Lesson 1: An Introduction to Isaiah’s Servant Songs

Legend has it that when Pope Julius II commissioned a religious piece of artwork to be completed by a well-known Italian sculptor, the sculptor fled from Rome. And because this was the 16th century and you couldn’t outrun the Pope, in 1508 Michelangelo reluctantly pressed his paintbrush to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and began to transform its wet plaster into that infamous mural of the story of the Bible. Completed in just four years, the ceiling contains over 300 figures – beginning with the story of Creation and tracing the genealogy of Israel through Christ to the New Testament. Seen in its entirety, the Sistine Chapel is beauty and master craftsmanship personified.

The book of Isaiah is also beauty and master craftsmanship personified. In fact, you could make the case that Michelangelo borrowed the structure for his ceiling from the great prophet. Because when we crack open the pages of this prophetic book, we too find a mural – a breathtaking portrait of the Word of God synthesized into just 66 chapters. We find the story of creation and man’s fall into sin. We find the story of redemption that began with our Old Testament forefathers and culminates in the story of the Messiah in the New Testament. We find the story of restoration that awaits us almost as if it is a fairytale, yet of a very real hope still to come. In fact, Isaiah pens his message with such depth and artistry that many refer to his book as the 5th GOSPEL, a book purposed to sit alongside the four New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.

So, this Fall we are going to immerse ourselves in the artistry of the message of Isaiah. For many of us, this is going to prove more difficult than we could imagine because it is going to require we change our approach to reading God’s Word. For many of us, we approach the Scriptures like we have a 40%-off coupon for decoupage supplies at Michaels. We tend to cut and paste portions of Scriptures and piecemeal them together.

And as an art form, decoupage can be nice, aesthetically pleasing even. But the problem with a decoupage-approach to interpreting Scripture is that we miss the big picture of God’s message. We miss the beautiful mural, how the individual images in the painting complement each other for the purpose of creating a larger image. This approach of cutting and pasting Scripture is akin to taking a pair of scissors to the Sistine Chapel. Each of those 300 figures painted by the great Michelangelo are beautiful indeed, but the artist never intended for those pictures to be viewed in isolation. He intentionally grouped and ordered them to communicate a larger message.

The words of Isaiah are the same. Isaiah did not intend to for his book to read in piece meal fashion. Yet we approach the book of Isaiah as if it were only comprised of prophecies concerning the Christ child – like Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” or even the famous words from Isaiah 9: “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given.” And as important and beautiful as those words are, the author has a much larger purpose that that.

Isaiah was a prophet to Judah. Now at this time in history, the nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was known as Israel and the southern kingdom was known as Judah. It was to Judah (the southern kingdom) that Isaiah dedicated the majority of his words. And as a prophet, God called Isaiah to two important tasks: to proclaim God’s glory and to enforce the covenant between God and God’s people.

And this dual task is reflected in how the prophet structures his book. Because his book naturally divides into two parts. Primarily because of style and tone, but also because the two parts seem to relate to different time periods.[1]

The first half of Isaiah’s book (chs. 1-39) represent Isaiah’s words of warning to God’s people before they are exiled to Babylon. Isaiah warned them that the God’s glory will be upheld through His covenant people no matter what – with or without their help. And this is the irony of chs. 1-39, God’s people were called to be God’s servants but because of a worship disorder they were unable to fulfill that role as servants of God. Yet it is also in these beginning chapters that Isaiah reminds the people of God’s trustworthiness and mercy. That He can be trusted to deliver them from sin and enable them to be His servants. So it is in this first division Isaiah combines prophecies against the nations and prophecies concerning the Christ child.

The second half of Isaiah’s book (chs. 40-66) echoes many of the same themes but these chapters reveal the MEANS by which God’s people will be restored to God and her role as God’s servants. And while chapters 40-66 are written long before the people ever go into exile, Isaiah records the big picture of God’s purposes for Israel so that when they are indeed delivered into the hands of other nations in exile, they will find comfort knowing:

1) not only is God ABLE to save them, but

2) God DESIRES to save them as well.

