Is The Messiah Himself Restoring Israel?
Many Jews today believe that only the Messiah can re-establish the nation of Israel. Several ultra-orthodox groups now living in Israel do not believe that the present nation is even legitimate, because they believe the Messiah has not yet come. These groups happily receive benefits from the nation but refuse to fight for its defense.
Where does such a belief regarding the Messiah come from? Perhaps these groups get their ideas originally from the Bible, albeit their interpretations seem faulty. Since the 1880s there has been a gigantic move within worldwide Judaism to return home to the biblical land. This fact seems to be ignored by such groups.
The many waves of Jewish immigration to the land began in 1882. Once the nation was established in 1948 there was massive immigration from many parts of the world. The people of Israel have now returned home from some one hundred nations. In fact, there are many nations where Jews have lived for centuries that are now almost empty of their Jewish populations.
The likelihood of some future return to Zion from these nations is virtually nil, unless, of course, there would be a totally new modern dispersion. The return to Zion in our era seems to be the true fulfillment of scripture. We cannot close our eyes to these biblical and historical facts. The Jews have come home!
With this in mind we must ask a pertinent question. Could it be that the Messiah is actually leading the Jews home and restoring Israel today?
SECRETS IN THE SERVANT SONGS
One of the most interesting and puzzling sections of scripture is known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah. This unusual section is introduced with a burst of Messianic glory in Isaiah chapter 40. This chapter begins with words of great comfort to Israel. In verse three, we are introduced to the ministry of the Messianic forerunner (cf. Luke 3:4-6). We are given a quick picture of the Messianic Servant, who “…gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart…” (Isa. 40:11).
Beginning with Isaiah 41:8, the Servant is formally introduced. Scholars feel these servant passages continue through much of the remainder of Isaiah, possibly even into the 63rd chapter.
This section of scripture “has exercised the minds of scholars perhaps more than any other single Old Testament question.” 1 Many scholars have been baffled over exactly who this Servant is. Sometimes the Servant appears to be Israel; at other times he appears to be an individual. We know that the Servant of Isaiah 53 has been interpreted as an individual at least since the days of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, in Acts 8:34.2 In speaking of these poems and of the Servant, Westermann says: “One thing at least is obvious; their language at once reveals and conceals the Servant. He is not described in the terms used elsewhere in the Old Testament of a king, a prophet, Israel, or an individual righteous man, although there are reminiscences of each of these.” 3
Also, his mood is fainthearted and despondent at times, when the Servant appears to be Israel. At other times he seems to be acting as a lone individual and his mood is totally victorious. He even becomes the savior of faltering Israel. Let us look briefly at these interesting passages.
In Isaiah 41:8, Israel is definitely named as the Servant. We see that Israel is called from the four corners of the earth for God’s purposes (v.9). God vows to help, strengthen and uphold Israel (vs.10, 14). However, in Isaiah 41:28-29, we see that Israel has failed as God’s Servant.
In Isaiah 42:1 ff., we are introduced to the true Servant. He is called a “delight,” and God affirms that he has put his Spirit on him (v.1). It is stated here that this Servant will not fail or be discouraged until he has established justice and law on earth (v.4). This Servant will be a covenant to the people and light to the Gentiles (v.6). Interestingly, in Matthew 12:15-21, this passage is applied to Jesus.
Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee. The Prophet Isaiah once
spoke of a great light arising in the Galilee.
Once more God switches back to Israel and upbraids the people as blind and deaf. God says, “Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send?…” (Isa. 42:19) God speaks of Israel as plundered and looted (v. 22). Because they did not follow his ways, he sent war and violence upon them (v.25). However God does not give up. In Isaiah 43:1 ff., God promises to be with Israel in the fire and floods of water (v.2). God promises to ransom Israel (v.3), and to gather her from the nations (vs. 5-7). He promises to lead Israel although the people are blind (v.8). God reaffirms that Israel is his witness (v. 10).
