The Vindicated Servant
“Lo, Your Salvation Comes” – The Messiah in Isaiah Special Series
Vindication is sweet. Or at least satisfying.
To vindicate is “to clear someone of blame or suspicion; to show or prove to be right, reasonable or justified” (Oxford). Generally the term is used to describe someone who was thought to be in the wrong, but later proven to be right. It may carry the connotation of the accused triumphing over his accusers, or a reversal of fortune where the accusers are humiliated and the accused is honored. The biblical story of Mordecai and Haman in the book of Esther well illustrates how vindication works.
Vindication is a common theme in Scripture. For the persecuted and oppressed, it is their fervent prayer. Their ultimate hope is in God who will reverse their fortunes by judging the wicked.
Save me, O God, by Your name,
And vindicate me by Your power.
May he vindicate the afflicted of the people,
Save the children of the needy
And crush the oppressor.
Vindicate the weak and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
And they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?
In Isaiah 50.8a, an obedient and abused servant confidently declares that YHWH will vindicate him. While others have abused him, he has entrusted himself to YHWH who will help him stand against his abusers and accusers.
He who vindicates Me is near;
Who will contend with Me?
The word “vindicates” is the Hebrew verb tsādaq, which means “to be righteous, be innocent, be vindicated; in accordance with a proper (God’s) standard, and so implying innocence” (KM). It is cognate with other Hebrew words relating to justice and righteousness: the adjective tsaddiq (righteous, upright, innocent); the noun tsedeq (righteousness, justice); and the noun tsedāqāh (righteousness). This implies that God will righteously judge the servant and his enemies, and declare the servant to be innocent.
The servant, whomever he may be, has obeyed YHWH even to the point of extreme suffering and humiliation. Yet, he refuses to be shamed by his experiences or persecutors, because he is confident that YHWH will at last vindicate him. He even invites his persecutors to put their faith in YHWH as well.
The identity of this servant; his role and work; his relationship to YHWH, Israel, and the nations; and his legacy – these are matters that require our attention in this text.
Isaiah’s Servant Songs
Isaiah 40-55 presents four portraits of an enigmatic servant through whom YHWH will work. The word “servant” (‘ebed) is mentioned over twenty times in this section: 41.8, 9 (2x); 42.1, 19 (2x); 43.10; 44.1, 2, 21 (2x), 26; 45.4; 48.20; 49.3, 5, 6, 7; 50.10; 52.13; 53.11; 54.17. The four descriptions upon which this section is built are often called the “Servant Songs,” and are found at 42.1-4 (Song I); 49.1-6 (Song II); 50.4-9 (Song III); and 52.13-53.12 (Song IV). Songs I and IV are biographical (third-person). Songs II and III are autobiographical (first-person).
J. A. Motyer carefully lays out the structural similarities of all four Songs (Prophecy, 14-16). Each song has a declaration of the identity and task of the Servant. Each describes the Servant’s divine endowments. Each describes the Servant’s attitude toward his task. To slightly adapt Motyer’s chart (15):
“Israel” (v 3)
embodied in an individual (v 4-7)
YHWH’s Servant (Individual)
YHWH’s Servant (Individual)
Bring justice to the oppressed
Restore Israel & bring light to the nations
Teach the weary & suffer humiliation
To bear the iniquities of others
Spirit & Word
Exaltation & vindication
There seems to be a progression of thought and intensity from one song to the next. Song I pictures the Servant as quietly and faithfully bringing justice to the oppressed. Song II introduces an element of despondency by the Servant who now seeks to gather wayward Israel and reach out to the Gentiles. Song III introduces resistance, shame and violence from those whome the Servant teaches. It also adds the dimension that to heed the Servant is to heed YHWH. Finally, Song IV shows the full dimensions of the Servant’s suffering and his vicarious role.
The sections following each song (which also connect them) show the implications for Israel and the nations. They clarify the relationship between the Servant Jacob/Israel collectively and the One Servant individually. Just as Servant Israel was chosen by YHWH (41.8f) to be a light to the nations (60.3), so too is the One Servant chosen by YHWH (42.1) to be a light to Israel and the nations (49.6f). Just as YHWH formed Servant Israel (44.1f), so too did he form the One Servant (49.5). Just as Servant Israel was endowed with Spirit and Word (42.21, 24; 51.4), so too was the One Servant (42.1; 50.4). YHWH is glorified in Servant Israel and in the One Servant (44.23; 49.3).
