Opening The Old Testament
Baptism of the Lord: Reflections on Isaiah 42:1-9
But Isaiah's servant songs must have given the exiles some pause in their jubilation. Though he called Cyrus YHWH's messiah, his picture of the servant of YHWH is about as far from Cyrus as could be imagined. The initial task of this servant is "to bring forth justice to the nations" (42:1). There is hardly anything new in that; the prophets of Israel had been saying for centuries that YHWH is in the business of creating justice for the nations. Amos, I-Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah among all the rest had warned both Israel and later Judah that YHWH was primarily interested in the ways the chosen nation did or did not pursue the ways of justice for all people.
What is new for II-Isaiah is the apparent ways in which this servant will go about the doing of justice. "He will not cry (out) or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street" (42:2). First, this servant will be unnoticed in his work, unobtrusive, nearly silent. Here is no Cyrus, leading his armies to victory, parading about with a great retinue of cupbearers, slaves, spear-carriers, chariot drivers. Here is a silent witness for justice. Power will not be his way: "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench." Still, do not be surprised or amazed at this easily overlooked servant, nor underestimate him; "he will faithfully bring forth justice" (42:3).
Neither shall he give up even in the face of concerted opposition: "he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth and the coastlands wait for his teaching (Torah)" (42:4). Isaiah goes on to concretize what he means about the servant's quest for justice. He will "open the eyes that are blind"; he will "bring out the prisoners from the dungeon" (42:7). These two acts, among several others, are described regularly as actions mandated by YHWH for all those who would follow this God (see Is. 35:5-6; 61:1-3 and many other texts). So again, what the servant of YHWH will do is what we would expect a follower of YHWH to do. But the ways in which he will do it are quite unique.
That uniqueness is made especially clear in the astonishing fourth servant song where the servant is now described as one who has "borne our infirmities and carried our diseases," who "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities" (53:4-5). Note the repetition of the word "crushed" in 42:4 and 53:5. The silent yet relentless servant will stop at absolutely nothing to bring justice to the nations. But justice will come, says Isaiah, only when the servant gives himself for his people. It is no wonder at all that early Christians read these words and found in them a true picture of the one who had died on the Jerusalem cross.
But back to Isaiah. Perhaps the question to ask is not: Who is the servant of YHWH? It might be the prophet himself, or some unnamed exile, or some wandering wise man. We will never know. But what Isaiah had in mind for the servant was surely nearly unprecedented. This servant will bring justice; make no mistake about that. But he will do so quietly, mysteriously, and finally by self-offering for all. Such a radical idea! For us Christians it has become the most radical and crucial idea in all the world.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.