The Servant in Isaiah 40-55, scholarly interpretations — individual and/or collective identities

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by Neil Godfrey

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Ulrich Berges has conveniently outlined a history of scholarly interpretation of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 40 – 55, concluding with his own reasons for understanding the Servant who suffers yet saves as a literary personification of a prophetic community in the restored Jewish province under the Persian empire (SJOT, Vol.24, No.1, 28-38, 2010). The following is an outline of Ulrich Berges’ article. I have questions about some of the premises upon which Berges relies, and have additional questions about the possible relevance of the literary developments in evidence here for later Gospel narrative traditions, but I try not to let any of these personal thoughts interfere with my outline of Berges’ article here. The Isaiah Servant songs have always been of special interest to me, and I assume someone else without access to academic online journals will find some interest in these notes also.

Developments in the exegesis of the so-called Deutero-Isaiah corpus

The first to challenge the idea that Isaiah wrote the entire book bearing his name was Ibn Ezra in the 12th century.

But the first to challenge the idea in the age of historical critical research was Johann Christoph Döderlein in the third edition of his commentary on Isaiah in 1789. Döderlein believed that chapters 40 onwards were the work of a different author.

Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1783), posited an exilic author for chapters 40 – 52. But he also saw the question as quite complex, with the final chapters being compilations of a variety of poems.

Biblical Scholar Bernhard Lauardus Duhm
Bernhard Duhm. Image via Wikipedia

Bernhard Duhm was responsible for the lasting success of the idea of the final chapters being authored by an exilic prophet with his 1892 commentary.


  • separated the four servant songs from the main body of texts
  • also separated the polemic against idolatry
  • gave the name of Deutero-Isaiah to the anonymous author of chs. 40 to 55
  • invented the third Isaiah, Trito-Isaiah, for chs. 56 to 66 — thus establishing the tradition of the three-book interpretation of Isaiah: Proto/Deutero/Trito Isaiah.

The four servant songs are

Duhm’s theory dominated the commentaries and handbooks, but there were always a few critical voices against it.

Wilhelm Caspari did not challenge the literary peculiarity of chapters 40 – 55 but did dispute the invention of an anonymous personal, individual author for them. Likewise Joacham Becker (1968), Diethelm Michel (1967/77) and Klaus Kiesow (1977). The chief objection was that these chapters yield up no personal characteristics. The absence of any name at all was considered significant, assuming that a personal name is expected in such literature, and is the basis of a personal tradition.

Contrast the book of Ezekiel which is full of personal references, formula and situations:

Ezek.1:1 In my thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.

Ezek. 24:1 In the ninth year, in the tenth month on the tenth day, the word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 26:1 In the eleventh month of the twelfth year, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 29:1 In the tenth year, in the tenth month on the twelfth day, the word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 6:1 The word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 7:1 The word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 12:1 The word of the LORD came to me

Ezek. 12:8 In the morning the word of the LORD came to me

The few exceptions (e.g. Isa. 40:6 and 48:16, including the I-speech in the second and third servant songs do not overturn this observation since “these texts are completely written in a style that permits no insight into a personal biography.”

The suffering and death of the servant-figure in Is. 53 too cannot be interpreted as an individual destiny. The disapproval of Julius Wellhausen is still compelling: “It is a hazardous supposition to think of an incomparably great prophet who was martyred in exile, perhaps by his own people — a prophet who then disappeared. The statements do not fit a real prophet. Such a one does not have the task of converting all the pagans, still less did a real prophet succeed in that task.” (p. 30)

New redaction-criticism in Is. 40-55 and the introduction of an alternative

The domination of the Deutero-Isaiah thesis — that an unknown prophet in exile penned chapters 40-55 — delayed any effort to apply redaction critical research (seeking earlier and various layers of anonymous authorship) to those chapters until around 1980. The idea of a real singular prophet in Babylonian exile, even if only known as “Deutero-Isaiah”, was too theologically important to jettison, especially given the significance of passages used for liturgical readings at Lent and Easter.

Today, the basic layer has been reduced from 40 to 55 down to 41 to 45. Some scholars even reduce this basic “Deutero” layer even further to consist of those passages speaking of the imminent appearance of Cyrus: 40:9, 11; 40:12-31:5; 41:21-29; 42:5-7; 44:24-28; 45:1-7; 45:11-13; 46:9-11; 48:12-15.

