Baptism of the Lord: Reflections on Isaiah 42:1-9

Lectionary Reflections: Year A
January 7-13
Isaiah 42:1-9

This is among the most famous passages from that consummate poet, II-Isaiah, prophet of the Judean exile in Babylon. It is the first of the so-called "Servant Songs," a series of four poems (see also 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) written to announce the coming and work of a servant of the Lord whom Isaiah believes is already present among the people in exile or who may be soon on his way to bring a unique sort of deliverance for God's suffering Judeans.

The speculation concerning the identity of this servant has been intense since the poems were written over 2,500 years ago. The early Christian communities read their experiences with the one they called the Christ in the light of these poems; it could easily be said that they are among the most important writings for ongoing Christian theological development. Our views of Jesus are so deeply influenced by these portraits that it is hard to imagine, most especially, any Easter commentary without them. The collectors of the lectionary chose this first servant song to help the preacher think about the basic implications of the ministry of Jesus, a ministry that begins with his baptism by John and that baptism we celebrate on this special Sunday.

That is the Christian take on the text, but what can be said about what Isaiah had in mind for the Babylonian exiles, since they are his immediate audience? Isaiah was not thinking of Jesus of Nazareth when he wrote these words, so it is important to construe the contexts of his words so that we may hear them in their richness and fullness for his time and place.

The powerful and educated people of Judah had been in Babylon for fully two generations, from 597 B.C.E. to 539 B.C.E. It is unlikely that many had ever actually seen their Judean homeland. They were not enslaved in the great city, but they did live in a kind of Judean ghetto where they could practice their faith, speculate on their faith, in same cases abandon their faith and join the obviously successful world of Babylonian power. Each year in the spring brought the large Babylonian akitu festival where the statue of the city god, Marduk, was brought down from his high place on the mud-brick mountain, Etimenanki, and paraded around the city amid scenes of wild celebrations. Every year it appeared clearer than ever that YHWH, the God of Judah, had been defeated and was not likely to display any saving power to those in exile.

Thus, when the poet II-Isaiah appeared to announce the "comfort" of that YHWH to the exiled and that their time of service had now ended (40:1-2), some of them must have thrilled to the possibility of a new and unexpected hope. Perhaps they would not all die in Babylon after all! They may have imagined a triumphant return to Jerusalem, a grand rebuilding of the sacred temple, a reconstitution of the holy people, a reclaiming of the grandeur of the chosen people of YHWH. This excitement must only have increased when Cyrus, the lofty king of a conquering Persia, entered Babylon (around 539 B.C.E.) without a battle being fought, quickly deposed the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus, and announced that all captives could now return to their native lands and would receive Persian help to do so. Little wonder that Isaiah quickly named Cyrus, the Persian pagan, the "messiah" (45:2) since with a stroke the mighty Persian had turned the known world upside down. Now surely the halcyon days of Judah were right around the corner.

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.

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