Song II especially shows that Jacob/Israel cannot be YHWH’s Servant apart from the work of the One Servant. J. N. Oswalt notes that because the Servant, “…will be what they could not, and indeed will be that for all people, they can become what God has promised: his servants who can reveal his redeeming light.” And, “On the one hand the Servant is the people of God. But on the other hand, the Servant is the One who incarnates servanthood and Godhood, who shows us the nature of servanthood and in so doing enables us to become the servant” (Vol. 1, 52).
The Obedient & Vindicated Servant – Song III (50.4-9)
Song II is followed by an assurance of the Servant’s vindication (49.7) and success in fulfilling his God-given duty (49.8-13). The response of Zion (Israel), however, is sulking: “YHWH has forsaken me, and YHWH has forgotten me” (49.14; cf., 40.27). In reply, YHWH promises that he will not forget them (49.14-16); that they will increase (49.17-23); that they will be delivered from their captors (49.24-26); and that they will be ransomed (50.1-3). See Motyer, Isaiah (353-357) and Prophecy (392-398).
Implied in this final offer of ransom is also a rebuke. There is a discernable note of disbelief in YHWH’s response. How can Israel possibly charge him with abandonment or estrangement? He asks for proof in the form of a divorce decree or a bill of sale (verse 1). If he had put them away or sold them, where is the evidence? He reminds them that the real problem has always been their iniquities and transgressions. He asks why none of them had bothered to respond to his previous invitations (verse 2). Could it be that Israel considers YHWH to be impotent? His reply (verse 2-3) suggests that they have at least entertained this possibility. He reminds them of his mastery over nature in his past deliverances (e.g., the Exodus). “God neither lacks the desire nor power to deliver his people. The only issue is whether they are willing to step forward in repentance and faith to meet him when he comes and answer him when he calls” (Oswalt, Vol. 2, 320).
The commencement of Song III (50.4-11) is signaled by a change of speaker. YHWH has been speaking since 49.7, where for the most part he addresses Israel. The new speaker is distinct from YHWH and speaks of him in the third person. He is also distinct from those whom he helps (verse 4), and from those who seek to hurt him (verses 5-9). His identity is not clear until verses 10-11, where YHWH again speaks and calls the subject of Song III, “His [YHWH’s] servant.”
The Servant’s Endowment & Task (50.4)
In Song I, the Servant is endowed by YHWH’s Spirit to bring “His Law” to all (42.4). In Song II, his mouth is like a sharp sword (49.2; cf., Hebrews 4.12; Revelation 1.16). Song III continues the idea of the Servant being endowed with the Word of God.
He is endowed with, “the tongue of disciples” (leshōn limmudim). Whereas Jerusalem and Judah (3.8) had speech (a tongue, leshōn) that was against YHWH, the Servant is given a tongue that is ready to learn, ready to listen before speaking (cf., James 1.19). The Servant serves as an example to Israel of readiness to hear YHWH, and is a kindred spirit with Isaiah and his circle of disciples (8.16, limmudim).
One might infer from the military imagery of 49.2 (Song II) that the Servant will do battle with his words. While it is true enough that the Messiah will come bearing a sword (11.4; cf., Matthew 10.34ff), the task here is more in line with the imagery of Song I, where he uses his words to seek, gather and aid the oppressed (42.2ff). Here, he seeks to “sustain the weary one with a word” (lā‘ut et-yā‘ēf dābār). YHWH elsewhere promises rest for the weary (40.30f, yā‘ēf); here he announces through the Servant what form it would take, namely words of comfort and assurance for those weary of sin and its consequences (cf., Matthew 11.28ff).
