Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9
This passage in Isaiah shows God speaking into the pain of exile to send a servant who will bring justice, and not to Israel only but to all nations.
Dramatic and powerful! But we’ve entered in the middle of the story of God’s people, so the point will be lost if the preacher doesn’t state the obvious. Many — maybe even most — folks in the pew do not know the story of Israel, its deliverance, covenant, monarchy, exile, and return. Even if this backstory is obvious to you as preacher, take a moment to sketch the narrative arc so your audience can become part of the story, too.
God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for the Lord. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets called them back. Then, in the sixth century BCE, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains, prompting “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries.
For Americans who have not experienced combat and defeat on our own soil, it may be difficult to imagine just how devastating it was for God’s chosen people to be handed over to enemies, humiliated and destroyed, taken into bondage, all while God did not intervene to stay with His divine hand the terrible defeat.
Preachers must set up this scene, Israel abandoned to its enemies: How could the Mighty Deliverer allow this to happen? Had God abandoned them? Removed from access to the temple and to the land, were they still God’s people? Was God still God? In exile they could only conclude that God had withdrawn favor and allowed the Babylonians to punish them for their sins and disobedience.
Into this identity crisis Isaiah speaks a word. The prophet reminds the people who God is and how God works. He draws their attention from this particular, historical moment, to the larger purposes of God. As Isaiah speaks, it’s as though we see the camera lens zooming slowly out from a close-up shot to a wide-angle view, a cosmic view. By reminding Israel of who God is, how God works, and what God is doing by sending a servant, Isaiah expands the frame of reference, re-locating and purposing Israel’s particularity within God’s cosmic frame.
God is the God not of Israel only or even of Babylon, but the one who “created the heavens . . . and stretched out the earth” (verse 5). This is the God of creation, who made everything that is, and who dwells in this wide, open cosmic space, not contained by the cramped space of exile. This is the God “who gives breath to the people upon [the earth] and spirit to those who walk on it” (verse 5). God’s breath animates not only the people of Israel, but every living, breathing creature on the planet. And finally, this is also the God who has reached out to create the particular people called Israel, to call them to righteousness, and to keep them (verse 6). This is the God of the expansive universe and the God of these very particular people.
Isaiah proclaims this God acts in particular ways. First, God sends a spirit-filled servant not a conqueror or tyrant — (“a bruised reed he will not break,” verse 3). This agent of God is a liberator who will bring justice, not domination.
Second, God works to bring justice “in the earth,” that is, to bring it to all, everywhere. God sends this servant to persevere until justice is done all the way “to the coastlands” (verse 4).
Third, God purposes God’s people, to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (verses 6-7). God calls them to righteousness not for themselves alone, but for the nations. Isaiah reminds this exiled people that God has not abandoned them but is indeed at work among them, restoring them to be a blessing.
This is good news! God is still God. God’s people are still God’s people in their particularity, yet with a purpose that extends beyond themselves to all the earth.Notice that the reassurance Isaiah offers is not triumphalistic. There is no talk of revenge, of turning the tables on the Babylonians, no “let’s kick butt and take names.”
Rather Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. A roomy expanse for God to “declare new things” that “spring forth” (verse 9). This is a vision that is full of future.
We celebrate Jesus’ baptism this first Sunday of Epiphany. Jesus has come into the world as a light that “darkness cannot overcome” (John 1:5), “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Matthew 3:13-17 marks the baptism of Jesus with an echo of Isaiah 42:1, “the Spirit of God descended upon him,” and “a voice from heaven” announces, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The pattern of servanthood continues from Isaiah to Matthew. In Jesus, God again sends a servant who will bring justice, who God “anoints to bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). During Epiphany we recognize and receive Jesus, the servant of God for the whole world.