Second or Deutero-Isaiah is the work of an anonymous author from the 6th century BC who writes during the latter part of the Babylonian exile. This portion of Isaiah (Isa. 40-55) marks a shift in themes from the first thirty-nine chapters of the book, with its emphasis on a new place and time when the Babylonians have replaced the Assyrians as the new world power. The message now becomes one of hope: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God (Isa. 40:1).” It marks the end of punishment and the restoration and return of the exiles, all of which occurs according to God’s plan for the nation of Israel. Second Isaiah reminds the people that the LORD has always remained true to the promise to Israel, but had been forced to use the enemy nations to plunder and destroy them for their idolatrous ways and breach of the covenant (Isa. 42:24-25). Yet they remain the chosen nation of God, who aids, strengthens, and protects them (Isa. 41:8-10). Babylon, once used as God’s instrument of judgement against Israel, will likewise be destroyed by the power of an upcoming nation (Isa. 43:14). The leader of this new world power is named to be Cyrus of Persia who, although a foreigner like those before him, will work at the appointment of God to vindicate the chosen people (Isa. 45:1). The sole purpose for the restoration of Israel is for the sake of the LORD’s name, which has been profaned among the nations (Isa. 48:11), and with joy and singing, the exiles will be freed from bondage and led to the Promised Land, as in the days of the Exodus (Isa. 52:4).
Second Isaiah is, perhaps, most well-known for the four passages known as the Servant Songs of Isaiah (Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:1-11; 52:13-53:12), named for an unidentified servant of God who works on behalf of the nation of Judah. There is much debate among biblical scholars with regard to the identity of the person or persons to whom Isaiah is referring in these passages, possibilities include Isaiah or the writer of Second Isaiah, Cyrus the Persian, or the upright people of Israel, as a whole. The first of the Servant Songs (Isa. 42:1-9) is a message to all of the nations introducing the servant as an individual chosen by God to bring justice to the world, especially the poor and downtrodden. The second of the Servant Songs (Isa. 49:1-13) is also a message to the nations, this time announcing the restoration of Israel, who will then bring the glory of the Holy One to all the world, as a light to the nations. The address, “you are my servant, in you, Israel, I show my glory (Isa. 49:3), seems to indicate that the servant in this passage is the nation of Israel. But in a later verse, the servant appears to be an individual referred to as “him,” raised from the remnant of survivors (Isa. 49:5-6). The last two servant songs are perhaps better referred to as the Songs of the Suffering Servant, because of the suffering and persecution the servant must endure. The servant, again an individual, addresses those in exile, who feel they have been abandoned by God, and announces his intent to deliver them through his willingness to endure beatings and verbal abuse on their behalf with the help of the LORD (Isa. 50:1-11). In the last song (Isa. 52:13-53:12), the servant even goes so far as to suffer pain, affliction, and death as a sin offering for others, although he, himself, is guilty of no transgressions. In the end, he will be awarded by the LORD for his anguish, like a lamb led to slaughter, and for accomplishing the work of God as the exiles joyfully return to Jerusalem (Isa. 54:1-55:13).
Jesus, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah
Perhaps more so than any other allusion to Old Testament prophecy found within the New Testament is the application of the identity of the unnamed Suffering Servant of Isaiah to Jesus. In the Presentation in the Temple, he is recognized by Simeon to be the long-awaited Messiah, who will bring salvation to Israel and all nations as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for the people Israel” (Isa. 42:6, 49:6, Lk. 2:32,). The healing ministry of Jesus is used to identify him as the one who takes upon himself the sins and sufferings of others to bring about the prophecy, “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Isa. 53:4: Mt. 8:17). Elsewhere, upon healing a man with a withered hand, Jesus implores the crowd to remain silent about the incident in fulfillment of the following: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom I delight; I shall place my spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. (Mt. 12:18, Isa. 42:1-2).” In this passage Jesus indicates his demeanor as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, one of meekness and humility, who also brings justice and victory for both Jew and Gentile.
The Suffering Servant passages are referenced particularly in light of the suffering Jesus endures during his trial and crucifixion. The first occurs on the night of the Last Supper, where Jesus informs the disciples of the upcoming crisis: “For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, namely, ‘He was counted among the wicked’” (Isa. 53:12), a reference to indicate that the Jewish leaders will persecute Jesus as an outlaw (Lk. 22:37). Later, during the trial, Jesus offers very little defense of himself to the high priest, remaining mostly silent (Mt. 26:63) as the servant, oppressed and afflicted, yet who did not utter a sound (Isa. 53:7). As his torment continues, the soldiers mock him by spitting on him and striking him on the head with a reed (Mt 27:30), but as the meek and mild Suffering Servant, Jesus gives “his back to those who beat him and [does] not hide from insults and spitting” (Isa. 50:6). For the early Church, and Christians today, Jesus who is mocked as being the King of the Jews (Mk. 15:18) is really the savior and Suffering Servant of Isaiah who, in hindsight, bore the punishment that makes us whole and heals our wounds. (Isa: 53:5, 1 Pt. 2:24).