This note is supplemental to the article on Isaiah 42:1ff in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Here I will explore in more detail the identity of the “servant” in this passage, and its significance in the context of chapters 41-45.
The principal theme and subject of the poems in these chapters is the restoration/return of the Judean people from their exile in the Babylonian Empire. This will come about through the military and political actions of Cyrus the Great, whose conquests will bring the fall of the Babylonian Empire (see chapters 46-47ff), and allow the Judean exiles to return to their land.
There is a wider theme at work as well: God’s Judgment against the nations for their wickedness—in particular, their worship of false deities (characterized by the images used to represent them, i.e., as ‘idols’). This Judgment begins with the Persian conquests under Cyrus. At the same time, the restoration of Israel/Judah marks the beginning of a New Era, and a new ‘world order’ established by YHWH in His Sovereignty. The nations have the opportunity to turn away from their false deities and to join Israel in worshiping the one true God. This idea, anticipating the theme of the (future) salvation of the nations, is established in the opening verse of chapter 41. The declaration of the impending conquests by Cyrus follows in vv. 2-3, even though the Persian ruler is not yet mentioned by name. The main point is that YHWH, the Creator and Sovereign of the universe, is the one truly in control; Cyrus is only an instrument to carry out His will (v. 4).
Within this dramatic prophetic framework, there are three figures who feature prominently in chapters 41-45 (apart from YHWH Himself):
- The people of Israel/Judah, who are collectively referred to as the “servant” (db#u#) and “chosen (one)” (ryj!B*, vb rj^B*) of YHWH (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4)
- A messenger, sent by YHWH to Israel/Judah, serving as His spokesperson (prophet), but also representing the people, speaking and acting on their behalf (41:27ff; 42:19; 44:26, cf. also 40:6-8, 9ff)
- Cyrus, the Persian king, mentioned by name in 45:1.
In all the other references to God’s “servant” (db#u#) and chosen one, these titles are applied to the people of Israel/Judah specifically (41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4). The context relates to YHWH leading His chosen people out of their exile. The formula is established in 41:8-9:
“But you, Yisrael, my servant [yD!b=u^],
you, Ya’aqob, whom I have chosen,
seed of Abraham my loved (one),
you whom I have seized from (the) ends of the earth,
and called from her corners,
you to (whom) I have said
‘You (are) my servant,
I have chosen you and will not reject you,’
—do not be afraid, for I (am) with you…”
The same basic formula is used in 42:1, only there Israel is not specifically identified as the “servant” (except in the LXX):
“See, my servant, on (who)m I grab hold,
my chosen (one whom) my soul favors;
I have given my Spirit upon him,
(and) he will bring out judgment for the nations.”
Moreover, the role of this servant is different than in the other references: he is appointed by YHWH to bring judgment and justice to the nations, establishing a new era of law and order, according to the Rule of God. But if this figure does not refer to the people of Israel/Judah, then who is this servant?
Some commentators would identify him with Cyrus. Thematically, such an identification would make sense, in the context of chapters 41-45. YHWH refers to Cyrus as his “anointed (one)” (j^yv!m*), and the Persian ruler clearly functions as God’s ‘servant,’ carrying out His will—both in enabling the Judean people to return from exile, and in bringing judgment upon the nations (esp. the Babylonian empire). The motif of rendering judgment and establishing justice among the nations would seem to apply to a ruler such as Cyrus. However, the term db#u# (“servant”) is never used of him, even implicitly. Indeed, after YHWH address to Cyrus in 45:1ff, db#u# is again applied to Israel/Jacob, not Cyrus (v. 4).
More probable is that the term in 42:1ff refers to a messenger of YHWH, either a heavenly (angelic) or human (prophetic) figure. The Judgment-aspect would perhaps suggest a heavenly/angelic Messenger; however, the mention of YHWH giving His Spirit to the servant makes it all but certain that we are dealing with a human being—and that the presence of God’s Spirit is realized in terms of the prophetic spirit (for a detailed discussion on this, cf. my recent series of notes on “The Spirit in the Old Testament”).
A relatively strong argument can be made that the figure of Moses is particularly in view. There are a number of points that can be made in favor of this theory:
- Moses is specifically referred to as God’s “servant” on a number of occasions in Old Testament tradition: Exod 4:10; 14:31; Num 12:7-8; Deut 34:5; Josh 1:2, 7; 18:7; 1 Kings 8:53, 56; Psalm 105:26; Isa 63:11; Dan 9:11; Mal 4:4 [3:22]; Bar 2:28; cf. also Heb 3:5; Rev 15:3.
- Moses was the pre-eminent Prophet and leader for the people of Israel, and possessed the spirit of prophecy (i.e., God’s Spirit); on this line of tradition, see my study on Numbers 11:10-30.
