The man being executed for his crimes acknowledged that he
was being punished "justly." He also said that the one
being executed along with him had "done nothing wrong."
Both men were executed as rebels-one justly, the other unjustly.
Yet the man who acknowledged his guilt had heard the other man
talk about a kingdom, and he must have sensed that a richer concept
of justice prevailed there. So before he breathed his last, he
turned to the other man and said, "Jesus, remember me when
you come in your kingdom." Jesus responded, "Truly I
say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise" (Luke
23:39-43). Unlike Israel, Jesus did not cry out for his own justice
(Isaiah 40:27) and instead sought justice for others. And his
justice looked a lot like compassion. Jesus, the "Servant"
figure of Isaiah 42:1-9, brings God's compassion to us.
This passage comprises the first of the four "Servant Songs" in Isaiah (see also Isaiah 49:1-6, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). Each passage speaks of a Servant figure who is given a mission by the Lord. The great work of the Lord in behalf of Israel, and in behalf of the entire world, that is spoken of in Isaiah is accomplished through the work of this figure.
In Isaiah 41, the Lord called forth the Gentile nations for judgment. The work of the Servant of the Lord, though, will benefit the nations (verse 1). The last verse in Isaiah 41 begins with the word the word "behold," and the first verse in Isaiah 42 begins with it. The nations are to "behold" that their idols are worthless, but they are also to "behold" the Servant of the Lord who will bless them if they will let him.
The Servant Song can be divided into two sections. In the first section (verses 1 through 4), the Lord speaks of the Servant. In the second section (verses 5 through 9), the Lord speaks to the Servant. Each section contains an inverted structure that highlights the mission of the Servant (verses 2 through 3b, verses 6b through 7). Phrases concerning justice (verses 1d, 3c) and the words "I am the Lord" (verses 6a, 8a) provide the arrows that point to the Servant's mission.
Compassion for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks (42:1-4)
The word "behold" calls attention the Servant and
invites Israel to scrutinize him.
Elsewhere in Isaiah, and even in the surrounding context of this passage, the word "servant" is used to identify Israel (Isaiah 41:8, 42:19, 44:1). In addressing Israel in Isaiah 41:8, the Lord said, "But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen. " Here again in this passage, the Lord says he has chosen his servant. Also, in Isaiah 41:10, the Lord says he will "uphold" his servant Israel, just as he upholds his Servant in this passage. The Servant figure here, then, must in some sense be identified with Israel. But the description of the Servant in this passage goes far beyond what could ever be said of Israel. In Isaiah 49:5, the Servant is to bring Jacob (i.e., Israel) back to God. This Servant will "open blind eyes," but the servant Israel is in fact blind (Isaiah 42:29). So the Servant, in some way identified with Israel, is also to be distinguished from Israel. The figure in the Servant Songs of Isaiah must be someone that fulfills the Lord's intentions for Israel. This will be a new Servant.
In that the Lord "upholds" his Servant, he strengthens him and vindicates him. The word is connected with the Lord's disposition toward his king (Psalm 41:12). The words "servant" and "chosen" are each applied to King David in Psalm 89:3: "I have made a covenant with my chosen; I have sworn to David my servant."
The Lord has "chosen" this Servant for a specific task. He is chosen to be a blessing, not to claim some exclusive privilege. The Lord has the most deeply rooted
affections for his Servant, in that his "soul delights" in this one. Having chosen his Servant, the Lord endues him with his Spirit for the appointed mission. That mission to "bring forth justice to the nations." The Lord has chosen his Servant and placed his Spirit upon him for this purpose. Earlier, Israel was asking for "the justice due me" (Isaiah 40:27). The God of Israel here shows that he desires that his justice be extended to all the nations. What the Lord means by justice in this context will be explained in verses 3, 6 and 7.
Verse 1 contains echoes of 1 Samuel 16:13, where David was anointed by Samuel and the Spirit came upon him. The links to David in verse 1 show that when Isaiah speaks of the Servant of the Lord, he's also speaking of a king.
The Servant's task will be to bring forth justice to the nations, but he will not cry out, raise his voice or make his voice heard in the street for his own justice (Isaiah 15:3-4, 19:20, 46:17, 53:7). In bringing forth justice, the Servant will suffer injustice willingly and silently. He will seek justice not for himself but for others.