No doubt the habitat of the exilic prophet, i.e. the chapters in which he is supposed to be found, is getting smaller and smaller. (p. 31)

Jürgen Werlitz (1999) showed that the oldest portion (42:14-44:23) of the basic document itself consisted of a wide range of types of material: words about Cyrus, judgement oracles, disputation words, polemics against idols.

The classification of this material to the basic document was made necessary and possible

because the notion of an individual prophet was abandoned in favour of an exilic-postexilic group close to the singers of the Jerusalem temple-cult. (p. 31)

This group is considered responsible for the “first book edition” of 40:1 to 52:10 which was “probably completed once the group came back to Jerusalem around the year 520 B.C.E. but it originated in the Babylonian Exile as an attempt to find renewed strength and hope in YHWH.”

This “first book” was structured around so-called hymns: 42:10ff; 44:23; 45:8; 48:20f; 52:9f.

The point of this “first edition” was to bolster support for the community of prophetic authors themselves to remain faithful as the true offspring of Jacob/Israel.

Ulrich Berges has himself abandoned the idea of an anonymous exilic author being responsible for the latter chapters of Isaiah and opts for an “authorial group close to the Jerusalem temple singers first exiled to Babylon.” (p. 31)

Individual versus collective interpretation — Is this the right alternative?

Bernhard Duhm’s idea of the Servant Songs in Is. 42, 49, 50 and 53 being especially distinct literary units has not been abandoned, but his belief that they should be considered in isolation from the surrounding material has been questioned.

Additionally, Berges points out that one cannot quickly assume a distinction between those “normal” Servant passages in which the Servant is clearly identified as a collective Jacob/Israel and the special individual Servant songs of 42, 49, 50 and 53. The reason, says Burges, is

because there are a number of verses with a combination of plural and singular. This flexibility between plural and singular is especially present in the Hebrew text while later traditions (like the Septuagint) tend to make things more uniform and equal. (p. 32)

Burges takes his first example of a group identity of the authorship from the Masoretic text of Isaiah 40:

1Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

3The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

5And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

6The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:

7The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.

8The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Burges explains this God calling on a group — “ye” in 40:1 is plural — to comfort the people of Zion. But there is some dissension in the group. One of them — “he” in 40:6 — responds: “How could I call/announce — all flesh is grass and all its commitment is like a flower of the field.” In verse 8 this sceptical attitude is acknowledged, but it is also superseded by trust in God.

Later texts emend “And he said” to “And I said”. This, says Burges, was “the result of a growing analogy between Is. 40 and Is. 6, where Isaiah reacts to the frightening vision of the holiness of God with [“then I said, Woe . . .”]” (p. 33) The context of Isaiah 40, however, is entirely on the present and future. There is no suggestion of a biographical link to the past or earlier portion of Isaiah.

Other passages used by Burges to support this prophetic group identity behind Is. 40-55:

1. Isaiah 41:27

The first shall say to Zion, Behold, behold them: and I will give to Jerusalem one that bringeth good tidings.

This is the introduction to the Servant song of 42:1-4

1Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.

2He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.

3A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.

4He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law.

Burges comments:

The alteration from the plural “behold them” to the singular “the one who brings good tidings” has to be respected. The [“one who brings good tidings”] will be constituted by those of the Gola [Exile], members of the blind and deaf servant, who accept the call to bring the message of salvation and renewed hope to Zion/Jerusalem.

The fact that the mention of the herald in 41:27 stands immediately before 42:1 ff. is not accidental but points to the first Servant-son (cf. 48:16 before 49:1 ff.). The ones who are called to accept the task of comforting Jerusalem are the heralds of good tidings and constitute the Servant. Thus the switch at the end of Is. 42:9 to the plural (. . . “I inform you”) finds a plausible solution too. (p. 33)

2. Isaiah 43:10

Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.

