Opening The Old Testament
The Very Definition of a Servant: Reflections on Isaiah 42:1-9
Baptism of the Lord
First Sunday after Epiphany
January 12, 2014
Let's begin by being honest: we hardly have a clue about what happened to the infant Jesus in his tiny village of Nazareth. The church has made all manner of commemorations of events it can know nothing about. Yet, it is not altogether unfitting that we should celebrate the baptism of Jesus as a way of reminding ourselves that he was a human baby after all, and that he may have participated in rituals that we still celebrate today.
However, with the help of Isaiah we can radically deepen our appreciation and understanding of what this baby will do in his life. Or perhaps better and more accurately stated, what his later followers understood that he had done in his life, because according to the prophet of Israel's exile, writing over five hundred years prior to Jesus' birth, Israel needed a servant in order to do the work of YHWH on the earth. Now, exactly who the servant is (Is. 40:1) has been the source of vast scholarly effort. I hardly have time to dip our toes into this vast academic ocean, but let me summarize my appropriation of this work by saying that I think Isaiah's servant is either Israel itself or some smaller portion of the nation. After all, in Isaiah 49:3, the second of the so-called "Servant Songs" of the prophet, he directly names the servant "Israel."
But perhaps the far more important question for us, well beyond that of the identity of the servant, is what the servant is called to do for the exilic people and just how he is called to do it. It is from the answers to those two questions that the early Christian community derived much of its convictions about the call and work of the one they came to call the Christ.
Even a cursory reading of the first few verses of Isaiah 42 makes it crystal clear that the main work of this servant will center on justice. Three times in the first four verses, the word "justice" rings out from Isaiah's poetry. The servant will "bring forth justice" in 42:1; he will "faithfully bring forth justice" in 42:3; he will "establish justice in the earth" in 42:4. This famous Hebrew word, mishpat, is nothing less than a hallmark of the prophets of Israel. All the four writing prophets of the 8th century B.C.E.—Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah—use this word at prominent places in their oracles. Perhaps most famously, Amos 5 describes with gleaming metaphor the need for justice to "roll down like waters," claiming that an evil Israel needs nothing less than a purifying deluge of justice if it is ever to become at last the nation that YHWH first intended it to be. Likewise, this later Isaiah predicts that the unnamed servant of YHWH will make it his primary business to bring forth and establish justice in the earth.
Justice is the chief sign of a nation blessed by YHWH. In such a nation all people have equal access to the goods and services of that place; all people know inherently that their primary responsibility and goal is the welfare, the shalom, of all and each of their neighbors; all people of such a nation know that when any member suffers, all suffer, too. When the early Christians identified Jesus with Isaiah's servant, they implied, whether they knew it or not, that Jesus' primary goal in his earthly ministry was to bring justice to the nations and to root it deeply into the soil of the world.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.