- Moses led the people out of exile in Egypt, even as they are now to be led out their exile within the Babylonian empire; the return of the Exiles is clearly understood in the Deutero-Isaian poems as a ‘new Exodus’ (in chaps. 41-45, cf. especially 43:1-2, 16-17ff).
- The role of bringing judgment to the nations, in the context of Israel’s release/return, would fit the archetypal pattern of Moses in his encounters with Pharaoh and the rulers of Egypt.
- The servant functions as a judge and law-giver, which well fits the historical and traditional portrait of Moses.
- The wording in verse 4 (“he shall not be dim/weak [vb hh*K*]”) may contain an allusion to Deut 34:7, referring to Moses (the servant of YHWH, v. 5) whose eye “had not dimmed/weakened” even at the end of his long life.
If an identification with Moses is correct, how is this to be understood? Is the language figurative, or is a specific historical personage expected to arise who will function as a ‘new Moses’ (in the context of this ‘new Exodus’ for Israel)? On the one hand, a figurative interpretation would better fit the Deutero-Isaian theme of Israel’s restoration, which involves a new covenant and a renewed adherence to the Torah, echoing the ancient Moses/Exodus traditions (the Sinai covenant and the giving of the Law, cf. Exod 19-34). Subsequent Isaian poems and oracles (i.e., from chapters 56-66, so-called Trito-Isaiah) give special emphasis to the theme of the Law going out from Jerusalem, as a light to the nations (cf. below on vv. 5-9).
On the other hand, Deuteronomy 18:15-19 records a prophecy regarding a “prophet like Moses” who will arise in Israel, essentially taking Moses’ place and functioning as a ‘new Moses’. By the 1st century B.C./A.D., this had developed into a clear belief in a Messianic prophetic figure, according to the figure-type of Moses, who would appear at the end-time, prior to the great Judgment. Jesus was identified explicitly with this figure in Acts 3:22 (also 7:37), and there are other implicit references to “(the) Prophet” which likely have this same (Messianic) figure-type in mind (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40). For more on this subject, and on the identification of Jesus with Moses, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
It is possible that an early version of this basic line of tradition had already been established by the 6th century B.C. If so, then it is conceivable, given the Moses parallels listed above, that the “servant” of Isa 42:1ff is understood to be a “prophet like Moses”, who was to arise (as an eschatological figure) to lead the people of Israel again.
While the arguments for identifying the “servant” here with Moses are compelling, the overall context of chapters 41-45 may ultimately favor a somewhat different interpretation. It rests upon the fact that the “servant” (db#u#) is repeatedly identified with the people of Israel throughout these chapters. It can thus be argued fairly enough that the term db#u# and “chosen one” (ryj!B*) should be understood the same way here. The difference in role reflects the condition of the people after they have received the Spirit of God. This implies a setting after they have been restored and have returned to the Land, and YHWH has established His new covenant with them. Such is very much the context of the reference to the Spirit in the servant-passage of 44:1-5 (cf. my earlier study on 44:3).
In this regard, one should also note the declaration of a new role for restored Israel earlier in 41:14-16. Though but a mere “worm” when rescued from exile by YHWH, they will become a sharp-toothed “threshing-sledge”. This threshing/harvesting imagery suggests that the restored people will come to play a role in the judgment that YHWH will bring against the nations. This generally fits the context of 42:1ff as well. According to this particular line of interpretation, Israel becomes a messenger to the nations, establishing the law and justice of God among them.
The theme of law and justice is clear enough in vv. 1-4, but it takes on an even deeper theological meaning in verses 5-9, in which YHWH states that he gave it to the servant to be “a binding (agreement) [tyr!B=, i.e. covenant]” for the people, and a “light” [roa] for the nations (v. 6). The idea that Israel, bound in a new covenant with YHWH, would serve as a light (of God’s Law and Truth) to the nations, is fully in keeping with the Deutero-Isaian theology.
However, who are the “people” (<u*) here in v. 6? Normally, this singular term, juxtaposed with the plural “nations” (<y]oG), would indicate a contrastive parallel between the people Israel and the other nations. If so here, then the “servant” could not be the people Israel, but would have to be a separate figure who functions in a prophetic/leadership role—most likely according to the figure-type of Moses (cf. above).
If, on the other hand, <u* is here used collectively for the peoples of the earth (i.e., humankind), then it would still be possible to view restored Israel as the “servant”. The role of God’s people, sanctified and empowered by His Spirit (cp. 44:3), is of a missionary nature—that is, their mission is to bring other peoples and nations into the covenant with YHWH, bringing to them the light of God’s Law. The dual-motif of the Law going forth out of Jerusalem, leading to the conversion/salvation of people from the other nations, was an important Isaian theme that takes on special prominence in the Trito-Isaian poems (chaps. 56-66). It came to be a key component of Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought in the first centuries B.C./A.D., and early Christians adopted the same line of tradition, applying it to their mission to the Gentiles.