The Servant Songs refers to a group of texts found in the biblical book of Isaiah. These passages center upon someone known as the Servant of the Lord. This person or character is commissioned by the God of the Bible to carry out a mission in relation to the nation of Israel.
There are at least four such blocs in the book of Isaiah that have been identified as Servant Songs: 42:1–4; 49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12. All these blocs are found in the latter half of Isaiah, often called "Second Isaiah".
Bible scholars beginning with Bernhard Duhm (1892) isolated these passages and suggested that they could be separated from the rest of the book without changing the literary development of the surrounding material.
Together these passages appeared to tell their own story and theology. At the same time they do not necessarily form a clearcut literary unit as though together they form a complete book. Almost all Bible scholars now accept the existence of the Servant songs.
In addition to the four blocs, some scholars also think that some of the surrounding material of Isaiah has been adjusted to accommodate the songs. Thus, 42:5–9; 49:7–13; 50:10–11 respond to each of the first three songs. The last Servant Song, the longest and most poignant, might serve as a fitting conclusion to all the other songs and responses.
The first song features the "Lord" of Israel as the speaker. The Lord has chosen the Servant and given the Spirit so that he can bring "judgment" to the nations that oppose Israel. The Servant will accomplish the task without violence.
The Servant delivers the second song. He says that he is chosen to restore Israel and to be a light for the nations surrounding Israel. The third song also has the Servant for the speaker. He is a teacher who encounters opposition, but God will grant success and accomplish the divine plan through the Servant.
The fourth song is the longest and most eloquent and elevated of the songs. The speaker is not identified. The Servant has died, but the death has accomplished something for "the many", a Semitic way of saying human beings.
The Servant had been popularly regarded as guilty of wrongdoing, but he will be vindicated and raised up by God. Sometimes it is regarded as the climax of the Servant Songs. The lines of the fourth song are the most frequently cited passage of the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament.
If the songs can be put together into a progression of action, they tell of the Servant’s career, that is, his calling, activities, popular rejection, death, and vindication. The level of misunderstanding, opposition, and hostility is so great that often Jews and Christians refer to the person as the "Suffering Servant". In the ancient world someone who was a servant was not always an abject slave or menial laborer.
Often the servant would publicly represent the master and carry authority of the master, so the Servant might be a dignified or important person for the writer of Isaiah. At the same time the servant’s fate would reflect on the master, so the treatment of the Servant in these songs suggests the relationship between Israel and Israel’s God.
The problem is determining who Isaiah considers to be the Servant. Readers often find several candidates: Israel as a nation, a collective body within Israel ("the remnant"), the community surrounding the writer of the songs ("Isaiah’s disciples"), or a specific person (Moses, David, Cyrus).
Jews are traditionally sympathetic to the corporate Servant identity; while Christians normally find in Jesus the "Suffering Servant". It is also possible that Servant may be an idealized Israel as represented in an idealized person, thus adopting a composite among the above options and appealing to traditional Jews and Christians.
Christians find in the Servant Songs a messianic image of Jesus Christ (e.g., Acts 8:32–35). Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth himself may have seen himself as the fulfillment of these passages (see Mark 8:31; 9:30–32; 10:33–34).
Christians see in the Servant an explanation for Jesus’s expiatory suffering, that is, he was commissioned by God to bear the sins of the people. Thus, Christianity teaches that suffering has a positive value and that it is not simply a punishment for sin.
On the other hand, the apostle Paul also adapts the image of the Servant to his own life and mission among the Diaspora Jews and non-Jews (Acts 13:47; Gal. 1:15; Rom. 15, 21). Paul’s use shows how Christians and Jews can agree on what the Servant image represents: an insight into the way that the biblical God interacts with humanity in the realm of suffering, judgment, and salvation.