The Lord begins to explain the justice he has in mind in verse 3. Egypt was called a "bruised reed" because it couldn't bear the burden that Israel wanted it to bear (Isaiah 36:6). A "bruised reed" is symbolic of someone who has been weakened by exterior pressure and can't bear any more burdens. Some kings would break such bruised reeds, but not the Servant of the Lord. A dimly burning wick is symbolic of someone whose inner resources are at an end, who lacks the strength necessary to continue. Some kings would extinguish such dimly burning wicks, but not the Servant of the Lord. The justice that the Servant brings forth, therefore, embraces bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks-the oppressed and the weak, the damaged and discarded.
In verse 2, the Lord said the Servant would bring forth justice to the nations; now, in verse 3, he will "faithfully" bring forth justice. No matter how difficult the task, and it would turn out to be the most difficult task anyone was ever called to, he would not back away from it.
In fact, "he will not be disheartened or crushed" until he has established such justice. The word "disheartened" is the same word that is translated "dimly burning," and the word "crushed" is the same one that is translated "bruised." People, like reeds and wicks, will become disheartened and crushed, but the Servant will not-at least not until he has established justice in the earth. He will suffer injustice in fulfilling his mission, but he will not cry out for his own justice; neither will he be discouraged in his mission or dissuaded from accomplishing it. This is a truly amazing figure.
When the Servant's mission is fulfilled, justice will not only have been brought forth, it will have been "established"-and it will be established over the entire earth. The result will be that the coastlands, or Gentile nations, will hunger for his law, or instruction (Isaiah 1:10). The coastlands were earlier called forth for judgment (Isaiah 41:1), but now it is clear that in calling them forth for judgment, the Lord wants them to embrace the kingdom of justice that will be established through his Servant.
Who is this Servant? According to the New Testament, the Servant of the Lord is Jesus Christ. In fact, Matthew in his gospel quotes from Isaiah 42:1-4 and says it was fulfilled by Christ (Matthew 12:15-21). Jesus was "chosen" by God (1 Peter 2:4). Jesus fulfills God's call for Israel, the servant of the Lord, to bring forth justice. As Israel fails in its task, the mantle is passed to Jesus, a faithful Israelite. Verse 1, reminiscent of the anointing of David in 1 Samuel 16:13, is a portend of Matthew 3:16-17. As Samuel anointed David and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, John the Baptist anointed Jesus by baptizing him, and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. The Lord proclaims his Servant to be one in whom "my soul delights," and the voice of God proclaimed Jesus to be one in whom "I am well-pleased." It is Jesus, then, the Servant-King, who was upheld by the Lord, chosen by the Lord, delighted in by the Lord and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord to bring forth justice to the nations and to establish it in the earth.
What did that mean for Jesus? It meant that he suffered injustice, but did not cry out for his own justice. He suffered silently and willingly. He concerned himself with bringing justice to the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks. For him, justice did not mean breaking them or extinguishing them; it meant upholding them and re-igniting them. Despite tremendous anguish of soul, he did not back away from the task (Mark 14:32-42, Matthew 27:38-44, 1 Peter 2:22-23).
So, how precisely does he bring forth justice? In the most astounding of ways! He does it by becoming a bruised reed and dimly burning wick. As it concerns faithfulness to his task, he does not become disheartened (dimly burning) or crushed (bruised). As it concerns the accomplishment of his task, he arrives at precisely these states-bruised and dimly burning. Not only does he become a bruised reed, he becomes a broken reed. Not only does he become a dimly burning wick, he becomes an extinguished wick. That's how he brings forth justice to the nations-by allowing himself to be broken and extinguished by the sin of the world (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24). The justice demanded for sin is satisfied, and the justice demanded by God's compassion is extended. And now the coastlands-Gentiles all over the world-wait expectantly for his law, scrutinizing his instruction.
