Is the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah collective (Israel or a faithful remnant) or individual (a prophet or Messiah)? Commentators have chosen sides, but Hans-Judgen Hermisson (in The Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 in Jewish and Christian Sources , 20) says that it’s a bad question. The point of the Servant sections of Isaiah is precisely that both Israel and an individual are needed, the individual to spur Israel to carry out her mission, Israel to be spurred.

Hermisson says: “The prophetic office is inseparably bound up with the office of that other Servant, Israel. The first servant text and the beginning and end of the second describe a effect that only both Servants working together can achieve. But the specific office holder of the Servant Songs is the prophet, the last prophet . . . to whom this office is entrusted. We should recall that there would have been little need for this Servant had Israel been ready and wiling to get under way. But since Israel is not - or not yet - ready for this, the prophetic Servant as an individual represents Israel, displaying the trust in his God that Israel still refuses to exercise.” He points to the shift from Isaiah 40:27 (Israel’s complaint that Yahweh disregards her right) to Isaiah 49:4 (the individual Servant’s confidence that the Lord will uphold his right, despise failure).

Only when the Servants work together does Israel accomplish her mission of being a light to the Gentiles. The Servant is, one might say, neither head nor body in isolation but a in .

Articles by Peter J. Leithart