The Origin Of The Suffering Servant Idea -- By: Edward J. Young

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 13:1 (Nov 1950)
Article: The Origin Of The Suffering Servant Idea
Author: Edward J. Young


The Origin Of The Suffering Servant Idea

Edward J. Young

THE Servant of the Lord, whose sufferings are so vividly poignantly described in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, is, to many investigators, a most baffling figure. His identity is constantly being discussed. His mission in suffering is studied and, all the time, old views are giving place to new. Is there no possibility of discovering or ascertaining, once and for all, we may, ask, what is the true meaning of Isaiah’s beautiful chapter?

There are those who believe that this question can be answered and that it can be answered in the affirmative. The New Testament, they say, has given the answer and has done so in such a way as to make it clear that this unique fifty-third chapter is a very precious prophecy of the átoning death of the Saviour. This witness of the New Testament, however, is unfortunately not accepted by all. And it is for this reason that the scholarly world seems unable, for any length of time, to agree upon any one particular interpretation as being finally correct.

In recent times Dr. J. Philip Hyatt of Vanderbilt University has injected a much-needed note into the discussion of the problem.1 He lays stress upon the importance of the origin of the idea of the suffering Servant. Dr. Hyatt himself believes that the conception of the Servant is shifting and fluid and that the Servant is not to be identified with any single group or individual. In fact, he thinks, the question of precise identification is much less important than the idea which the figure of the Servant embodies.2 This idea is said

to be “boldly original” and may be expressed as the fact that “suffering which is faithfully and willingly borne may be vicariously redemptive”.3 What, therefore, was the source of this idea?

Dr. Hyatt believes that there were four principal sources from which the prophet drew and “which he combined into a new pattern to produce the figure of the Servant and the idea that suffering may be redemptive.”4 These four sources are, 1) “the idea of corporate personality”; 2) “the Hebrew conception of the prophet and his role, together with the actual experiences of individual prophets, particularly Jeremiah”; 3) the ideas which underlay the system of sacrifices in Israel and 4) the wide-spread myth of the dying and rising god.5

As might be expected from so gifted an...

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