The Servant of Yhwh
“The servant of Yhwh” is a familiar term in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, but what does this title mean? This is an important question to ask and one that we must dive deep into the scriptures in order to answer. In searching out this answer, it may be helpful to see to whom the scriptures attribute this significant title.
The title “servant of Yhwh” is not a title that is given to many individuals. To illustrate this, I’ve compiled a list of every individual whom Yhwh personally names to be His servant. What is seen below is not an exhaustive list, for in my search I may have overlooked or missed some passages, though I am certain that it is sufficiently accurate for our purposes.
1. Caleb – 1x (Num. 14:24)
2. Jonah – 1x (2 Kings 14:25)
3. Isaiah – 1x (Is. 20:3)
4. Elijah – 2x (2 Kings 9:36; 10:10)
5. Abraham – 3x (Gen. 26:24; Ps. 105:6, 42)
6. Job – 4x (Job, 1:8; 2:3; 42:7, 8)
7. Moses – 12x (Ex. 14:31; Num. 12:7, 8; Josh. 1:2, 7; 9:24; 11:15; 2 Kings 21:8; Mal. 4:4; Ps. 105:26; Neh. 1:7, 8)
8. The Prophets – 17x (2 Kings 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:20; 24:2; Jer. 7:25; 25:4; 26:5; 29:19; 35:15; 44:4; Ezek. 38:17; Amos 3:7; Zech. 1:6; Dan. 9:6, 10, Ezra 9:11)
9. Israel – 25x (Lev. 25:42, 55; Deut. 32:36; Is. 41:8, 9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21, 26; 45:4; 48:20; 63:17; 65:8, 9, 13, 14, 15; 66:14; Jer. 30:10; 46:27, 28; Ezek. 28:25; 37:25)
10. David – 26x (2 Sam. 3:18; 7:5, 8; 1 Kings 11:13, 32, 34, 36, 38; 14:8; 2 Kings 8:19; 19:34; 20:6; Is. 37:35; Jer. 33:21, 22, 26; Ezek. 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25; Ps. 78:70; 89:3, 20; 132:10; 144:10)
11. Unidentified Person – 6x (Is. 42:1; 49:3; 50:10; 52:13; 53:11; Zech. 3:8)
It is this final unidentified person that draws our attention, but first, let us consider the other names and entities on this list. By ignoring this unidentified person for the time being, we should notice that all of these references can be reduced to four basic categories.
The King – As an individual, David is by far and away the most often stated servant of Yhwh. He is Yhwh’s anointed king who was chosen to receive a special covenant. The Davidic covenant made clear that the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) who would bless all the tribes of the earth (Gen. 12:3) would also be a king in David’s line (2 Sam. 7). At least 26 individual passages point to David as Yhwh’s servant but always within the context of David as king and covenant recipient.
The Nation – The nation Israel is named by Yhwh to be His servant at least 24 individual times. The nation was to display God’s glory to a watching world as they functioned as holy nation of priests (Ex. 19). To this list we should combine the references to Abraham, the father of the nation, as well as the single mention of Caleb, who stood as the lone obedient Israelite during a crucial turning point in the nation’s history. This would bring the total number of references to the nation (corporately and representatively) to at least 28.
The Prophets – The prophets are quite significant as those who serve Yhwh by being His mouthpiece to the people. It is through them that the people know God’s Word, will, character, and desire. As a whole these men are referred to as the servants of Yhwh at least 17 times, but we could easily add to this number the individual prophets such as Jonah, Isaiah, Elijah, and even Moses. This brings the total number of the “the prophets” up to at least 32 references.
The Righteous Sufferer/Priest – Of the eight individual persons singled out by this title, only Moses and David receive more attention than Job. We cannot simply lump Job in as a representative of Israel, for he was no Hebrew. Therefore, there is some other reason that Yhwh chose to include Job with these other servants. The entire book of Job is a picture of one who suffers as a blameless and righteous individual. His suffering is completely disconnected with any personal guilt. It is also noteworthy that after his suffering, Job is given the task of intercessor between his accusers and Yhwh (Job 42:7-9). This will become important as we examine this unidentified servant.
