April 16, 2008

The Servant of the Lord: Isaiah 42:1-9

In the last several weeks, we have taken a look at the first part of Isaiah in some detail, as Isaiah warned the people of Judah of the consequences of their sin. He predicted the destruction of both the northern kingdom of Israel, which occurred several years into his prophetic ministry, and Judah, which occurred more than a century after Isaiah’s ministry ended.

Isaiah also prophesied the eventual restoration of God’s chosen people to their land and gave remarkable details about the Messiah who would come and provide the perfect atonement for sin.

Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah have in view both the Messiah’s first advent to suffer and die as that perfect atonement and the Messiah’s second coming and future kingdom on earth, which we know as His second advent. So far, our study has been pretty detailed about the social conditions and sin in Judah and the reasons for the judgment that would be delivered as we have looked at the text.

Today, we are going to take a different tack. For the rest of our study of Isaiah, we will back up from the details a bit and look more at the big picture. I want to begin with a look at what are known as the “Servant Songs.” There are four of these in Isaiah chapters 42 through 53. They are prophetic in nature and give details about the character and purpose of the Messiah. We find the first in Isaiah 42:1-9, which describes the future Messiah as the Servant of the Lord:

“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold,My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, Nor cause His voice to be heard in the street.

“A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, Till He has established justice in the earth; And the coastlands shall wait for His law.”

“Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk on it: ‘I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, And new things I declare; Before they spring forth I tell you of them.’”

This prophecy given through Isaiah provides us with some details about the future Messiah:

He is “My Servant” (1)

“My Servant” is a designation given for several of Israel’s faithful spiritual leaders over the preceding centuries: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Caleb, Job, and Zerubbabel. The designation would be used a century and a half later even to refer to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, whom God used to invade Judah as His instrument of judgment in 586 B.C.

The Messiah also is called “My Elect One,” being chosen to serve the Father. Further, the Lord says of Him, “I have put My Spirit upon Him.” We find the visible representation of this at Jesus’ baptism: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16).

Isaiah says “He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles,” which is a look forward to the Messiah’s second coming, when He will establish and rule over a kingdom in which justice prevails throughout the world. It is difficult to describe just how revolutionary this prophecy was to the Israelites who heard the prophecy from Isaiah that the Messiah would come not just for them, but also for the gentiles, whom they regarded not just as pagan, but unclean. Even though it is prophesied that the Messiah will rule from Jerusalem, the millennial kingdom is not for Israel alone. All the world will experience the righteousness and justice of the Messiah King.

A quiet and patient demeanor (2)

Isaiah writes: “He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street,” a reference to Jesus’ quiet and patient demeanor that largely characterized His ministry during His first advent. Even when confronting, and being confronted by, the scribes and Pharisees, He did not lose His cool, though He spoke hard, confrontational truths.

He will comfort for the weak and oppressed (3)

Isaiah describes the Messiah as one characterized by justice and compassion for weak and oppressed people: “A bruised reed He will not break” is a reference to the Messiah’s compassion even for the people which the culture may regard as the least among them. The reed grows by the water and is hollow, easily bent (“bruised”) when leaning under the pressure of the wind or pushed aside by an animal coming to drink. Shepherds used reeds to make a small whistle-like musical instrument. But once the reed was creased, it was useless. If it was still in the ground, it died. If the shepherd’s reed instrument was bent and creased, it cracked and splintered and was no longer of any use.

This reference is to people living under the pressures of poverty and oppression. He would not come to reinforce the oppression they suffered in the culture, but to give them comfort, to give them hope and faith. The message was an important one to Isaiah’s contemporaries, who were about to suffer judgment and destruction from God not only because they had turned away from Him to worship idols, but also because of the unjust culture they had created. The few were wealthy and politically powerful, including the priests. The many were poor, and the system of justice was ripe with bribery and influence against them. The Messiah, Isaiah prophesied, would not come to reinforce the culture, but to overturn it.

This one line of the verse could be a whole sermon. The Messiah’s purpose is to give hope, to deliver the promise of joy and eternal life, the hope that Paul writes so much about; the hope and certainty of living in His presence eternally regardless of current circumstances of suffering and pain.

There is another rather obscure phrase in verse 3: “And a smoking flax He will not quench” A “smoking flax” is a smoldering wick in an oil lamp. The fire is still alive, but dying. Once more, the metaphor is about the weak and suffering. They are beaten down by social structures, unemployment, severe poverty and suffering. The Messiah would not come to add to their suffering, but to revive them with the message of salvation and a bright future in His presence. Indeed, “He will bring forth justice and truth,” rather than coming to add to oppression and suffering.

