I will shield this city and rescue it for the sake of my reputation and because of my promise to David my servant”’” (Isaiah 37:35 NET Bible).
John Goldingay in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah takes on the problem of the Servant Songs scattered through Isaiah 40-55. Who is the Servant? The verse above from the previous collage provides one clue. David and his dynasty are supposed take the role of servant. But the situation in the 540s BCE refutes that expectation.
The introduction of Cyrus, king of Persia, as shepherd (Isaiah 44:28) means to shock Israel. David, the shepherd king of Israel, gives way to a foreign king as savior. In 45:1 Cyrus is God’s anointed one, another Davidic title.
By an appeal to the offensiveness of a pagan, foreign king taking this role, some of the Servant Songs in Isaiah call upon Israel to take on the role of true servant of God. Other times, however, someone speaks of the Servant in the first person. There are a number of “I” passages. Although scholars disagree about whether the “I” is the prophet, Goldingay says that assuming so makes sense out of both Isaiah 49:1-6 and 50:4-9. Also Isaiah 20:3 called Isaiah ben Amoz, the first or original prophet of this school, a servant of God.
Goldingay goes further. The polemical nature of the passages makes it clear that (Second) Isaiah faced opposition. His message about Cyrus would have offended both Jews and Babylonians. So it is likely that the references to the persecuted Servant in 52:13-53:12 speak of the prophet’s own persecution and rejection. People believed God was punishing the prophet and that as a false prophet he was receiving justice.
But this judgment changed. People realized that this prophet was suffering with and for them. He was suffering for them in the sense that he was for them even when they were against him. He served them even as they attacked him. So he bore the punishment that eventually (through Cyrus) made them whole (Isaiah 53:5). Goldingay points out that the word for punishment here does not mean something meted out in a court of law. It applies to discipline, usually in the context of family life.
So Isaiah 53 does not mean what the Good Friday readings imply that it means. It is not a prophecy of the Messiah. It is part of the account of how God’s prophet-servant, who was either personally vindicated or posthumously vindicated in reputation (52:15), first suffered on behalf of Israel. Nevertheless, one can see how this helped Christians understand the work of Jesus.
This exposition of the Servant passages was well argued. I am not sure I completely agree with it. I am still thinking about it.
One thing I am not sure about is how the prophet himself could have authored the poem about himself in chapters 52 and 53. When? In his old age, looking back at a ministry before Babylon gave way to Persia? Or is it possible somebody else is the author?
Also Goldingay gives no explanation of the apparent reference to the Servant’s disease in 53:3 and 4. Is this metaphorical?