< January 13, 2008 >

Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

 

"New things" are afoot. Israel's penalty paid twofold, her exile at an end, the prophet known as Second Isaiah whispers tenderly "Comfort, O comfort" (40:1) and heralds the approach of "the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth...the Holy One of Israel" (40:28; 41:20).

The brushstrokes are vibrant and thick, God's redemptive purposes writ large, before the prophet narrows to sketch, in this first of the so-called "servant songs," the one who will act on God's behalf (Isaiah 42:1-9; cf. 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). While the servant's identity is complex and debated--note, for example, the servant is often Israel (e.g., 41:8-9; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 48:20) but also has a mission to Israel (e.g., 49:5-6)--many Christian interpreters associate God's introduction of "my servant" (42:1) with the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism: "this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17; cf. Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Both scenes focus on one who is adored by God, inspired by the divine spirit, and sent into the world for its redemption. The prophet's description of the servant's commissioning, which has elements of God's blessing of kings elsewhere (e.g., 1 Samuel 16:12-13), unfolds in two scenes (42:1-4, 5-9).

With an attention-getting  ("Here!" 42:1), God presents the servant to an audience, possibly the divine council (42:1-4). God first establishes the identity of the servant as God's own. Repetition of the first person singular emphasizes their intimate association ("my servant...I uphold...my chosen...my soul; I have put my spirit," 42:1), while the terms "chosen" and "delight" name the relationship as a source of divine joy. The servant is not forced or intimidated, it seems, but sustained and inspired by God. Second, God characterizes the servant's work as specific ("bring forth justice," 42:1, 3; cf. 42:4) and universal in scope ("to the nations...in the earth," 42:1, 4). Indeed, the coastlands wait for the servant's torah ("teaching," 42:4), an image that evokes Isaiah's earlier portrait of all nations streaming to Zion to receive God's instruction (Isaiah 2:1-4). Lastly, God describes the character of the servant as faithful (42:3), unassuming, and persistent ("he will not cry...will not grow faint or be crushed," 42:4). The servant will not relent in the establishment of justice--justice that likewise refuses to "break" or "extinguish" the vulnerable ("a bruised reed," "a dimly burning wick," 42:3).

God then addresses the servant directly (42:5-9). At the heart of this scene God affirms divine guardianship of the servant ("called...taken...kept"), and accentuates the servant's relationship to the world (42:6b-7). Although the juxtaposition of "covenant" and "people" in 42:6c is ambiguous ("a covenant people" or "a covenant to the people"), the sense is that the servant works for the restoration of everyone--a vocation that recalls God's promise that by Abraham "all the families of the world shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). In particular, the servant is "to open the eyes that are blind" and "to bring out the prisoners" from the darkness and dungeons that hold them¬¬ (42:7). The tasks are striking when we observe that, in a manner of verses, Second-Isaiah will characterize the servant as blind and deaf (42:19). Moreover, the people of Israel are described variously as uncomprehending (stopped ears and blind eyes, e.g., Isaiah 6:9-10) and imprisoned ("trapped in holes and hidden in prisons," 42:22). No stranger to affliction and hardship, the servant--Israel or an individual--labors so that others may be set free.

God frames the charge to the servant with two magisterial doxologies that leave no doubt the servant is doing God's work (42:5-6a, 8-9). God begins in the beginning, recounting God's work as Creator of the world (42:5-6a; e.g., Genesis 1-2; Isaiah 40:12, 21-26). The God who gives breath and "spirit" to every creature now puts "my spirit" on the servant; the God who "spread out the earth" sends the servant across it as a light to all nations. This is the God of long ago, the God of beginnings. God then turns in the second doxology (42:8-9) to reveal that God is doing "new things". A motif in Isaiah (e.g., 9:1; 41:22), "former things" arguably refers to the divine judgment proclaimed in Isaiah 1-39, while "new things" are about the release and restoration of Israel. The God of creation thus summons the servant into God's in-breaking, about-to-spring-forth works of liberation and renewal.

Although the lectionary ends with 42:9, we dare not miss that what follows God's commissioning of the servant is a call for all creation "to sing to the LORD a new song" (42:10). The introduction of the quiet, unassuming servant in whom God delights and with whom God is bringing about justice and liberation requires nothing less than new melodies and fresh lyrics from every corner of the world. God's delight bursts every convention, stirring up a cacophony of roaring seas, lifted voices, songs of joy, and shouts of praise (42:10-13). Creation cannot contain itself. And through the din, we glimpse the exilic community--renewed in hope, commissioned and inspired to participate in God's reconciling work. May we who follow in Christ's baptism remember that we are likewise.


Christine Roy Yoder is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).