This look into the future was fulfilled beginning with His first advent. It continues in the Spirit of tenderness and compassion found in every authentic Christian. As Christians, we see the less fortunate, and the Spirit in us urges us to reach out to help. The Spirit in us also instills a God-given sense of justice. No one hates oppression and injustice like the true Christian does, not just because of the unfairness, but also because it is contrary to the character of the one true God.

He will bring truth and justice (4)

“He will not fail nor be discouraged, till He has established justice in the earth.” The Messiah will not fail in bringing truth and justice to mankind. This prophecy was fulfilled in part in the Messiah’s first advent by the hope and character in the hearts of those who have trusted Him as Lord and Savior and who have been changed by the indwelling Holy Spirit. To be fulfilled universally at His second advent, when He will establish His government of righteousness and justice throughout the world.

“And the coastlands shall wait for His law.” This is Isaiah’s way of saying that the truth and justice the Messiah shall bring will be throughout the world.

The Messiah will be a light to the gentiles (5-6)

In verse 5, the word of God given through Isaiah reinforces that the prophesy is reliable: “Thus says the Lord God.” The promise is from the Creator, who made the heavens, the earth, all life on earth out of nothing.

“Who gives breath to the people on it and the spirit to those who walk on it.” God created humans not only as living, breathing beings, but also He created in us our spirit, or self-awareness. Unlike other biological life, human beings alone are self-aware; we know our past, we are capable of knowing God and His holiness, and we can know for sure the certainty of His promises for the future.

After reminding us of these certainties in verse 5, in verse 6 the word of the Lord given to Isaiah reminds His people of His promises to them: “I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness.” On the one hand, God the Father is perfectly righteous and holy. On the other hand, the Messiah also will be perfectly righteous and holy. “And (I) will hold Your hand,” refering to the common purpose of the Father and the Messiah. The picture is of support, walking together as one. Throughout the Bible, we often find references to the perfect unity of purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“I will keep you and give You as a covenant to the people,” a promise of salvation and future eternity with Him. In His first advent, Jesus announced the “new covenant.” In instituting the practice of the bread and cup, Jesus refers to this new covenant, saying, “this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 27:27). “My blood of the new covenant” alludes to a middle eastern cultural practice that had existed for millennia. Upon making a treaty or contract, a sacrifice was made and the blood of the sacrifice was meant do seal the promise; “which is shed for many for the remission of sins” refers to the purpose of His death, as the atonement for our sins. “As a light to the gentiles” is one of the many occasions in Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah’s purpose of not saving just the Israelites, but all mankind.

He will open mankind’s eyes (7)

“To open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” The Messiah as light is a frequent metaphor in the Bible: the “light of the world.” In his gospel’s first chapter, John establishes Jesus not only as Creator and Truth, but describes Him as “the light of men” and “the true Light.” In addition, Jesus uses the metaphor of light to refer to Himeself: “I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Numerous times, God’s people are referred to as “in the light” and admonished to “walk in the light.”

Verse 7 paints a picture consistently found in scripture. Mankind is blind, in spiritual darkness, imprisoned by slavery to its sinful, self-centered nature and desires. The Messiah came to open our spiritually blind eyes, to release us from our spiritual prison. Without Him, we see only what is, in truth, spiritual darkness.

His advent is sure (8-9)

As He does numerous times in Isaiah and the writings of other prophets, God reminds His people that this prophecy is dependable. He establishes this truth with two arguments.

First, He reminds us “I am Yahweh,” who is the one and only, all-powerful, self-existing God. The name Yahweh was loaded with spiritual truth for the Israelites. The name to them signified the One who created the heavens and the earth; the Creator of life; the One who cared for their needs, rescued them time and time again; the One who is truth and righteousness; the one and only God, who sets the standards for worship, sinlessness, and judgment. Then He reminds them, “My glory I will not give to another, nor my praise to carved images.” Once more, He is telling us that He is infinitely greater than the false gods and idols that had so tempted the Israelites and turned them away for centuries as they struggled with the cultural pressures of the pagan nations around them. For Isaiah’s contemporaries, it was a stinging reminder. Most of Isaiah’s ministry up to this point consisted of warning the Israelites of the impending judgment because they had turned away from the true God and toward the idols of the pagans.

The other argument the Lord uses here to establish the truth of the Messianic prophecy is in verse 9: “Former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.”

In other words, they can take comfort in all of the prophetic messages of Isaiah and all of the other prophets that preceded him: God had demonstrated a perfect track record. All He had promised had come to pass.

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