Are you a bruised reed, weakened by the pressures of life? Are you a dimly burning wick, unable to respond to those pressures? Do you feel damaged or discarded? If you do not feel this way now, you will one day. We are fragile creatures, all of us, far more vulnerable than we know. Many of us hide our bruises and manage to keep our flames burning for the public, but when we're alone we feel the pain and the flame burns dim. Our plight may be complicated by feelings that the bruises are self-inflicted and that we deserve to have our flames flicker. It may be true: Through our own sin, we may have brought on the bruises and dimmed the flame. But the Servant is not disheartened or crushed by whatever caused our condition; he just wants to help us in our condition. The crimes committed by the rebel on the cross did not discourage him. What has caused your bruises, and what has caused your flame to flicker? The Servant of the Lord can help.
In the greatest sense possible, he already has helped. He became a bruised reed that was broken for us. He became a dimly burning wick that was extinguished for us. He did so in order that God's justice-which in the end turns out to be God's compassion-could be brought forth and established for us. As we see what the Servant has done for us in new and brighter ways, he upholds us broken reeds and re-ignites us smoldering wicks. And as we get a glimpse of what he has done for us, we can't help but wait expectantly for his instruction: We pour over his word and learn from him.
Compassion for the blind and the imprisoned (42:5-9)
Isaiah identifies the Lord as "God the Lord," probably to convey that he is God, the creator, and the Lord, or Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. This is the God who is responsible for creation and for the people who inhabit it. He created the universe, the heavens and the earth, including the "offspring" of the earth-its vegetation. He also gives breath and spirit-life-to the people who live on the earth (Genesis 2:7). In Isaiah 40:12-31, the Lord's initiative in creation provided comfort to Israel; now it provides comfort for all people. The Lord cares for that which he has created, particularly that which he has given "breath" and "spirit" to. The Lord stretched out the heavens and spread out the earth as if to provide a cosmic stage for his Servant.
The pronoun "you" in verse 6 is singular and is to be identified with the Servant. The Lord has called his Servant in righteousness. The call, as we saw in verses 1 through 4, is to bring forth justice. The "righteousness" in which the Lord has called the Servant is God's righteousness. God, in his righteousness, acts on behalf of the people who walk on the earth. The Lord will accompany the Servant in an intimate way, holding him by the hand, and will protect him by watching over him.
The purpose of the Lord's activity for his Servant is to ensure that he will be effective in his task. The task here is in keeping with the earlier one, to bring forth justice. The word "appoint" is the same word that is translated "put" in verse 1. There, the Lord put his Spirit upon the Servant to empower him for the task. Here, the Lord appoints the Servant as a "covenant to the people." Through the making of covenants, the Lord administers his justice. The covenant most prominent in the minds of the Israelites would be the Sinatic, or Mosaic, Covenant, in which the Lord entered into relationship with the people of Israel. Now a covenant of relationship is being extended to all people. This Servant will not only be the mediator of the covenant, as Moses was, but he will in some sense be the covenant himself. He would be its focus. He is also appointed as "a light to the nations," not only conveying the truth but embodying it so that the people might be saved (Isaiah 49:6).
By embodying the Lord's covenant and light, the Servant will open the eyes of the blind and bring out prisoners. The word "bring out" is the same word that is translated "bring forth" in connection with justice in verses 1 and 3. Isaiah is still working the justice theme. Justice now means sight for the blind and freedom for prisoners, spiritually speaking (Isaiah 42:19).
Just as he did in verse 6, the Lord says in verse 8, "I
am the Lord." The Lord, or Yahweh, is his covenant name and
conveys his self-existence and his faithfulness. The Servant,
more than anyone else, will show the world what that name means.
In verses 8 and 9, the Lord is saying that no one else can do
what he can do, in this case referring to his work through his
Servant. No one else can therefore share his glory or praise,
particularly the graven images, or idols, that the Gentiles, and
even the Israelites, are so fond of. The Lord's promise of "new
things"-the things concerning the advent of his Servant-are
guaranteed by his having brought to pass the former things he
promised. The former things are likely the things concerning the
promised advent of "one from the east," who turned out
to be Cyrus of Medo-Persia, who would conquer Babylon and allow
the captive Israelites to return to their land (Isaiah 41:2-4,
26-27). If that's the case, the "former things" have
not yet come to pass in the time of Isaiah, but their development
is so certain that they are spoken of as if they had already happened.
