Opening The Old Testament
The Bible's Lynchpin: Lectionary Reflections on Isaiah 49:1-7
Then the newborn servant is "hidden in the shadow of YHWH's hand," hidden in YHWH's "quiver" like a highly polished arrow (Is. 49:2). Unlike the first song of Isaiah 42 where the servant was said to not "lift his voice in the streets," the servant here is primarily a speaker of sharp words. Yet, like the first song the servant is not easily seen or perceived or heard, since he/she is hidden.
In verse 3 the servant is directly named as Israel (Is. 49:3): "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." This identification has caused an ocean of commentary. If Israel is the servant, then how can the servant lift up the fortunes of that same Israel? Perhaps by "Israel" the poet means a remnant of Israel, the exiles from Babylon or those who have maintained traditional faith throughout the horrors of exile or even one heroic individual who lives the will and work of YHWH on behalf of the people of Israel and of the whole world? The speculations have no end.
Still, as we saw in our discussion of the servant in Isaiah 42 last week, the specific identity of the servant is less significant than the work of the servant. Isaiah 49:5-6 makes that fact clear. "And now, says YHWH, the one who shaped me in the womb to be God's servant, to bring Jacob back to God, to gather Israel to God, because I am honored in the sight of YHWH, for God is my strength..." The servant at this point is convinced that the work to which he/she is called is the typical one as often outlined in the post-exilic literature of Israel. The chief task is to return the exiles to the Promised Land of God. Isaiah himself paints the famous pictures of Israel streaming back to Zion from the various places of their exile (see Is. 2 as perhaps the most familiar example). When the exiles return to Jerusalem, the glory of God will be revealed and all flesh will see it together, as Isaiah 40 says it.
But now comes the more expansive work that God has for the servant. "It is too trivial a thing that you should be my servant (merely) to lift up the tribes of Jacob, to restore the fortunes of Israel" (Is. 49:6a). It is too small a task to speak the word of truth and power only to those you have known and loved and whom you recognize as people like yourself in order that you might create again the community you had before the calamity of exile. No, says YHWH! That is simply too trivial in the grand scheme of my desire for the world. "I offer you as a light to the nations in order that my saving work may reach to the very ends of the earth" (Is. 49:6b).
And there you have it, the full task of the servant of YHWH, nothing less than a beacon light for the whole world in order that all may see and experience the saving of God. It is that expansive witness that the early Christians saw fulfilled in the ministry of the one they called the Christ, the anointed one of God. The servant Jesus called his followers to attend to all, not just to some, not just to those they knew and loved and recognized as "one of them." And so he calls us to embrace the world, all of it, in order that all may have the salvation, the "making whole" of God, for them as for us.
I am not a sociologist, examining practical ways to address the diversity of our cities and towns and villages. But I can see, I think, the call of the servant to extend the saving work of God to the nations, to the whole earth. How are we light to that vast company? On Isaiah 49:6 rests the Bible's central claim that no one may be excluded from the salvation of our God. And our task is to continue to make that inclusion real in every place and time.
Author's Note: Here is another reminder of the cruise of the Baltic on September 3-13 during which I will lecture on the book of Job. We will see some of the world's great cities as well as experience some great natural beauty. I hope you can come. See eo.travel for full particulars.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.