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Biblical vocabulary: עבד יהוה (“Divine Servant”)

“The Divine Servant …”

In a previous article we dealt with the Hebrew verb “abad” (pronunciation: “avád”) which has the general meaning of: to work, to labor, to serve (as a servant or slave), but also has a special theological meaning: to serve (the Lord God), to worship, to honor.

From this verb the word “ébed”[1] (pronunciation: “éved”) is derived, which we dealt with in a different article. The word “ébed” has the general meaning of servant, assistant, slave. But it also has a theological use with regard to the believer who, as servant of God, devotes himself to serve, honor and worship Him.

In this article we discuss a special use of this word “ébed”/servant with the prophet Isaiah, that is “ébed YHWH” ( עבד יהוה ): Servant of the Lord.

Servanthood of Isaiah

In his prophetic book, the theme “servanthood” occupies a prominent position. In chapters 1-39 it is mainly about the call to faithfully serve the Lord God and the announcement of the punishment for serving Him unfaithfully. Subsequently, the part of chapters 40-55 speaks about the restoration that follows.

Can God do that? How will He do that? The final part of Isaiah, chapters 56-66, then speaks about the method of restoration. In all of this, the announcement of the Messiah is central. As the Davidic King, in chapters 1-39, and as the “ébed”/Servant of the Lord, especially in chapters 40-66[2]. Both aspects of the Messiah are closely intertwined: the Messiah King-Servant.

The “Ébed YHWH” songs

In Isaiah 40-66 the Messiah is presented as the “Ébed”/Servant of YHWH (the LORD) through whom one can get to know God. His calling to “Ébed”/being a Servant is described: grace drives Him to bring about reconciliation (especially described in Isaiah 40-55).

The features of the “Ébed”/Servant of YHWH, God’s glorification and omnipotence are emphasized, especially in Isaiah 56-66. Isaiah – he used a lot of poetry – has incorporated all this into a number of songs in which the Messiah is presented as the suffering “Ébed”/Servant of YHWH, in order to emphasize Isaiah’s prophecies.

The suffering Servant of the Lord, Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

Of these so-called “Ébed YHWH” songs we take a look at the fifth, recorded in Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12. This song is about the Man of sorrows and His work: proclamation and bringing of salvation. This song is a special literary composition, consisting of five symmetrically structured verses, each with its own sub-theme.

Verses 1 and 2 speak of the “Ébed YHWH”/Servant of the LORD who devotes himself to God’s voice; verses 3, 4 and 5 speak of the humiliation and suffering of this “Ébed YHWH”. The fruit of his suffering is sung, as is the final exaltation.

Content of the song

  • Verse 1: Isaiah 52:13-15, amazement and rejection
    See, My Ébed/Servant …” is the beginning of the song. These verses describe the exaltation of the Messiah, but also the amazement at Him, followed by rejection. His inner suffering is visible externally. But this suffering Servant is described in priestly terms (sprinkling, Exodus 29:20; Leviticus 16:14-15). After all, He sheds His blood!
  • Verse 2: Isaiah 53:1-3, contempt
    Contempt and rejection of the Messiah are central here. Who wants to look at this Man of sorrows? The end of this part of the song points to me, us….
  • Verse 3: Isaiah 53:4-6, substitute suffering
    This verse is the heart of the song, contained within the frameworks of rejection, contempt, suffering injustice and humiliation. Reconciliation through the unspeakable suffering of the Messiah. As the scapegoat He bore the sin of man, laid on Him (Leviticus 16: 21-22). What is striking here is the frequent we-shape. Who are these speakers? Am I that wandering sheep that Isaiah sings so intrusively…? Then the penalty for my sin is laid on Him!
  • Verse 4: Isaiah 53:7-9, unjustly punished
    Once again, the contempt of the Servant is described, the innocent and substitute suffering of the Messiah. Rejection of this “Ébed”/Servant who never did anything wrong. He gives His life for the sheep…
  • Verse 5: Isaiah 53:10-12, humiliated to death
    The Servant will suffer and sacrifice Himself, and in this way, many are justified by Him because He bears their iniquities. The unjust treatment that “My Servant the righteous” undergoes is God’s salvation… Exaltation of the “Ébed”/Servant follows.

The deep, rich content of this “Ébed YHWH” song is fulfilled in Jesus. His substitute suffering brought about reconciliation, but glory followed from the Servant’s suffering (Philippians 2: 5-11). As a found sheep, I may sing along with Isaiah: “… upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace

Notes

[1] The initial letter of this verb is the “áyin” which is not displayed in the Hebrew transcription provided here.

[2] The aforementioned (as well as other elements) points to the (mostly denied) substantive and structural
unity of the book of Isaiah

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Dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk

© Copyright dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk
Dr. Annechiena Sneller-Vrolijk studied Semitic languages and Cultures in Leiden and Judaism and archaeology in Jerusalem. Her specialism is Hebrew and the Old Testament. She worked for many years as a teacher in various theological colleges and co-authored the (Dutch) Study Bible of the CvB
and the HSV bible translation. She works as a teacher, author and speaker.

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