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.

Continuing persecution

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.

text.jpgIdeas 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.

wikimedia-community-logo-lgbt-1192365_960_720.pngOf 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.

No proofs for God's existence, only songs and witnesses


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.

Isaiah 53:4-12

Surely he has borne our infirmities
    and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.


  1. Isaiah 53:9 Q Ms: MT and in his death
  2. Isaiah 53:9 Cn: Heb with a rich person
  3. Isaiah 53:10 Or by disease; meaning of Heb uncertain
  4. Isaiah 53:10 Meaning of Heb uncertain
  5. Isaiah 53:11 Q Mss: MT lacks light
  6. Isaiah 53:11 Or and he shall find satisfaction. Through his knowledge, the righteous one
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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The four sermons in the series

  1. The Book of Numbers | Snakes on a plain
  2. Resurrection, a sign of restoration? | Ezekiel's fresh flesh for dry bones
  3. Peace in our tine | Micah's insight
  4. Songs of the servant, Isaiah's vision | Signs for every age

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Stuart Manins
28 February 2019, 7:41 PM

In the servant songs explanation the servant of the Lord is equipped, among other things, with vindication. In what way?

How unjust for the victim of the beating to have to have to be defended from the Westboro Christians as well as the thugs - a moving story.

Great way to end with the trumpet voluntary in the Washington Cathedral. Is there another story in how this recording was obtained?

Mike Stachurski
05 March 2019, 11:08 PM

Stuart, I've thought long and hard about the first part of your question. I'm frankly not qualified to speak to the other parts.  But this is what I'm left with - and it leaves me uneasy.  But please feel free to controvert or discuss further.... :)

In Isaianic terms, and for Matthew Shepard, the vindication is posthumous. It's in the trial of Matthew's killers and the organozation  (and subsequent law) that was built by his parents and friends, and now, his place in the Episcopalian  cathedral.  The way I read it, the Isaianic servant figure's vindication is similar. The verbs are all future, not aorist and past.

What worries me is the kind of God that "requires" this type of sacrifice for vindication to occur - whether in the person of Isaiah's servant, Jesus, Matthew Shepard or the six million victims of Ha-Shoah... Or, more particularly, the kind of theology (substitutionary atonement and all that - itself a product of the Middle Ages, but as Protestant as its Catholic roots are) that requires it.

Stuart Manins
07 March 2019, 7:16 AM

Thanks Mike, maybe continue the discussion a little further. Vindication stood out as the odd fellow in the list, 'eloquence, sympathy, support.' It's different.

The point made about being in the future brings its own problem of perhaps never reaching the present. What kind of justice is that?

The bigger issue for me is, as you state, this thinking requires a god concept which requires punishment of the innocent for the guilty. "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." Sacrifice as an element of divine justice and love has always mystified me. I'm not comfortable with it either.

David Bell
08 March 2019, 4:19 PM

Great points from Stuart and Mike about the "God" who requires a human sacrifice to get some kind of victory/vindication for sinners.
Mike alludes to this as a kind of uneasy posthumous victory. 

I think William Blake understood all too well the kind of Christian contortions that arise from misplaced trust in a vengeful God. Hence the image which starts Mike's 4th zine/sermon. It is from Blake's poem Milton and shows the prophetic figure of Los, who represents poetic and creative insight. Los carries an orb, the sun and the solar system through an open door, through a Gothic archway.

This consciously refers to Westminster Abbey and represents rejection of St Paul's  and by implication all its associations with the baroque, (Tate Modern has excellent notes on this). Maybe too it rejects the deism of the Anglicans of that era? 

For Blake, however, Christ is the archetypal figure who stands against that bad, sad, old God.  Los, dressed in 19th century nightwatchman's clothing, and with the vigour of youth, wears ancient sandals on his feet. Again a reference to "And did those feet in ancient time" - the old prophecy sounds its warning to the world in every age.