God created a cosmic stage for his Servant, Jesus, his Son. When Jesus was born, the heavens worshipped in awe (Luke 2:13-14). It's taken earth a little longer to catch on, but one day every knee on earth will bow to him (Philippians 2:10). Against the backdrop of the heavens and the earth, he went about his work. Jesus was the Servant through whom God, in his righteousness, acted so that the world might be saved (Romans 3:26). The Father held him by the hand, so to speak, walking with him in intimate fellowship, protecting him, so that he might fulfill his task.
Jesus became the "mediator of a better covenant" (Hebrews 8:6), a new covenant that offers God's salvation to all people. In essence, Jesus himself is the covenant, with his body and blood being central (Matthew 26:26-30). We relate to God through Jesus Christ, but Jesus is himself God (John 1:1). Conveying the truth and embodying the truth, he tells us, "I have come as light into the world, that everyone who believes in me may not remain in darkness" (John 12:46). He opens blind eyes and liberates prisoners, quite literally, but, more importantly, spiritually as well (Matthew 9:28-30, Acts 17:20, Matthew 4:15-16, Luke 4:18).
He accomplished the "new things" promised by the Lord, and he himself told the Father, "I glorified you on the earth, having accomplished the work which you have given me to do" (John 17:4). At the end of his life on earth, as he breathed his last on the cross, Jesus proclaimed, "It is finished" (John 19:30).
In this section, Isaiah allows us to listen in on the Lord's words to his Servant, the Father's words to his Son. We might compare it, on a much smaller scale, to words of encouragement offered by a father to a son upon the son's graduation. Who wouldn't feel privileged to witness such a moment? This is an intimate moment in which the Father is offering encouragement to his Son as he enters the world to fulfill his mission. The text
brings us in to the most inner of circles. So, as we listen
to the Father speak to the Son, what is on his mind? Here's the
amazing thing: He's talking about us. When the Father and Son
sit down for an intimate, heart-to-heart talk, the conversation
often centers on their love for you (John 11:41-42, John 17, Hebrews
2:11-13). It's their favorite topic.
Specifically, the Father is speaking to the Son in support of his mission to us. The Lord goes to great lengths to make sure that the Servant completes his mission to us-he upholds him, he chooses him, he puts his Spirit on him, he calls him in righteousness, he holds him by the hand, he watches over him and he appoints him. We must be worth it.
The Lord gives us his Servant as a covenant, and as we partake of the Servant, as we eat the bread and drink the cup, as we pray and as we worship, we are brought into the presence of the living God.
Do you feel as if in some sense you are blind, that you are somehow not seeing what you need to see? Do you have the sense that what you are seeing-the supposed realities on which you are basing your life -are shadows and phantoms? Is the world that you inhabit shrouded in darkness? Does it feel as if you are somehow imprisoned? Do you want to see more than you're seeing, and live in a different world than the one of shadows and phantoms? Do you want to come out of the dungeon of darkness and enter the kingdom of light? Jesus wants to come into your life to open your blind eyes and show you a world that is so real and so beautiful that you'll be left gasping for air. What you'll see, first and foremost, is Jesus, the Servant King, the real one, the beautiful one; and you'll live in freedom in his world, his kingdom.
The stage for the Servant
The Lord has stretched out the heavens and spread out the earth as a giant stage so that we might behold his Servant, that we might see, appreciate and worship him for who he is-the one who brings forth and establishes justice, the one who extends the compassion of God to the nations, even the whole earth. Consider him carefully. He is an amazing figure, unlike any other. He is of great concern to us because we're part of the "nations" he came to bring justice to; we're living on the earth where he came to establish justice. We are the people. This is the place. He came to establish justice for us. The Servant of the Lord brings God's compassion to us.
Still, Jesus has work to do. Justice has not yet been established. Now that he has come to world as the Servant of the Lord and suffered for the world, how does he establish justice here? He establishes justice through us, the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks he has restored and ignited, the blind and the imprisoned, whose eyes he has opened and whose hearts he has liberated, who then offer his compassion to other bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks, who shine his light into the darkness and by his power open blind eyes and set prisoners free. At times it will feel as if we're being bruised. It will feel as if our flame is flickering. We'll want to cry out in the streets for the justice due us instead of the justice due others. But Jesus will prop us up, light the fire, promise us justice in due course, and send us out again and again and again until he comes. Like Jesus, we too are servants, servants of a new covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6)-upheld by God, chosen by God, delighted in by God, empowered by his Spirit, called in righteousness, held by his hand and watched over by his eyes to bring forth justice to the nations and establish it in the earth.