And that salvation comes through a principle figure standing in the midst of Isaiah’s mural – God’s Servant. The entire book of Isaiah all points to this coming Servant – this Ideal Servant – through whom God’s people find SALVATION and find the RESOURCES to become God’s servants/light to the nations. So colorful is this figure in the book of Isaiah, that one scholar identified four specific passages that speak only about him.[2] These passages are infamously called the Servant Songs (42; 49; 50; and 52-53). We’ll look at each of these Servant Songs and how they contribute to Isaiah’s overall mural – his painting of God’s plan for His People.

We begin our study of Isaiah’s Servant in Isaiah 61, toward the end of this book, because this chapter provides us with some interpretive keys for viewing and understanding Isaiah’s painting. This chapter could be considered the culmination of the entire book – a picture of what is to come in at the end of the age when God’s plan for His people has reached its culmination, when Christ comes to the earth for a second time, and when all creation is recreated. So, all these images in Is. 61 are images of a future Israel, and they are still future images for you and for me today.

WHO IS THE SERVANT? (Is. 61:1a)

Read Isaiah 61.

Isaiah tells us that the events that will unfold in this chapter will begin with a specific person. This person is called the Servant. And this individual is anointed by the Spirit like it says in verse 1: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me Because the LORD has anointed Me…”

This is very important because, remember, the Holy Spirit had not been given yet to God’s people in His entirety. At this point in history only specific and limited manifestations of God’s Spirit had descended on specific people for specific purposes. And in many cases in the Old Testament God anointed a person with his Spirit at the time they were anointed to serve as His King. This is true of Saul (1 Sam. 10:1-7). This is true of David (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 23:1-7). There is a deliberate pairing in the biblical text with anointing of the Spirit and kingship – so whoever this “Servant” is, Isaiah is tracing out images of Spirit anointing and kingship.

Luke picks up this theme in his gospel in Luke 4:16-21. In this passage he records the words of Christ reading from this very passage in Isaiah in the synagogue. And after he had finished reading, Jesus declares in verse 21: “And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Who is the Servant revealed in Isaiah? Isaiah would say the promised Messiah. Jesus Christ says it is himself.

WHAT DOES THE SERVANT SAY? (61:1b)

Isaiah 61 speaks not only to the identity of the Servant but His activity as well. In verse 1, we see the Servant is tasked with several responsibilities, one of which is to speak or say something. The Servant says in vs. 1: “He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor.” He is to preach good news. This is more than merely a messenger delivering a message. There is great power bound up in this statement – namely that the message declared will be life-changing.

And what is so interesting is that elsewhere in his book, Isaiah connects “preaching the good news” to the reign of God over his kingdom.[3] So, Isaiah is intending for the people, as they sit in the bonds of exile, to read this text and discover a powerful reality – God’s kingdom is coming as He promised. And it will be heralded by the Servant – the kingly, Spirit-anointed Servant who speaks.  So the Servant is not just delivering a message, rather, He IS the message.

Already in verse 1, we  see a major point of application. God has spoken! That means we can (a) know him and his plan and (b) we can know ourselves and the meaning of life. If not, our condition is hopeless. The Words that God has spoken are not some lovely adages for being healthy, wealthy, and wise; God’s Word is living. That means that God speaks to us today. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that fact – that God speaks to our present realities, difficulties, fears, hopes, futures. God has spoken to you, and He continues to speak to you today. What does he speak to you? GOOD NEWS – good news that is bound up in the Servant, the Living Word of God (John 1:1-3).

WHAT WILL THE SERVANT DO? (Isaiah 61:1c-3a)

So, what is this good news of which the Servant speaks? What is it the Servant will do? Again, the first three verses of Is. 61 provide us the answers.

  • He bandages wounded hearts (vs. 1b).

  • He brings to pass liberty and justice (vs. 1c). And because Isaiah is painting a picture of the eternal kingdom of God in the last days, the healing and liberty he is sketching out must be greater than simply liberty from physical captors or physical prison This ‘healing’ and ‘liberty’ all speak to a coming worldwide transformation.

