Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9
As we celebrate the baptism of our Lord this week, it is worth considering what role Jesus was being baptized into. As I have been writing across the past several weeks, we may choose to read the servant sections as applying to Jesus, or not. Again, Rashi, the 11th Century CE sage, points out that God’s chosen servant is explicitly named as Jacob/Israel (Psalm 135:4 and Isaiah 45:4). But I suspect that most preachers will want to read Isaiah’s references to God’s servant through the lens of Jesus the Messiah. Either way, what does Isaiah say about God’s chosen one?
The first thing to notice is God’s emotional self-revelation. God is presented here as Creator of all that is (42:5), and unique possessor of the divine name (Isaiah 42:8). When this majestic and holy God contemplates the chosen servant, God’s soul is delighted (Isaiah 42:1). The servant has serious work to do, to be discussed below, but the interpreter should not for a moment view the servant as a mere instrument of divine policy. God grasps at the servant, chooses the servant and places God’s Spirit upon him (42:1). Later, God holds the servant’s hand and watches over the chosen one (Isaiah 42:6). To be sure, God also chose Assyria and Babylon to accomplish the divine will. But there is real, lasting affection from God toward this chosen one.
Second, the task of the chosen servant is to multiply justice beyond the boundaries of Israel. Repeatedly, Isaiah insists that he will bring forth justice to the nations (42:1), that he will faithfully bring forth justice (42:3) and that he will not be defeated until he brings forth justice to the earth (42:4). God calls the servant in righteousness to be both 1) a covenant to the nation, and 2) a light to the other nations/gentiles. The chosen servant is to be, then a missionary educator, reaffirming God’s covenant with God’s chosen people, and proclaiming the ways of justice to nations that are unaware of God’s instructions for community. Ultimately, God will teach a new song of justice to this servant. Just as God’s people sang a song of freedom and release after the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15), so now, upon hearing the new thing that God will do (Isaiah 42:9), the chosen servant is to be a sort of choir leader, spreading the new song of praise for God’s justice to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 42:10-13).
But if the chosen servant is to teach the nations God’s customs and laws of justice, does that mean that the servant will conquer and impose justice by force? Rashi insists that the servant not raising his voice means that he will not force his agenda on anyone. On the contrary, the nations will come to the soft-spoken teacher, and listen to his every whisper because of their desire for God’s justice. Rashi references Zechariah 8:23 [“In those days ten people from all the languages of nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”] as a supporting prophecy, pointing to the agency of gentiles in seeking out God’s justice for themselves.
The chosen servant is a gentle teacher who welcomes all comers, rather than someone who harangues or yells at people in the street. Rabbi Jonathan’s targum paraphrases Isaiah 42:3 to say that just as the servant will not break a reed, he will protect the meek; and just as he will not extinguish a flickering wick, he will not allow the lives of the poor to be snuffed out. The servant will be resolute in providing for the meek and the poor. Just as he did not take advantage of their crushed (ratsuts) or dim (kehah) state (42:3), the servant himself will not be dimmed/disheartened (yikheh), nor crushed (yaruts) until he completes his mission (42:4).
The chosen servant will not just passively protect the marginalized. He will also intervene in the cases of those who are imprisoned, and bring them out of dark pits, such that their eyes can finally see the light of day. The mission of the chosen servant is, accordingly, twofold: 1) to establish an international justice training academy for representatives of the nations who wish to come and learn the new song of freedom, and 2) to actively intervene in the mistreatment of the lowly and poor.
Looking briefly at the interplay between Isaiah and Jesus’ framing of his own ministry, Jesus seems focused on the role of international education in the ways of the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 2:32; 4:25-27; 7:1-10; 8:25-39; 17:11-19; 24:45-47). Also, Jesus frames his own ministry as one of proclaiming good news for the poor and freeing prisoners from dark dungeons that bind them (4:18-19). And yet, Jesus will do more to heal people from diseases and release humans from captivity to unclean spirits than actually bringing people out of jails. Jesus confesses this himself when his relative John’s disciples ask if he is truly the one that God said would come (and if so, why is their master still in prison?). Jesus references bits of Isaiah just adjacent to prophesies of prison release, (for example, Isaiah 42:7, Isaiah 61:1-2, Isaiah 35:4-6), and then says “blessed is the one who does not stumble on account of me (Luke 7:21-23). Why would healing and exorcizing unclean spirits cause anyone to stumble? Jesus is telling John that he will die in prison, and Jesus will not be bringing captives and prisoners out of jail—at least not yet. I see this as an invitation to be the Body of Christ and a holy people, to work for prison reform and release for prisoners.
Whether we see Jesus or the people of Israel as the object of prophetic speech in Isaiah, the chosen servant is to focus on announcing justice to the nations, and to upholding the cause of the poor and humble. How does our baptismal call challenge us to join in this work?