The Messiah as Servant of Yahweh
I do not intend to make even a superficial attempt to expound the Servant Songs in this lecture. I must, however, point out that they too, like other passages we have dealt with, seem to sum up and give meaning to aspects of the religion and experience of Israel which otherwise seem to remain unrelated to other aspects of the people's understanding of God, and which indeed otherwise seem to lose their point altogether.
I believe that most of the friends of the Graf-Wellhausen theory of the Pentateuch have sooner or later had to recognize that the Achilles heel of the theory is the compulsion it is under of placing the ceremonial legislation of the priestly code in the exilic and post-exilic period. It seems probable that even if this side of the theory had not been fatally undermined by the archaeological discoveries at Ras Shamra and elsewhere, it would on other grounds have become discredited. The deepest objection to it is not its contradiction of what we have gradually learnt to know of religion in the fertile crescent during the pre-exilic period, but its spiritual barrenness.
The theory has been conspicuously incapable of making spiritual sense or giving spiritual value to the cultus, which is after all the major constituent of the Pentateuchal legislation. At first, too, it led to a serious spiritual misinterpretation of the Inter-Testamental period and beyond. As is well known, Wellhausen's estimate of the Pharisees and their piety would find few scholars today to support it.
This virtual writing off of the ceremonial law for at least half a century, so far as spiritual value is concerned, has tended to obscure for many students of the Old Testament one of its major spiritual problems. That it is impossible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sin is an obvious spiritual truism, which we do not owe to the Christian revelation. There is ample prophetic enunciation of this principle. The Pharisee will have objected to its being expressed so bluntly, but there is no reason for thinking that he would have rejected a more guarded statement of the truth. The relatively easy adaptation of the Palestinian synagogue to the new conditions after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. shows that the principle of the insufficiency of animal sacrifice had been widely grasped. For all that, the Talmud says three times that without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
We can recognize here a contradiction and tension in the Pharisaic outlook, which may well be a main cause of one of the chief spiritual weaknesses of Pharisaism, a weakness that long antedates the destruction of the Temple, viz, an insufficient conception of sin. This will have in large part come from the fact that, though the Pharisee rejoiced in the sacrificial ritual and availed himself of it gladly, he was deeply conscious of its inability to deal with sin, and this in turn led to an inevitable minimizing of sin, at least in those that sought to observe the law.
Provided we do not insist on interpreting the 8th and 6th century prophets in terms of modern humanism, there is ample evidence of the same tension in the pages of the Old Testament. It is pleasing to see that there is an increasing reaction today against the view that some at least of the prophets were root and branch enemies of the cultus. But what was a tension felt apparently by very few before the exile, became a reality for a considerable portion of the population after the return. We should remember that the Essenes went so far as to refuse to bring bloody sacrifices at all. Here again we see how in the Messianic figure of the Servant of Yahweh we find the tension resolved and satisfied, for he is what the sacrifices could never be.
It is more than the problem of sacrifice that finds its answer suggested here. Some of the finest modern Old Testament exegesis has been devoted to the problem of suffering, whether in Job or the Psalms, in Isaiah or Jeremiah, whether dealing with the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous, or with the final mystery of death itself. I am tempted, however, at times to wonder how far those who then faced these problems realized the spiritual riches we have been able to draw from their experiences, for we must distinguish between the spiritual solace that comes to the sufferer when he turns to God and the theological answer to the problem of suffering. That I am comforted in my suffering does not imply that I know why I had to suffer.
This problem, which is no other than the whole problem of human sin and imperfection, finds its answer foreshadowed, as in the Servant of Yahweh we see the triumph of God, not through might or power, but through what men count the foolishness and weakness of God.
Questions for Reflection / Discussion:
Read 1 Samuel 15:17-26 and Amos 5:21-27. Discuss the significance this has for the role of Old Testament sacrifice.
If 'it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin,' and this was known to be true at the time of the Deuteronomistic law, what spiritual value did the temple sacrifices hold?
Read Isaiah 54. How does teh servant figure fulfill what is lacking in the sacrificial system?
How does Jesus' ministry, especially his passion, fulfill the expectations of the 'Sevant of Yahweh'?
 Yoma 5a, Menahoth 93b, Zebahim 6a.