After establishing these basic categories in which we find the title “The servant of Yhwh” used, let’s see how they line up with the descriptions of our unidentified servant.
The servant of Yhwh as a King (Isaiah 42:1-4)
Is. 42:1 “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights.
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 “He will not cry out or raise His voice,
Nor make His voice heard in the street.
3 “A bruised reed He will not break,
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 “He will not be disheartened or crushed,
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.”
There are several texts that link this unidentified servant of Yhwh with the office of king. First, we see in Isaiah 42:1 (the first servant song) that the prophet sees this individual endowed with Yhwh’s Spirit for the purpose of bringing forth justice. This task is one of the chief responsibilities of the anticipated King to come from David’s line (Ps. 72; Hosea 6:3; 10:12; Amos 5:24).
The servant of Yhwh as a King cont. (Zech. 3:8)
3:8 ‘Now listen, Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who are sitting in front of you — indeed they are men who are a symbol, for behold, I am going to bring in My servant the Branch.
In this second text, this time not in Isaiah, we find a similar picture in Zechariah 3:8 where this servant is called the Branch. This may be a simple enough term, but it harkens back to Isaiah 11:1 which anticipates the promised seed of David (2 Sam. 7) on whom the Spirit of Yhwh will rest. Zechariah has just combined what we saw in Isaiah’s first song (endowed with Yhwh’s Spirit) with Isaiah’s anticipation of the Davidic seed. This coming servant of Yhwh will certainly come as a king.
The servant of Yhwh as an Israelite (Is. 49:1-7)
49:1 Listen to Me, O islands,
And pay attention, you peoples from afar.
The LORD called Me from the womb;
From the body of My mother He named Me.
2 And He has made My mouth like a sharp sword;
In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me,
And He has also made Me a select arrow;
He has hidden Me in His quiver.
3 And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel,
In Whom I will show My glory.”
4 But I said, “I have toiled in vain,
I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity;
Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD,
And My reward with My God.”
5 And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,
To bring Jacob back to Him, in order that Israel might be gathered to Him
(For I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
And My God is My strength),
6 He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
7 Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and its Holy One,
To the despised One,
To the One abhorred by the nation,
To the Servant of rulers,
“Kings shall see and arise,
Princes shall also bow down;
Because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.”
Isaiah 49 is a significant text in this study as it contains the second of Isaiah’s servant songs. It is here where the yet unidentified servant of Yhwh appears to be speaking in the first person. There are implications that point back to this servant being a prophet in v. 2, as Yhwh will make his mouth like a sharp sword, but the grander point is to link this person with the nation of Israel. In fact, as we come to v. 3, we may be tempted to directly equate this passage as referring to the nation: “He said to Me, ‘You are My Servant, Israel, in whom I will show My glory.” Is this not a reference that simply points back to the nation? Further reading suggests not.
In the next few verses, we learn that this unidentified servant is called Israel and yet is a different entity than the nation. After all, this servant will be Yhwh’s tool to turn the nation back to Him as well as being a light of salvation to all nations (vv. 5 ff.). In fact, we get a glimpse at this servant’s humiliation and suffering in v. 7. This servant is to carry out the mission of the nation (to direct the world’s attention to Yhwh) yet at the same time point the nation itself back to Yhwh. This particular and individual servant is identified in close connection with the nation Israel and this connection is linked with his suffering.
The servant of Yhwh as a Prophet (Isaiah 50:10)
50:10 Who is among you that fears the LORD,
That obeys the voice of His servant,
That walks in darkness and has no light?
Let him trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God.
Isaiah 50:10 actually looks back to Isaiah’s third servant song found in vv. 4-9. It is here in v. 10 that we understand that it was Yhwh’s servant who had been speaking. Yhwh demands obedience to what this servant has proclaimed for it is what He Himself proclaimed. This servant is a mouthpiece for Yhwh and functions as one of His serving prophets. All that this servant has said must be considered as carrying the same weight as all of Yhwh’s serving prophets before him.
The servant of Yhwh as a Righteous Sufferer (Isaiah 53:11)
53:11 As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
This verse plainly calls this servant of Yhwh a Righteous one while at the same time clearly stating that he suffers and dies. It is this servant of Yhwh who will bear the iniquities and sins of the many who will be healed by stripes given to him. Yes, this servant of Yhwh will be one who suffers, yet not on account of his own sin.