  • He bears tidings of comfort (vs. 2). This is language used to describe what will happen at the end of the age when God returns to set up an eternal kingdom. We know that God’s coming includes both judgment on the wicked and favor (ultimate restoration) of God’s people to Himself, right? And a day was coming in which God’s order and justice would be re-established for God’s people and for the whole world. And it seems that the Servant plays a central role in establishing this kingdom. And so, “bearing tidings of comfort” means more than merely comforting words. The Servant is proclaiming the arrival of God’s kingdom. He is ushering it in. This was the comfort.
  • He bestows a new spirit (vs. 3).There is an exchange that happens in this verse. The Servant exchanges beauty for ashes and joy for mourning. And so vivid is this change brought about by the Servant, that it is likened to wearing a garment of praise instead of a garment of heaviness. Physical changes were coming that would produce a change in spirit.[4]

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SERVANT IN MY LIFE?

The message of Isaiah 61 is not just a message for Israel. As we continue our study we’ll see that Isaiah knew the reaches of the Servant would extend beyond just Israel to other nations. What the Servant does is accomplished for you and for me. So we see the Servant is significant for us today in several ways.

  • The Servant transforms us (61:3b)

All of the work of the Servant is purposed in verse 3 … “That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”God transforms His people from sinners to shining examples of His righteousness. His people go from beaten up, oppressed, and covered in ashes from the state of sin to what Isaiah calls trees or oaks of righteousness. This is an image of being rooted, strong, and fruitful in the Lord.[5]

This transformation cannot be overstated, because Isaiah begins his entire book laying out a problem. Israel has been called to be God’s servants, yet they chose to serve the gods of other nations. He describes Israel’s sin problem in the following way in Is. 1:29-31: “You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted; you will be disgraced because of the gardens that you have chosen. You will be like an oak with fading leaves, like a garden without water. The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire.”

The people are being compared to dead, brittle trees that succumb to fire without any hope of help. They cannot put out the fires themselves and there is no one to “quench” the fire for them it says. They are reaping the ends of their lifestyles of sin. What a different portrait is painted here in Is. 61. God transforms his people into beautiful, strong, righteous oak trees. The words of Psalm 1:3 easily spring to mind: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” God transforms His people – and He does so through His Servant. The significance of the Servant for you then? The Servant is the MEANS of our transformation from sin into righteousness.

  • The Servant directs us to trust in the Creator/Lord of History (Is. 61:3c)

The transformation from sinner to righteousness occurs not from our own efforts – but by the “the planting of the Lord” it says in 3c. It is God’s work. And the purpose of that work is not merely that God’s people might look ‘purty’ or smell like a fragrant tree in a garden – but so that GOD might be glorified. In the original text, the word “glorified” comes from the root word meaning “to glorify or beautify.”[6] Isaiah is making the following implication: God transforms us SO THAT we might ‘beautify Him.’  Our lives of righteousness (as fruit-producing trees) are to be beautiful reflections of God’s righteousness

And because our lives often resemble dead plants with faded leaves rather than fruitful, fragrant trees, we often doubt God’s ability to transform us or revive us in the midst of our deadness. But Isaiah paints a picture of God that is cosmic. And for the rest of the book, Isaiah is going to build to case for the trustworthiness of God in transforming His people. Isaiah tells us that transformation is possible through the Servant. But Isaiah also tells us transformation is possible because of God’s very nature. He is transcendent. He is Lord over history – guiding events in lives of His people for His good purpose. That means, God can be trusted to deliver and transform you.

  • The Servant renews our  task (Is. 61:4-9)

Verses 4-9 reveal a transformation of person (who we are) but also a transformation of purpose (what we do).  God promises to transform His people so that they will be ENABLED to fulfill their task as His servants. And this is the key: it will be through the work of the Ideal Servant that God’s people will be enabled to fill their purpose to be a light to the nations. We see this reality reflected in images such as the rebuilding of Jerusalem in vs. 4-5; the re-commissioning of God’s people as his blessed priests in vs. 6; and the directing hand of the Lord and the establishment of an everlasting in vs. 8; and lastly, in the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people in vs. 9.

From these verses, it seems God is not done with His people yet. This is our hope as well – God is not done with us yet. You can trust God that He is still at work in your life even when it seems He is not. And you can trust God that He is powerful enough to enable you to fulfill His purpose/task for your life.

  • The Servant provides us with divine treasures (Is. 61:10-11)

In Is. 61:10-11, God promises His people certain treasures in this process of renewal, treasures that reflect the very nature of God.

