with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
A Time for Justice
An old saying holds that good preaching should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Do you experience that in your church? Biblical prophecy provides a helpful model, and a prime example is the book of Isaiah, which spoke to Israel in times of both security and distress.
Events and life-situations described in the book of Isaiah reflect at least three distinct settings: the book begins in Judah during the eighth century BCE, shifts to Babylon during the sixth century exile, and concludes with the Jews back in Jerusalem following the exile. As different challenges arose during this extensive period, two or three different prophets preached in the name of Isaiah, addressing needs that arose in their varying historical contexts.
Isaiah 42 falls within a section commonly known as “Second Isaiah.” Isaiah of Jerusalem, responsible for much of Isaiah 1-39, preached during the eighth century, when the wealthy and powerful were comfortable and in need of affliction. He promised judgment if the people did not repent and change their ways. Judgment came when the powerful Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and marched many of its citizens into exile.
A prophet in the model of Isaiah arose in Babylon during the latter years of the exile, offering hope to a bedraggled people who may have wondered if they would ever see their homeland again. Commonly known as “Second Isaiah,” his message is found in chapters 40-55. His preaching included four poems commonly called “Servant Songs,” the first of which is this week’s text.
A song of justice(vv. 1-4)
People understand the power of armies, force, and control. When ancient prophets spoke of better days and a restoration for Israel, many imagined that a military messiah would arise, like David, and lead them to conquer their enemies by force of battle. There are prophecies that seem to speak of such a king, and some are in Isaiah (chapters 9, 11). They speak of a coming king who would be great and would bring peace to the earth, but they say little about how he would accomplish the task. Many assumed that the deliverer would be a military messiah.
They were wrong.
Isaiah of the exile speaks of a coming ruler as God’s servant: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1).
This single verse tells us several things about the servant. First, he is God’s servant. It was not uncommon for prophets to describe Israel as God’s servant people, or to criticize them for being prideful and self-indulgent, rather than living humbly before God.
Hebrew poetry is based on repetition, often using parallel statements for emphasis or explanation. Here, “my chosen” is parallel to “my servant,” underscoring God’s intentional choice of the servant. Likewise, “in whom my soul delights” parallels “whom I uphold.” God not only supports the servant, but also takes delight in doing so.
The second couplet of the verse describes the manner by which God empowers the servant (“I have put my spirit upon him”), and the end result of their partnership (“he will bring forth justice to the nations”).
The Hebrew word underlying “spirit” literally means “breath” or “wind.” The scriptures speak of rare individuals who experienced the power of the “spirit of the LORD” (ruah-Yahweh); people such as Gideon (Judg. 6:34), Samson (Judg. 13:25), Saul (1 Sam. 10:10), and David (1 Sam. 16:13).
The spirit of the LORD came upon people such as these during times of oppression, empowering them to prevail over Israel’s enemies and, ideally, to restore justice. The Hebrew concept of mishpat (justice) is more than a legal concept. True justice involves faithfulness to God and fairness toward others. To bring justice is not just to make sure all people get what they deserve, but to ensure that everyone has what they need. The text literally says that the servant will “make justice go out to the nations.”
While the first verse might lead hearers to expect a spirit-emboldened warrior-servant such as David, the next two verses indicate that he will not bring justice through ruthless force, but with gentle tenderness toward the “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick,” graphic references to people who are weak and downtrodden. They are like reeds that are bent but not dead, or a flame that is smoldering but has not died out (vv. 2-3). The servant will encourage them appropriately.
Those words would have been comforting to the people of Israel, who remembered proud traditions of having once been a great nation. As Isaiah of the exile proclaimed God’s word, he recognized their weakened, wounded, uncertain condition. The servant would understand the needs of his people and bring justice coupled with tenderness.
Believers in our own time might become more compassionate people and more effective servants for Christ if we could begin to understand that justice involves far more than getting or giving what we or they deserve. God’s justice is always tempered by grace to offer what people need most. Often, their greatest need is forgiveness. Sadly, even those who delight most in singing “Amazing Grace” can be remarkably stingy when it comes to extending grace to others.
One might think a servant who is characterized by gentleness might be weak or easily defeated, but Isaiah insisted that “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (v. 4a). The servant will press forward, working in his own quiet way, “until he has established justice in the earth.”
The promise of justice is good news for any people. The expectation that “the coastlands wait for his teaching” (v. 4b) extends hope that the servant’s work would extend beyond Israel to the coastlands on either side, and beyond. In the ancient world, where few people traveled far, a seafaring journey to “the coastlands” expressed a thought not unlike “to the ends of the earth.”
A call from God(vv. 5-9)
With v. 5, the divine speech shifts from a third-person description of what the servant will do to a direct address from God. Some scholars see this as a wholly different oracle, while others perceive it as a continuation of the song. The God who has created all things (v. 5) speaks in v. 6: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations …”
Who is God addressing in these verses? The pronoun “you” is singular, and some see vv. 5-9 as a direct address to the servant. John D. W. Watts has argued that the “servant” in this case is Cyrus, the Persian king who would soon conquer Babylon and set the Israelites free (Isaiah 34–66, vol. 25 of Word Biblical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005], 660).
Others judge that the oracle addresses the people of Judah and Israel. John Goldingay notes: “The last singular ‘you’ was Jacob-Israel in 41:8-16, who has presumably been the implicit addressee throughout. In other words, in verses 1-4 God was saying to Jacob-Israel, “You know you are my servants? Well, this is what my servant is destined to be and do” (Isaiah, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012], 241).
Since neither Cyrus nor the Hebrew people fully carried out the commission given in vv. 6-7, later Jewish interpreters moved the message forward and pictured the one addressed as a future messiah. Early Christians believed Jesus to be that messiah, one who came as “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” (vv. 6b-7). Note the similarity of this to Isa. 61:1-2, which Jesus cited as a sort of mission statement in Luke 4:16-21 – adding “recovery of sight to the blind” to the release of prisoners, a combination found in Isa. 42:7, but not in Isa. 61:1-2.
The passage closes with an affirmation of Yahweh’s identity as the only true god, the one who controls the earth’s destiny, and who can declare “new things … before they spring forth” (vv. 8-9).
The first Servant Song speaks of one chosen and empowered by God to bring about justice, not by rude power, but by gentle grace. It expresses a hope that begins in every hurting, wounded heart, and it extends as far as the mind can imagine.
The people of Israel saw this as a mystery wrapped in a riddle. The people of Christ see it as the foretelling of one who could die on a cross but not be crushed by it, one who would rise even beyond the grave to establish justice through all the earth.
Though Christ-followers focus on the Suffering Servant they see in Jesus, there remains a corporate aspect to the text: if Christ’s justice is to extend throughout the earth, it will be through the gracious and compassionate presence of Christ’s persistent followers. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 8, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 42:1-9
Our students hear so many different ideas of who and what they are supposed to be. The loudest voices are the ones that they hear saying that they need to be at the top and be the best. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but there are no parameters of what one is supposed to do to get to the top. The idea of being a servant doesn’t register on many of our students’ lists of what they want to be, but it is our calling. How can you help your student live into what they have been called to be while being a servant?
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Martha the Servant” from The Secret Garden via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Isaiah 42:1-9