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THE WIDER CONTEXT: THE SERVANT SONGS
Chapters 42-53 of the book of Isaiah contain four Servant Songs. The Servant is God’s agent to do God’s work in the world.
• The first song (42:1-4) tells of the call of the Servant to “bring justice to the nations” (42:1).
• This song, the second song (49:1-6), further defines the Servant’s mission. The Servant is “to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel” (49:6a). Furthermore, God says, “I will also give you for a light to the nations, that you may be my salvation to the end of the earth” (49:6b).
• The third song (50:4-9) doesn’t use the word, “servant,” but nevertheless describes the work and tenacious faith of the Servant. God has given the Servant a tongue to teach and encourage the people (50:4). God has given the servant an ear to hear God and to hear the people (50:5). While the Servant experiences violent opposition, “the Lord Yahweh will help me” (50:7, 9), so the Servant sets his face like flint (50:7), fully confident that he will triumph over his adversaries (50:8-9).
• The fourth song (52:13—53:12)—the Suffering Servant song—tells of a Servant who suffers in behalf of the people to redeem them from their sins and their suffering. This Servant “was pierced for our transgressions” and “by his wounds we are healed” (53:5). “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter…, he didn’t open his mouth” (53:7). “They made his grave with the wicked” (53:9), but “My righteous servant will justify many by knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities” (53:11).
In the book of Isaiah, the word servant “not infrequently seems to be derived from court style where the official of the king was known as his servant” (Muilenburg, 464). An official of this sort would exercise considerable power on the king’s authority. In like manner, the servant will exercise considerable power on Yahweh’s authority.
The identity of the servant, who seems to be an individual in some places and a group in others, has been a subject of scholarly debate—with little consensus. Jewish people tend to think of the servant as Israel, and there are a number of references in this book to Yahweh’s servant as Israel (41:8; 49:3), Moses (63:11), David (37:35), Jacob (44:1, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:5), and descendants of Jacob (65:9).
However, the prophet might have an individual in mind—such as Hezekiah, who is mentioned positively in chapters 36-39, or Cyrus, whom Yahweh chose to free Israel from bondage (44:28; 45:1, 13) (see Blenkinsopp, 210, 212; Watts, 660).
However, the prophet might have an individual in mind—such as Hezekiah, who is mentioned positively in chapters 36-39, or Cyrus, whom Yahweh chose to free Israel from bondage (44:28; 45:1, 13) (see Blenkinsopp, 210, 212; Watts, 660). While the Servant Songs do not identify the servant as the messiah, “the historical person who most fulfilled this idea was Jesus… (Matt. 8:17; 12:17-21; Luke 22:37; Acts 8:32-33; Rom. 15:21)” (Myers, 928).
Chapters 54 and 55 continue to flesh out the work of the Servant. They call the people to rejoice, because “the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer” (54:5). They promise that God’s “loving kindness shall not depart from you” (54:10). They invite those who thirst, “Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (55:1). They counsel, “Seek Yahweh while he may be found” (55:6). They promise, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace (55:12).
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
The last specific reference to Yahweh’s servant is in the previous chapter, where the servant is Israel (41:8-9). In that chapter Israel is assured of Yahweh’s help (41:1-20), and Yahweh reveals the futility of idols (41:21-29).
In chapter 42, verses 1-4 introduce the servant, who has been chosen by the Lord and is invested with the Lord’s spirit to “bring justice to the nations” (v. 1). In verses 5-9, Yahweh states the servant’s mission and assures the servant of his support. In verses 10-13, the servant sings a hymn of praise to Yahweh. Then follows a word of judgment on Israel (vv. 16-20), who has been disobedient (vv. 21-25).
ISAIAH 42:1. BEHOLD, MY SERVANT
1“Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; (Hebrew: tamak)
my chosen, in whom my soul delights—
I have put my Spirit (Hebrew: ruah) on him.
He will bring justice (Hebrew: mispat) to the nations (Hebrew: goyim).
“Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (v. 1a). Both the NRSV and NIV leave out the first word of this sentence, which is “Look!” or Behold!” (Hebrew: hen). This word connects this verse with two verses having to do with idols in the previous chapter (where the NRSV and NIV also fail to translate hen). Yahweh said to the idols, “Behold, you are of nothing” (41:24) and to the people, “Behold, all of them, their works are vanity and nothing” (41:29). Now Yahweh says, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” The text thus highlights the contrast between false idols and the true servant (Motyer, 259).
Yahweh reveals three characteristics of the servant.
• First, Yahweh upholds (tamak) the servant. The Hebrew word tamak means to grasp, to hold, or to support. Yahweh holds his servant in an affectionate embrace—supports him—gives him what he needs to succeed in his Godly endeavors.
• Second, Yahweh has chosen the servant, so the servant is responding to Yahweh’s initiative rather acting on his own.
• Third, Yahweh delights in the servant. This servant is not a mere tool in Yahweh’s hands, but is someone who brings joy to Yahweh’s soul or heart (see also Matthew 3:17; 17:5).
Note the correlation between this verse and Matthew 3:17 where, at Jesus’ baptism, “Behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’.”
“I have put my Spirit (ruah) on him” (v. 1b). The servant is not limited to human means to accomplish the mission to which Yahweh has called him. Yahweh has invested him with Yahweh’s ruah—his creative, energizing spirit (Psalm 104:30). The servant is God inspired, God-directed, and God-empowered.
Note the correlation between this verse and Matthew 3:16 where “behold, the heavens were opened to him. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming on him.”
“He will bring justice” (mispat) (v. 1c). Justice (mispat) and righteousness (sadaq) are related. To bring justice means bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
Note the correlation between this verse and Matthew 3:15, where Jesus explained the necessity for his baptism by saying, “Allow it now, for this is the fitting way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
“to the nations” (goyim) (v. 1d). The servant’s responsibility in this instance is to bring justice to the nations (goyim)—Gentiles. Israel takes pride in its covenant status with Yahweh, but Yahweh made it clear from the beginning that the covenant involved blessing “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3) and “all the nations of the earth” (Genesis 18:18). Thus ministry to Gentiles is nothing new, but is rooted in the covenant between God and Abraham that marks the beginnings of the Israelite nation.
The previous chapter revealed the falseness of the idols that the nations are inclined to worship (41:21-29). The servant has the responsibility of helping the nations to find an alternative—justice—a justice that begins with a right relationship with Yahweh.
This emphasis on ministry to the nations is pervasive in the book of Isaiah from beginning to end (2:2, 4; 11:10, 12; 12:4; 42-6; 43:9; 49:6, 22; 55:5; 60:3; 66:18-20). Jesus will continue that emphasis in his own ministry, saying, “This Good News of the Kingdom will be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14)—and “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). It seems significant that these verses are part of the Gospel of Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels. In that Gospel, it is also said of Jesus that “in his name, the nations will hope” (Matthew 12:21).
ISAIAH 42:2-3. HE WILL FAITHFULLY BRING JUSTICE
2He will not shout,
nor raise his voice,
nor cause it to be heard in the street.
3He won’t break a bruised reed.
He won’t quench a dimly burning wick.
He will faithfully bring justice (Hebrew: mispat).
“He will not shout nor raise his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street” (v. 2). Verses 2-3 contrast the manner and purpose of the servant with the manner and purpose of more traditional holders of power. The first contrast is that the servant will not make an ostentatious display to gain a hearing. No trumpets will precede his coming, and his work will not involve bombast or pretentiousness. He will go about his work quietly, knowing that his work is God-powered and that God can be trusted to bring about the desired results.
“He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a dimly burning wick” (v. 3a). This is the second contrast between the servant and more traditional holders of power. Typically, the latter covet power and use it unstintingly to maintain power, often trampling vulnerable people—the poor, the weak, and the disenfranchised.
