Opening The Old Testament
The Very Definition of a Servant: Reflections on Isaiah 42:1-9
And such justice-bringing is made plain in Isaiah 42:6-7, when the prophet sings that the servant will "be strengthened and will be offered to the people as a covenant, a light to the nations to open blind eyes, to free prisoners from their dungeons, those imprisoned in darkness." The early Christian believers surely remembered this song when they recalled Jesus' first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, how he read from the scroll of Isaiah 61, a place in the text that reiterates this call for the healing of the blind, the opening of deaf ears, and the freeing of prisoners (see Luke 4). Of course, they knew of the stories of Jesus' ministry when he in fact cured the deaf and blind. Yet, when Isaiah announces that the servant of YHWH will be a light for the blind, he surely means that the blindness of injustice, an injustice that leads to the imprisonment of so many in darkness, will at last be illuminated and removed in order that the world may live at last in the light of justice, as much as he may mean that actual blind persons will regain their sight due to the work of the servant.
But the second question needs an answer, too; just how is the servant to bring this justice to the earth? Here the answer is a surprising one, yet a very famous one for all its surprise. "He will not shout out or raise his voice, demanding to be heard in public. A damaged reed he will not break, nor a dimming fire he will not extinguish," yet, "he will not faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth and the farthest reaches of the earth wait for his Torah" (Is. 42:3-4). This servant will work to bring justice inexorably, certainly, assuredly, without fail, but he will do it quietly, unobtrusively, unassumingly. We will hardly know that he is at work at all! That old and finally nasty cliché, "You can't make omelets without breaking eggs," simply does not apply to the servant of YHWH. Justice will come, but it will come in ways that we rarely can know or appreciate.
I am again reminded of that oft-repeated line from Martin Luther King, Jr: "The arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice." This may be the very essence of the work of the servant of YHWH, whoever he or she may finally be identified to be. Justice will come, but you and I may not see or even at times experience its coming. Who better than MLK could appreciate that fact, suffering death in the very beginning of the search and struggle for justice himself. Of course, MLK was a very public figure, quite unlike the servant of YHWH in that regard. Yet, no one would deny that his work was for justice, not just for African-Americans, but for all those who are denied justice in life.
I find great hope in Isaiah's words. The work of justice is not only for the famous, the public, the notorious on the covers of magazines and talking on the TV. The work of justice is all of our work, however small the act, however little known the deed. Matthew 25 springs to mind: "As much as you have done it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me." Acts of justice come in all shapes and sizes, but each one is as significant as the next. "Look! The former things have passed, and new things I now declare" (Is. 42:9). The former absence of justice has now been forgiven by YHWH, but the new demands for justice have again been issued. That work of justice awaits us all.
Note: Let me remind you again, my readers, of the cruise I will lead in September around the Baltic Sea, from Copenhagen to Berlin to Tallinn to St. Petersburg to Helsinki to Stockholm and back to Copenhagen. The dates are September 3-13. Go to eo.travel for full information. I would love to meet you there. I will lecture on the book of Job.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.