The first treasure revealed to us is the gift of divine salvation. This is the good news preached by the Servant in verse 1. And note the verb tense. Isaiah writes that “God HAS clothed me” and “God HAS covered me…” in vs.10. Although this is speaking of a future event, Isaiah is using a specific tense (Hiphil Perfect) to illustrate the security of their hope. So sure is the unfolding of God’s plan through the Servant that it is as if his grace has already visited his people. This is why Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God;” because salvation has been given to us by God. It is already a sure fact.

The second treasure we see in verse 10 is divine enablement. With the picture of wedding garments in 10b, Isaiah skillfully blends colors by pairing the gift of salvation with the gift of righteousness. Scripture reveals to us that salvation (grace) and righteousness are equal expressions of God’s nature. God’s righteousness compels Him to be faithful/loyal to His covenant with His people. But God’s righteousness also compels Him to require His people to reflect his character. God says “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45). There was a fair expectation that the character of God’s people should reflect the character of their God. And the driving conflict throughout Isaiah’s 66 chapters is that Israel is unable to adequately reflect God’s righteous character on their own. They need help. They need divine enablement.

Isaiah paints this image early on in his book. In Is. 3:16-24, the prophet paints a portrait of the women of Zion. And this passage compares the appearance of the servant of God (seen with crowns, garments of salvation and robes of righteousness in vs. 10) to the appearance of women who have covered themselves in finery, jewels, and their own riches. And the difference between the bride of Is. 61 and the women of Is. 3 is divine enablement. These women of Zion searched out all the finery that God would have offered them freely – crowns, robes, beautiful garments. Arrayed in all their splendor, these women were probably beautiful indeed. But their finery was based on their own efforts, and God says instead of fine perfume all he smells is stench (Is. 3:24)! These women might as well have been sitting on the side of road, stinking to high heaven, wearing ashes and sackcloth, with shaven heads.

Our attempts to clean ourselves up, to make ourselves presentable or attractive before a holy God mean nothing (Is. 64:6). We know this because the text says these gifts come only from God – “HE has clothed me” and “HE has covered me” it says in verse 10b. These gifts are the work  of the Father through the Servant. And when He has covered us in His salvation, we will find that He has enabled us to live righteous lives. We are GIVEN God’s righteousness and only then can we fully reflect God’s righteous character – we will be wearing His garments of salvation and righteousness and this is why he says we will beautify him.

And the surety of these divine treasures is proclaimed in verse 11:“For as the earth brings forth its bud, As the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, So the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”

Through the Servant, God desires to plant salvation and righteousness in your life. This is the hope of new life promised in Isaiah 61. This is the good news that Isaiah summarizes for us in this chapter.

And so, when we look at the big picture painted by Isaiah, we see individual images that fit together to reveal one over-arching truth – GOD IS TRUSTWORTHY. And while it is very tempting to focus only on individual images or passages in this great book, we cannot lose sight of the big picture. Do not fall prey to living out your faith like decoupage art – focusing only on this painful situation, becoming overwhelmed by this hurt or that mess, focusing only on this gift or that gift that God hasn’t given you yet. That is not the abundant, new life God desires for you – the abundant, new life painted in Is. 61.

God desires for you to experience new life – those treasures of salvation and righteousness that are found only in and through His Servant.


[1] Chs. 1-39  seem to refer to 739-700 BC, and chs. 40-55 seemingly refer to 545-535 BC. Often a third segment is posited in chs. 55-66 which relate to the 520-500 BC.

[2] See Bernard Duhm, 1985 commentary on Isaiah.

[3] Gary Smith, The New American Commentary: Isaiah 40-66 (Broadman & Holman 2009), pg  634. (See Is. 40:9; 52:7).

[4] Smith, 636.

[5] Ibid.

[6] פאר pa’ar.

About the Author

Melissa Deming is a freelance writer transplanted from Texas to Pennsylvania with her husband of ten years, Jonathan, and two-year-old identical twins, Zacharias and Jonah. The family serves at a Southern Baptist church plant in Pittsburgh - Living Faith Community Church. Melissa is a regular correspondent for The Southern Baptist TEXAN newspaper and Crossroads magazine of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. She is also the creator and author of HiveResources.com - a site designed to sweeten a woman's walk with Christ through devotional articles, book reviews, and giveaways. Melissa holds a Masters of Divinity in Women’s Studies from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC, and a B.A. in Journalism from Texas A&M University.