Assignment: Pick someone whom you would like to teach about “Isaiah’s Servant.” (A colleague, a prospective MDiv student, a curious family member, or anyone else.) In about 1000 words, and using these course materials as a resource, write them a letter about what this “servant” is for the book of Isaiah. Be sure to cite appropriately, so that they can engage these materials themselves also. Don’t “lecture” (we all know how off-putting that is!), but do find compelling ways to include the relevant information. Anticipate their questions and concerns, and address them overtly.
Dear church music directors,
Greetings. Grace and peace! As a fellow church music director I can feel your pain this week – Holy Week – I do hope that you are hanging in there with the added services and demands of this week. I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to choose songs for worship. This is for a number of reasons: getting stuck in a rut, not wanting to teach new songs, all the songs are in ridiculous keys, no drummer this week, etc. BUT my most difficult issue is finding songs that contain helpful (could we say accurate?) theology. There are a lot of crazy theological ideas in Christian worship music repertoire! I’m committed to finding songs that don’t put incorrect words in the mouths and on the hearts of the people in my congregation, so I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
I was struck by this worship quandary again this week as I was studying the “suffering servant” theme in the book of Isaiah and I thought it might be important to discuss this topic in some depth. We have a lot of songs that talk about the “suffering servant” – most of which name Jesus as this One who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5a). Here’s one example, By His Wounds…or if you’re more into the hymn thing here’s another example, O Sacred Head Now Wounded. It’s a common Christian interpretation to read Jesus of Nazareth into the “suffering servant” narrative in Isaiah, and Christian theologians have done so throughout history. At the end of this letter I will discuss that reading of the text, but first I would like to offer some information that might shed light on the scriptural context to help us sort out what’s going on here.
A bit of background: The book of Isaiah is divided into three main sections. Chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah comprise a section called Second Isaiah. This happens to be the second of the three sections – hence, probably, the name. While the first portion of Isaiah was written to the pre-exilic community during the 8th century B.C.E., this second portion of the book of Isaiah was addressed to the people of Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile (500s B.C.E.). If you’d like a more substantive discussion of this historical context you can check out Bandstra’s Chapter 12: Postmonarchy Prophets: Exile and Restoration.
The “suffering servant” stuff is in Second Isaiah in a subsection of four poems that speak of a mysterious figure called the “Servant of Yahweh.” Here are the four poems: Isaiah 42:1-6, Isaiah 49:1-6, Isaiah 50:4-9, and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The last of the four poems is the one that has been used as a theme in the aforementioned songs/hymns. So here’s the problem with those songs in regard to the ways they go about reading Jesus into these poems: In this context, Jesus of Nazareth is not likely the “suffering servant,” but rather the “suffering servant” is most likely the people of Israel. The notes in my Harper Collins Study Bible explain, “The early church identified the servant in this passage with Jesus, and Jesus’ own sense of identity and mission may have been shaped by this figure. In the original historical context, however, the servant appears to have been exiled Israel.” The context of the other poems supports the notion of the “suffering servant” as Israel. Tovia Singer writes, “Isaiah’s first three Servant Songs clearly identify Israel as God’s servant, and the surrounding chapters of Isaiah 53 clearly speak of Israel as a suffering and humiliated individual” (Who is God’s Suffering Servant? The Rabbinic Interpretation of Isa 53)
This is a BIT of an aside to the discussion about music, but I found it disturbing/interesting/enlightening to read Rabbi Singer’s thoughts regarding Christian issues with Isaiah 53 and the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel. He discusses how the church has used Isaiah 53 as a prooftext in order to show the validity of the Gospels, particularly to prove Jesus of Nazareth’s death as “explicitly prophesied in Hebrew Scriptures.” He asserts that Christians use the suffering of Jesus as a cornerstone of their doctrine, claiming that a concession of the “suffering servant” as the people of Israel would, “require Christendom to abandon one of its most cherished polemical chapters used to defend its own teachings, and a vital part of its textual arsenal used against its elder rival, Judaism.” Singer goes on to write, “It is astonishing that missionaries would use rabbinic texts to support Christian doctrines given that each and every one of the rabbis that they zealously quote utterly rejected the teachings of Christianity.” Pretty intense stuff.
I can see the validity of Rabbi Singer’s statements though. We Christians tend to get trapped in church doctrine and become inflexible to other ideas, even if they are grounded in academically-sound readings of Scripture. And with the upcoming Holy Week services I have been noticing that we tend to sing a LOT of songs about suffering and blood shed in the church. Which is understandable, but they tend to only be from an atonement theology standpoint. Why not find songs that use liberation theology for Holy Week? Dr. Brooke Lester talks about the sinner/judgment model of the Christian tradition versus the victim/vindication model we see in Isaiah. This would be an interesting challenge to find words for worship that enliven the victim/vindication narrative.
Part of why I am writing to you is that I wonder if we might be able to find some room for new words to use in Christian worship. And I’m wondering if this conversation can serve to augment how we look at scripture and talk about it. It seems that we get stuck on one idea (Jesus as “suffering servant”) and perhaps fail to see the fullness of God’s grace and love.
One of the Enduring Understandings in our Old Testament class related to this topic is:
The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place. What does that mean for the words we choose to use in worship? In particular, what does this mean for the songs that use Isaiah 53 to speak about Jesus of Nazareth as the “suffering servant”?
The final question is one of our Essential Questions in Old Testament class: Why and how do we appropriate ancient words for our own purposes and interests? What does it mean for a text to “speak to” someone it’s not meant for? How does the understanding of this narrative shed light on the historical context? How does the historical context speak to us today? Can it? Walter Brueggemann writes about Isaiah 53, “Although it is clear that this poetry does not have Jesus in any first instance on its horizon, it is equally clear that the church, from the outset, has found the poetry a poignant and generative way to consider Jesus, wherein humiliation equals crucifixion and exaltation equals resurrection and ascension.” It seems clear that this text can speak from a broad context, but it seems clear that the historical context is also crucial. I guess we just continue to live in the tension, consider the contexts, and work on finding words for worship.