God tells Israel to forget the past, and not to dwell upon it (v.18). He tells them that he is doing a new thing (v. 19). That new thing is involved with making streams in the desert, or undoubtedly the restoration of the ancient land. God once more assures the people of Israel that they will ultimately show forth his praise (v. 21).
But from Isaiah 43: 22-24, we see again the cycle of Israel’s doubting and disobedience. They have not called upon God. They have not kept the covenant and have burdened God with their sins.
In Isaiah 44:1 ff., God once more helps and encourages Israel. He tells her not to be afraid (v.2); that he will restore her land and even pour out his Spirit upon the people (v.3). Again they are called God’s witnesses (v.8). In verse 21, Israel is again identified by name as God’s Servant. God assures her that he will not forget her and that he will forgive
her sins (v.22).
God also promises that Jerusalem shall be inhabited and the ruins of Judah shall be restored (v.26). As a part of this redemptive program God mentions Cyrus, who first restored Jerusalem and allowed its Temple to be built (v.28).
In Isaiah 46:3 ff., God encourages Israel once more. He promises to sustain and carry Israel even in old age (v.4). God promises to grant salvation in Zion and to place his splendor on Israel (v.13).
THE SERVANT REVEALED
However, it is in Isaiah 49 that the prophet returns to the theme of the true Servant. This is one of the most interesting chapters in the whole Bible. Now we have the clear introduction of the Servant Messiah. He is one who is formed in the womb to be God’s Servant and to bring Israel back to himself (v.5). Thus, it is no longer possible to confuse this figure with Israel because the Servant is now the one redeeming Israel. 4 How well this corresponds with the jubilant song of Mary in Luke 1:54. In her song, she praises God who “…has helped his servant Israel…”
We see now that the Messianic Servant will do for Israel what Israel was powerless to do for herself. He will restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those kept of God. This is not all. God says an astounding thing to his Servant. He says that it is too small a job for him just to re-gather Israel from all the nations and to restore them. In Isaiah 49:6, we see that God’s Servant will also bring light to the Gentiles (cf. Luke 2:32). Westermann comments, “This much… is certain: the Servant has a task imposed on him by God and it embraces the Gentiles as well as Israel.” 5
It actually is an incredible thought, that the one restoring Israel is the very same one bringing light to the Gentiles! This idea is probably also pictured in Isaiah 11:10, where we read, “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.” Now God shares some sad news with us. The one before whom kings rise and princes bow down will be “…despised and abhorred by the nation [Israel]…” (Isa. 49:7).
Nevertheless, God will help his Servant Messiah (v.8) He will be a covenant for the people. He will restore the desolate land of Israel and release the captives (vs. 8-9). Israel’s exiles will be brought home from the various parts of the earth.
Israel now feels forsaken and forgotten by the Lord (v.14). However God promises Israel that he could no more forget her than a mother could forget her child (v.15). Indeed, Israel is engraved on the palms of his hands (v. 16). God challenges dejected Israel to look as her sons are gathered home (v. 18). The land of Israel will become too small to contain them all (v.20). Even the Gentiles who were once captors will come bringing the children of Israel in their arms (v.22).
Once more God deals with Israel’s failure to heed him. God says in Isaiah 50:2, “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you..?” Then again God turns to his true Servant Messiah in 50:4 ff. This Servant has an instructed tongue (v.4) and open ears (v.5).
THE SUFFERING SERVANT
From Isaiah 50:6, we see the theme of the Suffering Servant developed. That theme will later find its completion in Isaiah 53. Note in Isaiah 50:6, that the Servant suffers abuse: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” The true Servant Messiah is a Suffering Servant. However, he knows that the sovereign Lord is his help (v.7).
Again we are treated with the pleasant scenes of Israel returning from captivity, entering Zion with songs and gladness (Isa. 51:11). Even those who had lived in constant terror, “the cowering prisoners” are brought home. They did not perish in their dungeons (v. 14). This may well be a reference to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Isaiah goes on to relate the failure and discouragement of Israel even after God’s restoration (51:17-18). He also relates the glory of their restoration in some of the most beautiful passages in the Bible: “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isa. 52:9).