Earlier the proud heads of state were told that their rejection of YHWH’s offer of peace would result in terror and judgment “morning after morning” (28.19, babboqer babboqer). Here, the Servant receives a fresh word and assurance from YHWH “morning by morning.” Whether this is a new revelation each day (KD, 7.ii.277f), or the daily discipline of ready obedience (Young, Vol 1; Oswalt, Vol 2, 324), the Servant is ready to speak because he is ready to listen. He speaks only what he heard from YHWH (cf., John 5.30; 8.26; 14.24; 15.15).
The Servant’s Submission (50.5)
The true test of discipleship is obedience, and the Servant affirms complete obedience: “I was not disobedient, nor did I turn back.” Even the greatest of God’s prophets had moments of hesitancy: Moses first excused, then refused (Exodus 3-4); Elijah was ready quit (1 Kings 19); Jeremiah frequently complained (Jeremiah 20); and Jonah first ran, then pouted (Jonah 1, 4). Young’s Literal Translation captures the emphatic grammar: “The Lord Jehovah opened for me the ear, And I rebelled not — backward I moved not.” In response to YHWH’s provisions, and in contrast to the persistent disobedience (mārāh, rebellion) of Israel (cf., 1.20; 3.8; 30.1, 9; 36.5; 48.8; 63.10; 65.2), the Servant responds with perfect obedience. “Only one other prophet in Israel’s history said anything similar — Jesus bar-Joseph (John 8.29)” (Oswalt, Vol 2, 325).
The Servant’s Suffering & Humiliation (50.6)
Obedience is not without consequence or price, and the Servant is ready to pay. To “strike” (nākāh) can mean to attack (Genesis 32.11); to beat (Jeremiah 37.15); blows that are inflicted upon someone (Proverbs 17.10); to conquer (Genesis 14.7); to defeat (Deuteronomy 7.2); to kill (Joshua 20.3); to strike (Exodus 2.12); etc., all of which imply violence and aggression. To strike a person’s back refers to scourging or beating (Jeremiah 20.2; 37.15; cf., 2 Corinthians 11.23-25). To “pluck” the beard (mārat, lit., to make smooth) could simply mean bald (Leviticus 13.40f), but could also be a sign of distress (Ezra 9.3) or humiliation (Nehemiah 13.25); see also references to “beard” (zāqān) at Isaiah 7.20; 15.2.
To spit upon someone was another sign of scorn (Numbers 12.14; Deuteronomy 25.9; Job 30.10). This is reinforced by the term “humiliation” (kelimmā), meaning to insult (Job 20.3), reproach (Psalm 4.2), dishonor (Psalm 35.26), or shame (Proverbs 18.13).
What is significant about the Servant’s suffering is that it is not simply passively endured. Rather, he offers himself to his aggressors: “I gave my back… I did not cover my face.” It is clear that the Servant understood this to be part and parcel with his obedience as a disciple (verse 5). In this regard, all disciples must count the cost (Luke 14.25-35; 2 Timothy 3.12). Yet the Servant’s suffering is exemplary and mediatorial. He acts on behalf of God and on behalf of those he seeks. He seeks them, draws them and brings them to God that they might be redeemed, and through his voice (verse 11), they hear the voice of YHWH.
The Servant’s Determination (50.7)
Knowing that suffering and humiliation will come, he remains nonetheless resolute in his task. First he affirms that the basis of his submission (“For,” waw) is the Lord God (adonāi YHWH, used four times in this section) who will provide help. Consequently (“therefore,” ‘al [used twice in this verse in consecutive lines]) he is not disgraced (kālam, related to kelimmā, verse 6), and he steels himself for it. All of which reaffirms his confidence in YHWH: “I will not be ashamed” (cf., Hebrews 12.2f; 13.12f).
“Set my face like flint” in the Hebrew text becomes “set my face (prosōpon) like solid (sterean) rock (petran)” in the Septuagint (LXX). When Luke describes Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, he uses a remarkably similar phrase (Luke 9.51). The NASB translates it as “determined to go.” the NIV says, “resolutely set out.” The ESV correctly captures the idiom by translating it as “set his face” (prosōpon estērisen). “Face” (prosōpon) is the same in each text. In Isaiah’s text (LXX), “solid” (sterean) is an adjective, while in Luke’s text, “set” (estērisen) is a verb. Both appear to be derived from histēmi, “to stand.” As he began the final phase of his mission leading to his crucifixion, Jesus made the same Servant-like decision to obey his Father and finish the task, regardless of the suffering and humiliation.
