John the Baptizer was both a blessing and a problem for gospel Christians.
Accustomed to seeing him as Jesus' precursor, we can't image why anyone had mixed feelings about this heroic prophet. He came to prepare Jesus' way, to make his ministry easier to accomplish. He decreases so Jesus can increase.
By the time the first gospel is created around 70 CE, second generation Christians seem comfortable putting John in this position. Yet when we listen critically to the gospels and mix in some later history, we begin to understand this probably wasn't how the historical John looked at himself.
Several things have to be factored in before we can appreciate what was actually going on with this desert preacher. First, there were still disciples of John several centuries into the Christian era who regard him, not Jesus, as the Messiah. Did these individuals descend from some of John's original followers who were absent on those occasions when he dramatically pointed to Jesus and declared him to be the one whom Israel anticipated would take away its sins?
Second, scholars presume Jesus himself had been a disciple of John. He was both turned on by his approach to Judaism and eventually baptized by him. Originally content to follow him, Jesus agreed with the reform this austere prophet proclaimed. But everything changed when Herod either arrested or killed John. At one of those two points, Jesus stepped in and began his own public ministry.
Third, tensions arose when the disciple became more important for some people than the master. We see this in how the four evangelists chronologically treat John's baptism of Jesus. That action becomes problematic when one day a devotee of John points out to one of Jesus' disciples that normally a superior baptizes an inferior. Gospel to gospel to gospel, Jesus' baptism is emphasized less and eventually disappears. Mark describes it in detail. Matthew precedes it with an argument between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom. Luke refers to the event in just a small participial phrase. John omits it completely. Students of Scripture blame those pesky disciples of John for the de-emphasis.
On one hand, because Jesus had been one of John's disciples, Christians were forced to find a place for him in their faith traditions. On the other hand, they couldn't give him too prominent a place, else they'd jeopardize the place they'd given Jesus.
Yet in spite of this later Christian assessment of John, parts of his actual personality still break through the gospel hype. It's easy to see why Luke first gives him a distinctive annunciation-accompanied birth in his gospel, but then has Paul limit his importance in Acts with the quote, "Behold one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet."
Only by concentrating on our Deutero-Isaiah passage do we glimpse what the historical John must have experienced. Not knowing the place his disciple's followers would eventually assign him, John most probably faced death with the words of his prophetic predecessor running through his head: "I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly spent my strength." He was about to be killed for pushing a reform he feared would die with him.
Though we Christians believe John died peacefully, knowing he'd accomplished his task of preparing Jesus' way, his actual last moments would have strengthened only in the conviction that ". . . my reward is with Yahweh, my recompense is with my God."
Before any of us looks at his or her life as a failure, we should remember that someone eventually will judge our life from a perspective we never noticed while we were living that life.