Beginning with Isaiah 52:13 and running through Isaiah 53:12, we have the fully developed theme of the Suffering Servant. His appearance is disfigured beyond that of any man and marred beyond human likeness (52:14). The message about him is not believed (53:1). He is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and not esteemed (v.3). However, he bears the infirmities and sorrows of the people, although they consider him stricken by God (v.4). He is pierced for the sins of the people, but with his wounds the people are healed (v.5). Although the people have gone astray like sheep their sin is laid upon him (v.6).
Like a lamb, he is led to the slaughter (v.7). He is cut off from the land of the living for the transgression of the people (v.8). All this is the Lord’s will, that his life can be a guilt offering (v. 10). Yet although the Messiah is cut off, he will still see his offspring (v.10). By his knowledge this righteous Servant will justify many because he will bear their
The idea of a suffering Messiah is not a strange idea to the Jewish people. A prevalent idea among the Jews to this day is the concept of Messiah ben-Joseph, who actually suffers and dies at the hand of the enemy and is raised up in the last days. There are also the concepts of a Leper Messiah and even a Beggar Messiah. 6 The suffering Messiah in Jewish tradition is pictured as suffering for the sins of Israel.
CAN THE SERVANT BE JESUS?
Who is this Servant? Can it be that this Servant is Jesus? Jesus surely thought he was the Servant spoken of in Isaiah. The authors of the Gospels certainly thought so. Christians through the centuries have thought so, although they have been very careful to pick and choose which passages they want to apply to Jesus. Most all Christians would quickly apply Isaiah 53 to Jesus, without realizing that if that particular servant passage applies to him, the others probably do so as well.
The Interpreters Bible lists several events in Jesus life that are directly related to these Servant passages. There are the messianic words at his baptism drawn from Isaiah 42:1 (Mark 1:11). Then when Jesus reads from the scroll in his home town of Nazareth he reads from Isaiah 61:1 ff., and states, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16 ff.).
The Gospel writer, Matthew, interprets Jesus’ miracles as fulfillment of Isaiah 42:1-4 (Matt. 12:15-21). Also at Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8; Matt. 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36), the same words of Isaiah 42:1 that were sounded from heaven at his baptism are
In Mark 10:45 the Lord says, “For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus also says in Luke 22:37, “For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.”
References to the suffering Servant also appear in 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Acts 8:26-39. 7 The Apostle Paul in speaking of Jesus says that he “…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7).
WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF JESUS IS THE SERVANT?
Perhaps we Christians have not fully thought out the implications of Jesus being the true Servant. If Jesus is the Servant, several shocking facts immediately manifest themselves.
If Jesus is the Servant, it was he who helped Israel even when the Church was happily persecuting and killing the people of God. If Jesus is the Servant, it is he who is now gathering the people of Israel from all the nations and bringing them back home. If Jesus is the Servant, it is he who is presently restoring the land of Israel – planting trees and rebuilding ancient cities.
What astounding implications for the Church! We have never pictured our Jesus doing such things. If Jesus is the Servant Messiah in Isaiah we need to fall on our faces in repentance and sincerely beg his forgiveness.
We have sinned an awful sin! Not only have we refused to help him in his program, but we have done everything possible to hinder it for almost two thousand years.
God help us!
What are the primary differences between the Servant as a nation and as an individual?
In Isaiah 49:8-13, what are some things the true Servant will do?
What are some New Testament scriptures identifying Jesus as the Servant?
How has the Church failed to recognize the Servant?
How has Israel failed to recognize Him?
1. George Arthur Buttrick, ed., Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 5 (New York & Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956) p. 406.
2. R.N. Whybray, The Second Isaiah (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, Department of Biblical Studies, The University of Sheffield, 1983) p. 66.
3. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1969) p. 20.
4. Buttrick, ed., Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 5, p. 408.
5. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, p. 21.
6. Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) pp. 104-105.
7. Buttrick, ed., Interpreter’s Bible, Vol 5, p. 413.