In this verse, the “bruised reed” and the “dimly burning wick” are metaphors for people who are vulnerable. These would have been powerful metaphors to people familiar with bruised (damaged—easily broken) reeds and dimly burning wicks (starved for air—dying). While we are less familiar with bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks today, we are familiar with the reality to which they point—vulnerable people, hungry people, homeless people, victims of persecution or ethnic cleansing, and those who are helpless in the face of powerful individuals, corporations, or political entities. Unlike traditional holders of power, the servant will not touch the bruised reed to break it or the dimly burning wick to extinguish it. He will demonstrate great sensitivity to the less fortunate members of society. Jesus modeled this kind of sensitivity as he went about touching the untouchable, healing the sick, and bringing hope to the hopeless. The church, in its better moments, emulates his example.
“he will faithfully bring justice” (mispat) (v. 3b). Once again we hear Yahweh’s concern for mispat—the kind of right relationships that come about when we obey Yahweh’s will—the kind of right relationships that come about when we bring forth justice for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.
ISAIAH 42:4. HE WILL NOT FAIL NOR BE DISCOURAGED
4He will not fail nor be discouraged,
until he has set (Hebrew: sim) justice (Hebrew: mispat) in the earth,
and the islands (Hebrew: ‘iy) will wait for his law (Hebrew: torah).
“He will not grow faint nor be discouraged” (v. 4a). The servant will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick, but neither will he be broken or quenched. His sensitivity and kindness manifest not weakness, but strength. The servant has the power to persist, and persist he will. His work will not be easy, but he will not allow obstacles to stop him from accomplishing what he has come to do.
“until he has set (sim) justice (mispat) in the earth” (v. 4b). For the third time in four verses, we hear this word mispat. Yahweh repeats it again and again so that we cannot miss its importance. Justice is the servant’s mission—and we can assume that it is the mission of every servant of God—every disciple of Jesus.
The servant will not simply seek justice or work toward it. He will establish (sim) it—bring it about—make it happen. That will not be painless, because the servant “is like a refiner’s fire, and like launderer’s soap; 3:3 and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer to Yahweh offerings in righteousness” (Malachi 3:2-3). The refiner’s fire burns hot, and most of us would prefer to avoid it. But the refiner’s fire burns away impurities to make us righteous before the Lord. We might liken the refiner’s fire to a surgeon’s scalpel, which inflicts pain but also gives life.
“and the islands (‘iy) will wait for his law” (torah) (v. 4c). The traditional interpretation of “islands” or “islands” (or “coastlands” in the NRSV) is Gentiles—especially those who live in or near Israel. Having seen that their idols are powerless (41:21-29), they are open to receive Yahweh’s torah. They will welcome Yahweh’s teaching.
ISAIAH 42:5. THUS SAYS GOD YAHWEH
5Thus says God (Hebrew: ha-el—the God) Yahweh,
he who created the heavens and stretched them out,
he who spread out the earth and that which comes out of it,
he who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk in it.
“Thus says God (ha-el—the God), Yahweh“ (v. 5a). “El” by itself is a generic word for god, and can be applied to any god. However, “ha-el” means “the God,” and in Hebrew scripture refers to the one true God. The author further spells this out by adding “YHWH” or Yahweh, which comes from a form of the Hebrew verb “to be” that means “I AM WHO I AM.” This is the word that God used to identify himself to Moses. When Moses asked God his name, God replied, YHWH or “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). In deference to the holiness of God’s name, the Jewish people often refuse to say YHWH, but instead say “Adonai,” which means “My Lord.”
“he who created the heavens and stretched them out, he who spread out the earth and that which comes out of it, he who gives breath to its people and spirit to those who walk in it” (v. 5b). These are the events spoken of in Genesis 1 and are related in the Genesis order. Yahweh is the God who created all that is, including all living beings. This creative prowess stands in direct contrast to idols who “are of nothing, and (their) work is of nothing” (41:24)—whose “works are vanity and nothing (and whose) molten images are wind and confusion” (41:29).
