Song of the Suffering Servant


Isaiah 42: 1-9

Of the Books of the Prophets, Isaiah is by far the most famous and influential outside of Judaism, not only because much of it is brilliantly written, but because it contains a series of poems about a mysterious figure known as the Suffering Servant. To Jews, this figure remains mysterious. The context has suggested to some readers that at least one of these poems may be about Cyrus, the leader of the Persians who conquered the Neobabylonian Empire and allowed those Jews who desired it to return to Jerusalem in 538 BCE. Jews have sometimes seen the Servant as a symbol of themselves. However, orthodox Jews do not identify the Servant with the Messiah, the promised future king who will restore and transform the ancient Kingdom of Israel and reign over the whole earth forever. Although Isaiah may have anticipated the coming of the Messiah with the end of the Babylonian captivity, Jewish belief came to view this figure as having yet to arrive. The Servant could not be the Messiah precisely because he is depicted as suffering. The Jewish Messiah is a triumphant military and political figure whose coming marks the end of the era of mortality: neither he nor his followers will ever die. Christian theology radically reworked this material to combine the two figures into one: a suffering Messiah who dies and is resurrected. Hence these lines are frequently applied to Jesus, as in George Frederick Handel's famous oratorio "The Messiah."


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; (1)

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.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them. (2)

New Revised Standard Version


(1) It is in this passage that the Servant's suffering is alluded to. Although he brings justice, he is meek and submissive,. This attitude is described much more clearly in the third Song of the Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 50: 5-6) where he is struck and spat on.

(2) This insistence on the ability to foretell the future raises a highly controversial point. Conservative Christians insist that various passages in Isaiah, including this one, prove that the Bible must be divinely inspired, since they accurately predict various events, including the coming of Christ. Other scholars maintain that the book of Isaiah was compiled from the writings of various authors at different times, and that this passage was probably written while the liberation was underway, while overstating its consequences. The arguments on both sides are far too complex to detail here; but it is important to note that highly-developed bodies of argumentation exist on both sides and that each side tends to ignore or dismiss the arguments of the other.



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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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