Once again we see the change from the plural (witnesses) to the singular (servant). This, Burges notes, “presents valuable data for the identity of the servant (c.f. 43:12; 42:18f; 44:8; 44:26; 48:6). The deaf . . . and blind servant . . . Israel/Jacob has been refined and chosen by God in the furnace of affliction (48:10), i.e. in the Babylonian exile.” (p. 33)

3, Isaiah 44:26

That confirmeth the word of his servant, and performeth the counsel of his messengers

4. Isaiah 50:4

The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned [plural], that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned [plural].

Berges’ interpretation:

My interpretation runs as follows: the group of prophetic writers (temple-singers) saw themselves in line with the disciples of Isaiah ben Amoz [c.f. the ‘learned’ disciples of 8:16]: at the end of exile the time had come when the once sealed message could and should be read and understood! [c.f. ‘learned’ in 54:13].

The introduction of the human I-figure compared with the sending of Cyrus

Isaiah 48:14-16

14All ye, assemble yourselves, and hear; which among them hath declared these things? The LORD hath loved him: he will do his pleasure on Babylon, and his arm shall be on the Chaldeans.

15I, even I, have spoken; yea, I have called him: I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous.

16Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord GOD, and his Spirit, hath sent me [or, God has sent me and his spirit].

There is a shift from God to a human as the subject. God has spoken about his sending Cyrus to deliver Israel and then suddenly speaks of sending his Servant, the subject of the Servant songs in Isaiah 49:1-6 and 50:4-9, the only other places where this I-figure appears.

[N]ot only did YHWH call and commission the political saviour Cyrus in advance but also the Ebed, i.e. the community of the Servant (. . . , cf. 49:6). It is not an anonymous exilic prophet, nor the prophet of the book, but the servant-community who presents itself after the purification and election (48:10) as the messenger of Israel and the nations. . . . A confirmation of this interpretation is provided by Is. 59:21 where the covenant “with them” consists in this, that the spirit “on you” and the divine words in your mouth are made secure through all generations. The promise of YHWH to put in the mouth of the prophet like Moses his divine words (Deut. 18:18) is applied by the prophetic community to itself and to its descendants in the future. (pp. 34-5)

Some consequences for the interpretation of the Servant-passages in Is 40-55

Burges concludes that the strict separation of the four special Servant songs from the references to the Servant as Israel/Jacob in other passages within these chapters, a view that has dominated since Bernhard Duhm, is no longer tenable.

One cannot postulate the identity of an individual servant from outside the text — the anonymous exilic prophet — in order to find this character in the text. (p. 35)

Berges quotes Henk Leene:

I think we firstly need to free the servant of all biographical associations in order to give him subsequently back to the history [of post exilic Israel]. . . . The servant represents in the totality of the book of Isaiah the connecting element between the historical Israel and the post-exilic group of the pious. On the one hand the servant stands for Israel transformed by God himself and on the other he symbolized the prototype of those who in Trito-Isaiah are called the servants of God. These servants are his offspring. In Is 65 they are called the juice in a cluster of grapes because they trusted only in the word of God precisely as the servant did in Is. 50.

The literary creation of the Servant figure

Burges’ view is that the authors of the second half of Isaiah (chapters 40 to 66) came to see themselves “more and more in the line of the prophet Isaiah and his disciples and created for the sake of their own identity the literary figure of the servant. . . ”

Thus out of the blind and deaf servant Jacob/Israel grew the faithful servant who had the task of bringing the dispersed back to YHWH (49:6). They understood themselves as the ideal Israel tested and called by God in the furnace of the exilic affliction. (p. 36)

The sectarian conflict

From Isaiah 54:17 till the end of the book the label “servants” is applied to the posterity of the Servant, the sons of mother Zion, and from the first (54:17) the context in which they appear is heated dispute and controversy:

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of me, saith the LORD.

Burges sees Is 65:13-15 as an expression of the culmination of that conflict and a confessional claim of victory:

Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry: behold, my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty: behold, my servants shall rejoice, but ye shall be ashamed:

Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart, and shall howl for vexation of spirit.

And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord GOD shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name

A literary phenomenon of the times

The above interpretation of the Servant as a personification of a group is consistent with a literary fashion of the time. That is, “theological problems of post-exilic times are encapsulated in a concrete literary figure.”

Thus Job represents the problem of why the innocent suffer.

Lamentations 3 portrays a suffering person epitomizing endurance under the wrath of God.

