Harmon, Matthew S. The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People: Tracing a Biblical Theme Through the Canon. NSBT 54; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2021. 262 pp. Pb; $27. Link to IVP Academic
Matthew Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) serves as professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He recently contributed Rebels and Exiles: A Biblical Theology of Sin and Restoration in the ESBT series (IVP Academic 2020) and a recent Galatians commentary (Lexham 2021). This new monograph traces the theme of the servant of the Lord through four key figures in the Old Testament and Isaiah’s suffering servant, all of which point towards Jesus as the ultimate Servant of the Lord.
After a short introductory chapter, Harmon surveys for examples of individuals identified as a servant of the Lord in the Old Testament: Adam, Moses, Joshua, and David. Adam was the image bearer in the garden who served as a priest in Eden, a temple sanctuary for the Lord. Moses served in both royal and priestly roles with a focus on the prophetic fulfillment of God’s purposes. Joshua seems like an unlikely addition to the list, but Harmon argues he is a priestly character who mediates God’s presence to the nations and intercedes on behalf of the God’s people. David is called a servant king (1 Samuel 23:10-12) and the Davidic covenant calls David a servant ten times. Since much of the evidence for David as a servant of the Lord comes from the psalms, Harmon refers to him as the singing servant” based on Psalm 89.
After surveying these four examples, Harmon turns to a discussion of the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah (chapter six). In the four examples surveyed in the first part of the book, the servant of the Lord ultimately fails in that role. The Lord’s response is to raise up a new servant who will succeed as the light to the gentiles (141). Although he briefly detects a few instances of servant language in Isaiah 1-39, his focus is on the servant in Isaiah 40-66, and specifically Isaiah 40-54. The question has always been: who is the suffering servant in Isaiah? Sometimes, it is Israel as the servant nation of Israel (42:1-9). In other examples, the suffering servant is an individual (49:1-13). The servant in Isaiah 53 experiences the curses that came from Adam’s failure in the garden. This song also looks forward to restoration and blessing after the servant has offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of his people. He sees a hint of the resurrection. After the servant’s self-sacrifice, he will “see his seed.”
In Chapter 7, Harmon discusses Jesus as the servant of the Lord par excellence. The New Testament uses Isaiah’s servant language and often applies it directly to Jesus. Harmon begins with Philippians 2:5-11, perhaps the earliest use of servant language to describe Jesus. Into the Christ hymn, servant language focuses on the obedience and humility of the servant as he lays down his life. But Philippians also describes the exaltation of the servant as God vindicates him in the resurrection. Harmon detects about a dozen keywords and phrases found in Philippians 2: 5-11 that draw on Isaiah’s servant songs. He then surveys the gospels and finds allusions to the servant songs in the birth, early childhood, baptism, and ministry of Jesus. These allusions are more intense in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When the apostles preach the gospel on the day of Pentecost, they identified Jesus with the Isaiah’s suffering servant (Acts 3:13, for example).
For Harmon, Jesus is the fulfillment of the previous servants. Adam, Moses, Joshua, and David in some ways served as prophet, priest, or king, and he failed in that role. He concludes, “there should be no doubt that the New Testament presents Jesus as the servant of the Lord par excellence” (178). In fact, the New Testament presents the totality of Jesus’s identity as fulfilling the role of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord. Harmon refers Adam as a servant, but also as a prophet priest and king. Likewise, both Moses and David are royal servants who also served in priestly and prophetic roles. To a large extent, servant language was common for prophets, priests and kings in the ancient world, opening the door for the connection to Jesus as “prophet, priest, and king,” similar to Ben Gladd, From Adam and Israel to the Church (IVP Academic, 2019).
The final two chapters of the book discuss the apostles as servants of Christ, highlighting self-designations as “servant” in the epistles. The work of Jesus as the servant par excellence would produce a servant people (201). In Luke 2: 46-49 and Acts 1:8, Jesus transfers his mission as the servant to his people. Much of this material detects allusions to Isaiah’s suffering servant in the New Testament, but sometimes it is not clear that there is, in fact, an allusion. This is the problem with any sort of intertextual study. Once you look for servant language, you find it everywhere. Nevertheless, Harmon demonstrates Jesus as the Lord’s servant becomes a template for how the church ought to serve in the world today.
The book does not have much on slavery or servanthood in the ancient world. There are many other studies discussing of slavery for New Testament studies (which Harmon acknowledges). Perhaps some background on servant language in the Ancient Near east would be helpful since more than half of the book concerns the image of a servant in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, this rich background material is outside the goals of the book.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.