But what about the rest of the world? The prophet Isaiah indicated that the next stage of YHWH’s plan involved a specific servant of God. The nation of Israel was called God’s servant.1 Its purpose was to be his witness, but also act like a threshing sledge at times when YHWH needed to rebuke the surrounding nations. “Look! I have made you a spiked threshing sledge, new, with blades. You will thresh mountains and pulverize them, and make hills as chaff.” 2
However, just a few chapters later, Isaiah writes about one man as God’s servant. “Look! My servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one, in whom my soul has approved. I have put my spirit on him. He will bring forth judgment to the nations. He will not cry out or raise his voice, or cause it to be heard in the street. No bruised reed will he break, and no smoldering wick will he extinguish. He will bring forth judgment according to truth. He will not fail or be bruised, until he establishes judgment in the earth; and the islands will wait for his law.”3
The picture painted of this servant is completely different to that of Israel, described by the same prophet as God’s “spiked threshing sledge.” But this other servant wouldn’t even break a bruised reed, or extinguish a smoldering candle.
Isaiah continues the description of this peaceful servant: “I, YHWH, have called you in righteousness, and I will take hold of your hand, and I will preserve you and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light of Gentiles, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out the prisoner from confinement, those dwelling in darkness from the prison.” 4 How can a man be given “for a covenant of the people”? Moses was a mediator of the law covenant between God and Israel, but he didn’t give himself as a covenant.
A little later, this peaceful servant seems to speak to the nations about himself. “Listen to me, you coastlands, and pay attention, you people from far away. YHWH called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother he has recorded my name. And he has made my mouth like a sharp sword. In the shadow of his hand he has concealed me, and he has made me a polished arrow. In his quiver he concealed me.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant Israel, in whom I will show my splendor.’ And I said, ‘I have labored for nothing. I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain. Surely my judgment is with YHWH, and my wages with my God.’” 5
Now, it sounds as if the nation of Israel is being referred to here. However, this servant seems to feel that he has failed in his mission. What was it? He goes on to explain what God said to him:
“And now, says YHWH – the one who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring back Jacob to him, and Israel will be gathered to him, and I will be glorified in the eyes of YHWH, and my God will be my strength – he said:
‘It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to bring back the preserved of Israel. I will also give you for a light of Gentiles, for you to become my salvation to the end of the earth.’” 6
In other words, it seems this servant was tasked with bringing back Jacob, and gathering Israel back to God, but it sounds like he fails in that task initially, which is why the servant says, “I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain.” However, according to the prophecy, he would succeed in becoming “a light of Gentiles” – that is, non-Jewish people – and to become God’s “salvation to the end of the earth.”
Judaism teaches that this prophecy refers to the nation of Israel, or perhaps a remnant of Israel. However, what the prophet says next indicates it is more likely to be one person, who is seen as representing the righteous part of Israel in God’s eyes. This man has to become like Jacob, who was the human founder of Israel.
“This is what YHWH, the redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, says to him who is despised in soul, to the one whom the nation abhorred, to the servant of rulers: ‘Kings will see and rise up, and princes will worship, because of YHWH who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.’” 7
This sounds more like one man, a man “despised in soul” whom the nation of Israel “abhorred” for some reason, but who would be honored by nations.
Isaiah continues: “This is what YHWH says: ‘In a time of favor I have answered you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you. And I will preserve you, and I will give you for a covenant of the people, to raise up the land, and to reapportion the allotted inheritances of the desolated ones, that you may say to the prisoners, ‘come out!’ and to those in the darkness, ‘show yourselves!’” 8
Once again, we have the idea of a man being given “for a covenant of the people.” I have already said that a “new covenant” was written about by the prophet Jeremiah. If the man here talked about by Isaiah is meant to be “for a light of Gentiles,” then perhaps non-Jewish nations could also benefit from this new covenant, unlike the one made between God and Israel.
1 Isaiah 41:8,9; 43:10. 2 Isaiah 41:15. 3 Isaiah 42:1-4. 4 Isaiah 42:6,7. 5 Isaiah 49:1-4. 6 Isaiah 49:5,6. 7 Isaiah 49:7. 8 Isaiah 49:8,9.