Pathways through Lent

Weekday reflections from St. John’s in the season of Lent.

Thursday in the Fifth Week of Lent: March 21, 2024

For Palm Sunday and the services for Holy Week, the Hebrew Scripture lessons are the four “Servant Songs” from Isaiah. One of the themes in the gospels is how Jesus is preparing the disciples to give up their plans for a military leader and the conquest of Rome’s occupation army. The gospels see in the suffering and death of Jesus the key to God’s promised next chapter. To that end, the Servants Songs in Isaiah provided the revised language of expectation. The rich images are familiar to us:

  • Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

  • To open the eyes that are blind.

  • I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

  • I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

  • He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.

  • Surely, he has borne our infirmities. He was wounded for our transgressions. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Starting with the early church, these songs provided a key to the dilemma of how to explain a major shift in the understanding of the Messiah, the Lord’s promised anointed one. The Messianic expectation that had come to dominate was that God would send a new King David. There are plenty of passages in the prophets catering to this expectation. Someday there would be a restoration of the glory days of the Kingdom and David and Solomon. The Lord’s anointed would lead a new army to get rid of the foreign occupation of the Promised Land. Once again Jerusalem would be the compelling center of a major kingdom. The nations would seek God in that wonderful, restored nation.

The servant songs in Isaiah gave the early church exactly the language it needed for the revised vision of The Messiah. There is a line in “Fiddler on the Roof” that always strikes me. Tevye is a pious Jew with a rich and candid ongoing conversation with God. At one point, focusing on some of his current disappointments, he says to God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?” Tevye has an understanding of “election” that we often miss. Tevye, like many wise rabbis and a few prophets, knows that being the “chosen” people more often means suffering on behalf of the world rather than holding a place of power or privilege.

That is the genius of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. Israel’s suffering is seen as redemptive, as “on behalf of” the world and the enemy nations. It was that insight which the early church captured when they used the expressions from Isaiah to explain and celebrate Jesus.

Jack Reiffer
Pathways Editor


Servant Songs for Holy Week