The Suffering Servant Song Begins
Septuagint Isaiah 52:13 (LXX) begins a new section that extends through the end of chapter 53. This magnificent portion is popularly known as the great Suffering Servant Song. It is the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah (1).
Isaiah has been building up to the Suffering Servant section of chapter 53. Three times he has called to Jerusalem and Sion. He urges them to 1) wake up and put on strength (Isaiah 51:9 Septuagint), 2) wake up and stand up (Isaiah 51:17), and 3) wake up and put on strength and glory (Isaiah 52:1). (Some commentators notice a progression in this series.) God has described the difficult position of the people of Sion and Jerusalem while in exile (Isaiah 51:17-21). He has owned himself as the one whose wrath the foreign invaders poured upon them (Isaiah 42:22-25 and 51:20-21). Through these invaders God expressed his great displeasure with his people’s sin and idolatry (Isaiah 44:9-21).
Mostly, however, the theme of this second half of the book of Isaiah has been comfort (Isaiah 40:1). The text constantly returns to this topic. As readers move through the chapters, they find that God intends to comfort his people through the advent of his very own Servant. Thus the context of the Servant dominates these chapters.
Readers heard the Servant himself speak in the third Servant Song, Isaiah 50:4-9. In Isaiah 50:6 the Servant indicates that he will suffer, “I gave my back to scourges, and my cheeks to blows; and I turned not away my face from the shame of spitting:” (LXE). The context of these chapters therefore includes the concept that the Servant will suffer. But this same passage also indicates that God will help the Servant. All men are mortal and will die. Isaiah 50:9, however, implies that God’s help to his Servant will surpass the harm that mortal men may inflict. Finally, Isaiah exhorts the people to trust God’s Servant in Isaiah 50:10. The text does not mention the Servant again until Isaiah 52:13.
A Few Details
Here is the Septuagint text of Isaiah 52:13.
Behold, my servant shall understand, and be exalted, and glorified exceedingly. (Septuagint Isaiah 52:13)
A CHANGE OF SPEAKER
First, the text changes speakers with this verse. Backing up to Isaiah 52:6 and 7, it seems highly likely that God’s Servant speaks those verses. He is the one who is “present” with God’s people. Following those verses, it appears as though Isaiah takes over the speaker’s role. This conclusion mostly derives from the text’s repeated reference to the “Lord” in third person in verses 8 through 12.
If readers agree that “my Servant” in verse 13 refers to the Servant of the Lord, then the word “my” would indicate that God speaks verse 13. The only other person who might reasonably speak this verse is Isaiah. But surely the prophet in previous passages never refers to the Servant with his own personal pronoun “my”, and he wouldn’t do so here. The speaker must therefore be God. God continues to speak verse 14, where he addresses the Servant directly in second person (you and your).
Biblical support for the conclusion that God speaks about his Servant in Isaiah 52:13 and directly to his Servant in verse 14 appears in a verse similar to this one and prior to it. This occurs in the second Servant Song of Isaiah 49:1-6. There, in verses 3 and 6, God addresses the Servant directly.
Following God’s direct speech to his Servant in 52:14, the speaker seems to change again. Although it is possible that God continues speaking verse 15, it seems unlikely. This is because the speaker no longer addresses the Servant directly, as in verse 14. Rather, the speaker refers to the Servant in third person. Even though a change of speakers seems abrupt here, Isaiah does make abrupt changes frequently. Considering all the evidence, it seems most reasonable to assume that Isaiah the prophet speaks verse 15.
CONCERNING THE SERVANT
God, in his own voice (see the subheading just above), describes the Servant with the personal adjective “my.” God states, “Behold, my servant shall… ” By speaking thus, God acknowledges his Servant as his own. The effect is to distinguish the Servant from the rest of God’s people. Continuously throughout the entire book of Isaiah, God specifies the shortcomings of his people Israel (or Sion or Jerusalem.) By saying, “Behold, my servant shall … “, God places his Servant in his own unique category. The three verbs which follow apply to the Servant. These words and prior texts preclude the possibility that the Servant is anyone other than the one who stands with God from distant eternity past. (See the post The Singular Servant: Isaiah Devotional 2.9.)
Differences with the Masoretic
The Greek Septuagint text of Isaiah 52:13 differs from the Hebrew Masoretic in a few ways.
13 Behold, my servant shall understand, and be exalted, and glorified exceedingly. (Septuagint Isaiah 52:13)
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.
(Isaiah 52:13 ESV)
“Look, my servant will succeed! He will be elevated, lifted high, and greatly exalted– (Isaiah 52:13 NET)
THREE VERBS VERSUS FOUR
First, while the Septuagint contains three verbs after the auxiliary “shall,” the Masoretic has four. The Septuagint lists “understand,” “shall be exalted,” and [shall be] “glorified.” The Masoretic lists “shall act wisely,” “shall be high,” [shall be] “lifted up,” and “shall be exalted.” As we consider the following, readers should bear in mind that one of Scripture’s purposes in this verse is to distinguish God’s Servant from the rest of his people. His people have fallen short; how will the one God calls “my Servant” be different?
1. First Verb: “My Servant shall understand”
In the Septuagint, the Greek word for “understand” is συνίημι (see-nee-mee). According to Thayer, the word has no meaning that could be translated as “to succeed.” In the context of Isaiah, the Servant, as distinct from the people of Israel, shall understand the will of God. In context, that would include his Law and his purpose.
The Hebrew word the Septuagint translates is שׂכל (sakal). This word has two families of meaning. One meaning is “to understand, have insight.” Another meaning is “to succeed.” As shown above, the ESV translates the text with the first meaning, and the NET with the second. The Amplified Bible translates both meanings, writing, “My Servant shall deal wisely and shall prosper.” This discussion follows the Septuagint.
Here are further examples of Isaiah’s use of the verb “understand.”
Isaiah 6:9 You shall hear indeed, but you shall not understand; and you shall see indeed, but you shall not perceive. (LXE)
Isaiah 43:10 Be you my witnesses, and I too am a witness, says the Lord God, and my servant whom I have chosen: that you may know, and believe, and understand that I am he: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none. (LXE)
Isaiah 56:11 Yea, they are insatiable dogs, that known not what it is to be filled, and they are wicked, having no understanding: all have followed their own ways, each according to his will. (LXE)
By stating in Isaiah 52:13, “My Servant shall understand,” God distinguishes him as being different than the other children of Israel.
Jesus made several statements containing the word “understand.” When Jesus speaks in the following examples, he uses the same verb as the one God uses in Isaiah. In the other examples, the gospel narrators use Isaiah’s verb.
Matthew 13:13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘”You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matthew 13:13-14 ESV)
Mark 7:14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: (ESV)
Mark 8:17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? (ESV)
Luke 18:34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (ESV)
Luke 24:45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, (ESV)
2. Second Verb: [My Servant shall] “be exalted”
To be continued…
1 The four Servant Songs occur in Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.