Some songs are sung in every age
Songs of the servant
Isaiah's “servant songs” are generally read, where there is either a liturgical tradition or a lectionary, in the last weeks of Lent. This is because they are seen as broadly prefiguring the mission and death of Jesus. This one, Isaiah 53:4-12 is taken from a larger whole (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), and is generally read at Tenebrae, or on Good Friday afternoon.
Most scholars would say that these poems (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9, and this one) were written during the exile in Babylon – i.e. in the sixth century before Jesus. The Temple and Jerusalem itself had been bowled by the Babylonians, and many, but not all, of the citizens of Judah had been resettled in the parts of that Empire that needed development. They had freedom of religion, and many of them prospered. But they were in exile, away from their land of birth and from where they thought their God was present, and, they thought, had abandoned them.
Significantly, these poems are forward looking. They speak of future events. That is the way that Jewish interpreters, for example, have read them since at least the Middle Ages. A sustained history of persecution by Christians and others via crusades, pogroms, and exclusion would make such a reading understandable, at least in mediaeval France and Spain where the major Jewish interpreters lived. But don’t think that this is all centuries ago, or that it all stopped with World War II.
For example, my family name comes from a south-central Polish city called Kielce. I have a Polish Jewish “cousin” working with me at Auckland Libraries. When I dug up Kielce in Wikipedia, I was horrified to discover that Kielce had a Jewish pogrom in 1946: after the war had ended. More than 40 Jews were killed. Nine Gentile civilians were tried and shot: but no policeman or military person (bar one) was charged. When Jewish delegations went to see the Polish Catholic hierarchy, they were told that they’d brought it on themselves. Ergo, many of the surviving Jews got the Hell out of Poland. My cousin and I both cried when I told her the story.
So who was the suffering servant?
Technically, any Jewish person could be described as a servant of the Lord. We Christians have generally seen the servant as being a type or a pattern of Jesus’ ministry six centuries later. So is the servant the Messiah? That’s the question I set out, in a small way, to answer in my Honours dissertation many years ago. Then and now, in a very few words, and in Jewish terms, I’d have to say no.
Ideas of messiahship that we would recognise come from a later time than this. Technically, anyone anointed (which is what the word meshiach means) could be a messiah: a priest, a prophet, or a king. Since Jewish ideas of the messiah were generally either priestly or royal in character (or both, in some cases), and we see none of these characteristics in this poem (or the other three), I’d say that a messianic figure is not in view here.
Having said that, have been many people who have been proposed as being the servant in the past century and a bit: but none has gained any lasting support. The consensus, such as it is now, is that the Servant was, in some sense, an image of a remnant of faithful Israel. Forests have been felled in many languages in arguing this – and I’m not going to add to that.
A life remembered by LGBTQI activists
Instead, let's consider a true story that happened some twenty years ago. Maybe you can trace parallels between the servant songs of Isaiah and what happened here.
A young, gay Wyoming college student was offered a lift home in a pick-up truck with two other young men and their girlfriends. Instead of taking him home, they drove him out into the rural hinterland, beat him, pistol-whipped him, and tied him to a fence – leaving him to die. A jogger saw him the next morning – and at first, thought he was a scarecrow… The jogger got help, but, unfortunately, the young man succumbed to his injuries in hospital. The two thugs who caused his death will never see the light of day again as free men, one of the girlfriends was charged as an accessory, and the other with a misdemeanor.
Of course, that paragon of probity, the Westboro Baptist Church, picketed the young man’s funeral. However, a group of his friends, with the assistance of law enforcement, formed a barrier between these folk and the young man’s family.
But that’s not the end. During the trial, it was discovered that there was no State or Federal law that allowed crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation to be prosecutable as hate crimes. Further, one of the murderers had claimed that the victim has made a pass at him, and that he, the murderer, had panicked. The young man’s family decided that something had to be done, in order to remember their son, and so he didn’t suffer and die in vain .
This was despite resistance from conservatives from both parties in Congress, and a President who promised to veto any such Bill to cross his desk. But their persistence paid off, as the following President signed the legislation into law in his first year of office.
Matthew Shepard remembered
That young man, as many of you may have guessed, was Matthew Shepard. He may not have set out to be a hero, or a servant – but in his suffering and death he has brought hope for many. His parents are LGBTQI activists, and the law that bears his name makes hate crimes punishable by law.
On Friday of this week – his remains will be re-interred in the National Episcopalian Cathedral in Washington – the first person since Helen Keller fifty years previously to be so honoured.
I think all this is an insistent echo of of what the prophet/poet Isaiah was singing about in times so long past.
What are the servant songs?
They have had this name since the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and that comes from the Hebrew words ebed-Yahweh that appear within them. There are four of them in Isaiah, and they occur nowhere else in Scripture. A servant song is a special poem – that tells of the unidentified servant of the Lord and the mission of giving the good news of salvation to the far-flung tribes of Israel. The servant is specially equipped by Yahweh, with eloquence, empathy, support, and, as we’ve just heard, vindication. There are, of course, other parts of the Old Testament where ministry to the exiles is described: for example, in the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah. This genre of servant song, however, is reserved for the book of Isaiah alone.
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb[a] with the rich,[b]
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.[c]
When you make his life an offering for sin,[d]
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;[e]
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one,[f] my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.