consideration of this motif without venturing into the explanatory (כי־הנני בורא…) oracle that begins at verse 17. Yet its entirely new cluster of creational imagery perhaps justifies one in doing so here, if momentarily.

If we take stock of how this chapter and its suggestive precursors (54.17, 56.6, 63.17) have begun to develop the Servant motif after its white-hot personalization and individualization in the Fourth Song, we will observe the return—if this is not too tendentious a term—to a collective identity. However, this newly named community of servants is no longer merely ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’. Rather, these servants comprise an obedient population within a divinely threatened nation, now become a kind of stay on YHWH’s hand, which might otherwise have struck the nation hard in response to its provocative defiance.

In the unfolding Isaianic drama of YHWH’s servant(s), the future now lies with this new collective, bearers of a new and genuine penchant for both obedience and gratitude. The former troubles forgotten to both YHWH and humankind, this community that bears an as yet unrevealed ‘different name’.

One senses that the Isaianic trajectory one struggles to follow, though not without steadily crystallizing instruction, has still more to declare.

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Arguably, the famous ‘parting of the ways’ between synagogue and church—between those Jewish communities that did not see in Jesus of Nazareth a reason for altering the evolving trajectory of Israel and those who saw it as that and more—can be mapped over a handful of biblical texts. If so, then the famous Servant Song that is Isaiah 53 (more precisely, 52.13-53.12) must figure prominently among its peers in such a collection.

Yet our too fast and our contextually inattentive readings of this text blind us to veiled allusions and subdued connections with other Isaianic texts.

Take, for example, the Song’s brief survey of the Servant’s unpromising origins in 53.2. Though not the beginning of the poem, it is the first reversion to incipience after an opening series of three verses (52.13-15) that capture midpoints and endings as a kind of orientational prelude.

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It is impossible to engage the enigmatic figure of the Servant of YHWH (עבד יהוה) without the immediate realization that paradox lurks in every syllable. There is no escaping this quality of the Servant figure, and the challenge to a ‘Who is this exactly?’ investigation must be acknowledged from the start. Answers to that particular question may not come easily, they may not come in the singular, and they may not come at all unless the question is reconfigured.

A layer of paradox occurs in the first six verses of Isaiah 49 that is true to the iconic experience of biblical prophets. On the one hand, there is profound divine engagement in their calling to the prophetic vocation, so here in the divine purpose that commissions the Servant into his improbable task.

On the other hand, there is a palpable sense of weariness, inadequacy, and even failure in the prophet’s experience. So here in the case of the Servant of YHWH.

Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”  

And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the LORD, and my God has become my strength—he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NRSV)

The Servant’s prenatal, in vitro calling and naming introduces the passage. This prior description then cedes to the imagery of YHWH’s preparation of the servant, still rendered in the Servant’s voice. Then a promissory note that might seem like just another brick on the road from glory to glory.

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:3 (NRSV)

Yet this optimistic anticipation is not borne out, at least in the near term. The progress of the narrative seems trapped in an eddy of perceived insufficiency on the part of the Servant. The emphatically disjunctive ואני אמרתי (‘But I said…’) breaks the hopeful momentum established in the chapter’s first three verses.

The Servant’s complaint is met with divine reassurance that still greater achievements will issue from the Servant’s efforts. Yet this oscillation between divine reassurance on the one hand, self-doubt and exhaustion on the other, will beleaguer the Servant passages or songs for the duration. It is likely that we ought to read the famous passage at the end of chapter 40, with its deployment of יגע (‘to be[come] weary’) and its interaction of exhaustion and divine supply, as cut from the same cloth. This should not surprise us as it is Jacob/Israel who complains there as it is Jacob/Israel that is identified as the Servant of YHWH in most or arguably all of the so-called Servant Songs.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31 (NRSV)

Divine purpose and human experience thus live in uneasy tension and persistent dialogue throughout the Servant passages. In the sea of paradox that is Isaiah’s Servant discourse, this restless antithesis constitutes one undeniable drop.

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