Some of the most memorable questions in the New Testament are answered in relation to the Servant Songs. Whether it is the eunuch asking Phillip if the fourth song is about Isaiah or someone else (Acts 8), or John the Baptist sending his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:20), the significance of these songs cannot be overstated.
When driving through the mountains, close proximity limits one’s sight to a single mountain or two. But when viewed with a bit of distance and perspective, that single mountain can be seen as belonging to an entire range of mountains. It is a mere contribution to an even greater vista.
It has been said that Old Testament prophecy can be explained in similar fashion. When considered up close, the fuller significance of the prophecy can sometimes be missed. But with the right viewpoint and a bit of perspective, the fuller significance of a passage can be seen.
So it is with the Servant Songs of Isaiah. These passages—Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–9; and 52:13–53:12—make reference to the Servant of the Lord, and each could, like a single mountain, command attention that extends well beyond the treatment given here. In fact, one might feel the temptation to dwell only with one song without reference to the others. Another temptation might be to collapse each passage into the other, rushing from the victory of 42:1–9 to the suffering of 52:13–53:12. The tack taken here will be to summarize the broad strokes of each passage before taking a step back to admire the fuller vista that emerges.
Behold 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 aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law. (vv. 1–4)
The first song (Isa. 42:1–9) depicts the Lord’s Servant establishing justice. The prophets frequently accused the people of God of committing injustices. This was often expressed in their failure to care for or protect the poor, widows, and orphans. The Lord’s Servant, however, would not break the bruised reed or snuff out the smoldering wick (v. 3). His faithful accomplishment of this justice is referenced in verses 4 and 5. The work of the Servant in establishing justice, one of the most important functions in ancient Near Eastern kingship, is reminiscent of the messianic kingdom that is depicted in the Old Testament. The execution of this justice would be the going forth of a law (torah) in which the nations would hope.