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Who’s the Mystery Guest in Isaiah’s Servant Songs?

Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year.

In the United Kingdom, there’s a long-running television quiz show called A Question of Sport. One round, “Mystery Guest,” requires teams to identify a famous athlete on the basis of a 30-second video. But the sportsperson is in disguise. For example, they might be dressed up as a cowboy, with a hat pulled low over their eyes, and a neckerchief pulled up over their mouth and nose. The task is to name the mystery guest.

The prophet Isaiah has his own mystery guest. Isaiah 40–55 reveals that the Holy One of Israel is going to achieve the hope, grace, and restoration promised in the first 39 chapters through this mystery guest, whom he refers to as “the Servant of the LORD.” By way of four so-called Servant Songs, Isaiah communicates the different aspects of the Servant’s identity.

Let’s walk through those Songs so that we can identify the Servant. 

Song One: Spirit-Filled (Isa. 42:1–9)

Immediately preceding song one, Isaiah warns his listeners and readers about the foolishness of idols (Isa. 41:21–29), which are then contrasted with the Servant:

  • “Behold, idols” (41:29)
  • “Behold, the Holy One of Israel’s Servant” (42:1)

The Holy One of Israel is going to achieve the hope, grace, and restoration promised in the first 39 chapters through this mystery guest.

Rather than being an “empty wind” (Isa. 41:29), the Servant is Spirit-filled. The Holy One has put his Spirit on this Servant (Isa. 42:1). This will be evident in the justice the Servant will bring (vv. 1, 2, 4). He will do what many of Israel’s rulers failed to do: rule with justice. This is certain because God will empower him (vv. 6–9). The promises made to God’s people in Isaiah 1–39 will begin to come to fruition in this Spirit-filled Servant as he brings forth justice. 

Song Two: Prophet (Isa. 49:1–7)

In song two the Servant communicates that he’s the conduit for God’s coming salvation for Israel (v. 5) and the nations (v. 6). The prophetic element is highlighted at the outset of the song with the call to “listen” (v. 1). Using this same Hebrew term, the Holy One of Israel has persistently called his people to listen to him (Isa. 48:1, 12, 16). By employing this term the Servant is claiming to speak with God’s authority. 

The imagery of swords and arrows (v. 2) further assumes prophetic capacity, illustrating the accuracy and penetrating power of the Servant’s prophetic words. His words will not miss their target. Additionally, the Servant’s calling from the womb (vv. 1, 5) reinforces the prophetic nature of his task (cf. Jer. 1:4–10). 

These features shed further light on the Servant’s identity: he is an individual, prophetic figure. The Servant’s message of salvation will not be accepted. This leads to the rejection of the Servant himself (v. 7), a rejection that will become more explicit in a later song. 

Song Three: Obedient (Isa. 50:1–11)

The third song’s theme is the Servant’s obedience. This is in direct contrast to Israel’s disobedience. In Isaiah 1–12 Israel’s disobedience was exposed extensively. There have been reminders of this continued disobedience (Isa. 42:18–20; 48:18–19). By way of contrast, the perfectly obedient Servant enters the stage in song three (v. 4). His perfection is exhibited by a mouth instructed by God (v. 4), ears attentive to God’s teaching (v. 4), and the distinct absence of rebellion (v. 5).

The Servant’s perfect obedience will lead to further rejection (v. 5). Notice the escalation from song two, in which the Servant is deeply despised (49:7), to song three, in which the Servant is physically assaulted (Isa. 50:6). Yet he will be able to endure it as the Holy One of Israel helps his Servant (v. 7). The Servant will be all Israel was not. He will do all Israel could not. He will perfectly obey the Holy One of Israel.

Song Four: Substitute (Isa. 52:13–53:12)

Excitement pulses through chapters 51 and 52. God comforts his people, bringing hope, joy, gladness, and thanksgiving (51:3). His salvation will last forever (51:6, 8, 11), and Zion will again be beautiful and strong (52:1–10). 

The Servant will be all Israel was not. He will do all Israel could not. He will perfectly obey the Holy One of Israel.

The manner in which all of this is achieved is communicated in song four. Here, it’s made clear that this salvation will be brought about by the Servant’s substitutionary suffering and death. For many Christians this is a familiar piece of Scripture, but the sophistication of the poetry is often overlooked. 

This song is divided into five stanzas, each consisting of three verses in our English translations. The pinnacle is the middle stanza (Isa. 53:4–6). This apex makes it explicitly clear that the Servant will be a substitute: each successive blow delivered against the Servant is because of us. The Servant’s suffering is emphasized in the stanzas on either side of the pinnacle (53:1–3, 7–9). The Servant’s isolation in enduring this is striking in these two stanzas. There is hope, however, as the song’s introduction (52:13–15) and conclusion (53:10–12) allude to the Servant’s vindication. There is a pyramid effect to the poem: 

   C Substitution (53:4–6)

  B Suffering (53:1–3) B` Suffering (53:7–9)

A Vindication (52:13–15) A` Vindication (53:10–12) 

Isaiah is proclaiming that Israel’s salvation will come through the substitutionary suffering of the Servant. It will take the life of another to bring salvation. 

Revealing the Mystery Guest 

The careful reader of Isaiah will notice that Israel itself is called “servant” (Isa. 41:8–9), which has led to some confusion about the Servant’s identity. A number of commentators argue that since Israel is elsewhere called “servant,” Israel must be the Servant. But this doesn’t necessarily follow logically, and certainly not for the New Testament authors. Who is this Servant?

Isaiah is proclaiming that Israel’s salvation will come through the substitutionary suffering of the Servant. It will take the life of another to bring salvation.

Song one is quoted by Matthew in his Gospel (Matt. 12:18–21). The point made by Matthew is that Jesus’s ministry was fulfilling song one: Jesus and his ministry were Spirit-filled.

Song two foreshadows Jesus’s prophetic ministry. The Gospels all present Jesus as speaking God’s Word to his people (for example, Matt. 5–7). The specific imagery of the Servant’s swordlike words is explicitly applied to Jesus in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 19:15, 21).

Song three’s broad theme of obedience is exemplified in Jesus (cf. Matt. 5:17). It also speaks specifically of torture (Isa. 50:6), which represents all Jesus would face.

Song four is frequently quoted in the New Testament. It’s the passage from which Philip explains the gospel to the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26–40). The apostle Peter also alludes to it as he writes about Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross (1 Pet. 2:22–25).

While reading song four, the Ethiopian Eunuch turns to Philip: “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34). Philip is clear: the prophet speaks of someone else—someone whom Isaiah himself strained to glimpse and grasp (1 Pet. 1:10–12).

The New Testament makes it clear that Isaiah’s mystery guest is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

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