Monday, April 10
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.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
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,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them (Isaiah 42:1-9).
Sometimes in this first Song, the Servant seems like a king. After all, God calls the Servant “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (42:1). The Servant brings forth justice (42:1, 3-4), a kingly task in the Hebrew Bible (see Pss 72:1; 99:4; Isa 9:7; Jer 22:15; 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 45:9). Indeed, the Servant “will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1), and “the coastlands wait for his teaching” (42:4); he is not only “a covenant to the people” (presumably, Israel), but also “a light to the nations” (42:6). The image is not merely regal, but imperial; the Servant is the ruler of the world.
Yet, on the other hand, the Servant’s task is accomplished quietly, without kingly pomp: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (42:2). Royal power operates by force, or the threat of force. Yet the Servant acts so gently and quietly that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). In our harsh and violent world, the way of gentleness and humility may seem doomed to failure. Yet it is the world’s Creator (42:5) who guarantees that the Servant’s mission, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7), will be accomplished. True peace and authentic transformation cannot be imposed by force. They come as astonishing gifts of God’s grace, made real in our midst by God’s Servant.
Prayer: We confess, O God, that sometimes we want to make a splash! We long to make a difference in our world, a difference that we can see. Remind us that you aim, not to make a splash, but to remake the world—and us too. That is slow, quiet, careful work, Abba. Grant us the humility to fit ourselves to that task. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7), Amen.
Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, all deal with the Servant of the Lord, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world. Christian readers have long seen the Servant of the Lord as foreshadowing Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), an understanding that may well go back to Jesus himself. But this does not mean that the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people—or that they do not address us as well.
The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229). The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering; the way of selfless, sacrificial love (Heb 9:12) which led Jesus inexorably to the cross. But the way of the Servant is not Jesus’ path alone. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This week, we will consider how we, too, are called to walk in the way of the servant of the Lord.