What Is the Role of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs” in the Book of Mormon?

Four passages in the Book of Isaiah are known as the “servant songs.” They are written in a poetic style, and they collectively describe a servant of God who would save God’s children by suffering for them (“The Servant Songs in Isaiah,” American Bible Society Resources website, “Isaiah’s ‘Other’ Servant Songs,” Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009).

Three of the four servant songs appear in the Book of Mormon. They enhance the testimonies of Nephi, Jacob, and Abinadi that Jesus is the Christ.

The First Song

In the first song, God announces the arrival of His servant. He portrays the servant as a person who will act deliberately, without great fanfare, but who will in the end be successful in righting the wrongs in the world.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged

till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope (Isaiah 42:1-4, NIV)

Matthew recognized a fulfillment of this prophecy in Jesus’s attempts to keep his ministry low-profile and to stay out of the spotlight (Matthew 12:14-21).

This song does not appear in the Book of Mormon.

The Second Song

The second song is in the voice of the servant himself. He announces that he was chosen by God before he was born. He expresses sorrow that he has not been more successful in bringing Israel to God. But God responds that He is pleased with His servant, and He expands the servant’s mission. The servant will not only be a light to Israel, but to the whole world.

Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:

Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.

He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me into a polished arrow
and concealed me in his quiver.

He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”

But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.

Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant

to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,

for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—

he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.

I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:1-6, NIV)

Nephi quoted this song to his brothers after arriving in the promised land (1 Nephi 21:1-6). He must have been able to relate to this description of the Savior, as a person who had fulfilled his duty and earned God’s approval, but whose efforts had not always been well-received by the people around him.

The Third Song

The servant again speaks in the third song, this time emphasizing his meekness and his resoluteness in the face of persecution. He was beaten, spit upon, and mocked, but he faced all of those trials without flinching.

The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
to know the word that sustains the weary.

He wakens me morning by morning,
wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.

The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears;
I have not been rebellious,
I have not turned away.

I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;

I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.

Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame (Isaiah 50:4-7, NIV).

Nephi’s brother Jacob quoted this song as a part of a sermon to the people of Nephi (2 Nephi 7:4-7). Jacob must have identified with this depiction of the Savior, since he himself had been persecuted by his older brothers from a young age (2 Nephi 2:1, Jacob 7:26).

The Fourth Song

The final song connects the suffering of this servant with our salvation. God again introduces the servant, saying that he will be terribly disfigured as he “sprinkles” the nations, a reference to the blood which the high priest sprinkled on the mercy seat in the tabernacle to atone for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:15-16). At the end of the song, God promises to bless this servant because “he bore the sin of many.”

In the middle of the song, the recipients of this gift express sorrow that they failed to recognize what was happening. He didn’t seem spectacular. There was nothing special about his appearance. And he was ridiculed. How could we have known that all of this suffering was for us? God wasn’t punishing him by making him suffer. He was actually fulfilling God’s purposes by choosing to suffer!

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.

Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—

so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?

For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,

though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,

he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 52:13-15, Isaiah 53:1-12, NIV)

The prophet Abinadi quoted part of this song to King Noah and his priests (Mosiah 14). The song was appropriate to the setting: a humble man was preaching to the elite of the city, who thought of him as insignificant and powerless. They called him crazy. They refused to take his message seriously. They would soon put him to death. Abinadi was willing to endure all of that to fulfill the mission God had given him. “I finish my message,” he said, “and then it matters not whither I go, if it so be that I am saved” (Mosiah 13:9).

When Jesus visited the American continent, He quoted the first part of the song, emphasizing the connection between His suffering and the gathering of Israel (3 Nephi 20:43-45). He had lived in a small geographical area near Jerusalem, but His mission would benefit all the nations of the world.

Conclusion

The servant songs of Isaiah make the mission of Jesus Christ personal. Unlike other passages of scripture which describe His Atonement factually, these songs explore what it must have felt like to fulfill His mission. As Nephi, Jacob, and Abinadi quoted from these songs, their own experiences in obeying the voice of God helped them to better understand the Savior and to more fully appreciate the magnitude of His sacrifice on our behalf.

Today, I will remember and be grateful for the Savior’s willingness to atone for the sins of the world. I will remember that He willingly submitted to unfathomable suffering for us. I will also remember that He followed His Father’s will consistently, courageously, and resolutely.

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