Salvation history, the story the Bible tells, is long and winding. It starts off with God’s creation in Genesis and ends with the new creation in Revelation, but between those two points it often seems to meander with no real purpose, much like the Israelites in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. However, if we read Scripture closely, we see that there is in fact a purpose to it all, a plan that God has been working out for thousands of years. In fact, if we read the Old Testament carefully, we can even find an outline of this plan, a miniature version of the larger story that encompasses all of Scripture.
The Mysterious Servant
In the book of Isaiah, we encounter a mysterious figure known as the servant of the Lord. He pops up several times throughout the book, and scholars have isolated four texts that they call the “servant songs,” four passages that talk about this figure and explain his purpose in God’s plan of salvation. There’s some debate over the exact boundaries of these texts, but they roughly comprise Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12.
When we look at them closely, we can see that they are in fact a divinely inspired outline of salvation history. In the first two servant songs, we read about the servant’s mission:
“I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
He is God’s chosen instrument to save the human race, the tool he will use to rescue his wayward children from the predicament of sin and death that Adam and Eve got us into when they ate the forbidden fruit. Because of this, Christian tradition has often identified this servant as Jesus, but it’s not quite that simple. God did enact his plan of salvation through Jesus, but the book of Isaiah actually gives this servant a different identity.
The Servant Revealed
The second song explicitly identifies the servant for us:
“You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (Isaiah 49:3)
So there we have it. The servant is the nation of Israel, and this identification actually makes a lot of sense. Way back in Genesis, God promised to bless the world through the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the forefathers of the Israelite people (22:16-18, 26:3-4, 28:13-14), and the New Testament tells us that this blessing was in fact the salvation that Jesus would later win for us (Galatians 3:8). Consequently, Israel’s mission in the Old Testament was to mediate God’s salvation to the other nations. They were supposed to be his instrument to rescue his wayward children, so identifying the servant as Israel makes perfect sense.
However, there’s a problem here. Just a few verses later, God says that in addition to saving the entire world, his servant is also supposed “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel” (Isaiah 49:6). In other words, this figure is supposed to save the world in general as well as Israel in particular, so he can’t simply be Israel. The nation cannot save itself, so it looks like the identity of the servant has changed. Initially, he did represent the entire nation, but now he has become an individual who will restore Israel and take upon himself the vocation of the nation as a whole to redeem the entire human race. More specifically, it looks like he is an individual Israelite who will restore the nation and do its job for it, and this raises a question for us: why the change?
The Next Chapter
The text does not explicitly give us an answer, but if we read between the first two servant songs, we can make an educated guess. Almost immediately after the first servant song, we read about Israel’s sinfulness (Isaiah 42:19-25) and inability to obey God’s laws, and this is most likely the reason for the change. Israel couldn’t mediate God’s salvation to the other nations if they themselves were not faithful; they couldn’t teach other nations to follow his laws if they did not do so themselves. As a result, God was now forced to choose an individual Israelite to restore the nation and then take its vocation upon himself; he had to choose a single person to do what he had originally called the entire nation to do.
And that individual is Jesus. The last servant song tells us that God’s servant will fulfill his vocation by suffering and dying to atone for people’s sins (Isaiah 53:5-6, 12), and that’s exactly what Jesus did. He suffered and died to atone for the sins of the entire world, and that includes Israel. As a result, the servant of the Lord is Isaiah is ultimately Jesus, just as the New Testament teaches (for example, Matthew 8:16-17, 12:15-21).
The Story Continues
However, the story doesn’t end there. Even though the servant ends up being Jesus, the New Testament also applies these passages to the Church. In Acts, Paul and Barnabas understand the second servant song (specifically Isaiah 49:6) to mean that God has sent them (and, by implication, all Christian missionaries) to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47). In other words, they understand the servant to be Christians as well, and this brings us to another question: has the servant’s identity changed again?
The answer is yes and no. In one sense, yes, the servant is now the Church, not just Jesus. The key here is that the Church is the servant because we’re the new Israel (Catechism of the Catholic Church 877). Just as Israel in the Old Testament was God’s “own possession among all peoples… a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6), so too is the Church now “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). As a result, the Church is the servant now because we have the same vocation that Israel had in the Old Testament, the same calling that the servant had in Isaiah.
Same Old Servant
However, in another sense, the identity of the servant hasn’t changed, and it in fact has never changed. See, by saving us from our sins, Jesus didn’t simply fulfill Israel’s vocation for it; rather, he also enabled the restored Israel to finally fulfill its vocation, and this fits perfectly with the whole tenor of Christianity. We are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1), and Jesus lives and acts through us (Galatians 2:8, 20), allowing us to now share in his own vocation. For example, we can offer up our suffering in union with his to atone for our sins and those of others (Colossians 1:24), and we can be holy as he is holy (1 John 3:3). As a result, we can see that Christianity isn’t about Jesus doing things so we do not have to. Rather, it’s about Jesus doing things so we can then do them in and through him, and being the servant is part of this.
Jesus did not fulfill the servant’s vocation so Israel didn’t have to; rather, he did it so Israel could then be empowered to do it as well. He won for his first disciples (who were all Israelites) the grace they needed to fulfill their calling to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. As a result, Israel never really stopped being God’s servant. Yes, that vocation was given to Jesus in a unique way, but he was never the servant instead of Israel. Rather, he was the servant precisely so the restored Israel could then fulfill its vocation and be the servant God always intended it to be. Then, after the Apostles spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, this new, restored Israel (which is the Church) grew to encompass both Jews and Gentiles, so now we all have that same vocation to mediate God’s salvation to the rest of the world in and through Christ.
The Shape of Salvation History
Once we understand the divinely inspired outline of salvation history, we can see that God’s plan has an hourglass shape. First, he called Israel to be his servant to bring his salvation to the entire human race, but they were too sinful to fulfill their vocation. As a result, God had to narrow the identity of the servant down to an individual Israelite, Jesus, who would do Israel’s job for it through his death and resurrection. However, Jesus didn’t accomplish the servant’s mission so Israel didn’t have to. Rather, he did it to empower the new Israel, the Church (which is composed of both Israelites and Gentiles), to finally fulfill the servant’s vocation and bring the salvation he won for us to the ends of the earth, thereby enlarging the servant’s identity once again.