Jesus is establishing justice in the earth through you-you who agonize in prayer for the pain of the world, you who build a study center for the poor in Belize, you who take the light of the gospel to Asia, you who share God's compassion with kids in East Palo Alto and East San Jose, you who travail in your workplace each day and shine a light into the darkness of the Silicon Valley...you who follow the Servant of the Lord and in so doing become servants as well.
Philip Yancey in his book What's So Amazing About Grace? shares these reflections, which show how Jesus, through the bread and wine of the covenant, upholds "famished souls" (bruised reeds and smoldering wicks), and show how we, as followers of Jesus, continue his work:
A few times at my church I preached the sermon, then assisted in the ceremony of communion. "I don't partake because I'm a good Catholic, holy and pious and sleek" writes Nancy Mairs about the Eucharist. "I partake because I'm a bad Catholic, riddled by doubt and anxiety and anger; fainting from server hypoglycemia of the soul." After delivering the sermon, I helped nourish famished souls.
Those who desired to partake would come to the front, stand quietly in a semicircle, and wait for us to bring them the elements. "The body of Christ broken for you," I would say as I held out a loaf of bread for the person before me to break off. "The blood of Christ shed for you," the pastor behind me would say, holding out a common cup.
Because my wife worked for the church, and because I taught a class there for many years, I knew the stories of some of the people standing before me. I knew that Mabel, the woman with strawy hair and bent posture who came to the senior citizens center, had been a prostitute. My wife worked with her for seven years before Mabel confessed the dark secret buried deep within. Fifty years ago she had sold her only child, a daughter. Her family had rejected her long before, the pregnancy had eliminated her source of income, and she knew she would make a terrible mother, and so she sold the baby to a couple in Michigan. She could never forgive herself, she said. Now she was standing at the communion rail, spots of rouge like paper discs pasted on her cheeks, her hands outstretched, waiting to receive the gift of grace. "The body of Christ broken for you, Mabel ."
Beside Mabel were Gus and Mildred, star players in the only wedding ceremony ever performed among the church's seniors. They lost $150 per month in Social Security benefits by marrying rather than living together, but Gus insisted. He said Mildred was the light of his life, and he didn't care if he lived in poverty as long as he lived it with her at his side. "The blood of Christ shed for you, Gus and you, Mildred. "
Next came Adolphus, an angry young black man whose worst fears about the human race had been confirmed in Vietnam. Adolphus scared people away from our church. Once, in a class I was teaching on the book of Joshua, Adolphus raised his hand and pronounced, "I wish I had an M-16 rifle right now. I would kill all you white honkeys in this room." An elder in the church who was a doctor took him aside afterwards and talked to him, insisting that he take his medication before services on Sunday. The church put up with Adolphus because we knew he came not merely out of anger but out of hunger. If he missed the bus, and no one had offered him a ride, sometimes he walked five miles to get to church. "The body of Christ broken for you, Adolphus ."
I smiled at Christina and Reiner, an elegant German couple employed by the University of Chicago. Both were Ph.D.s, and they came from the same Pietist community in southern Germany. They had told us about the worldwide impact of the Moravian movement, which still influenced their church back home, but right now they were struggling with the very message they held dear. Their son had just left on a mission trip to India. He planned to live for a year in the worst slum in Calcutta. Christina and Reiner had always honored such personal sacrifice-but now that it was their son, everything looked different. They feared for his health and safety. Christina held her face in her hands, and tears dribbled through her fingers. "The blood of Christ shed for you, Christina, and you, Reiner ."
Then came Sarah, a turban covering her bare head, scarred from where doctors had removed a brain tumor. And Michael, who stuttered so badly he would physically cringe whenever anyone addressed him. And Maria, the wild and overweight Italian woman who had just married for the fourth time. "Thees one will be deeferent, I just know."
"The body of Christ the blood of Christ. " What could we offer such people other than grace, on tap? What better can the church ever offer that "means of grace"? Grace here, among these shattered families and half-coping individuals? Yes, here. Maybe the upstairs church was not so different from the downstairs AA group after all. (1)
Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
February 13, 2000
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