ISAIAH 42:6-7. I, YAHWEH, HAVE CALLED YOU IN RIGHTEOUSNESS
6 I, Yahweh, have called (Hebrew: qara) you in righteousness (Hebrew: sadaq),
and will hold your hand, and will keep you,
and make you a covenant for the people, as a light for the nations;
7to open the blind eyes,
to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon,
and those who sit in darkness out of the prison.
“I, Yahweh” (v. 6a). Verse 5 specified that the one who is speaking is Yahweh, but Yahweh deems it important to speak his name once again.
“have called (qara) you”(v. 6b). “Called” (qara) as it is used here has to do with a call to service. Earlier God called Moses (Exodus 3:4-10)—and Israel (Exodus 19)—and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-14). Here God speaks of the historic call of servant Jacob-Israel (Oswalt, 116; Motyer, 260; Goldingay, 241; Seitz, 364).
“in righteousness”(sadaq) (v. 6c). As noted above, justice (mispat) and righteousness (sadaq) are closely related. While both involve right behavior, this right behavior is a natural outgrown of right relationship with God, who is the ultimate righteous one. In the case of Israel, righteousness grows naturally out of the covenant relationship that exists between Yahweh and Israel, and involves the establishment of justice.
“and will hold your hand, and will keep you” (v. 6d). Yahweh has not sent servant Israel to do its work with no guidance, but has been present with it in a very personal way, has led it through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, and has given it the Torah—the Law—to guide it in very specific ways. Yahweh has provided food and water during Israel’s wilderness journey, and has given it the victory over many enemies. Even when Israel has been defeated and taken into exile, its suffering is at least as much redemptive as punitive.
“and make you a covenant for the people, as a light to the nations” (v. 6e). The covenant status of Israel began with the covenant established by God with Abraham. In establishing that covenant, God promised Abraham, “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:2-3).
While Israel tends to think of its covenant relationship with God as one of privilege, Yahweh did not call it to privilege but to service. Israel is to be a light to the nations—the goyim—Gentiles.
Yahweh promises to make the servant “a covenant for the people”—”a light to the nations.” The servant thus becomes an instrument through which Yahweh dispenses grace. The overtones here are messianic.
“to open the blind eyes, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of the prison” (v. 7). This is spiritual rather than physical blindness and captivity. This is made clear by 42:16ff, where the blind are equated to “those who trust in engraved images” (v. 17) and people “snared in holes, and… hidden in prisons” (v. 22). God has not created us to be blind, but seeing. He has not created us to live in darkness, but in light. He has not created us to live in captivity, but in freedom—the kind of freedom that can result only from rightly placed faith and righteous living.
ISAIAH 42:8-9. I DECLARE NEW THINGS
8I am Yahweh.
That is my name.
I will not give my glory (Hebrew: kabod) to another,
nor my praise to engraved images.
9Behold, the former things have happened,
and I declare new things.
I tell you about them before they come up.
“I am Yahweh. That is my name” (v. 8a). Once again, God states his name, the great “I AM,” giving authority to what is being said.
“I will not give my glory (kabod) no another” (v. 8b). God’s kabod is the glory of his magnificent presence—a glory so overwhelming that mortals cannot view it and live (Exodus 33:18-20)—a glory so magnificent that Moses had to wear a veil to shield his shining face after being exposed to God’s glory on the mountain (Exodus 35:29-35). Nobody can view God’s glory, and nobody (especially not idols) can share it.
“nor my praise to engraved images” (v. 8c). This mention of idols takes us back to the previous chapter, where Yahweh challenged idols to prove themselves (41:21-29). Yahweh concluded that section by saying, “Behold, all of them, their works are vanity and nothing. Their molten images are wind and confusion” (41:29).
“Behold, the former things have happened” (v. 9a). In the past, Yahweh spoke of things that would come to pass—and they did come to pass. Yahweh’s word is powerful and reliable.
“and I declare new things. I tell you about them before they come up” (v. 9b). When Yahweh challenged the idols in the previous chapter, he said, “Let them announce, and declare to us what shall happen. Declare the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, and know the latter end of them; or show us things to come” (Isaiah 41:22). Now Yahweh says that he will do what the idols could not do—tell of new things “before they come up.”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan