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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Isaiah 42 — Introducing the Servant and His Work

Isaiah 42:1-4  “Here is my servant, whom I will uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;  I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.  3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

In this passage, God introduces his servant. The passage breathes a spirit of pride. One is reminded of the several times in the gospels, when God's voice from heaven says of Jesus at his baptism by John
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17),
and later at his transfiguration
"This is my Son, my chosen One, listen to him!" (Luke 9:34-36). 
The Luke example contains the words "my chosen one", like this passage in Isaiah 42. But the first example, coming at the inauguration of Jesus' ministry (his baptism) suggests that the gospel writers were deliberately associating the voice with this "introduction" of the Servant in Isaiah 42.

Still, not all Jewish scholars at the time of Jesus thought this passage referred to the messiah. In fact, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which was based on a version of the Hebrew text that differed from our present standard Hebrew text (called the Masoretic Text), translated verse 1 as
"Jacob, my servant—I will uphold him. Israel, my chosen one—my soul has accepted him."
Remember how in chapter 41 (vv. 8-16) Israel is already called
"But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend",
and this will occur twice more in later chapters: 44:1; 45:4. There can be no question that in this second half of Isaiah Israel is repeatedly portrayed as the Servant of Yahweh.

The Christian understanding of this situation is that Israel indeed was God's servant, and when he was ready to restore her to her land from exile, God was encouraging her with promises of support and success. But in time Israel refused to fulfill the role of God's servant as he had intended, just as she had done before the Exile. And then the Israel within Israel, in the form of the messiah Jesus, assumed not only the role originally assigned to Israel, but even more—namely the role of the one who would save Israel herself and the world's nations.

Look at all the things the Servant was intended to do here. In a sense, they were do-able by the nation Israel, if she was faithful. Empowered by God's holy Spirit, believing Israelites could teach the nations true justice and righteousness (v. 1); they could establish justice in the earth (v. 4), and teach the remotest coastlands God's word.

This was a mission that had been implicit in God's first promise to Abraham: that through his offspring (his "seed") all nations of the world would be blessed (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). As Christians, looking at things in retrospect, we can see how Israel failed to fulfill her mission and stumbled at the crucial moment when her messiah appeared to make it possible for her to bless the nations. If we believe St. Paul in Romans 11, Israel still has a glorious future, when at the Second Coming of Jesus the veil of blindness will be lifted from her eyes, and a nationwide turning to Christ will make it possible for her to fulfill what God intended for her all along.

But as Christians we also see that until the Second Coming of Jesus the mission of Israel falls upon us as the wild olive branches grafted into the stock of Israel (again Paul's metaphor in Romans 11:17, 24). Empowered by God's holy Spirit and indwelt by the messiah himself, we can and should be about the mission described here. And the words of encouragement spoken first to Israel in Babylonia has a real application to us as well. God will uphold us. We are chosen in Christ. God delights in us and has put his Spirit on and in us.

Israel would fulfill her mission not by military conquest—not breaking a fragile reed or snuffing out a smoldering wick—or by shouting down the opposition, but by the patient teaching of God's word. The world still waits for his teaching (v. 4). We must not "grow faint or be crushed" (v. 4) until the mission is fulfilled. There is much in world, national, and inner-church developments today that can make us faint. To "faint" means to surrender, to give up. The Servant Israel was not meant to do so. The messiah Jesus did not do so. And we must not lose heart. God will not fail to keep his promise to uphold his chosen ones.
Isaiah 42:5-12 These are the words of Yahweh who is God, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who fashioned the earth and everything that grows in it, giving breath to its people and life to those who walk on it: 6 I Yahweh have called you with righteous purpose and taken you by the hand; I have formed you, and destined you to be a covenant for the people [of Israel], and a lamp for nations, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to bring captives out of prison, out of the dungeon where they lie in darkness. 8 I am Yahweh; Yahweh is my name; I shall not yield my glory to another god, nor my praise to any idol. 9 The earlier prophecies have come to pass, and now I declare new things; before they unfold, I announce them to you. Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. 11 Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the tops of the mountains. 12 Let them give glory to Yahweh, and declare his praise in the coastlands. 
In the preceding section the Servant was introduced to the world. In this section God addresses the Servant and reminds him of the resources he has to perform the mission assigned to him.

First and foremost is the God who has chosen and called him (v. 5). Is this God like the Babylonian deities? Is he limited in any way in his roles or ability? No! He is the only God. He is the Creator of all that is. He has created the "heavens and the earth", i.e., the whole universe. He has given life to all who dwell on earth. The Servant's resources are those of this God, and they are limitless.

In v. 6 we learn that the Servant's purpose is a "righteous" one. It is not a selfish, power-grabbing one, like the military missions of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings whose gods promised them victory. Israel's mission is peaceful and just, and her victory will be a blessing to the nations, not a future of enslavement and taxation. This righteous purpose to be achieved by the Servant is explained as twofold: to be (1) a covenant for the people of Israel, and (2) a lamp to the nations.