The Servant’s Confidence (50.8-9)
The Servant now resumes the thought of verse 7a – YHWH’s help. Here it is in the form of vindication. The help he expects is not deliverance from suffering or humiliation – he fully expects those. Rather, the help is in the form of final vindication.
Oswalt cites Klaus Westermann’s observation that “in the ancient Near Eastern culture if someone submitted meekly to public humiliation he was admitting, at least tacitly, that he had done something to deserve the abuse” (Vol 2, 325-26). The servant meekly submits to his persecutors (verse 6), but then says he has no reason to be ashamed (verse 7). This implies a plea of “not guilty.” This anticipates the reason now given (verse 8f). The imagery is that of a courtroom, where a defendant stands accused, and he must give an answer (Oswalt, Vol 2, 326-27; Motyer, Prophecy, 400-01 and Isaiah, 359-60; KD, 379-80; Young, Vol 3, 301-03).
The Servant declares his confidence in YHWH who is “near,” the first word of the sentence. This indicates readiness to help the Servant. “Vindicates” (tsādaq) means “to be righteous, be innocent, be vindicated; in accordance with a proper (God’s) standard, and so implying innocence” (KM). It is a judicial vindication, an acquital, the equivalent of “Not guilty,” or perhaps even “Case dismissed.”
Emboldened by this hope of vindication, he issues three challenges in rapid succession: “Who will contend with me?” (verse 8b); followed by, “Who has a case against me?” (verse 8d); followed by, “Who is he who condemns me?” (verse 9b) “Contend” (riv) is to plead or argue, which, says the Servant, none can do. “Case” (ba‘al) is the normal word for Baal, meaning “husband/master.” In other words, the Servant cannot be mastered in the sense that no charges can be brought against him. Thus, E. J. Young’s translation, “master of my judgment” (Vol 3, 302). “Condemn” (rāsha‘) is the opposite of “vindicate.” Positively, he will be justified; negatively, he cannot be condemned or judged. This follows another affirmation of YHWH’s help: He helps the Servant (verse 7a); he vindicates the servant (verse 8a); and again he helps (verse 9a).
As for the Servant’s enemies, they will “wear out like a garment” that has, over time, become moth-eaten. The imagery is of something insubstantial, frail, and wasting. There will be no clash of titans in a dramatic and monumental courtroom scene, because there was never a case to be tried.
The Servant’s Vindication (50.10-11)
Beginning in verse 10, the speaker changes again. It initially appears to be the narrator’s point of view, but verse 11 makes it clear that YHWH is speaking. Song III was preceded by a passionate plea, and it ends in a similar way. Here, YHWH appeals to two different groups who respond to the Servant in different ways.
The first group (verse 10) is described in four ways: They “fear YHWH;” they “obey the voice of YHWH’s Servant;” they “walk in darkness;” and they “have no light.” The first pair of descriptions is complementary: The fear of YHWH is demonstrated by one’s response. To fear YHWH, one must obey his Servant. To respond in this way is to follow the path of the Servant, whom himself listened and obeyed (50.5). Just as the Servant was a disciple, those who fear YHWH must become disciples.
The second pair of descriptions seems at odds with the first pair. In what way would those who fear YHWH also walk in darkness? Those who follow the Servant must, like him (50.5-6), walk in the dark path of suffering and humiliation. For this group of people, the solution is to keep doing what they are already doing. They must “trust in the name of YHWH and rely on him.” That is, trust him while they are in dark situations, and rely upon him to bring them safely through.
Most remarkable is the idea that only through obedience to the words of the Servant may one be in a right relationship with YHWH. The Servant and his words become the point of access to YHWH. The words of the Servant are life (John 5.24f; 6.63; 12.48; 14.23f).