This has certainly given us a better understanding of who this servant must be and what his service to Yhwh will look like, but it does not quite answer the question regarding the necessity of his suffering. Why must this servant suffer? The answer to this question cannot be divorced from the various functions of this servant, chiefly his identification as Israel.
Why must the Servant suffer?
The prophet Hosea deals with this question in a way that we might not at first see. Hosea’s prophecy is directed at the nation of Israel and speaks judgment upon her due to her unfaithfulness. She is likened to a harlot who has always been a harlot and continued to be a harlot after her betrothal. What is Yhwh to do with His harlot bride? There are only two options. He could divorce her and nullify their marriage contract, or He could kill her.
Divorce is out of the question due to Yhwh’s previous promise to the patriarchs. Yet would not death bring the same result? Israel must die for her crimes. Yet she cannot die for then Yhwh would be found a liar. What is needed is a substitute to stand in Israel’s place. A perfect Israelite must die just as the unblemished lamb died in the place of Israel’s firstborn at Passover. Israel must have a second Exodus and a second Passover.
Hosea chapter two outlines both the need for and the result of this second Exodus. Israel must be taught to depend on no one other than her husband, Yhwh. Once this lesson is learned, she will be restored and healed. In chapter three of Hosea, this restoration is surveyed. It will be after Israel repents and seeks both Yhwh and David her king (3:5) that she will be restored. Israel’s redemption is bound up in the person of Yhwh’s servant as king.
Zechariah picks up on this kingly task of Yhwh’s servant when he writes that Israel’s king will certainly come to them, but he will come lowly and humbly, mounted on a donkey rather than on a royal steed (9:9). Why is the king’s coming framed in such humility? Because the king represents the people, and the people must die.
Moses made it clear that the king of Israel must be a native Israelite (Deut. 17:15) because the king’s duty is to carry out and enforce Yhwh’s decrees throughout the kingdom. As an individual, he will answer personally to Yhwh’s servant for the obedience of the people. This is why Adam, Yhwh’s first vassal king on earth, answered for the sin of his wife. He listened and obeyed her voice rather than enforcing the word and will of Yhwh (Gen. 3:17). The king answers for his people, and the people must die.
There is only one option in which justice is served without breaking Yhwh’s word. Yhwh’s servant, who is righteous (Is. 53:11), a spokesman for Yhwh (Is. 44:26), the perfect Israelite (Is. 49:3), and a kingly representative (Zech. 3:8) must die in Israel’s place. By imputing the nation’s sin upon this righteous servant, his death will satisfy Yhwh’s wrath. By imputing His servant’s righteousness to the nation’s account, his life will count for their righteousness. And by purchasing for Yhwh the nation of Israel, this servant will also secure salvation for the nations (Is. 49:6). But who is He?
Who is Yhwh’s Servant?
There is only one person to whom the scriptures point who perfectly fulfills this outline of Yhwh’s servant. Just as Moses and the prophets of old served Yhwh, Jesus Christ came preaching repentance and the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17; Mk. 1:14-15). Jesus Christ is proven to be a true Israelite from Abraham (Matt. 1:1) who embodied the persona of the nation (Matt. 2:15) in perfect obedience (Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13). Coming from the line of David (Matt. 1:1), Jesus came to His people in humility as the prophets foresaw (Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:5). And even as they killed Him, no one could find any guilt in Him (27:23).
This is the One at whom Israel was appalled (Is. 52:14). This is the One whom they pierced and will one day look upon and repent (Zech. 12:10). This is the one who will suffer for the sins of the many (Is. 53:11) so that He might sprinkle and purify the nations (Is. 52:15). Yhwh was pleased to crush this Israelite (Is. 53:10), so that He might raise Him up on the third day and heal the nation (Hos. 6:1-3). This is why Jesus could so humbly and honestly claim to be the only way, the only truth, the only life, and the only avenue back to Yhwh (Jn. 14:6). There is life and forgiveness in Him alone. Soli Deo Gloria!