The first part of this dual mission suggests already that the Servant is not seen as the entire nation of Israel, but the faithful remnant, and eventually the epitome of that faithful Israel, the messiah himself. Jesus not only is the Savior of the world, but he is the basis of God's covenant with Israel and its guarantor. That covenant stills tands today, but Israel can enter into its benefits only through her messiah, Jesus. If we as a church are to fulfill our role as the messiah's representatives on earth and fulfill this mission, we must have the same twofold vision that St. Paul had: (1) to reach out to Jews with the message that Yeshua the messiah is not just for Gentiles, but is first and foremost sent to Israel to confirm the covenant blessings to them. And secondly (2) to reach out to all nations on earth with the good news that Israel's messiah is also the world's Savior. If we neglect the second, we become the Judaizers Paul fought in Galatia. If we neglect the first, we become the Jew-haters in the Roman church, whom Paul fought tooth and nail in the epistle to the Romans. A good friend of mine who is African-American and a believer once asked me if it was true that Jesus was Black. I told him, "No, and neither was he a white European or American. He was Jewish." I like the bumper sticker that says "My boss is a Jewish carpenter." For that is what Jesus was. His universal appeal has nothing to do with his skin color or race. It derives from his character and his loving sacrifice. He was and is—the Servant of Yahweh. The pedigree of a servant is his record of service, not his skin color or race.

Isaiah 42:13-17  Yahweh will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies.  14 “For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.  15 I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands and dry up the pools.   16 I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. 17 But those who trust in idols, who say to images, ‘You are our gods,’ will be turned back in utter shame.
The mission of the Servant was described as peaceful, not even snuffing our a smoldering wick! But now Yahweh embarks on a mission of war. The warlike aspect is described in vv. 13-15. God's fury against his enemies, even affecting the mountains, hills and vegetation, springs from an intense pain that he feels, so intense that it is described as a woman's pains in childbirth. Who are God's enemies? God's enemies are the forces of sin and of unbelief. Primarily, they are the demonic forces that dogged the steps of Jesus on earth. But they show themselves in human actions. The "principalities and powers" Paul described in his letters are demonic forces, which however show themselves in human leaders. And as he tells us in Ephesians, they can only be fought with the weapons of the Holy Spirit: with faith, the Word of God, and prayer.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints (Ephesians 6:10-19 NIV)

Isaiah 42:18-25  “Hear, you deaf people; look, you blind folks, and see!  19 Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of Yahweh? 20 You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.” 21 It pleased Yahweh for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious.  22 But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made loot, with no one to say, “Send them back.” 23 Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come?  24 Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not Yahweh, against whom we have sinned?  For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. 25 So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.

How confusing it seems on the surface, that God through Isaiah keeps switching between a picture of a servant who is faithful, just, patient, obedient, and will be successful in his mission—and a picture of a servant who is blind to what is happening all around him. But the confusion is a superficial one. On the historical level, the exiles who believed in Yahweh are in view. Their mission will be successful, although it will not find its ultimate fulfillment until the messiah comes. They are the Mordecai's, the Esthers, the Zerubbabel's, the Ezra's and the Nehemiah's. But initially, as they were languishing in Babylonia, they did not see what already is beginning to unfold around them. They may have heard rumors of a conqueror named Cyrus to the east of Babylonia. They heard the rumors, but were deaf to its significance. They were blind to Yahweh's plans to use this conqueror to release them from their exile and allow them to return to Israel. The exile was caused by the disobedience of their pre-exilic ancestors (vv. 23-25). Painful as it has been, it should encourage Israel's faithful ones, because it shows that Yahweh cares about his law, and is in control of world events. By this exile "It pleased the LORD for the sake of his righteousness to make his law great and glorious" (v. 21).

But Israel, Yahweh's Servant, will not remain blind or deaf. Through Yahweh's message to her in exile through Israel she will come to realize that he is working through Cyrus to set her free, and allow her to return to her land with a new mission of righteousness, which will confirm the covenant with Israel and let her be a lamp to the nations of the world.

In retrospect, we know that this mission, begun gloriously, led to the reestablishment of God's people in their land, not as an independent state with a king of her own, but as a client state under the rule of a succession of empires: Persian, Hellenistic Greek, and Roman. Through the post-exilic prophets like Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and eventually through figures like John the Baptist, she was a lamp to the nations. Ultimately, the mission shattered when the majority of the nation failed to accept Jesus as their messiah. But the prophecies of Isaiah nevertheless found their fulfillment in Jesus, and they continue to do so today in those united to Jesus by faith. The mission goes on. And the Servant must remain true and faithful. That means you and me.