The Servant of the Lord and His Servant People (New Studies in Biblical Theology #54), Matthew S. Harmon. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.
Summary: A study of the application of the term “servant” to a number of key figures in scripture culminating in Jesus, and the way these were used by God to form a servant people.
In most contexts the idea of servitude at very least is an undesirable state, and, if involuntary, a breach of human rights. Yet one of the curious themes in scripture underscored by this book, is the idea of being a “servant of the Lord.” Matthew S. Harmon notes the cultural overtones, but also addresses the dignity of those who serve the Lord.
This work centers on key figures who “serve the Lord” through scripture: Adam, Moses, Joshua, David, the servant of Isaiah, Jesus, and the apostles. There is another group as well. Throughout scripture, it becomes clear that God is out to form a servant people–first Israel and then the church. Harmon devotes a chapter to each of these key people or groups of people.
We begin with Adam the servant of the Lord who rules over all creation and is the priest and guard of God’s garden-temple. Adam fails in his task, but in his descendants God continues to call servants–Noah, Abraham, and the patriarchs through whom God begins to form a people. Then Moses becomes the servant of God, a kind of prophet, priest, and king. Harmon traces the language of “servant” relative to Moses through the Torah and the Prophets and Writings. Then Joshua follows as the faithful servant who does what Moses commands, through whom God works similar acts, and who calls Israel as a people to serve the Lord at the end of his life.
Yet when the generation who led with Joshua dies, Israel turns to serve other gods, and are given over by God as prey for the surrounding nations. They want a king. Saul fails to serve God wholeheartedly and David is anointed and becomes the next servant of the Lord. He is not only the king through whom God gives Israel rest in the land from their enemies, but priest who prepares for the construction of the temple, and prophet who wrote songs to God. One of the songs is about David’s greater son. Solomon starts out well but is drawn off to other gods, as are most of his successors. Israel and Israel’s kings have failed at their servant calling. Isaiah writes about this failure and about the servant who will fulfill the service in which Israel fail, suffering for the sins of the people as he does so.
And so we come to Jesus, the culmination toward which all the other servants looked. One of the distinctive aspects of Harmon’s treatment is that he shows how Jesus fulfills what the other servants anticipate. He reverses Adam’s failure in his victory over Satan in the wilderness. He is the prophet greater than Moses, the Joshua who brings his people into eschatological rest. He is the Davidic king whose rule never ends. His whole history from his exile in Egypt on recapitulates Israel’s story. He is the servant whose death and resurrection save his people–all people.
The final two chapters focus on groups. First there are the apostles who speak of themselves as servants of the Lord, even his two brothers, James and Jude. He traces this through the letters they wrote. But there is another group, and we are part of it. The church is portrayed as the servant people of God. It is a people who follow Jesus in his sufferings, but also fulfill the Adamic call to reflect the character of God to all things.
In his conclusion, Harmon considers the implications of this call to be a servant people. It is a call to a new freedom from the tyranny to self, sin and Satan. It is a call to be shaped in a community in the form of love that serves each other, washing each others’ feet. It is a call to be a light to the surrounding world, that others would find their way into this community as we did through repentance and faith. Finally, it is a call to become servant leaders, exercising the kind of kingship of the king who stoops to serve and even die.
This monograph cannot help challenge the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence, the celebrity culture, and the obsession with political influence and access at the expense of humble service. It indicates how little the Servant of the Lord captures our imagination and our allegiance. What may be equally challenging to think about is why we hear so little of this overarching biblical theme from the pulpits of many of our churches. It may be that we are working off the wrong script.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.