The second group (verse 11) is markedly different than the first. Isaiah picks up the theme of light from verse 10 and moves it in a different direction. Whereas the first group feared YHWH and heeded his servant, this group is self-reliant. The light in which they walk is a light of their own making: “the light of your fire.” It is a light that is produced by fire and has the danger of burning out of control. In one sense, their fate is self-determined: They get what they deserve. In another sense, YHWH puts it upon them: “from my hand.” The consequence is the same: “You will lie down in torment.”
The Vindicated Servant & the Suffering Servant (52.13-53.12)
D. Dorsey suggests a number of verbal links between Songs III and IV (Structure, 225-27). Both involve the relationship between the servant’s sufferings and Israel’s sins. The first portrait ends (50.11) using the words, “behold (hen) and “who” (mi); whereas the second servant begins with both words (52.13; 53.1). In both portraits (50.6; 53.4) the servant is stricken or beaten (nākāh). In the first portrait (50.6) the servant does not hide (sātar) his face (pānim); whereas in the second portrait (53.3) those for whom the servant suffers hide their faces from him. In the first portrait (50.1) Israel is being punished for her iniquities (‘āōn) and transgressions (pesha‘); whereas in the second portrait (53.5) the servant takes upon himself Israel’s iniquities and transgressions. In both portraits (50.7-11; 52.13; 53.10-12), YHWH vindicates the servant.
These correspondences are not merely literary, but indicate that the same person or entity is under consideration in both places. This can hardly be accidental. The figure here in Song III, like that of Song IV, is messianic. Both songs are about the Servant of YHWH who suffers on behalf of, and at the hands of, the people he came to help. For his devotion to the divine calling, he is vindicated by YHWH.
The Servant & Christ
If there is any doubt about the identity of the Obedient & Vindicated Servant of Isaiah 50.4-11, the New Testament allusions to this text should dispel any doubts. While there are no direct quotations from the text, there appear to be several allusions, both verbal and conceptual.
Both the UBS Greek New Testament (912) and the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece (860) list several passages from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 50.4-11 that may have verbal parallels in the New Testament referring to Christ.
Isaiah 50.6 – “I gave my back to those who strike me, and my cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover my face from humiliation and spitting.”
· Matthew 26.67 – “Then they spat in his face and beat him with their fists; and others slapped him.”
· Matthew 27.30 – “They spat on him, and took the reed and began to beat him on the head.”
· Mark 10.34 – “They will mock him and spit on him, and scourge him and kill him, and three days later he will rise again.”
· Luke 6.32 – “For he will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon.”
It is hard to imagine any of the gospel authors writing about Jesus’ suffering prior to and during his crucifixion without connecting it to the suffering of YHWH’s servant. Both Isaiah and the gospels describe the physical suffering and humiliation that Jesus endured.
Perhaps even more compelling are the conceptual links between Christ’s obedience, suffering, and ministry, and those of the Servant.
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.4), Jesus Christ brought words of comfort to the weary (Matthew 11.28ff).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.4), Jesus Christ revealed to others only what he had heard from the Father (John 5.30; 8.26; 14.24; 15.15).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.4f), Jesus Christ learned obedience through suffering and brought salvation to those who obey him (Hebrews 5.8f).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.5), Jesus Christ could say without fear of contradiction that he always obeyed his father (John 8.29, 46).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.6f), Jesus Christ endured the suffering and despised its shame because of the hope of vindication (Hebrews 12.2f).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.7), Jesus Christ set his face to finish his work despite whatever suffering and humiliation he would encounter (Luke 9.51).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.7ff), Jesus Christ was found to be innocent (Matthew 27.3f, 19, 24; Mark 15.3; Luke 23.4, 10, 14f, 41; John 8.46; 19.6).
· Like the Servant of YHWH (Isaiah 50.4-9), Jesus Christ demonstrated his humility by becoming obedient, even to the point of extreme suffering, for which he was vindicated and exalted by God (Philippians 2.5-11).
In both word and thought,
Jesus Christ perfectly exemplifies the work and character of Isaiah’s Servant of
YHWH. Let us, like Isaiah’s readers, fear YHWH, obey the voice of his servant,
trust in the name of YHWH, and rely on our God.
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By Cloyce Sutton II
From Expository Files 22.8; August 2015