The confessions of Jeremiah represent the fate of the persecuted prophets. “These confessions stem from prophetic circles who projected their own controversial situation onto the life of Jeremiah, their master, to find consolation and hope.” Burges observes that the Servant in the third song (50:4-9) is more clearly a prophetic figure than in the previous two songs, and suggests that this indicates a later development in accordance with analogies with Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The servant becomes increasingly an ideal figure of a genuine prophet suffering on behalf of YHWH and his word. (p. 37)

The titles of numerous Psalms present David as a faithful sufferer for YHWH. The Septuagint strengthens this development.

Prayers of Ezra 9:6-15, Daniel 9, the book of Judith are along the same lines of

personification in order to strengthen collective or “group identities”.

Thus the literary figure of Zion/Jerusalem in the latter half of Isaiah (40-66) represents sometimes the victim of God’s punishment and also the hope of coming restoration. Israel is not only the servant, but also a wife/mother who suffers.

It would seem a fruitful enterprise to take up and revitalize the older debate about corporate personalities in the Old Testament by the newer insights of post-exilic role and problem-oriented literary features. At the end that might lead to an inversion of the perspective: not from the individual concept to the collective but from the collective to the individual. Certainly then what is at stake is not a discussion about collective or individual identity but about collective and individual identity. (p. 37)

A special case: the fourth servant song (52:13-53:12)

Berges concludes with a discussion of the last Servant Song of Isaiah 53 as a test case for his understanding of the Servant being a personification of a collective identity. On the surface, this song would not seem to conform at all to a collective representation. It speaks of both suffering and death itself.

Berges argues that this servant is not a person but a personification in three steps. I include a quotation of the passage and context below.

  1. The text is surrounded by Jerusalem passages in Is 52 and 54, and at the end of 54 we see for the first time the servants, the posterity of the Servant and mother Zion. “Both figures have to be seen and interpreted in a very close connection to each other.”
  2. The controversy created by the servant who said that he strove in vain (49:4, 7) and that his enemies mistreated him (50:6) comes to its peak in the description of the disfigured servant (53:2-3)
  3. There are many correspondences between Isaiah 53 and the prophetic mission of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6, so Isaiah 53 has to be seen in the light of Isaiah 6:
    • 52:15 & 6:9-10 — to see, hear and understand
    • 52:13 & 6:1 — the servant/YHWH will be exalted
    • 52:15 & 6:6-8 — closing mouth of kings/opening mouth of Isaiah
    • 53:5 & 6:7 — our sins and Isaiah’s sins pardoned
    • 53:3 & 6:10 — hardened heart not healed/healed
    • 53:10 & 6:13 — holy seed and offspring of disfigured servant

This last point is significant for identifying the “we” speaking in Isaiah 53. The kings’ mouths have been shut (52:15) so it cannot refer to them. It is the majority of post-exilic Israel who are the “we” group — the “many” in 52:14, 53:11, 12 — and who finally acknowledge the saving function of the community of servants, personified in the Servant.

Those to whom the good news is announced are the many (52:7) who did not accept it at first (the prophet Isaiah had no success except among a small group of disciples — 8:16-18) but did finally understand (53:1). “They recognize that the one(s) who announced peace to them (52:7), endured the punishment for their peace . . . (53:5).”

The servants presented themselves in the literary figure of the suffering servant and they are convinced that their success depends entirely on God himself: “When you make his life an offering of sin (ascham), he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days” (Is 53:10). It is especially this expectation of a communitarian future that speaks in favor of a collective personality of the servant: “It is just because the servant is not a person but a personification that the Second Isaiah can picture him living again after his death. Not as a person but as a personification of a people the servant will merely implement an already familiar hope when he rises from the dust.” More than about suffering and death the song speaks about the future success of God’s servants, the children of Mother Zion: their past suffering is her past yoke — and their future glory is her restoration! (p. 38)

Isaiah 52 – 54

7How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!

8Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.

9Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.

10The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

11Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.

12For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your reward.

13Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.

14As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:

15So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.

Isaiah 53

1Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?

2For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

3He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

4Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

5But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

8He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

9And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

10Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

11He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

12Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 54

1Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD.

2Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes;

3For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.

4Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.

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